It has become popular to do down Britain and sing the praises of our continental friends. But are some people just wearing EU-tinted spectacles?by Robert Tombs / November 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Why do critics of Brexit caricature their opponents, creating a monster that exists essentially in their own imaginations? Presumably a caricature is easier to deal with: metaphorically putting your fingers in your ears. In November’s Prospect, Dutchman Joris Luyendijk, having just returned home from London, wrote a Britain-bashing cover story which went viral online. For him, Brexit is nothing to do with the manifold failings of the European Union, but rather “the logical and overdue outcome of a set of English pathologies.” How else could “a working-class mother” (a “warm person” to boot) presume to disagree with a “well-to-do mother” over Europe? The dysfunctions of the eurozone? Youth unemployment? Inability to deal with migration? The Catalan crisis? The rise of extremist parties? Fingers in ears: nothing but the ravings of the tabloid press.
England has pathologies and I am willing to accept that the Dutch school system is more egalitarian. And yet far more people in Holland than in England support extremist politics with a racist or xenophobic tinge. So do more people in France. And in Germany. And in Italy, Greece, Hungary, Austria, Poland… These docile members of the EU seem to have pathologies at least equal to ours. In some of them, violence against foreigners is commonplace, whereas here prosecutions for “hate crime” are few and falling.
It suits some to see Euroscepticism as an English deformity. But polls in 2016 showed resentment against the EU was as high in Germany and the Netherlands as in Britain, and higher in Spain, France and Greece. But we, unlike them, did the unforgivable: we voted legally and peacefully in accord with the Treaty of Lisbon. What “pathology” is this, precisely? A refusal to share the fears that cement the European project. First, fears of the ghosts of the past: civil war, dictatorship, foreign occupation, genocide. Then fears of the consequences of leaving. And now a new fear: of one’s fellow citizens. In Emmanuel Macron’s words, “the sad passions of Europe have reared their heads once more and are drawing people in.” Those annoying “people!” If only one could follow Brecht’s advice: dissolve the people and choose another.
Britain’s history has spared it this dread of Europe’s “sad passions.” It joined the EEC for quite other reasons: because its elite feared that the end of empire would reduce it to “a greater Sweden.” Europe seemed to offer a new pedestal for global power and a remedy for supposed decline: Britain was “the sinking Titanic,” as one of Edward Heath’s advisers put it, and Europe the lifeboat. By the 1990s those fears had dissipated. A Eurobarometer poll in 2013 showed that Britain was the only EU country in which a majority felt that they could face the future better outside the Union. Far from being about nostalgia, “Leave” looked forward. The “Remain” camp laboured to revive past fears of decline, and partially succeeded: most “Remain” voters named fear of economic consequences as their motive. Without the weight of alarmist propaganda, the “Leave” majority would have been greater.
“Britain must be seen to pay a price, and the plebs of Europe taught a salutary lesson”
The response of many Europeans to the Brexit vote has been incomprehension, even alarm. Similarly, many people in Britain do not grasp the depth of commitment of many of our European neighbours to the EU—not the EU as it is, but the EU as they wish it to be. Statesmanship would try to bring the two sides together. On this side of the Channel, the message is indeed one of reassurance. Britain, as one of Europe’s leading states, intends to remain a close ally of the EU and to continue existing free-trade arrangements, which benefit the EU more than us. But the response of EU officials and some politicians has been boorish, insulting and threatening to a degree rare in relations between democracies. This is how the EU has previously kept weaker and less determined countries in line. Proclaimed as a “rule-based organisation,” it demands a “divorce bill” that has no basis in law. Britain must be seen to pay a price, and the plebs of Europe taught a salutary lesson. Does the EU care about a friendly and co-operative relationship with us, their biggest customer and Europe’s leading military power? The signs are not encouraging.
We can make some allowances for the anger of those who see their European dream fraying in what Macron has called “a European civil war.” Less easy to forgive is the unseemly glee with which some in Britain anticipate economic and political disaster: this is the real pathology brought out by Brexit. How real is the danger of disaster? In the long term, negligible. Four decades of EU membership have made no difference to the British economy, which has remained exactly in step with that of the US since the 1940s. Our exports to the EU have not increased for 10 years, and are sharply declining in importance. The reduced value of sterling should increase our competitiveness and help correct an unsustainable trade deficit with Europe. Amazingly in the light of alarmist propaganda, our trade with the EU—even if we remained a member—would on present trends fall by 2030 to the level predicted by the Treasury as a consequence of Brexit. So in economic terms, Brexit will make little difference if common sense prevails.
Brexit is anyway about more than money and trade. However it began, it has now turned into a test of whether popular sovereignty can still prevail in one of the world’s oldest democracies. Or whether ordinary people must learn that they have no choice but to obey the injunctions of their betters.