Brexit and EU failure

By Lorenzo

The 52%-48% win for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum has already been framed many ways, but what should be an obvious one (though for many it will not be) is how much of a failure for the EU this represents.

In June 1975, a deeply divided Labour Government held a referendum on the UK’s membership (then 2 years old) in the European Community (EC) as it then was (known colloquially as “the Common Market”). The then recently installed Conservative Opposition Leader, Margaret Thatcher, campaigned strongly for the UK’s membership. The UK electorate voted decisively for membership, 67% to 33% with a 65% voter turnout.

In June 2016, a deeply divided Conservative Government holds a referendum on the UK’s membership of what is now the European Union, the UK now having been a member of its various incarnations for 43 years.  The recently installed Labour Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, campaigns (perhaps somewhat tepidly) for the UK’s continued membership. The UK electorate votes narrowly for leaving, 52% to 48% with a 72% turnout.

If one ignores the sort of special pleading which, for example, suggests the 1975 UK electorate was terribly wise and the 2016 UK electorate deeply stupid, then 41 years of further experience of the EU had shifted the opinion of the British electorate by 19 percentage points against the EU. That is a considerable shift in opinion.

The EU of 2016 does, and aspires to do, far more than the EC of 1975 did: clearly, more is, in fact, less; at least in terms of inspiring popular support and confidence–quite a lot less. Though that large shift in opinion will be treated as a failure of the electorate, not of the glorious European project, by many of the Great and Good who supported EU membership. Which, of course, will be an indicator of precisely why that shift in opinion has taken place. Significant majorities in provincial England and Wales has discerned that the European Project has become deeply intertwined with a deep contempt for folk like them and they have given the finger in return.

It is worth remembering that many of the same Great and Good who took the UK’s continued membership of the EU as the only proper policy were the same folk who thought it desperately important that the UK join the Euro. They were wrong on that: they will be wrong on this, and for the same reasons.

It is true that the narrowness of the result, and that Northern Ireland and Scotland voted strongly to stay in the EU, could presage problems ahead for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That immigrants seem to have voted strongly for Remain is perhaps another point of pressure. If, however, after a likely somewhat rocky transition period, the UK actually prospers, particularly relative to the EU, then the divisions will likely fade.

An outcome I am reasonably confident will occur. The reason for my confidence in this is quite simple: the UK has voted to improve the accountability of its institutions. The democratic deficit of the EU has given it a much less accountable governing structure which will continue to produce policies which reflect that lower accountability. Particularly as the EU tries to do too much with too little commonality between its societies and economies.

 The Euro has been a serial disaster because it is emblematic of all these problems — too little accountability, trying to do too much across insufficient commonality. Even just in economic terms, as Paul Krugman’s rather nice paper The Revenge of the Optimal Currency Area (pdf) points out. Nor is Britain the only EU country where popular approval of the EU is problematic.

Whatever political calculations may have been involved, David Cameron PM is to be congratulated for giving the British people a clear say on such an important issue. It is regrettable that it has also ended his Premiership, but given that the Tory electorate voted so very strongly for Brexit, and given the contestable intricacies involved in negotiating Britain’s leaving of the EU, and the difficulties of the transition, it is understandable that he has decided he is not the person who should be leading either Britain or the Conservative Party through what is to come.

We live in a time of elite echo chambers and a plethora of techniques for discounting (indeed, treating with contempt) the concerns and language of ordinary folk. So it is unlikely that many who really should will see how much a failure and condemnation of what the EU has become this result is. But that is precisely what it is.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. conrad
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    That’s a bit harsh — the EU has provided a lot of common good across a number of domains, although I agree it clearly has problems (but what large institutions don’t?). It also makes a worthwhile and significant entity vs. the US and China which clearly individuals states don’t. So whilst I can see a lot of bad in the EU (especially how it is run now), there is a lot of good too.

    Also, I doubt the UK will end because of this, but if the rocky transition takes years, leads to a recession etc. then clearly a lot of people will be affected. Similarly, if Scotland leaves (seems likely), presumably a lot of the banking etc. will just move up there (or to wherever, like the Netherlands). This might not be significant in places which are not so reliant on banking as a major industry, but it is for the UK.

  2. simon hamer
    Posted June 26, 2016 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Quite a balanced article.

    While, many voting for Brexit may now regret it. There’s a part of the UK psychy that does not allow us to be controlled by outside third un-elected parties.

    I’m a sad person today, but when I look at the youth unemployment in many of the EU countries, I still think there must be better options for the future than the EU.

    Time will tell

    Scotland would have voted to be in the Euro – good luck with that – as they say. They forget they joined the UK, when we bailed them out of bankruptcy about 3 centuries ago – looks like they will heading back there.

  3. Posted June 26, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Yes, I agree that the Common Market aspect of the EU is and was a good idea. And the “you have to be a democracy to be a member” is an excellent idea.

    The “harmonizing” centralising, the Euro, and the “changing migrant rules without consultation”, not so much.

    I suspect the transition will be much less rocky than people are fearing. Partly because a lot of the EU countries are themselves invested in British access–hence the big drops in European stock markets on fears of that being blocked.

    As for the Netherlands, the Freedom Party is polling well and its leader, Geert Wilders, has taken up the idea of a Nexit referendum.

  4. Moataz
    Posted June 26, 2016 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    don’t forget the anti-science streak in the EU as well

  5. conrad
    Posted June 27, 2016 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I agree on your 3 bad ideas — although the Euro is great as a tourist, but we’re not exactly the biggest concern! I am more pessimistic about how well the transition will work, but this will really be only solved empirically.

  6. Posted June 27, 2016 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Simon [email protected] Thank you. (It has been pointed out that current fiscal arrangements gives Scotland a bit of a false view of the costs of independence.)

    Moa[email protected] Regulation can have a stifling effect–particularly, poorly accountable regulation.

    [email protected] Quite.

  7. Nigel Davies
    Posted June 28, 2016 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    The ideal of the European Union as a free trade organisation was destroyed by the Euro, and the German control of it. That is the key element to all the depressions in the several countries that should never have joined the Euro in the first place. All these countries – Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc – will eventually have to leave the Euroo, if not the Union to rebuild their economies.

    (As a side point, those idiot firms thinking about fleeing London for ‘economic security’ will be fleeing back to London within a couple of years as the Euro area collapse speeds up.)

    But the Union itself was destroyed when Angela Merkel unilaterally destroyed its borders last year. Everything since, and still to come, is just catch up.

    I have said for almost 15 years now “the third attempt in a century by Germany to conquer Europe might not work out anyt better than the previous two”.

  8. Posted June 29, 2016 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Nigel [email protected] Could also be called “imperial over-reach”.

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