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January 27, 2022

Brexit: A democratic debate

Whatever the UK’s Brexit partisans may say, one thing is obvious. Namely that British exceptionalism – which allegedly contributed substantially to the “leave” camp winning the June 2016 referendum, according to some of the supporters’ analysis – is far from being an explanation. Proof that things are so is given by recent events in Europe. The Old Continent’s terrible recent months were not late in leaving marks on the British public opinion and in bringing to the forefront a public opinion debate that basically calls for a second referendum that would undeniably cancel out the first one, namely would suspend the current Brexit process (one condition is forgotten: Europeans should also want that). Why this influence on the part of Europe and, especially, which is its real cause.

The answer to the first question is simple: for well over two millennia, ever since the Roman conquest, going through the Norman invasion and, later on, through countless wars, such as the Hundred Years’ War or the last two global wars, Europe influenced developments in Great Britain and not the other way around, or, to be fairer, mutual influence was determinant and inevitable. The answer to the second question, namely what has happened in Europe in recent months, is more complex, but also more clarifying. Namely, the EU, faced with simultaneous threats from the East (Ukraine) and South (migrants), with financial turmoil (Greece) or ample geopolitical turmoil (U.S., especially under the Trump Administration, clearly aiming to eliminate an European organisation that is led from Berlin in order to become a power centre outside the transatlantic bond, but also a Turkey with an unpredictable and threatening behaviour), knew to rapidly identify a response that is both wise and peaceful, non-confrontational. U.S. President D. Trump’s visit to Paris, on the French national day last week, explains this solution. Basically, Paris, through its President, E. Macron, has entered a large-scale geopolitical exercise, destined to restore not so much the European Union’s cohesion (the EU is proposed large-scale reorganisation), but also the transatlantic alliance, which has been under siege lately (with the growth of the financial crisis starting in 2008 and up to Trump’s reaction toward a competitive EU).

Simply said, this Macron solution means the unequalled power duo of EU reform under Franco-German engine and leadership and the restoration of the transatlantic bond via preferential Paris-Washington relationship. The impact in the UK was instantaneous: bringing up the return to the EU, namely the holding of a new referendum which, it is said with conviction, would cancel out the result of the previous referendum (the one held in 2016). As Gideon Rachman recently wrote in ‘The Financial Times’: “The campaign to stop Brexit is gathering pace. The most obvious sign is the increasing chatter about a second referendum. At the moment it is still mainly former politicians, such as Tony Blair and Nick Clegg, who are explicit about their desire to prevent the UK leaving the EU. Active politicians tend to talk about a ‘ soft Brexit’ . For some, this is simply a convenient code, or a staging post, for their real goal — stopping Brexit altogether.”

The public statements made by some “heavyweights” of British politics, such as the ones mentioned, as well as the debate in the British press, have the prominent motivation of reacting to this new orientation and to avoid the UK being relegated to a peripheral role in what is foreshadowed to be an EU-U.S. tie of a different calibre and a different meaning than the previous ones. And the UK cannot be absent from this equation because otherwise it would be condemned to insignificance and hence it has to be by the side of a Europe that is at any rate on a rapid path toward a different global geopolitical weight.

The first victim of the British political establishment’s – and public opinion’s – new orientation is British exceptionalism, which motivated Brexit. Last Friday, ‘The Guardian,’ a daily with firm left-wing opinions, wrote in an analysis suggestively titled ‘Brexit is clearly a terrible idea. But it has to happen’: “A second referendum may well reverse BREXIT but we would be left with the same BREXIT-fringe (majority) in the media, the conservative party, the working classes and the over-60’s.  The argument would roll-on and on.” And the first victim that the same analysis presents is “an ingrained English exceptionalism, partly traceable to geography but equally bound up with a puffed-up interpretation of our national past, which has bubbled away in our politics and culture for decades.” It is, in fact, in our opinion, what pushed both the British political establishment (conservative, first of all, as promoter of the referendum), as well as the public opinion (intensely manipulated by topics with a powerful emotional impact: migrants, the contribution to the EU, optimising their own healthcare system once they leave the EU) to vote as they voted in June 2016. Namely aspiring to an imperial rekindling, unjustified but explainable at societal level through a history that would substantiate the pretention of exceptionalism that exists today too at the level of the middle-age and senior generations, but that is absent or about to disappear among young generations, as the recent defeat registered by Premier Theresa May on 8 June 2017 has demonstrated.

For some of the opinions on the cancelling of Brexit, the main argument that must be defeated for a second referendum is the democratic one. How could one annul a democratic decision via another consultation held so soon (not even 4-7 years as the distance between legislative and presidential elections in democratic states, when the change of opinion is accepted)? “There is a violent nationalist fringe in Britain that could be stirred up by an effort to reverse Brexit,” G. Rachman believes. But he also gives the answer: “But if Brexit is stopped, it will be through a lawful, democratic process, not a coup d’état. And no law-governed society should allow itself to be intimidated by the threat of violence.

The comments posted on the already mentioned articles – hence reflecting public opinion orientations – embrace the supposition that Brexit can be repealed as a result of a democratic process, but state – as very many readers do – that in 2015 only 15 million voted in favour of a “leave or remain” referendum, while the vast majority did not deem this necessary. Here is what one of them is saying: “As for the rest of us, the other 50 million, no problem at all. We didn’t ask for this referendum. It was forced upon us. Therefore we do not need to feel bound by it.” At the same time, other readers believe it would be more appropriate for the UK to change its entire political system, adopting a written constitution that would clearly spell out the limits of democratic expression, hence shielded from customary influences that give the upper hand to a political establishment somewhat aloof from a majority arithmetical calculus of voters’ preferences, the reform of the voting system, the abolishment of the House of Lords as a relic of an outdated past or a comprehensive political-administrative devolution of regions.

The result of this debate that has started in the UK will be not so much a referendum, because this country will remain somehow linked to Europe, just as before, as it has been for an entire long history, which is reflected in London’s apprehension toward a European military force detached from NATO. It will rather be a reformation of its own political system, which will mark a much-awaited enriching of the general democratic system, corresponding to a complex era and a future that everyone desires to be transparent and especially predictable. It would be a historic and beneficial consequence of the Brexit that is about to be abandoned by the United Kingdom.

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