A Boring Brexit

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London: It should feel like a good time for Britain to leave the European Union.  The euro crisis continues to tear the Continent apart.  The charming-yet-feckless Greeks must soon be on their way out, in spite of the latest bailout-for-austerity swap between the European Central Bank and Athens.  Germany, so long the driving force behind the union, appears to be tiring of the whole European project.  It’s hard to blame her.  Portugal, Spain, and Italy are also paralyzed by debt.  France is not as strong as she was.  Eastern Europe is turning more Euroskeptic: The former communist countries that in 2004 flocked en masse to the former Western Bloc are now electing politicians who dissent from Brussels.  Add the enormous human crisis of migrants coming into Southern Europe from North Africa, and the Continent starts to look doomed.  “Ever closer union,” the bold ambition of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, is now most often quoted as a joke by sarcastic right-wingers.

The British never fell for the Eurodream anyway: We joined Europe not in fit of postwar idealism, as other countries did, but because our economy lagged in the decades after World War II, and we needed help.  Today, we are better off, and we feel Europe owes us.  The British economy has—despite a recent dip in employment—done well in the last two years.  That has a lot to do with the fact that our currency is still the pound, not the euro.  The powerful media organizations, chief among them the BBC and the Financial Times, which pushed for us to join the single European currency, appear to have been proved wrong.  Most sane pundits now agree: You can’t have full fiscal union without full political union.  Or do we need any political union at all?  We have just re-elected a Conservative government that promised an In/Out referendum on E.U. membership in 2017.  Now must be the moment, as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) likes to put it, to take our country back.

Except that few people here seem too fussed.  Europe may be burning up, dominating the news, yet most Brits are tired of reading about the never-ending debt crisis on the Continent.  The majority of the population is only slightly more roused by the possibility of “Brexit”—the portmanteau term for Britain leaving the European Union.  The polls suggest that, if anything, the Brits are feeling more European than ever.  In answer to the question “Should the United Kingdom be a member of the European Union?,” a survey in June found that 44 percent answered yes, compared with just 33 percent three years earlier.  Another polling company found that last year a higher percentage of respondents favored “staying in” than at any time since they started asking in 1977.  So, far from putting us off, the European debt crisis seems to have made us more Europhile.  Perhaps we have always liked our neighbors better when they are struggling.

Besides, if we left the European Union, what else could we moan about?  We may think of ourselves as plucky postimperial Blighty, still punching above our weight in the global ring, but the truth is that the British are insecure about our ever-declining importance in the world.  Our awkward membership of Europe enables us to feel part of a greater force at the same time it gives us all sorts of excuses for not being the sovereign power we feel history entitles us to be.  Our attitude to Europe has become that of a bad husband who makes lots of noises about being better off alone, but deep down remains loyal because he suspects he doesn’t have a better alternative.  It’s not as if the old flame across the Atlantic is too interested in us as a single nation—for all the hot air still gassed about a Special Relationship.  “The United States values a strong UK in a strong European Union,” says President Obama, sounding about as passionate as a man discussing the weather.  The former U.S. Ambassador to London Louis Susman went further, claiming on television that “the American people” wanted Britain to stay within the European Union.  Well, that’s jolly flattering, Louis—but nobody quite believes you.  One can’t help thinking that a united Europe is more a matter of bureaucratic convenience in Washington.  For the White House, with its strategic eye on the shifting geopolitics of the Pacific and China, it’s less hassle.  Kissinger’s famous (though apparently apocryphal) line “Who [sic] do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” has, under Obama, become “Do we really have to ring around all these guys?”

The mainstream British position on Europe, inasmuch as we have one, is that while we are better off being a part of Europe, the European Union must change to work better for us.  We are fed up with being told what to do by Brussels; we want to be part of Europe, not the United States of Europe; we want fewer rules and more sovereign power.  This is the position of Prime Minister David Cameron, too.  In a long and well-crafted speech to Bloomberg headquarters in January 2013, Cameron called for “fundamental, far-reaching change” to the European Union and laid out a radical-sounding plan to remake Europe in his own center-right image.  “We urgently need to address the sclerotic, ineffective decision making that is holding us back,” he said.

