Ins and outs of Brexit and the fall of the EU

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

“Democracy is like giving a bad person a gun,” writer Peter Schwartzstein said an Egyptian general told him yesterday. Surely some in the UK and EU watching the Brexit vote must have felt the same last night and this morning.  Others are more optomistic. Nigel Farage, whose UKIP supported Brexit and whose party has been widely successful in changing the debate on the EU, claimed that “June 23rd will go down in history as our independence day.” 52% of UK voters, around 17 million people who voted, sought to leave the EU.

A few days before the vote I saw on Facebook a meme that depicted the list of those for and against voting to leave the EU.  In the “for” column was Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and ISIS.  In the remain column was a long list of foreign leaders and EU leaders. Then there were lists of leading financial institutions and financial experts, all of them for remaining.  Then there were the lists of academics, only “one major historian” supported leaving, but everyone else supported remaining.

But this kind of “everyone is against this” arrogance backfired on June 23rd. It turns out that large numbers of people, even when almost all their leading politicians, bankers, academics and celebrities are against something, will say “no, I’m for it.”  It shows that even putting all the ostensibly “important”, even “popular” and elite elements into something, cannot convince many people of it.  One almost wonders if a the debate had been more nuanced and instead of claiming England would fall into economic destruction and that everything would change, if instead of ignorance-based fearmongering, a more healthy debate was had, then people might have voted to stay in the EU.  WHen French economy Minister told Brits that Brexit would “make the UK as economically important as Guernsey” that didn’t convince many people to vote “remain.” In fact it probably encouraged them to leave.  Having the French, who have an economic basketcase economy, and many social problems, tell the UK to remain and threaten the UK was not helpful.

Telling Brexit voters they were uneducated, old, racists, didn’t work in the end. Even after the vote a New York Times oped blamed the “media”, specifically tabloids, for “smearing” the EU, once again dismissing legitimate grievances of voting people. The voters for Brexit deserve credit for not being swayed by celebrities, most MPs (the political class), bankers, and others who spread stories of catastrophe and told them that “the right people prefer to remain.” It shows the degree to which, despite large amounts of the media, educated, politicians and celebrities telling people what to do, many people have different instincts.  It’s quite an extraordinary feature of democracy that even if the most powerful and elite are all saying “do X,” that so many may choose “Y”, even when it is presented as “against their own financial interests.”  Because instinctually many felt that perhaps the financial interests of Benedict Cumberbach and Longon’s financial markets might not be the same as the West Midlands. It doesn’t mean the Brexit demographic of voters is right in the long run or wrong, it is merely a fascinating feature in an era of globalization that people can ignore masses of information and media and do the opposite.

The demographics of supporters of leaving the EU is well known.  They are more likely to be English, more likely to be older and more likely to live outside of London.

Domino-affect: Scotland will go it alone 

With the support for Brexit highest in places identifying most as “English” and lowest in Scotland, it is no surprise Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon has said a new round of Scottish independence referendum is in order. The “no” side won by 55% in 2014, and Scotland did not secede from the UK.  Now Scotland has gone 62% for staying in the EU, making it the most pro-EU part of the UK.

In fact if we were to re-count the Brexit votes only in England and take out the 2.6 million Scots who voted so heavily to remain, the results for leaving would be higher, at around 55%. Northern Ireland also voted to remain (55 to 44), but it had the lowest turnout, meaning it’s affect on the overall vote was not as much as Scotland.  Since the Brexit is a heavily national vote, it’s understandable that Scotland would not be as supportive and there is a feeling in Scotland that they would be forced to leave the EU without their consent.

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How the UK voted (BBC map)

There is an irony here for Scotland. When they were voting to stay in the UK in 2014 they were told that leaving the UK would be mean leaving the EU. So the same fearmongering campaign of “your world will collapse without the EU” and “your economy will collapse” was used, as was used to threaten the UK to remain in the EU.  In the Scottish case they voted to remain in the UK, but now they face the ironic scenario of the UK leaving the EU and all the fears that caused the “no” vote will evaporate in the direction of the “yes” vote. Yes to secession, no to leaving the EU. That makes sense for Scotland, they gain much from the EU, and as a smaller country, further away from the mainland, they feel less affected by the issues that Brexit voters have complained about, such as EU bureaucracy and immigration.

