Why such muted opposition in the UK to Brexit?
By Simon Commander, Managing Partner, Altura Partners
Despite mounting costs and risks, relatively few politicians have made a forthright case for Brexit to be abandoned
Such timidity cannot simply be attributed to fear of being seen to be antidemocratic or fear of specific groups of voters or media virulence
Rather, there is a widespread feeling of ambiguity about the EU and its direction and management, even among quite ardent Remainers
Consequently, arguments for staying in the EU only emphasise the economic costs of leaving but fail to make a more popular (perhaps populist) case
Making that case is made harder by the way in which the EU member states, as well as the European Commission, appear to see their role and future
Limp opposition to Brexit
In the referendum of June 2016, nearly half (48%) of voters favoured remaining in the EU. As negotiations with the EU make halting progress, there are also signs of some reconsideration or regret among those who voted to exit. Despite this, it is striking how weak the organised, political pushback against Brexit has been. Only a small minority of MPs has argued aggressively for remaining in the EU, even though the majority of elected representatives in the new Parliament are certainly sceptical of (if not hostile to) Brexit. Most have temporised or couched their opposition in relation to the terms of departure, rather than departure itself. In short, the voice for staying in has been timorous and with it, unsurprisingly, has come a less-than-forceful groundswell of support. There are a variety of reasons for this – some conjunctural, some more deep-seated - but most lead back inexorably to ambiguity about the virtues of the European Union or, more exactly, its modus operandi.
The first major reason for the limp response is obviously trepidation at being seen to tamper with a popular mandate, albeit one couched in absurdly simplistic terms. Setting aside the referendum result could easily be construed as anti-democratic, accentuating the already substantial tensions in society.
The second concerns more narrow electoral considerations - notably within the Labour Party – where, inter alia, a majority of Northern working class votes went the way of Leave. The leadership of that party is also clearly ambiguous (at best) about staying in, although the prospect of power appears to be softening some of this aversion. Conservative MPs who favour remaining in the EU appear to fear the wrath of the right-wing press, as well as possible de-selection.
A third concerns the difficulty in deciding whether the appropriate route for revision is another referendum – the result of which would be far from clear – or an approach more attuned to the normal electoral and parliamentary cycle. There are some who also bridle at the manner in which the EU has negotiated and the unwillingness on the EU part to seek a mutually beneficial set of outcomes: the dominance of stick, rather than carrot, in the bargaining strategy.
Yet, perhaps most fundamental - but also more difficult to address – is the fact that there are still very significant doubts on the part of those who broadly favour revision of the referendum result about the way in the EU is run, and Britain’s place in it. This very ambiguity stymies a clear and forceful opposition to the referendum vote.
Widespread scepticism about the EU
These doubts have some similar themes. One concerns the EU-27’s apparently totemic commitment to the four freedoms, or more exactly, the commitment to one – namely, free movement of labour. That the EU was unwilling to budge when Cameron tried to coax some fairly minimal limits seems a portent of future obstinacy. This ignores the fact that there are significant differences within the bloc (mainly between richer members and the Eastern Europeans). Ironically, these differences are actually being camouflaged by the perceived need to stay united in the Brexit negotiations and the associated unwillingness to countenance opening what would be a protracted and rancorous discussion. While many Remainers might be agnostic about, if not actively pro-, immigration, there is widespread unease post-referendum about continuing with unfettered migration within the EU. Yet, there seems to be little chance of any serious revision of views, let alone policy, on this issue, as neither side wants to be perceived as shifting its stance.
An allied doubt concerns the governance of the EU. Whatever the nuances – and there are many – the reality is that the European Parliament is mostly viewed as more symbolic than representative and to have wasteful habits to boot. Real power is seen to lie with the executive (the EC) in Brussels and in some national capitals, principally Berlin. There is a confluence of opinion that the EU is not very democratic and the decision-making process is neither responsive nor refined enough to take account sufficiently of national tastes and needs (although in major policy areas, the UK has had opt-outs and/or significant discretion in setting policy). There is also a fairly widespread view that British parliamentary democracy has features that are preferable to, and encroached on, by the current EU system of governance. These concerns are not the sole preserve of the more zealous Brexiters.
