Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A wake-up call for Europe?

The United Kingdom’s surprise decision to leave the European Union may lead to a political reawakening across the continent, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

The decision by the British electorate in a referendum last week to leave the European Union has led to political turmoil in Britain, where both the governing Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party had officially supported the country’s continuing membership of the EU.

British Prime Minister David Cameron resigned as soon as the results of the referendum were known, and as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press the political futures of members of his government and of the Labour Party shadow cabinet were at best uncertain.

The country now awaits news of who will head the new Conservative government that will have the task of negotiating the exit from the EU, as well as of salving the divisions that have opened up or been exacerbated as a result of last week’s referendum to leave the EU.

Commentators in Britain and across Europe have filled acres of column space in the media and on social media regarding the consequences of the United Kingdom’s projected exit from the union.

Some have seen the decision as effectively ending the country’s leading international role, soon to be shunned by its former EU partners and abandoned by foreign investors, while others have detected in the country’s decision to exit from the EU, a regional trading bloc of 28 countries, the beginnings of a new period of self-government and prosperity.

Whichever side turns out to be right, the British decision is not one that affects the United Kingdom alone, since it means that one of the most important countries in the EU, its second-largest economy, one of its main military powers, and, with France, a member of the UN Security Council, has effectively delivered a vote of non-confidence in the grouping.

Since the United Kingdom’s decision last week there has been a stream of harsh warnings in continental Europe against the country, with some EU officials talking darkly of “punishing” it for its decision, or making sure that the terms of the divorce are as “painful” as possible in order to discourage any other errant state from wanting to leave the EU.

Yet while the tone of such pronouncements has sometimes been hostile, with some politicians seeming to forget that they are talking of a decision made by a close ally, this tone has not necessarily been reproduced in the views of European citizens or more thoughtful commentators.

Talking to French people in Paris this week, the Weekly discovered that there was sympathy, even admiration, for the British decision to leave a political organisation that some felt was doing no good, and possibly much harm, to the future of France and Europe.

“After a blow like this to their credibility, with one of the largest European countries voting to leave the union, why did none of the European Commission resign?” one Paris resident asked. “It’s because of their arrogance and their failure to listen to the wishes of the people.”

Another French person spoken to by the Weekly asked why a country should be “punished” simply for expressing its desire, recognised in EU regulations, to leave the EU.

“You can already control your currency and your borders, something we cannot do because of the euro and the Schengen Area,” the person said, referring to the common currency and border policy created by the EU.

Some of the fears expressed in Britain as a result of the decision to leave the EU were by no means shared by some in the French population.

“I wish we could have a referendum on the euro and French membership of the European Union,” one person said. “But it would never be allowed in France, or if it were, the result would be ignored, as it was in 2005.” The person was referring to the then French government’s ignoring of the French electorate’s rejection of the EU constitution.

The same views were in evidence on French social media. While some EU officials were demanding that Britain be “made an example of,” effectively throwing it out of the EU even before the country had assembled a new government, on social media sites very different things were being said.

“Why are we listening to this rubbish about the United Kingdom ‘sabotaging’ the European Union?” one writer on French social media asked. “The European Union has sabotaged itself. How many French people are satisfied with the European Union? Why can’t we have a referendum?”

An opinion poll taken earlier this year by the US Pew Global Attitudes Survey showed that 61 per cent of those sampled in France were unhappy with the EU in its present form, as were 71 per cent of Germans, much higher figures than those expressing the same view in Britain.

“When are the French people going to be allowed to get out of this ‘prison of peoples’ known as the European Union?” another writer asked. “The English did not need the Brussels bureaucrats to launch their two revolutions that changed the course of world history,” presumably referring in part to the Industrial Revolution.

“Juncker, on the other hand, will be totally ignored by history,” the writer continued, referring to the current head of the European Commission, the Luxembourg politician Jean-Claude Juncker, criticised in France two years ago when it was discovered that foreign companies had avoided paying taxes in Luxembourg when he was prime minister.

“What I find so interesting about the Brexit [a reference to the British exit from the EU],” commented another, is that “we are being endlessly told that the English are making a huge mistake and that they are heading for economic disaster.

“Yet at the same time the same people are saying that if the English leave other countries will want to do the same thing. Could the Brexit actually lead to economic and political success? Is that why the European Union bureaucrats are in such a panic.”

While none of these writers on French social media represent anyone but themselves they do show that views on the EU in France are varied and that they are far from being positive.

The same criticisms of the grouping that are widely felt to have led to the British vote — that it is anti-democratic and actually harmful to the country’s interests — are often heard in France.

The difference may be, as one writer on French social media put it, that Britain is “a more democratic country” in which the government has to take account of people’s views.

Whatever one thinks of the result of this week’s EU referendum in Britain, the talk of “punishment” and “making an example” on the part of EU officials has been striking in the wake of a democratic decision that indicated a high level of popular distrust in the EU.

Talk of the “ignorance” and “lack of education” of those who did not follow the UK government’s recommendation to vote for the country’s continuing membership of the EU has been a shocking aspect of the whole affair, indicating disdain for those who may not be benefitting, or may not see themselves as benefitting, from the present political and economic dispensation.

This discourse has long been one of the most troubling aspects of the EU, whose institutions, largely unelected, often seem to do their best to discourage meaningful popular participation. It may now be that the British decision to leave the union will cause its surviving members to reflect on the group’s organisation.

Writing in the French newspaper Le Monde on the weekend, former French minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement said, “The opacity and technocratic functioning of the European institutions” was rejected across the continent. “The British people have refused to give in to the blackmail and the threats orchestrated by the dominant financial interests, and their courageous vote has shown that they place democratic values — the control of the decisions that concern them — at the top of their list of priorities.”

Similarly, former French prime minister François Fillon, also writing in Le Monde and almost at the opposite end of the political spectrum, said that British electors had sent a message to the European Union that “it must not be allowed to ignore.” This was the message that they did not want “a Europe that simply multiplies controls and regulations.”

“I hear in this vote the pride of the British people in their national identity and the fear that they are losing control of their destiny” to an overbearing European Union, he wrote.

According to left-wing French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, quoted in Le Monde, “The idea of the European Union has been killed by a caste of eurocrats and the austerity policies imposed by the German government with the complicity of two French presidents, who, since the 2005 vote [on the European constitution] have ignored the wishes of our people.”

Even French President François Hollande, according to opinion polls the most unpopular president in the history of the French Fifth Republic, has said that in the wake of the British referendum “things cannot simply go on as they did before,” citing greater “investment for growth and employment”.

Could the British decision to leave the union lead to a reinvigorated, more democratic EU? Not while the euro continues to be the continent’s common currency, many on French social media were saying this week in a reference to the problems surrounding the single currency that is widely seen as being in part responsible for the continuing economic crisis in Europe.

When the Greeks voted against EU-imposed austerity last year, they were effectively ignored by their own government, which was viewed as taking its instructions from EU financial institutions in Frankfurt. When the French voted against the 2005 European Constitution they were also overruled by their government.

With the economic crisis in Europe turning into a crisis of political legitimacy, and with governing parties across the union seen as out of touch with their electors and leading to the growth of ever more powerful fringe groupings, the British vote last week to leave the EU may force a reconsideration of where the continent is heading.

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