The EU leadership has been brusk and angry, like an abandoned and scorned lover, in saying the breakup must be swift.  European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker claimed the 27 member EU would survive this independence movement. European parliament President Martin Schulz and President of the European Council Donald Tusk will be having “crisis” meetings now.  The EU claims that Brexit will roil financial markets (it already has) and that a quick divorce will calm them.  For Brexit supporters, they may be happy they now no longer have to figure out who Mr. Tusk, Junckers and Schultz are and what roles they play in the gaggle of massive EU bureaucracy.

The real reason the troika of Junkcers-Tusk-Schulz want a quick divorce is because they know that throughout the EU there is massive anger and resentment at the policies of the continental bureaucracy and its total and utter incompetence in facing issues such as immigration and the feeling that “unelected Eurocrats” have meddled too much in the affairs of nations.

You could hear the anger over British democracy in the minds of the EU, the kind of contempt the Egyptian general had also, in stories spread about how Prime Minister David Cameron (who is set to resign) was “held hostage” by an “internal fight in the Tories.”  The notion is generally that “the people” must not be given the option of deciding on EU policies, because the EU knows best.

Everytime countries in the EU have been given a choice by referendum in recent years about EU policies they have almost always rejected them. The Greeks voted by 61% to reject economic conditions set by the European Commission and IMF in 2015.  61% of the Dutch rejected an EU constitution in 2005. 55% of the French also rejected it that year. Although it passed in Luxembourg and Spain, other countries cancelled votes as the “no” camps were poised to win.

Why the EU is failing

The failure of the EU and the success of Brexit are closely intertwined.  The reason so many people feel the EU is a failure is because of the detached view among European leaders, and the feeling that they pressure nations to accept international policies that run counter to the wishes of the people. There is often a contempt that runs through EU politics for anyone who doesn’t like the EU.  They are portrayed as racist, ignorant, fascists; uneducated and stupid. Some of that may be true, but when 50% of countries reject the EU, it cannot simply be “they are all stupid”. In fact voters have caught on to many problems with the EU bureaucracy.

Immigration is one of the strongest issues uniting anti-EU sentiment. Some European countries that are not in the EU, such as Switzerland, have attempted to tamp down on immigration and been told by the EU that immigration controls would result in loss of certain free trade agreements.  The idea of “freedom of movement” is central to the EU. And this means freedom of movement of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.

What that has meant for the EU in the last few years is a massive migration of millions of people from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, mostly by boat, to European shores. Thousands, probably tens of thousands have died, to get to the EU, to set foot on the soil of Greece or Italy and in so doing lay claim to a right to the continent.  When I was living in Italy in 2001 it was extraordinary to see the chaos already caused by immigration from Africa and the inability of the Italian government to deal with it.  This has periodically led to the rise of anti-immigrant parties or those parties of the right, such as the Northern League, that make immigration a major issue.  We can see in the rise of the “new right” throughout Europe how this issue led to numerous new parties, from the Pim Fortuyn List, to the National Front, True Finns, Sweden Democrats, the Populist Party in Switzerland, Jorg Haider and others in Austria, The Freedom Party in Netherlands, and the National Democratic Party in Germany.  These parties are not all the same, some are more openly fascist, extreme right and racist, such as Golden Dawn, than others. Some countries such as Hungary have a whole swath of right wing parties, while others are still dominated by the Old politics (1950-1990) of Christian Democrats and Socialists.

The view of these parties, sometimes called “euroskeptic” or “nationalist” is that they are all “bad” and basically that they are the problem in Europe, without any questioning the policies that led to their rise.  And that is where the genius of the Schengen system and free movement and the peace promised by the EU has failed.

Schengen came into being in 1985 and is already failing in 2016.  It basically enjoyed 20 years of success, predicated on shared economics and values.  But the massive immigration via Turkey of a million people from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, challenged the concept that border controls would be abolished. With migrants literally laying siege to border guards in Macedonia and Hungary, the borders went back up in Europe.  How could 1 million people cross through Macedonia to get to Europe in one year, literally half the size of the country, like 150 million people crossing through the US to get to Canada.  People dismiss the numbers of migrants as small by a percentage of the EU size.  500 million people live in the EU almost, so what is 1 million migrants?

