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Op-Ed: The U.K. a house divided over Europe

June 29, 2016 — 

The following is an op-ed written by Greg Smith, associate professor of history and associate dean of the Faculty of Arts. It was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on June 29, 2016.

Thursday’s Brexit vote was fuelled, in part, by long-term skepticism and populist resentment about what Europe was seen to be doing for Britain.

The Conservative party has been internally divided over Europe and Britain’s place in the economic and political union since the end of the Second World War. In recent years, especially under the leadership of David Cameron, coupled with the media attention afforded to populist leaders — in this case Boris Johnson — the visible extent of those divisions has grown.

But Britain’s ambivalent relationship to Europe and the idea of a more centrally managed economy goes back to the formation of the European Economic Community in 1957.

A bit of history is helpful here.

When Britain’s prime minister at the time, Harold MacMillan (also a Conservative), applied for EEC membership in 1961, France vetoed it. British humiliation by the French and, by extension, all of Western Europe, soured many of that generation on Europe — a cohort who made up the demographic of older voters supporting the Leave campaign. By the late 1960s, the mood toward Europe and the EEC had changed, however, and in 1973 the U.K. secured admission to the European economic group but with little domestic fanfare.

Despite some initial economic benefits from EEC membership, by the time Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, Britain had suffered almost a decade of economic decline as the country and its workforce de-industrialized and inflation ate away savings and wage power.

Thatcher was cool on Europe and her brand of conservatism consisted of stronger elements of British nationalism and neo-liberal economic policies that rejected mechanisms of centralization, taxation and public spending, which were seen to inhibit the growth of the free market. Thatcher also gained allies to her anti-Europe position from some in the Labour party who also pledged to withdraw from the EEC, if elected, in the name of protecting British jobs and industries. Her close relationship with president Ronald Reagan revealed her priority of the U.S. over the EU. A European free-trade zone certainly attracted Thatcher, but talk of centralized banking, currency, controls or quotas dictated by a federalist Europe did not.

This rhetoric remained part of the Cold War discourse used to challenge the Soviet Bloc. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Eastern Bloc and, importantly, German reunification, an economically powerful central Europe driven by a resurgent Germany was on the horizon. Lumbering negotiations to enlarge the EEC were given new impetus as former Communist Bloc states quickly sought membership in the “Western” EEC. Britain was still a part of the EEC, of course, but remained a cantankerous and nationalistic voice of opposition within the club.

Eventually, Thatcher’s hard line against a common European currency led to her removal in 1990 by her own Conservative Party. Her successor, John Major, was a more centrist figure who held out on the European negotiations over a new union and currency as he tried to placate the still vehement objections of the “Euroskeptics” within his own Conservative party. Major only signed on to the 1991 Maastricht Treaty when it was agreed Britain would not adopt the Euro, and would be excluded from certain regulations from Europe regarding workers’ rights, trade unions and other elements of the “social chapter.”

In 1993 the new European Union was formed, boasting a larger membership than the EEC, plans for a common currency, and with a Brussels-based European Parliament tasked with oversight of economic policies, laws and regulations across the region. Britain never adopted the Euro, but since 1993 debates have raged in British society about the extent of “unwanted,” “costly,” “unnecessary” regulation from Brussels.

The lingering Thatcher-era nationalists and Euroskeptics, plus the increasing number of workers displaced by ongoing de-industrialization and market globalization, did not quietly fade away, instead finding a new political home in the ultra-nationalist U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP. That party, along with a significant minority within the Conservative party, plus Europe-bashers from other parties and sectors, not to mention a brash, right-of-centre tabloid media, kept the populist, Euroskeptic fires burning.

And then Syria.

The massive destabilization of the Middle East and the refugee crisis rekindled the ugly rhetoric of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and “immigrants.”

Simplistic notions of Europe being soft on immigrants (code for “terrorists”) and Britain, an EU member, being “forced” to take in people it would have otherwise turned away re-emerged at the very moment David Cameron made the political decision to nip the Euroskeptics in the bud by silencing them once and for all by invoking the vox populi.

This gamble, by a politician who had inherited decades of European history and politics, will likely go down in history as his great folly: trying to solve a deeply complex, historical problem, in one fell swoop. His astute point of not being able to “scramble back into the cockpit,” having leapt from the metaphorical European Airbus, seems especially apt as his own parachute clearly did not deploy.

The degree to which social class and xenophobia underpinned the Leave campaign is suggested by some interesting data emerging from the polls. In general, the most newcomer-rich parts of the U.K. voted largely, sometimes overwhelmingly, with the Remain campaign. According to The Guardian newspaper’s blog, in the district of Lambeth in South London, 78 per cent voted Remain, a district where 4,598 new international migrants have settled. Manchester, with a net migration of 13,554 inbound, voted Remain, as did the Conservative riding of Wandsworth in London where 75 per cent voted Remain with a net migration of 6,295. Compare that with regions who welcomed hardly any migrants such as East Lindsey, whose net migration was 191 people in a population of more than 135,000 and who voted 69.9 per cent for Leave.

For Brits, Brexit will mean years of economic and political instability.

The British pound has already dropped beyond 30-year lows, stock markets around the world are seeing massive sell-offs of European stocks. That affects pensions as well as big-business bottom lines, in Britain of course, but around the globalized market, including Canada. Disengaging from the past 23 years of laws, agreements, policies and procedures — and replacing them with new British-only ones will consume an enormous amount of government resources.

Factions calling for “less government” and “less regulation,” such as the Tories, and UKIP, will have to wait further on that. It is possible that new restrictions on mobility of people, goods, materials, students, all the things that the EU membership facilitated, will become increasingly restrictive, perhaps even punitively so in the short term.

Worst of all, the poisonous impulses given free rein during the campaign will colour the tone and details of the exit process. Threats that other disgruntled parties to the Maastricht Treaty will pack up their Brussels offices and go home will continue. Others have already commented that with the U.K. clearly a house divided over Europe, surely other nationalist, independence movements in Scotland and Ireland will find new hope.

It is possible their populist desires can very soon be added to the increasingly full basket of formerly unimaginable political changes that will find their historical origins in the contemporary moment.

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