The Elephant in the Referendum

21 Jun

As Britain prepares to vote on whether to remain or leave the European Union, one subject has been strikingly absent from the debate: the European Union itself.

The Remain campaign has focused almost entirely on the supposedly dire consequences for the economy in the event of Brexit. The Leave campaign complains about a European ‘superstate’ but has nothing much to say about it. Instead, it has focused largely on the supposed disadvantages of mass immigration. Why does the nature of the European Union itself not figure more prominently in a referendum about whether to remain a member?

The problem for the Remain camp is that the EU is an intrinsically anti-democratic institution. The laws and policies of the European Union are worked out behind closed doors, at meetings between ministers and civil servants from the member states. The discussions between them are kept almost entirely secret. The one institution meant to inject a strong dose of democratic accountability – the European Parliament – suffers from a secular decline in support from voters.

The unpopularity of the Parliament is hardly surprising given that it has actively maintained the secrecy of EU decision-making. Over 80% of EU law is currently made through a ‘trilogue’ system, where agreements on legislation are struck in private meetings between representatives from the Commission, the member states and the Parliament. Once a decision has been made through this opaque process, ministers return from Brussels and represent the decision as one made by the European Union. If necessary, they complain of European diktat. The European Union is a collaboration between the governments of its member states that permits them to evade political accountability to their electorates for the policies they pursue by passing the buck to ‘Europe’. It is no wonder that the Remain campaign prefers to focus on the economic consequences of Brexit.

One effect of such pervasive blame-avoidance is to create the illusion of a European superstate that bosses the member states around. In fact, nothing much happens in the EU without the consent of governments. Far from being a superstate, the European Commission’s bureaucracy is tiny (25,000 people for an EU population of 500m). The EU lacks the bureaucratic means to enforce European law and is entirely dependent on the cooperation of the member states. Eurosceptics running the Leave campaign try to sell us the illusion of the Brussels superstate, but their claims amount to no more than rhetorical assertions. There is simply no evidence for them.

If the real intergovernmental process of the EU is so undemocratic, why doesn’t the Leave campaign focus its attention on that rather than persisting with the pretence that it is an overweening, supranational bureaucracy? The main reason is that the Eurosceptics are living in the past. Their patriotic rhetoric about national sovereignty avoids facing up to the fact that the authority of the British state has declined dramatically in recent decades. The political relations between government and citizens that supplies the democratic state with its authority have almost completely broken down. Politicians have retreated into the state and other elite institutions, the electorate into private life. Political parties are moribund. Voters are disenchanted. The only political party that has generated much enthusiasm recently has been the SNP, which precisely aims to break up the UK.

This problem is not new and it is not restricted to the UK. Disenchantment and populist reactions are evident right across Europe, as recent elections in Austria and Italy have shown us. The ‘void’ that has opened up between government and the governed causes political leaders to doubt that their authority comes from the citizens. Instead, European political leaders look to each other as a source for the authority to rule, and they do this through their intergovernmental collaboration in the EU. Rather than face up to this real political stagnation within the UK and the other member states, one that has brought about the EU’s form of government, Eurosceptics nostalgically evade the problem by deploying populist rhetoric about a superstate and decrying at length the supposed threat of immigration.

Brexiteers do not understand, let alone have a solution to, the underlying political problems they will confront in the event of Brexit. Their anti-immigrant rhetoric is no substitute for a viable political relation with the population. And it is precisely the lack of that political relation that has driven elites towards European integration in the first place.

The Referendum campaign has been so tedious and lacklustre because in a debate supposedly about the future of the British state in Europe, both sides have avoided discussing the reality of both the European Union and of British politics. We often hear that referendums are ‘ill-suited’ to tackling complex issues, as if such issues are beyond the comprehension of ‘ordinary people’. In fact, the EU has been absent from this campaign precisely because it lies at the centre of a long-standing problem of political decline at home. And it this problem that mainstream politics is unable to discuss, let alone provide a lasting solution to.

