Beyond the Brexit debate

Whatever the result of Thursday’s UK referendum, neither popular disaffection with mainstream political institutions, nor the sense among large sections of the electorate of being politically voiceless, is likely to subside. Nor will it, argues Kenan Malik, until the reasons for that disaffection are directly addressed.

Whatever the result of the Brexit referendum on Thursday, of one thing we can be sure: Britain will neither be invaded by marauding Turks, as anti-EU campaigners suggest might happen if the country votes “Yes”, nor will western civilization collapse, as EU president Donald Tusk fears after a “No” vote. There will undoubtedly be economic and political turbulence, but Britain will not be staring into the abyss, however it votes.

But, if the world will not end for Britain, neither will the key issues at the heart of the Brexit debate have been resolved – or even properly addressed. Hostility to the EU, not just in Britain, but throughout Europe, has been driven by frustrations about democracy and resentment about immigration. The Remain (pro-EU) campaign, recognizing that it has few answers, has largely avoided both issues, focusing almost entirely on economic arguments. Leave (anti-EU) campaigners have been equally opportunistic in the way they have addressed questions of democracy and immigration.

Many EU supporters dismiss the charge that the EU is undemocratic, pointing to the existence of the European parliament whose members are elected by all EU citizens. This is not only to overstate the influence of MEPs on policy making, it is also to miss the point about popular resentment. The reason that people see the EU as undemocratic is not because they don’t think they can vote in EU elections. It is because they feel that despite their vote, they have little say in the major decisions that shape their lives.

Any Parliament has to represent a particular demos. There is, though, no European demos. The EU is an attempt to create a demos from top down, where none exists from bottom up. That is why people feel little sense of the European Parliament as representative, and resent the bureaucratic process through which policy is made.

Other EU supporters argue that without such an elitist project it would be impossible to respond effectively to major crises such as climate change or global recession. This at least has the merit being honest in accepting that the value of the EU lies in its ability to bypass democratic process in the name of the greater good.

The trouble is, whenever the EU has faced a major crisis, it has not only failed to respond in a coherent fashion, but its eventual incoherent response has rarely enhanced the common good. During the Eurozone crisis, the EU prevaricated for months, before undercutting democracy in Greece through the imposition of the “troika”, comprising the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF, which effectively took control of economic and social policy, and enforced an eye-watering austerity programme, including slashing pensions, cutting wages, raising taxes, laying off workers and privatizing swathes of the economy, the aim of which was to bail out not Greece but the European banks that had lent to Greece.

Or consider the migration crisis. After months of political paralysis, the EU eventually responded – by absolving itself of responsibility. It stitched together a series of deals with non-EU countries such as Turkey, Sudan, Jordan and Niger, promising them huge sums of money for detaining potential migrants to the EU. Sickened by the immorality of these deals, the charity Médecins Sans Frontières last week refused all EU funding, observing that it could not take money “from institutions and governments whose policies do so much harm”.

The EU’s consistent failure in the face of such crises is not because it is shackled by the democratic process, as some suggest, but because it lacks a democratic mandate for its decisions, and so is often politically paralyzed.

But while the EU is a fundamentally undemocratic institution, leaving the EU would not, in itself, bridge the democratic deficit. There exists today a much more profound disenchantment with mainstream political institutions, a disenchantment that is evident at national, as well as at European, level and which, throughout Europe, has led to an upsurge in support for populist parties.

The background to this disenchantment is the narrowing of the ideological divides that once characterized politics. Politics has become more about technocratic management than social transformation. One way in which people have felt this change is as a crisis of political representation, as a growing sense of being denied a voice, and of political institutions as being remote and corrupt. The sense of being politically abandoned has been most acute within the traditional working class, whose feelings of isolation have increased as social democratic parties have cut their links with their old constituencies. As mainstream parties have discarded both their ideological attachments and their long-established constituencies, so the public has become increasingly disengaged from the political process. The gap between voters and the elite has widened, fostering disenchantment with the very idea of politics. The EU has come to be an institutional embodiment of this new political landscape.

The main political faultline, throughout Europe today, is not between left and right, between social democracy and conservatism, but between those who feel at home in – or at least are willing to accommodate themselves to – the new globalised, technocratic world, and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless. These kinds of divisions have always existed, of course. In the past, however, that sense of dispossession and voicelessness could be expressed politically, particularly through the organizations of the left and of the labour movement. No longer. It is the erosion of such mechanisms that is leading to the remaking of Europe’s political landscape.

Brexit may restore a greater degree of sovereignty, but it will not address this deeper anger. In conflating resentment about lack of democracy with restraints on national sovereignty, Leave campaigners obscure the real problems. The dangers of such conflation can be seen most clearly in the debate about immigration. Leave campaigners argue that outside the EU, Britain would have control of its borders, and so be able to allay people’s fear about immigrants. “You can only spike the guns of the extremists and the people who are genuinely anti-immigrant”, Boris Johnson suggested, “if you take back control.”

But you couldn’t, even then. For a start, even where Britain has complete control of its immigration policy, it has been unable to reduce the flow as it would wish. Migration to Britain from outside the EU was higher last year than EU migration (and has been throughout this century). EU net migration currently stands at 184,000 compared to 188,000 from outside the EU. Having promised to reduce migration to the “tens of thousands”, and being unable to limit EU migrants, the government has striven particularly hard to reduce non-EU numbers, including adopting the kind of “points-based system” favoured by critics of high immigration. Its continued failure to reduce numbers is telling, showing that unless the government wishes truly to harm the economy, its control of migration is limited. Promising to limit immigration and failing to do so, as the government has already demonstrated, will only aggravate, not alleviate, hostility to immigration.

