BREXIT is wrong and should thus be implemented quickly

Post date: Jul 2, 2016 1:21:37 PM

In my opinion the outcome of the British referendum is wrong on so many accounts. Personally, some of my most formative European experiences took place on British soil. Good friends as well as dear colleagues live and work in the UK. The ‘Leave’ majority has upset their way of living and it shattered my beliefs about many future opportunities for me and my family. But beyond these personal motives, I think that the referendum outcome is wrong because many if not most contemporary societal challenges require a decent level of economic and political cooperation across national borders.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not one of those claiming that the EU constantly surfs the Pareto frontier distributing nothing but goodies for everybody who is smart enough to recognize them. Rather, my academic writing has hopefully helped to clarify that cooperation across borders comes with institutions that do make intrinsically political choices (see e.g. here, here or here). Like in national capitals, collective decision-making in Brussels will at times benefit some while disadvantaging others. Thus it is true that the sacked worker in Birmingham, the frustrated fisherman in Cornwall, or the NHS-dependent old lady in Brighton can put forward pretty rational arguments against key EU policies. And it is far from trivial to adequately weigh their justified scepticism against the equally justified EU defences that can be expected from the Oxford student, the City banker or the Polish shop owner.

In this situation – I have argued e.g. here, here and here – public and controversial debates about EU issues become increasingly likely. And I have also argued that this is not a bad thing per se. Moving supranational decision-making into the public spotlight gives also those groups a say that are by now not so well represented at the office and negotiation tables in Brussels. If their arguments and preferences become visible in public debates about European integration, it will be much clearer which kind of EU and which supranational policies are actually acceptable in the affected collectives.

But we should also not be naïve, politicisation will not automatically equal an enlightened debate. Indeed, most of the recent research emphasizes that EU politicisation often favours right-wing populists and can quickly deteriorate into a tyranny of the majority over well-balanced processes (good starting points are here, here and here). The UK referendum process we have just observed unfortunately supports this: particularly the ‘Leave’ campaigners successfully invoked diffuse cultural threats and addressed the gut feelings rather than the rational interests of those feeling left behind by the EU.

It did not matter whether the numbers on Boris’ bus were fact or fairy tale. A plummeting FTSE as well as revolting entrepreneurs and companies did not challenge the promise of more jobs and higher incomes in a UK outside of the EU. It did not matter that no ‘leave’ leader had to explain how the UK could maintain single market access without buying into the full set of rules. In sum, the ‘leave’ leaders actually saw no need to specify any meaningful economic or political alternatives. So while the Eurosceptic campaign successfully built on the not completely unjustified collywobbles of the worker, the fisherman and the old lady, it did not offer any substantial remedy or clue on how the lives of these people would improve without the EU.

So it is easy to blame demagoguery (or the half-hearted responses from the ‘remain’ campaign). But we cannot expect that self-righteous populists will take responsibility. Rather we should be reminded that voters are responsible, too – they took the ultimate decision. The lack of reasonable political alternatives for their country outside of the EU was apparently not a significant obstacle to voting ‘leave’. It seems, casting a simple protest vote against the political establishment in London and Brussels was motivation enough to make this fundamental choice.

This leaves us with actually very little to learn about the voters' sincere EU and policy preferences. But thus repeating or circumventing the referendum is equally wrong. If one buys that European integration has created some societal losers that will have to be compensated at some stage, if one buys that containing public EU politicisation is highly unlikely in this context, and if one buys that so far mainly irresponsible populists have gained from politicisation, any attempt to sneak around the referendum outcome perpetuates protest voting against the EU. In contrast, now accepting the majority vote in last weeks’ referendum sends a clear message to UK and EU citizens. It says: your choices do count, but this power comes with responsibility. It says: your vote is consequential, but not only for the political establishment but also for your very own life circumstances. This is not about punishing British voters for what I – personally – consider a wrong decision. Rather, it is about empowering them. In the light of equally irresponsible and populist platforms in various democracies, voters in Europe and beyond should be strongly encouraged to evaluate their options wisely.

So while I think that the BREXIT decision is wrong, I am deeply convinced that it should now be implemented quickly. We are in a game of poker with the Johnson, Hofer, and Wilders types, and if we don’t call their bluffs as early as possible, we risk losing the whole evening.