This article reflects my personal opinion.
On Friday, supporters of the Remain campaign in the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum were faced with the ruins of their beliefs. In contrast with most of the latest polls, a majority of the voters had decided for an exit of the UK out of the EU. Although the demographic analysis of the referendum has not yet been finalised, it is already rather clear where the lines between the two camps ran. Besides the obvious separation between London, Northern Ireland and Scotland as net supporters of the Remain campaign and most of the rest of England and Wales as Leave strongholds, voters divided alongside age-demographic and educational lines. Areas with many young and well-educated residents were more likely to vote “Remain” while areas with a high concentration of low-skilled workers and old residents tended to vote “Leave” (see this guardian article for a colourful demographic breakdown of Thursday’s referendum). A lot of young voters feel that their future has been sabotaged by a generation who will not be around long enough to suffer the consequences of their vote. Congruently, many academics and other high-skilled workers perceive the referendum as a blow to their economic opportunities by ill-informed protest voters. And together, Remain supporters all around the world ask themselves “How did this happen?”
The Leave campaign tried to convince voters of their cause with mainly two arguments. First, they claimed that a Brexit will give the UK their long-lost sovereignty back and free it from the tentacles of the bureaucratic kraken named EU. And even though this reasoning was interwoven with outright lies like the infamous £350m that the UK allegedly sends the EU every week, it seemingly has been persuasive for a lot of voters who long to return to a romantically transfigured past in which countries served as anchors of stability rather than puppets of complex globalised forces. And it is hardly surprising it fell on fertile ground given decades of national politicians making the EU the scapegoat for unpopular policies. Closely connected to the first, the second argument brought forward in favour of a Brexit was the theory that the UK has better chances to deal with immigration in a meaningful way on its own than tied up in the EU with its guarantee of free movement. Like every other European nation, the Brits have mostly not been able to discuss this matter on a civilized level, defecting to accusations of xenophobia and starry-eyed idealism, respectively. The shrill voices prevailed and hysteric fear of an uncontrolled immigration became the Brexiteers’ presumably strongest weapon. Remain supporters, predominantly well-educated and high-earning, were unable to convince Leave supporters of the chances and the moral obligation of taking in refugees within a solidarity community, often acting in a know-it-all manner and denying the truth that immigration of refugees affects the poor and ill-educated more profoundly than the rich and skilled (Just look at the debate about refugees and a possible suspension of the minimum wage in Germany). Their case for staying in the EU was not helped by the way in which the European Union has failed to develop a joint approach to the refugee situation and made a dubious deal with the increasingly dictatorial Turkish president Erdogan. The Brexiteers offered easy answers to complex problems and a majority of the voters nodded in agreement.
The main argument that the Remain camp mantra-like repeated was the dire economic downturn that the UK had to face in case of a Brexit. And indeed, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Pound already plunged to levels not seen since 1985 and British stocks experienced a private “Black Friday”. Remain supporters added that following a Brexit, the only way to avoid a long-lasting recession was to negotiate a new trade treaty with the EU following the example set by Norway, which would erase the two main reasons given for a Brexit in the first place, as the UK would have to comply with European law (giving up sovereignty and accepting free movement of labour) and contribute to the EU budget. At the end of the day, the only difference would be that the UK no longer has a say in the EU under whose influence it remains (Now, it is even doubtful whether the UK will get the same treatment as countries like Norway, because the EU has an incentive to hinder the UK’s economic development to make an example for other countries who might sympathize with leaving the union). While this argument is economically and politically sound and was supported by a wide coalition of experts and public figures, it faced two main problems. First, while the Remain supporters were very gifted at illustrating Brexit doomsday scenarios which they presumptuously sold as absolute certainties, they did not manage to paint a convincing picture of a prosperous future of the UK in the European Union. While the EU as a whole struggles to develop any consensus on immigration or foreign policy, the next stretch of its one-way road to more integration, the Eurozone, has predominantly been an economic and political failure. The reckless experiment to build a monetary union without a fiscal union or a comprehensive political union out of highly diverse nations is paid by the peripheral countries who are drained by the imposed austerity policy, unable to depreciate their currency to decrease their relative production costs and whose youth is on track to become a lost generation. In the meantime, the European Central Bank interprets its right increasingly generously, financing the preservation of governments in urgent need of reform and bailing out high-risk private investors. The Remain campaigners kept to themselves how they planned on reforming this system from within by striking deals with the EU that further empowers member states to maintain the status quo. On this shaky ground, it was hard to build a convincing optimistic economic perspective for the UK in the European Union. The second problem that Remain supporters faced was the fact that some voters, when confronted with economic arguments, either did not believe them or even if they did, they simply did not care. These are the people who feel that they have not received a share of the past growth in prosperity and been shunned by society and therefore either believe that they will not benefit from economic growth in the future or have developed a fundamental distrust of mainstream information channels. Having no hopeful perspective offered, the left-behind used the referendum to seemingly get back at a vaguely defined elite by voting for a Brexit.
Both parties have failed to constructively present a promising outlook and focused on depicting horror scenarios that would hit the UK, should the other camp prevail. In an increasingly polarized political atmosphere, having no inspiring options to choose from, a growing share of society is willing to risk destroying the status quo. If the European idea is to be saved, we need to learn from the UK referendum and develop more inclusive, courageous and passionate visions for the European community which has saved the European continent from devastating wars for the longest time in its history.
Music – Led Zeppelin – Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’
Film – Children of Men
Reading – W. B. Yeats – The Second Coming
written by Jonas