The Redundancy of the Left

Although some left-wingers have maintained longstanding criticisms of the European Union as an undemocratic capitalist swindle, the overall tone of the left during the referendum has been set by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He has reversed his earlier opposition to the EU and quietly gone along with the Remain sympathies of his MPs. Most of the left has followed suit. Their retreat has been covered by claiming that the survival of workers’ rights or the free movement of people depends on continued membership of the European Union.

As a result, the referendum campaign has been fought between two wings of the Conservative Party. For all the talk of civil war among conservatives, the fact is that whichever side wins the referendum, it will be led by a Tory. The Tory Brexiteers have generally succeeded in pushing Farage and UKIP to the edges of the campaign. The result may yet be bad for David Cameron personally, but it is the Labour Party that has found itself most dramatically at odds with its own supporters.

The problem of the retreat of the political class into the state is particularly acute for the Labour Party. More than any of the other parties, Labour’s historical claim to political authority came from its relationship with ordinary people through the trade unions. However, Labour’s social democratic politics always looked to the state as the source of political solutions. With the disintegration of the broader Labour movement, and the opening of the political void between government and citizens, the Labour Party is left with only its faith in the state. The gap between the party and its traditional supporters has been dramatically exposed by the referendum campaign.

Neither the Labour Party nor the broader British left is capable of the direct appeal to the people attempted by the Eurosceptic right. Rather than challenge the Brexiteers’ anti-immigration arguments directly, pro-EU left-wingers generally denounce them as racist. The implication is that anyone who wants to leave the EU is siding with racists. This was the message of a poster produced by the pro-Remain campaign group set up by former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. “If people like Rupert Murdoch, Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Nick Griffin and Marine Le Pen want Britain to leave the EU, where does that put you?”

The Remainers’ claim to the moral high ground on racism evades the reality of the EU’s own immigration controls that are having such lethal effects in the Mediterranean on migrants from Asia and Africa. The elitist disdain for actually arguing with the citizenry about substantive political issues is also typical of the technocratic politics of the European Union.

The redundancy of the left is most apparent in the popular claim – advanced by pundits like Owen Jones, Paul Mason, Aaron Bastani and Salvage – that while the EU is admittedly an elite political scam, any vote for Brexit would only benefit the right. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Richard Tuck has reminded us, and one that hugely overstates the strength of the populist right.

The left’s defeatism has probably been the most disastrous aspect of the referendum campaign. If Britain votes to remain, the  effect of the left’s meek support for the elite’s anti-democratic institutions will have been to hand over the language of democracy and popular sovereignty to the charlatans of the populist right. It will also have ensured that internationalism, free movement and workers’ rights remain the province of remote intergovernmental institutions, inaccessible to the ordinary voter and dependent on elite preferences for their survival.

A Union of Disenchantment

Underlying the broad Remain sentiment among liberals and left-wingers is the view that a vote for ‘Remain’ is a vote for a progressive cosmopolitanism while a vote for ‘Leave’ is a vote for a regressive nationalism. This is a remarkably unreflective view given that the particular cosmopolitanism of the European Union comes at the price of the deaths of tens of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean and the tormenting of southern Europe’s people on the rack of neoliberal financial orthodoxy. Even if we overlook these particular aspects of EU policy, we should recognize that the cosmopolitanism of the EU is a thin affair. It is no more than the cosmopolitanism of market integration and intergovernmental policy-making.

For those with a profession (or an income) that gives them access to European markets or to the budgets of international organisations, a cosmopolitan European life is certainly possible. However, the cosmopolitan aspects of the EU do not reach the large majority of Europe’s citizens or offer them very much, nor is the EU likely to change that in the future. The bulk of Europe’s population live lives that are defined by their nation states. Their political lives are ordered by national governments and national parliaments; their economic lives by the fiscal and taxation policies of nation states. There are powerful European institutions, with an undemocratic influence over national governments, but there is no European public sphere. The EU’s development has not been driven by the emergence of a new European political identity and public sphere, but by the decline of the public spheres of its member states, as political elites and populations have drifted apart.