Nor should we confuse open borders with a lack of national sovereignty. Consider the case of Spain and the EU. Until 1991, Spain had an open border with North Africa. Migrant workers would come to Spain for seasonal work and then return home. In 1986, the newly democratic Spain joined the EU. As part of its obligations as a EU member, it had to close its North African borders. The closing of the borders did not stop migrant workers trying to enter Spain. Instead, they took to small boats to cross the Mediterranean and smuggled themselves in. This was the start of the “migration crisis”.

Spain had exercised national sovereignty by keeping its borders open. Closed borders were imposed by Brussels.

The real issue is not control of borders but having a democratic mandate for any immigration policy. There is no iron law that the public must be irrevocably hostile to immigration. Large sections of the public have become hostile because they have come to associate immigration with unacceptable change. And yet, while immigration has become the most potent symbol of a world out of control, and of ordinary people having little say in the policies that affect their lives, it is not the reason for the social and political grievances that many have to endure.

Economic and social changes – the decline of manufacturing industry, the crumbling of the welfare state, the coming of austerity, the atomization of society, the growth of inequality – have combined with political shifts , such as the erosion of trade union power and the transformation of social democratic parties, to create in sections of the electorate a sense of rage.

Remain campaigners warn of the “uncertainties” that would be created by Britain leaving the EU. What they fail to recognize is that for many sections of the electorate, “uncertainty” is what they feel now, and it is this that is driving their hostility to mainstream political institutions and to the EU.

Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes. It has, however, come to be the means through which many perceive these changes, largely because of the way that the immigration issue has been framed by politicians of all hues over the past half century. On the one hand, politicians have recognized a need for immigration. On the other hand, they have promoted the idea of immigration as a fundamental social problem. At the same time, politicians often express disdain for the masses whom many regard as irrevocably racist, and incapable of adopting a rational view of immigration. Labour leader, and prime minister, Gordon Brown’s description during the 2010 election campaign of pensioner Gillian Duffy as “a bigoted woman” because of her worries about east European migrants captured the contempt of elite politicians for the little people’s immigration concerns. This poisonous mixture of necessity, fear and contempt has helped both to stigmatize migrants and to create popular hostility towards the liberal elite for ignoring their views on immigration.

Critics of the EU have certainly promoted noxious arguments about immigration, from Michael Gove’s warnings about a Turkish invasion to Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. But supporters of the EU are as responsible for creating an anti-immigration climate. It was Gordon Brown who claimed Labour policy as “British jobs for British workers“. It is David Cameron who has led a campaign against “benefit tourists”, despite the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee insisting that there is “little evidence to support the so-called welfare magnet hypothesis as a migration driver across EU countries”.

The EU might favour freedom of movement within its borders but the quid pro quo for such freedom has been the creation of a Fortress Europe, a citadel against immigration, watched over by a hi-tech surveillance system of satellites and drones and protected by fences and warships. When EU policy plays to the image of a continent under siege, is it any wonder that there is widespread hostility to freedom of movement?

Neither side in the debate has been willing properly to consider the real issues at the heart of the Brexit debate. Remain campaigners have largely sidestepped concerns about democracy. And when they have addressed the question of immigration, it has largely been to accept the concerns of Leave campaign. Last week Labour Party deputy leader Tom Watson led a chorus of senior Labour figures arguing for remaining in the EU, but also for restricting freedom of movement.

It is true that, in the slogan of the Remain camp, we are “Better Together”. But “Better Together” does not mean supporting the institution of the EU. It means supporting the people of the EU – and beyond; supporting, for instance, the people of Greece against EU-enforced austerity, and of migrants against the imposition of Fortress Europe.

Leave supporters, on the other hand, have not so much addressed issues of democracy and immigration as exploited them in an opportunistic, and often reactionary, fashion. In reducing the problem of democracy to the bureaucratic structures of the EU, they have ignored the broader shifts in politics and the economy that have left large sections of the electorate feeling politically voiceless, and which will not be addressed simply by leaving the EU. In conflating democracy and national sovereignty, and promoting border controls as the key expression of sovereignty, they have advanced a narrow, divisive notion of democracy.

Many in the Remain camp insist that only by voting “Yes” to the EU can we prevent the triumph of anti-immigration populists. Many Leave campaigners argue that only by quitting the EU can we truly challenge populist anti-immigrant sentiment. Neither is right. Support for populism is an expression of disaffection from political parties and institutions that feel remote and out of touch. Ignoring that disaffection in the name of staying in the EU will increase the sense of resentment about the liberal elite that fuels populism. But equally, given that restoring national sovereignty will not address the more profound political shifts that have led to people feeling politically abandoned and marginalized, nor taking control of borders challenge the reasons for wage restraint, or for the rise of zero hour contracts, or create new housing, or shorten NHS waiting times, neither will Brexit address people’s real grievances or dispel the disaffection that many sections of the electorate have with mainstream politics.

Whatever the result on Thursday, neither popular disaffection with mainstream political institutions, nor the sense among large sections of the electorate of being politically voiceless, is likely to subside. Nor will it until we begin to address directly the reasons for that disaffection.

Al Jazeera English

Published 23 June 2016
Original in English
First published by Pandaemonium, 21 June 2016

© Kenan Malik / Eurozine



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