But uncontrolled migration and asking that it be controlled and regulated is not racist.  Yet the collapse of the EU and European state borders in the face of migration has shown how weak the EU system is.  The EU was designed to be a union of countries with similar histories and values.  These histories might have been bloody up until 1945, but the concept was that now, having killed millions of people, Europe could come together.  To get to the point in the 1960s and 1970s where the EU groundwork was laid, it took 1,000 years of European history.  And in only 20 years, that 1,000 years has been shown to be ineffective.  That is because the EU never knew whether it would be a strong federal system, or a loose confederation.  It wasn’t founded like the US was founded, based on individual rights with some rights for the states, it was founded on a very detached bureaucracy that had utter contempt for the “masses” of the EU.  You can’t build a common economy on detesting the people who work to make that economy strong.  And ironically many of the people who are euroskeptic and vote for right wing parties, are those people who work to keep the EU an economic success.

The EU expanded far too quickly, like a drunken sailor, taking in numerous poorer countries and placing itself astride the continent, and became a welfare state for poor countries.  It even considered taking in Turkey, which was perfectly logical given how fast it had expanded, but with taking in countries that had become free of the Soviet grasp in 1989, it was absorbing countries with very different histories and values.  The EU became a sort of arrogant “civilizing mission” to these countries, trying to rid them of corruption, economic stagnation, and anti-democratic laws.

At the very moment where the EU decided it would try to absorb all these countries, it was beset by economic crises of the southern states, whose economies had always been weaker than the northern traditionally Protestant states.  This North-South divide had always existed, but now the question became how Germany, and to a lesser extent France, the two major powers of the EU, could support Spain, Italy and Greece.

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A Greek policeman lines up migrants before sending them to Macedonia, illegally or “informally” without any border controls, over a bridge in September 2015. (Seth J. Frantzman)

The last nail in this coffin of failed policies and stresses was the immigration crises of 2015.  However that crises has been going on for 20 years.  The EU had sought to ignore this issue, refusing to spend heavily on border security and to share the burden of border patrols on the Mediterranean.  Frontex, founded in 2004, was supposed to coordinate and help the frontline states deal with external borders.  But it has largely failed to do so. A proposal for a new organization in 2015 shows how it failed. A visit to any Greek island or the mainland immigration route being used by hundreds of thousands shows how ridiculous is the EU pretending it has border controls.  When I was in Greece the Greek Border police were lining up immigrants and basically sending them onward, and that was the concept of every state.  “Send the problem onward”.  The same thing happens in Calais, where the French, despite some attempts to rip town tent camps, has basically resigned itself to a chaos of people trying to board transport to the UK. It’s not that a continent with 500 million, the wealthiest in the world, can’t control immigration, it’s that they refuse to try to do so.

The EU threw up its hands in the face of social problems that it could have tackled, specifically relating to immigration and in so doing showed that the EU doesn’t exist to guarantee a common economic zone of success, with common currency and free movement, but that the EU was actually becoming a cage for countries, forced to accept EU policies that ran counter to national desires, it wasn’t making countries wealthier, but burdening them.

The EU has become like a home owners association that was supposed to guarantee uniform guidelines, such as keeping lawns nice, to increase housing values in an area, but instead became an association where every person who sought to violate the rules and hold house parties everyday and destroy their yards, gets an instant right to do so. At some point people start to ask “why am I a member.”

That’s not racism and ignorance, it’s a healthy and logical question.

Brexit may be yet another death-blow to the EU.  If the EU wants to survive it needs massive, revolutionary reform, to respond to demands, streamline bureaucracy and establish a real border force, not a chaos as has reigned in Italy and Greece.  It needs to enforce its economic rules and not become a bailout for countries that refuse to reform and collect taxes, a slave to the weakest economies.

My sense is that the EU will not reform because it is too bloated and entitled and many of those who run it have not only contempt for average people but have gotten used to high salaries for committing incompetence, and get used to living in gated, sanitary communities, unaffected by the affects of their incompetence.

The EU was a beautiful dream, but it may end up being a 50 year aberration of peace and prosperity.

 

*The saying “democracy is like giving a crazy person a gun” was also said by an Egyptian psychiatrist on a leading show recently.

 

 

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