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Brexit or Bremain - a decision far beyond economics


When the British voters will decide over leaving or remaining in the EU on June 23rd, they will at the same time take a decision against or in favour of a reform of this European institution once designed to preserve peace on the continent and to facilitate trade relations. Boris Johnson´s polemic that EU politicians would pursue a policy in the wake of Napoleon and Hitler was just as unhistorical as it was untrue. History students know that neither Napoleon´s nor Hitler´s intention ever was to stabilise a peace order in Europe and to reduce national sovereignities, but to the contrary to build up greater supremacy of their nation state in order to dominate and subjugate others. Although the impression prevails that Brussels does just that, it is a wrong one, however.

Many commentators have drawn attention to the fact that Johnson´s aim is not so much to leave the EU as to move into Downing Street Number Ten. The rivalry with David Cameron that seems to go back to their student days in Oxford motivates the enigmatic figure of the Conservative Party to pursue opposite goals to those of his party colleague. Therefore, one has to be aware that what Johnson represents is not always the voice of reason and justice, but that of populist simplicities and nationalist bigotry. It would not be the first time that "Britain First"-fans would fade out all the advantages that their country has gained by entering the European Union. After all, Britain is the only country to have negotiated extensive exceptions and special rules that include the preservation of their currency and the staying out of the Schengen treaty. What more would Boris Johnson want? Probably not having to pay "50 million a day", the amount of the costs for Britain´s membership in the Union in his view, the freedom to decide what to do with its own money and to avert migrants from wanting to enter British soil.

The debate seems to be flawed with false assumptions, though. During a TV discussion with young voters, for example, a woman complained that migrants from Eastern Europe would get all the social housing. Another discussant intervened by saying that Brits should stop blaiming the EU for everything that seems to go wrong and rather accept that things British governments implement do not necessarily fall under the responsability of others. The argument that those who would like to remain in the EU have in their favour is that in the case of a Brexit Britain would face considerable costs and at the same time lose many of its commercial advantages such as the extensive trade relations to and from the EU. Statistics vary, but overall the figures show that EU trade is so vital for the country that it could hardly bear a lapse of those imports and exports from and to the continent.

A country like Britain with an imperial past (and present) is unlikely to submit itself easily to the rules others have imposed. Therefore, voters should also consider that in the case of a Brexit it would be the EU who would set the rules and time deadlines for an exit strategy which could last up to two years or more. A Brexit would not come over night, but would last years in which the country would lose chances and privileges. Boris Johnson would hardly be in the position to hinder a falling back into a national stone age of frozen trade relations with Europe.

It very much looks like he would prefer an orientation of Britain along more intense relations with the US anyway. With a prospective president Donald Trump this seems like a risky game, given that what the selfmademan propagates never seems to go beyond xenophobia, belittling of others and dubious tactics. There is, however, a certain parallelism in both men´s performance of the glittering and determined leader who wants to rescue his people from the bonds of so-called heteronomy. What is never discussed, though, is how one could reasonably reform the EU and its institutions which are indeed in great need of such reforms in order to herald an age of more direct democracy. The British voters would need to understand that what they are deciding is not simply a staying in or out, but rather the answer to the question whether the EU is reformable in a direction that would make it get rid of swelled regulations and make it implement necessary alignments in the field of qualifications and services instead.

Why should Britain with its eurosceptic attitude not become the spearhead of those who would like to reform the EU, as David Cameron has so often suggested? Instead of repeating on and on what goes wrong with and in the EU, it could help ameliorate procedures and rules and work towards a more democratic and less bureaucratic union. Many critics have also pointed out that it is time that the EU stops wanting to expand ever more for the sake of quanity and size instead of quality. The biggest fear of Nigel Farage from the nationalist UKIP - i.e. that Turkey would soon join the European Union - seems so unrealistic at present with a Turkey more orientated towards some of its Muslim neighbours and Russia than towards Western promises and being entangled in its own inner affairs that the supporters of a Brexit can take a deep breath and stop activating their reflexes.

Furthermore, the supporters of a Brexit should consider that they are taking an irresponsible attitude, should they leave Britain in a limbo after the referendum, moving towards an uncertain future in which it is everything but clear that new trade treaties with other countries and continents will get wrapped up speedily. The experience of the European Union shows how long trade negotiations can take. Also, those politicians which are fascinated by the idea of more independence and national sovereignity seem to fade out the fact that we live in a globalised world in which supranational structures are the only way towards a more secure and wealthy future. It is always easier to critize than to make constructive suggestions and it is also quite comfortable to remain in a zone from which the complicated contexts in which the EU operates in order to uphold peaceful relations among its members rather seem too confusing to explain to voters. Yet, this would be the task of every honest politician who does not simply squint to votes and power.

The question is not: Does Britain want more migrants or less of them and how much it has to pay. But rather: How much has Britain to gain now and in the long run by staying in and how can one build a more democratic and effective European Union? For the time being the picture is one of a Britain which wants to get rid of German-French dominance, the so-called motor of the union. However, the country should understand that it is only together with Germans and French that economic and political relations can be negotiated and designed in a way that the population has more to gain than to lose.