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Brexit: Tugging at Europe’s Loose Threads

In the recent Austrian Presidential Election, a far-right candidate – Norbert Hofer – came within a hair’s breadth of winning the Presidency. This moment represented just the latest evidence of a rise in populist and nationalistic attitudes that have arisen in the past decade across Europe, and arguably, worldwide. Some celebrated that the winning candidate was a left-wing independent, but that was small consolation indeed: the fact that the combined anti-fascist vote barely topped 50% is the frightening new reality in much of Europe.

My anti-fascist activism dates back almost four decades; I thought I had a stronger handle on the nature of fascism than most people. But, like most people alive today, I hadn’t really witnessed the phenomenon in the flesh. I had been taught that fascism was an exclusively right-wing political phenomenon; but it isn’t strictly right-wing, nor especially political. Fascism is a cultural force that unites many disparate conservative strands of society. It is, above all, a backlash against liberal values, most of all those of Liberty, Equality and Reason. It is generally kept at bay by the fact that usually, such groupings have little in common with each other.

Politics has become increasingly polarised as activists abandon the centre for the left and right poles. But in most cases, this does not mean a rise in diversity of opinion: in fact, once you strip away differences in presentation, left and right are often found in agreement with each other, and especially on the issues that most matter. Most of all, nationalism is soaring.

The EU is a remarkable internationalist institution, and its greatest achievement has been to diminish the importance of the borders between 28 European countries that have long histories of enmity and bloodshed. Borders are a natural response to external threats – whether real or imagined, but they also provide obstacles to the movement of people, goods, services and money. The erosion of Europe’s borders has been one of the greatest liberal triumphs in human history, granting unprecedented liberty to 500 million people, and creating an unprecedented Peace on the world’s most fractious continent.

Amidst such dramatic change, there have been inevitable losers as well as winners: low-skilled workers, in particular, have seen their incomes somewhat eroded since Poles and others from eastern Europe gained access to the British labour market a decade ago (two people told me at the time that their incomes had noticeably and rapidly fallen: one a bricklayer, the other a prostitute).

But EU winners easily outnumber the losers. For example, thanks to the EU, unemployed people have been able to flee southern Europe since the financial crash, and reduce pressure on those countries, which would otherwise see even higher unemployment and social problems. And this has been to the benefit of the economically stronger countries: this is easily visible here on London’s skyline, where a flood of incoming building workers is helping remedy the housing shortage. When many or most of them eventually return to eastern and southern Europe, the new housing stock will remain, a lasting legacy.

Yet the prevailing sentiments on both left and right are increasingly nationalistic. The right’s hostility is primarily directed at the people moving across borders. The Tory-led Brexit campaign, now led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, has become overtly anti-immigration in recent days. Meanwhile, the pro-Brexit left makes friendlier noises towards immigrants, but attacks free trade instead. But the free labour market can’t function without free movement of people, and mass migration would stall without trade across borders. Furthermore, thanks to digital technology, small businesses are able to trade across borders as easily as big ones (in fact, the EU’s single market has simplified that). So the left’s hostility to “neoliberalism” and the right’s brutish anti-immigration messages both end up attacking the same thing: open borders. And they find the same ultimate solution: stronger borders, with all the policing, cost and state intrusion that those require.

There are few moments, in practise, that could neatly unite nationalists across the spectrum, but the EU Referendum is one, and so it marks a uniquely dangerous moment for Britain and Europe. The vote on 23rd June will unite anti-immigration rightists with protectionist leftists. And for good measure, it will unite both of those camps with every vandalistic misanthrope in the country: we all enjoy the chance to smash stuff, just for fun, and here’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to smash the biggest thing ever. Some people, whatever their political leanings, will be voting Brexit, for the same reason that some people kick ants’ nests.

We’ve been told endlessly that Brexit will damage the economy, and doubtless it will, to some extent. But the political ramifications are far more significant, longer-lasting and unpredictable. A rise in anti-British sentiment would inevitably follow: can anyone imagine that a likely outflow of Spanish, Italian and French workers would not be met by expulsions of British workers and residents from those countries? Do we expect foreign electorates to be more accommodating than we are prepared to be? (Just as I was preparing to publish this post, the Spanish PM was reported to have threatened the right of two million British ex-pats to live in Spain).

This is nationalism: a race to the bottom. Will Europe cut off its nose to spite its face? If 1914 and 1939 are anything to go by, then yes, without a doubt. In the frenzy of nationalism, Europe will happily cut off its own face and then set fire to it (apologies for the trampled metaphor).

America’s great nationalist hope, Donald Trump, has clearly indicated his relish for Brexit. He (and this is not coincidental) plans to fly in to the UK the day after the referendum, and (if we vote Leave) will doubtless be delighted to gloat about Europe’s pending break-up, adding fear and uncertainty to Europe’s wounds. Brexit would inevitably be followed by copycat stupidity from other EU nations; the EU as we know it may well unravel, millions of people could be forced back into their home countries, economies may stall or nosedive, and the longer term political and economic consequences are impossible to guess.

It’s hard to sell anyone the status quo, especially at a time of anti-everything cynicism, but that’s what a Remain vote represents. 70 years of peace has been a pretty big prize, but few people alive today understand the significance of that. To understand what Europe did to itself (and the rest of the world) in the 1940s, I recommend reading All Hell Broke Loose by Max Hastings. If people understood the real, almost unbelievable horrors of WWII, would we really take even a small step back in that direction?

This is what the Brexit crowd call “Project Fear”. But we have the right to be frightened, and we should be frightened. They can’t say what would happen to our economy, our continent or our way of life post-Brexit. For that reason alone, we should Remain in the EU.

One thought on “Brexit: Tugging at Europe’s Loose Threads”

  1. Hmmm I agree the EU has ‘kept the peace’ so to speak since WW2, but I can’t agree it’s a wonderful institution because it is undemocratic. Once every 5 years in this country we get to vote on our main political parties plans through a General Election but sincethe 1975 referendum on the Common Market the people have Never been asked about significant changes and transfers of power from the UK. That is totally undemocratic. If you believe the people shouldn’t be asked then that’s fine, you don’t mind living in a totalitarian state. However most people in the UK are unaware the EU plans to take away Central banking and Treasury functions from Eurozone member states by 2025 … centralising all the levers that control their economies, jobs and businesses. No mention of a vote for the people of these counties. I suspect if they did know many more would vote Leave.

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