In sum, behind the noise of a confused and confusing debate, there is actually a rather greater confluence of views between the opposing camps in the UK than might, at casual inspection, be presumed. The difference is that while the Brexiteers believe these doubts are sufficient to warrant departure, those who favour remaining in the EU view them as flaws that have to be stomached in order to retain the broader – largely economic – benefits of membership.
Stressing the economic benefits of EU membership – the story line told by most Remainers – is simply not adequate as a rallying force. It is not just that many voters see themselves as having not benefited from Britain being a member of the EU (sometimes – but not always - an erroneous impression) but that many actually don’t give priority to economic arguments. As such, winning the argument for continued membership needs to make a wider and more popular case that addresses some of the concerns – notably, identity and accountability – that appear at present to trump more strictly economic arguments. Concerns that, incidentally, are widely present in other countries of the EU, manifestations of which have been growth in support for populist parties.
To present arguments that can gain greater popular support runs, however, into various stumbling blocks. One is the perception that the EU is inflexible, both because of intellectual attachment to specific governing principles but also because of its bulky and cumbrous process of decision-making. If the UK was unable to secure sufficient concessions pre-referendum, what likelihood is there of the UK making headway after a poisonous attempt at leaving? At the same time, periodic pronouncements by assorted European politicians of the desirability of further political and economic integration only seem to spell out the extent of difference in visions of the future. The sorry experience of the euro and its continuing travails further qualify any appetite for such grandiose aims. Yet, ironically, whatever the rhetoric and associated noise, the reality is that most politicians and electorates in both the UK and Continental Europe are fairly solidly centrist in orientation whatever the particular names and slogans they trade under. There is not a huge difference in the underlying perceptions of what modern European societies should look like. But there is a difference in how they should be managed.
While much of the present debate is about the next few years and very little about the next decade (at least in the UK - far less so in the other European countries, such as France), the ‘vision thing’ is problematic. Even assuming a willingness not to leave, the appetite for closer integration or harmonisation is very limited even among the most devout British Remainers. In fact, one suspects that even if their aim of staying in was granted, the form of staying in would be much the mirror of the past – a Britain somewhat on the sidelines, trying to pick and choose and, above all, avoid further political integration. Of course, it is possible that some years out the UK’s perspective may also find wider appeal within the EU but in the near term that seems unlikely.
Yet again, however, the rhetoric seems a less-than-reliable barometer of actual opinion and, ultimately, direction of travel. A United States of Europe, or some such federalist vision, commands limited backing in any of the major states (let alone some of the Eastern European ones with their local authoritarian leaders). Any sensible vision of Europe’s future will surely have a variety of types of engagement and integration, despite what some of the more doctrinaire integrationists care to proclaim. This is ill-appreciated in Britain.
Because of these ambiguities and hesitancy, as well as some mis-interpretation of the EU’s aims and aspirations, opposition to Brexit in the UK will probably continue to stress the economic and financial costs of leaving. These arguments may be increasingly persuasive, particularly if falling or stagnant incomes can be laid at the door of Brexit, but they are unlikely to be popular arguments. That is because they are not nested in an associated argument about the wider merits of remaining in the European Union. Appealing to history and the need to provide an institutional framework for averting conflict in Europe rings few bells, while the EU currently lacks recognisable, attractive objectives likely to appeal to the average voter. Its trajectory seems dominated by self-referencing goals and a taste for harmonisation: its heroic days seem behind it. Yet, the sort of bureaucratic managerialism that is currently most in evidence is all very well if the system broadly works effectively and confers wide benefits. But that is self evidently not the case, as gross disparities across countries and income groups make evident. It also makes a popular case for staying in harder to project.
In sum, even if UK ultimately does not leave the EU, one thing is clear. A pervasive squeamishness about Europe that runs through much of British society will not go away and that would likely be reflected in a continuing debate – possibly acrimonious – about the shape, size and balance of power and responsibilities in the Union. A model better capable of accommodating different aspirations and tastes (and correspondingly different degrees of integration) has been pushed to one side - not least because of Brexit. Postponing such discussion is likely to be to the detriment of the EU as a whole, let alone Britain.