Brexit: A Wake-Up Call for All Liberals and a True Challenge For Europe’s Values and Security

A Sham of Democracy

Quite everything has already been said about June 23rd referendum: Cameron’s dangerous game and hence overwhelming responsibility on Brexit, disinformation campaign led by Boris Johnson, Farage, Murdoch’s press, and other naughty tabloids, the difficulty for the Remain advocates to make heard rational arguments, the very narrow-mindedness of many arguments turning sometimes a blind-eye to Brexit’s worldwide consequences, and of course the rise of populism and poisonous hatred that the referendum discloses. One often rightly speaks now of post-truth democracy: we really are in.

The classical idea of democracy was based on truth, enlightenment, fair debates, and trustable information. What we deplored those last months in the UK was nothing of all that, but lies, magical thinking, unworthy discussion from leave camp, and disinformation. The merry mess that we are witnessing after Brexit is nothing else that the consequences of this wave on lies. Everyone yet knows that it will be a real catastrophe for British economy, political stability, and opportunities for students and scholars, and that it will raise hard constitutional debates, especially since Scotland officially intends to remain in the EU, and North Ireland’s future is uncertain.

On this debate, the elites and the people have been equally wrong. Obviously, a part of the conservative elites, and some of the Labour Party as well, compromised with populist instincts, and Cameron himself, while launching the referendum for pure political purposes, undermines the parliamentary democracy in the UK. He feigned to think that a very complex issue could be decided through a referendum, and hence he opened the Pandora box of hatred and resentment. Let’s also add that the EU leaders have also left many people in disarray: while not promoting European values, not recalling fabulous EU assets, and what would have been the cost of a “non-Europe”, whereas not putting in the agenda the prospect for the Europe’s future and not answering claims for jobs, but also security, both domestic and international, they didn’t engage a trustable and sincere discussion with the citizens on their claims and yearnings. In focusing in on constraints more than on opportunities, on technical commitments rather than on the big picture, they didn’t advocate for Europe, and they sow what they reap. Nevertheless, in a democracy, people are also responsible for what they did. The voters are supposed to be informed, balanced, and thoughtful. Most of them were not. The rise of far right and radical left in many countries shows, to say the least, a true educational issue in Western countries that have sacrificed the “humanities”, i.e. teaching on history, literature, and philosophy. The Brexit must be a wake-up call on the closing mind of many parts of the electorate. Those are urgent lessons for all the European countries and for the US as well.

How the EU dealt with Brexit?

After hard negotiations, before and during the EU Council, the stances, that were initially rather divergent, successfully united and the EU council agreed on a common and clear statement. First of all, there cannot be negotiation before the UK triggers the article 50 of the Treaty. Secondly, the future relationships with the UK cannot be based on the sole aspect of the free access to the market. The “four liberties” (free circulation of capital, goods, services, and people) cannot be split at any country’s convenience. None of them can only pick-up one or two of them and let the others apart. Thirdly, the EU member states consider that 1) the leave process shall be as quick as possible in order not to create uncertainties that would lead to instability; 2) the decision of the British people is irrevocable.

Obviously, many people in the “remain” camp do not feel very comfortable with this situation. Some of them still expect that either the British parliament would not trigger the article 50 –which is its competence‑ or that new elections could offer revenge to the Bremainers. Some also remark that the Scottish Parliament could block the article 50 process. Whatever it could be, those perspectives remain uncertain and too long hesitations could furthermore jeopardize the British economy –and Europe’s too.

Moreover from an European perspective, the most important is to prevent snowballs effects on other countries which could be encouraged to foster referendums. If it appears that Brexit has no damaging consequences and true effects, they could be tempted to organize them with the idea that they don’t have a serious and binding impact and they could be reversible.

Last but not least, if the EU countries waste too much time in organizing the UK exit, they wouldn’t have sufficient margins of maneuver to think about the future and to launch new perspectives for Europe, which is at the end of the day the only way to prevent turmoil and further damages on the EU project. It could explain why the EU leaders, especially Angela Merkel and François Hollande, who also have both a constraining political agenda because of the forthcoming 2017 elections, are in a hurry. The organization of EU leaders’ meeting in Bratislava in September is a strong indication of their commitment to immediately take action after the Brexit disaster.

Is the EU’s Future Endangered?

All the European leaders perfectly know that EU’s very future is at stake. Europe can die or split. It could suffer in many countries strong criticisms that could undermine its legitimacy. They are aware of the necessity to redefine a new substantial project for Europe for the decades to come. Of course, many ideas are right now on the table, and there obviously are diverging views among the EU member states. But all know that they shall address the real citizens’ concerns but also offer a comprehensive view of what Europe is for.

The immediate concerns are jobs’ creation, Europe’s competitiveness, and its ability to confront other countries’ sharp competition. They shall belie the idea that Europe is a continent doomed to decline because of the rise of South-East Asia. The citizens shall also be confident that European countries, through a better cooperation, are more able together than alone to fight against terrorism. However, pragmatism and daily politics are not sufficient to deal successfully with Euro-Skepticism and to meet long term yearnings that are all about values and Europe’s place on the world stage. The rise of illiberalism within European countries and at its borders is the most worrying threat that Europe is confronting now, even more than terrorism. When it comes to refugees’ crisis, Europe should be able both to organize the integration within European countries and to be faithful to its basic values. It has also to be outspoken about its security: Russia’s threat is the main threat on the long run that Europe is confronting now, and if it shows its inability to secure Ukraine’s integrity, it would be signing its own death. It is both about values and security, which are fully intertwined. If Europe is not able to address this deadly question, it would lose its soul, its basic principles, and its very credibility in the world. Europe should be both a trustable power and an unique area because of the values –human rights, liberty, international law‑ it stands for. Hence, it has to show that Europe’s integration, through enlargement process, is still going on. From this point of view, the way European leaders will behave in the next NATO summit in Warsaw could be too a good indication about its commitment to address this goal.

Nicolas Tenzer - Chairman of the Paris-based Centre for Study and Research for Political Decision (CERAP), editor of the journal Le Banquet, author of three official reports to the government, including two on international strategy, and of 21 books, including France: The Impossible Reform? (in French), Paris: Flammarion, 2004; Shall We Save Liberalism? (with M. Canto-Sperber) (in French), Paris: Grasset, 2006; When France Disappears From the World (in French), Paris: Grasset, 2008 and 2013; The Word in 2030. The Rule and The Disorder (in French), Paris: Perrin, 2011; and France Needs Others (in French), Paris: Plon, 2012.