In the midst of the frantic negotiations in the immediate aftermath of the UK EU referendum, the Brexit vote forces all Europeans to take stock.
A narrow majority of the British population (52%) has voted to exit the EU. This has led to joy and exhilaration in some quarters about the promise of ‘retaking control and reclaiming their own country’. Leave leader Boris Johnson went as far as calling the vote a ‘glorious moment for Great-Britain’.
Many Leave voters have stated this vote is expressing their sovereign desire, to which every citizen is entitled. However, the immediate aftermath of the referendum outcome has been dire. In the forty-eight hours after the Brexit verdict, we have witnessed the shocks of a massive drop in the markets and the value of the UK currency, a downward reset of the UK rating position, a threat that the UK may disintegrate with Scotland and Northern Ireland exploring independence, and a mounting outcry of young UK voters who predominantly wished to remain and feel disowned.
The UK voting map is a painful manifestation of deep class, regional and generational divisions and polarisations in the country. This is also echoed in the states of utter turmoil in both the Conservative and Labour parties. Moreover, while the Brexiteers hoped for coulance, the European Union’s response so far has been a blunt ‘out is out’. The EU leaders gather in Berlin and Brussels this week to control the damage. And the official message to the UK authorities has been: ‘If you wish this divorce, let’s make it a swift one.’
A civic movement like the European Movement is not a novice to turbulence. It has experienced a history of ups and downs since the Second World War. But the seismic proportions of the current upheaval require very careful analysis and a clear own focus. This is a ‘guillotine moment’ in European history, in which a number of deeper undercurrents converge in ways that could lead to very explosive situations.
Three of these trends have concerned us as European movement already for a long time:
- For decades, it has been clear that the big transitions brought about by globalisation need proper European reflection and new articulations. Whether it is rethinking the next economy (labour, employment, forms of postcapitalism), dealing with the ecological challenges in our world (energy, climate change), or addressing the many disruptions in established social practices and security, we feel that only by engaging with each other in Europe and the rest of the world we can face these trends and move forward in an ecologically sound and humane fashion.
- It is also our longstanding concern that in the various transformations that shape our world, many people are left behind. Here, our broad spectrum of European social traditions, in which a rich hue of historical reflections are embedded, could actually inspire us to think out more equitable systems. It is not the first time our continent has dealt with change. We could try and mobilize our best thinking and creativity to deal with the various gaps and inequities, which lead to so many people – young and old – feeling disenfranchised.
- We are also convinced that time has come to revisit our democratic and political institutions and make them fit to serve informed, inclusive, 21st century politics. We could share much better what has already been achieved in the European arena and critically reflect on this European ‘acquis’. We could rebalance the European project to make it a more social project. And display critical openness and invention to where more radical reforms would be required.
All these trends are multifaceted. They require the broadest possible input from citizens, our best energies. They ask for deeper wisdom, spaces for reflection, and take time. It could be done. We derive hope from the fact that Europe has a huge pool of talents (old and young). Europe has ways to advance deliberative democratic innovation. Europe’s civic strength and power are considerable, with many new movements on the scene. There is no lack of good ideas that could be brought to bear much more effectively in policies for the common good. For all these developments Europeans would need each other to establish new forms of collaboration and exchange, which would include those who now feel out of the game.
Given the enourmous civic tasks ahead of us, it is tragic to observe how much energy is currently lost in unproductive battle, false frames, anxiety politics and outdated antitheses.
The political and economic disaster we see unfold under our eyes in the wake of the Brexit vote drives home three major considerations:
- The Brexit debates demonstrate how dangerous and utterly counter-produtcive much of the recent ‘elites, experts, intellectuals’ bashing can be in the face of the complexity of the situation and the avalanche of half-truths which circulate. Mind you, this is not to deny bad politics, indifferene of some in the political classes etc. But we need all intelligence out there in more constructive and engaging ways and need to identify urgently how this intelligence can be mobilized better.
- The Brexit challenges should also remind us that institution building is tough and sometimes tedious labour. It involves much collective labour and requires intelligence, commitment, dialogue-, negotiation- and diplomacy skills, expertise, a will to deal with difference. It needs dedication and an ability to think ahead, emphaty and time to organize popular engagement. There are many points of criticism which could be made vis-à-vis the European institutions. But to throw sixty years of institution building into the carbage bin is unjustified and dangerous. In our world we will need institutions. Building them, maintaining them and reforming them when needed is hard work, for us all, with little time to waste.
- The Brexit campaign and aftermath also underscore that a politics of hatred, scaremongering and entrenched enemy thinking which seems increasingly the norm in the too-fast, too-gratuitous media worlds of today – most of the time does not lead to anything constructive. Instead, as Europeans we should and could work harder towards better forms of explorative social dialogue instead of monolytic ideological grandstanding. The current Brexit situation also shows that easy references to left and right politics and explanations do not cover the complexities of what we are up against.
As constructive Europeans who think Europe should and could reform herself, we therefore believe that we need a big leap forward. This does not mean a leap into a superstate or other spoke images that have circulated of late. Rather, it means a bold mental leap of imagination, away from the trenches that divide us and hinder us to progress and deliver what we could if we would join the best of our capabilities.
We will therefore not acquiesce in a Brexit doom scenario. We will continue to connect to all Europeans in the UK and elsewhere who wish to operate in a similar spirit. We are a European Movement. We will move. Together.
Godelieve van Heteren, chair EBN