That means creating a leaner, less bureaucratic Union, relentlessly focused on helping its member countries to compete.  In a global race, can we really justify the huge number of expensive peripheral European institutions?  Can we justify a Commission that gets ever larger?

Cameron called for a new European treaty that scrapped the commitment to ever closer political union.  He promised to negotiate a new “settlement” for Britain, one that he could put to the voters ahead of a referendum.  “We will give the British people . . . a very simple in or out choice,” he said.  “To stay in the EU on these new terms; or come out altogether.”

These words were meant to be music to moderately Euroskeptic ears.  But seasoned Conservatives didn’t swoon.  The PM, they pointed out, had failed to elucidate what his “new terms” were.  When people asked him precisely which powers he wanted to wrestle back from Brussels, Cameron replied, “I don’t like shopping lists.”  His advisors made the reasonable point that, before any diplomatic negotiation, it is a mistake to reveal one’s hand.  But there was a lingering suspicion that Cameron’s bold E.U. gamble was more a clever fudge to placate right-wing Euroskeptics ahead of the general election, and in particular to stave off the threat from UKIP.

Cameron won the election, and now we hear contradictory reports about the state of his E.U. renegotiation.  Some days we are told that the British government is close to persuading Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande to accept a “grand bargain,” which would involve Britain maintaining her privileged position within the single market, reclaiming sovereignty over our welfare and employment laws, and being granted an “opt out” of the “ever closer” treaty clause.  On other days, we read that the Eurocrats are delighted by the modesty of Cameron’s demands.

Meanwhile, the wider debate over Europe bubbles away in the media.  The pro-E.U. lobby plants endless stories about how even the mere threat of Brexit is preventing businesses from investing in Britain.  It lines up rich men to tell us how vital the European Union is to our shared prosperity.  The Out campaigners, on the other hand, argue that the European Union unfairly protects big business and hampers small companies and the hard-working little guy by overregulating the labor market.  There is truth in both arguments, but it all smacks of p.r. and feeds the general apathy.  People can only cope with so many stories about employment law or the administration of welfare.  Renegotiation is itself a boring word.

In recent weeks, however, the fashionable left has started to take up the cudgel against the European Union.  Trendy pundits have decided that the latest Greek bailout is a grave offense against social justice.  They saw a rich Germany strong-arming a poor and democratically elected left-wing government into brutal austerity, and they didn’t like it.  Suzanne Moore of the Guardian, for instance, said the European Union was acting as a “thuggish bailiff.”  This represents a curious turnaround.  For a generation at least, British lefties have tended to support the European Union because Euro-bashing was for nasty Conservatives.  The European Union stood for multiculturalism and environmentalism.  It seemed to be a check on the unfettered capitalism of Margaret Thatcher.  But the eurocrisis has changed that perception and reawakened older left-wing sentiments against the idea of a single European market.

It is unlikely that this new antipathy toward Europe will come to divide the Labour Party in the way that the old right-wing distrust of the European Union has afflicted the Conservatives.  Yet it is not inconceivable.  The referendum debate might turn into a struggle between the neoliberal center, led by the political elite, and a ragtag army of insurgents on the left and the right.  UKIP—a party set up by disaffected Tories who felt betrayed by their party over Europe—already draws much of its support from Labour’s old heartlands in the north.  As in America, the hostility in British politics is less and less about left versus right, but between the liberal elite and those who feel left behind by liberalism.  To many voters, nothing sums up the arrogance of the political class more than the idea of “faceless bureaucrats” wrecking their lives from Brussels.

Antipolitics is not enough, however.  Nor is simply being right.  Most people don’t feel left behind—even if they should.  The forces against neoliberalism are gathering strength, but they remain on the fringes.  If the Europe referendum were to be held next week, the In side would triumph.  As Dominic Cummings, a political advisor coordinating the Out effort, puts it, “those who want to change our relationship with the EU are operating in a very hostile environment.”  Some anti-E.U. voices are therefore now pushing the idea of two referenda: the first asking the British public if they accept David Cameron’s new settlement, and the second a straightforward In/Out question.  That could be a smart move, but it sounds impractical: The British are bored enough by one E.U. referendum.  We are a conservative (small-c) and somewhat inert people.  Europe is far from ideal, but we can’t face the upheaval of getting out.

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