By Roberto Savio*
ROME, Jun 2016 (IPS) – Allow me a rare personal anecdote. In 1965 I met Lord Hume, who had just left the post of Prime Minister and we had a mutual sympathy. Lord Hume invited me for lunch at the Chamber of Lords. Over an extremely delicious rump of Scottish lamb, I asked if I was allowed to ask a complex question. I explained that I had started my professional career as a Kremlinologist, which had served me well in following British foreign policy. One day London was looking to Europe as its compass, and another day, to Washington. All this on the basis of small signals, difficult to detect. Could his Lordship explain to me how to address this dualism?
Lord Hume’s answer was that only a British citizen could understand the dualism, and therefore, I should try to be British for five minutes. Then he asked me “Dear fellow citizen, do you prefer to be second to Germany or second to the United States?”
That dualism explains why the British, more than other Europeans, have looked on in dismay at the decline of Europe in the international scene, and the pivot of President Obama who has made Asia his priority. Obama’s exhortation against Brexit in his last visit to London, stirred considerable debate. Boris Johnson, the most visible proponent of Brexit,even said that Obama, having been born of a Kenyan father, is not qualified to advise the UK.
But Brexit is only the insular British version of the current world’s implosion under fear and greed. Any debate in the referendum on Europe’s vision or values or identity is simply non-existent. In England the debate is fear against greed. The Brexit camp has launched a campaign based on fear. Fear of immigrants, fear of losing control of its borders, fear of being subject to the whims of Brussels (widely seen as those of Merkel, therefore of Germany). Contrary to any reality, the Brexit campaign is now about the threats of 70 million Turks able to enter Great Britain and rape women. The fact that there is no chance that Turkey will join the EU in the foreseeable future, is ignored. Dominic Raab, the justice minister who is backing Brexit said “ There is more evidence on how EU membership makes us less safe. This puts British families at risk”. The British tabloids have launched an unbelievable campaign. Britons could lose control of their coastline. Their country could be merged with France. And Brussels Is going to veto the use of the kettle, the indispensible instrument for the daily tea. One recent study found that of 982 articles focused on the referendum, 45% were about leaving, and only 27% in favor of staying. Boris Johnson, who has written in two books how it is important for the UK to be part of Europe, and boasted of his family’s Turkish ancestry, has now jumped on the Leave camp, with the clear aim of replacing Cameron as Prime Minister, where the current one will have to resign after losing the referendum. Cameron was the inventor of this referendum, so his destiny is linked to it. The fear campaign runs the same arguments and rhetoric of Trump, Le Pen, Salvini, Wilders, who are all supporting Brexit. It has no specific British flair.
If fear is the argument to “Leave Europe”, greed is for the Stay in Europe camp. In fact, it is also a fear campaign. But it does not talk of safety, borders and immigrants. It talks about money. How much money Great Britain would loose if excluded by the common market ( Wolfgang Schauble,the German Minister of Finance, has declared that there would be no way that London would have special arrangements like Norway). Cameron made a speech about the crisis of pensions for its citizens. The financial sector, companies and the economic sector have all been financing the Stay campaign, indicating the economic damage it would entail to leave Europe. Cameron has got the international economic system, from the IMF to the World Bank, from the OECD to the G7, demonstrating how Brexit would damage not only Britain, but also all of Europe and the global economy. But the damage would be in any event, much greater for Britain.
The problem is that those arguments do not go far with the Brexit people. Like supporters for Trump, Le Pen and so on, polls show that they are the ones who feel neglected and left out, who are fearful about their families and their jobs, and have lower level of education and incomes.
According to YouGov, the polling group, the Remain campaign’s strongest geographical area of support remains Northern Ireland, which receives large amounts of financial aid, and Scotland and London, two rich regions. The more you move to the less prosperous regions, like East Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside, or areas of large immigration, like East Anglia, the more you find support for Brexit. And age groups confirm this also. Over 60, less educated, the large majority is for Brexit. And those under 25 think the opposite. The memory of the Second World War, and thus, the main reason for European integration, was to avoid new wars ravaging Europe, has now gone.
It is impossible to say who is going to win. The two camps are so close, that every poll brings different and contradictory results. And during my recent visit, I was impressed by how the fear campaign was having success. Nobody would listen to the evidence: The Turks were coming.
There is no doubt that Brexit will accelerate the process of disintegration of Europe. Next year there are elections in France and Germany, and Le Pen is now poised to win. The right-wing populist, nationalist and xenophobe parties are growing. Just look at the Italian elections, where the 5 Star movement is heading towards phenomenal increase. Nigel Farage, the UKIP anti-Europe leader, has just declared to the Italian newspaper “Corriere della Sera”, that Beppe Grillo and he are going to bury Europe. Poland and Hungary will be happy to continue in their nationalist path, and so will Eastern Europe. The Nordic countries will be tempted to follow Norway: not inside the EU, but with a special agreement for trade and finance.
Scotland and Northern Ireland have considerable interest remaining in Europe so it is generally considered that they will probably detach from England, to be re-admitted into the EU. The lack of an active campaign by the PM of Scotland, Nicola Surgeon, has been interpreted as a Machiavellian manoeuvre to have Brexit win, and be able to call for a new independence referendum. That will be the end of the United Kingdom, and England would lose its main historical conquests. Only small Wales would remain, to save the phrase “United Kingdom”.
There is no doubt that England will seriously suffer. To be cut out from a market of 500 million people will have serious consequences for its crucial financial sector, and many international companies will probably move out of London to remain inside Europe (Edinburgh is a serious candidate). And a diminished England will have much less international weight, starting with the United States.
What then is the positive side of Brexit? While I do not see any for Britain or Europe, this could have a great influence on the tide of history. It could give birth to a new Europe, much more homogenous, formed by what could be called the Carolingian Europe. Charles the Great, in the 8th century, was able to unify most of Europe, and made France and Germany the basis of the kingdom. As Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, he also brought the south of Europe into the Empire. That Empire was based on the values of Christianity, with the strong support of the Pope. This new Europe will have to discuss foundational values to be viable, beyond its economic basis. And the errors made during this present version of “Europe”, will have to be discussed and avoided in the new one. Eventually it could become attractive to those who have left, who will have mean while found out that integration is a crucial issue in our globalized world.
But more relevant, the turmoil and decline of England after Brexit, will be a extraordinarily message to other European countries. It will show that populism, nationalism and xenophobia, that the European integration was supposed to consign to the dustbin of history, can be useful tools for winning an election, but not to run a country. The England of the past will never come back, and reality will creep in. When England invaded China, to oblige its citizens to buy opium from the British Empire, there were 30 million British, and 323 million Chinese. Today Britain has over 60 million people, immigrants included, and China 1.374 millions. England was supposed to be a cradle of democracy. If a campaign of fear can win in a supposedly civilized country, it means more education must be done for a vibrant democracy.
There is only one problem in this scenario of hopeful thinking, and it is the Germany to which Lord Hume was referring 50 years ago. His dominant Germany, from which the only way to be free was to become second to the US, will be in place and more reinforced by the end of the Great Kingdom, and the exit of Poland and other countries. Today’s Germany is not the Germany of Bonn, cofounder of Europe, with European statesman like Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohll, placing Europe at the top of their priorities. Today’s Germany Is the Germany of Berlin, with politicians basically intent to achieving German priorities. They will have to solve a fundamental problem: they want to run or do they want to integrate? And Brexit would have the advantage of also bringing this issue to the fore..
*Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News.