The current crisis in the EU is an opportunity to revive real political internationalism and to challenge this thin lifestyle cosmopolitanism, the content of which goes no further than the Single Market itself. The task is to identify the common interests and experiences that unite people across Europe but in a way that does not wish away the political reality and persistence of the continent’s nation states.

One experience that all Europeans share is political disenchantment. While, in economic and social terms, the divisions between North and South and East and West remain as stark as ever, politically we live today in a European union of disenchantment. Across Europe, citizens share frustration with their political elites whose interests seem not to coincide with their own. This sense of disenchantment has so far only been politicized by the far right, by figures such as Marie Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Matteo Salvini, who are developing their own view of European solidarity that has little to do with the EU. There is an opportunity here to build up an alternative and democratic internationalism but  this requires the dismantling of the EU, which exists today as the primary vehicle for entrenching the hold of our political elites on the policy-making process.

Brexit need not be understood in the parochial terms of the Eurosceptics and we should not be satisfied with the shallow cosmopolitanism of the Remain side. A real internationalist project is possible but that means breaking with both the EU and the comforting certainties of the past.

Chris Bickerton, Philip Cunliffe, Alex Gourevitch, Lee Jones, Peter Ramsay

For further reading, see Chris Bickerton’s The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide

9 Responses to “The Elephant in the Referendum”

  1. James Abercrombie (@Letsasktheworld) June 22, 2016 at 7:41 am #


    Thank you very much for this blog. I found it powerful and – frankly – it helps save what little faith in the future of politics I still have in the middle of this bloody awful performance by both Leave and Remain sides of the political class.

    A powerful point you make – how debates about what the EU actually IS have been missing from the EU Referendum debate…

    …and that’s because the politicians don’t have anything to say about the democratic void it exists to bridge.

    I’m trying to think of what a big counter-argument would be – the reaction I get putting a similar argument to people…

    How would you deal with the ‘cautious’, ‘realistic’ Left-Remain argument that we’re just not in a political situation in 2016 where advancing democracy is on the menu…

    …and the best we can try is a desperate rear-guard defence against the mighty demagogic political charisma of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson?

    I can see replying to that by defending the idea of taking risks in politics against caution – that there’s too much risk-averse caution stopping us from doing good brave things in politics…

    …and to defend the idea of democracy – we must put our trust in the people to decide things, and in ourselves to talk to and persuade the people, and win democratically in a Brexited UK in the future against the Brexit Right.

    But what about the reply then: ‘It’s all very good and fine-sounding telling us to put our faith in ‘democracy’ and ‘the people’ in the abstract, but the situation on the ground right now is that – as you point out – the Left is in a crap state and Brexit looks like it will empower the anti-migrant Right, and hit the Left and the pro-migration cause even more.’

    Is it then that it’s good to stress your very good point that the Brexit Right has little to offer the voters – it’s living in the past and doesn’t have much except fantasy patriotism and anti-immigration bluster to address the crisis of British democracy?

    Together with encouraging a longer view of politics; ‘it’s not about winning the very next election “battle” – it’s about winning the whole “war”‘?

    So the people are likely in good time to see through the inadequacy of the Brexit Right?

    And then we need to be ready to make the right arguments?

    I’m very interested to read what you think.


    • Peter Ramsay June 22, 2016 at 6:32 pm #

      Hi James

      I think you answer your own question in the right way.

      There never will be a democratic internationalist movement that is able to challenge the populist right unless internationalists are willing to oppose the anti-democratic EU at least as vigorously as the Eurosceptics are. Putting off opposition to the EU at the very moment that such opposition has a chance to make an impact amounts to resigning from any attempt to make such a movement.

      Brexit could result in some ugly political conflict not least because the Tory Eurosceptics will have such difficulty in actually following through on all their rhetoric on immigration. Internationalists will face the very difficult task of articulating the common interests or ordinary working people in Britain with others across Europe and the world. The old left signally failed to do this when it was strong. Its resignation may at least help to clear the ground for some new thinking.

      The problems both the Eurosceptics and elite face will create opportunities. But we face the formidable task of coming up with the ‘right arguments’ as you call them. That will require rethinking and rearticulating the entire case for democracy and internationalism.



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