Summary: An essay-style commentary on the five key lessons to be learnt from the United Kingdom’s referendum on its EU membership on 23 June, which resulted in 52% of the country voting to leave the European Union. Chronicles the chaos engulfing British politics, the strategy (or lack thereof) of European political leaders, as well as the question how the campaign went so wrong for David Cameron and the Remain side. Finally, a word about the idea of being a citizen.
It’s Wednesday now. The event that had been so confidently (and carelessly) discounted by so many came about precisely 13 days ago, shortly at 4:40am British Standard Time when veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby announced that the British people had voted to reverse the original decision to remain in the Common Market (the EU’s previous iteration during the 1975 national referendum) – and therefore severed the United Kingdom’s erstwhile relations to the rest of the continent.
Even now, looking at it several days later, it feels like a chilling moment. But this is not just because I supported Remain (as did the overwhelming majority of my UK friends, it appears), but because it was the sad confirmation that the United Kingdom – a country preferring the proverbial stiff upper lip over the flashy, the gimmicky, the pretentious – had fallen for the ultimate political coup. The Leave campaign had been marked by a remarkable extent of negativity and, with the passage of time during the run-up to the EU referendum, vitriol and a disdain for facts.
Can it get worse? Yes, it can. There are a few lessons we need to learn, and for once I shall succumb to the temptation to give you a multi-point list
1.Leave has no plan
When the victory of the Leave campaign began becoming clear, there was widespread shock among Remain supporters. I had gone to bed late on Thursday night, with Sunderland (a solid Labour constituency in general elections) and Newcastle (which only delivered a narrow Remain victory) being the first harbingers of the historic night that did not go according to many people’s expectations. Including, tragically, of many Leave supporters, it would appear. When I awoke on Friday morning, I had received a flurry of notifications on my cellphone: they were breaking news notifications stating that the United Kingdom had decided to withdraw from the European Union   . Messages from many of my British friends had also come in, and they were primarily dismayed, concerned and genuinely upset. Proceeding to the TV, I switched on BBC World and saw the confirmation: “UK votes Leave”. Frantic discussions followed with my friends over the next few hours, and it seems that these discussions were mirrored in London, Brussels and elsewhere.
Now, one would think that the Leave campaign (many of whose pillars of strength cut their teeth in the cause of opposing Europe since the Maastricht Treaty) would be celebrating their victory and start making preparations for the day after. Usually, election victories feature carefully stage-managed photo opportunities finely tailored to reflect a properly crafted message. But as the pound sterling     , the FTSE 100 and the European stock markets began crashing      (whilst gold was rising) in the immediate aftermath of the television channels announcing the Leave victory, the only recognizable face (other than that of soft-spoken, but still driven British MEP Daniel Hannan on the BBC’s panel) from that camp was that of Nigel Farage, the firebrand leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party.
Not ashamed to take the credit for the referendum and its outcome, Farage (whose entire career was built on conducting a particularly perfidious brand of ethnic-nationalist dog-whistle politics) talked about “Independence Day” and predicting impending doom for the European Union. His remarks, ungracious and unstatesmanlike as they were, also revealed a skilful demagogue   who had finally gotten what he wanted, but seemed out of his depth once the grand moment arrived.
But as the Prime Minister resigned, the governor of the Bank of England (Mark Carney, who had done a stellar job     as the head of the Bank of Canada; for a more critical appraisal, see here and here) became a household name    across the world and statements from governments across Europe started arriving. However, in the ensuing chaos of the hours ahead, we didn’t hear from one side. The frontmen of the Vote Leave campaign, former London Mayor Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. When they did appear before the press, they sounded remarkably subdued, chastened almost. Had the BBC not provided any graphics, one could have been mistaken to think that Messrs Johnson and Gove had just been defeated by a landslide. Both of them gave vague speeches somewhat insincerely praising David Cameron (the man they helped bring down), rejoicing in the “glorious opportunity” of Brexit, but offering nothing by way of concrete plans how they wished to proceed.
In the days ahead, it became clearer that the Leave campaign had no plan    [4: for a story about how the Vote Leave campaign has erased some of the claims from its website after the referendum]  for the event that they would win. To be fair, one could have seen some of that coming: It also had no plan for an alternative economic arrangement, no concrete ideas on the subject of immigration, no answers regarding the inherent contradiction of wishing to retain access to the EEA Single Market without accepting the freedom of movement of EU nationals. Victory didn’t change that, it only made the lack of any vision palpable. And as if that were not enough, the Leave campaign’s stalwarts ended up falling out over the Conservative Party leadership – a fallout which led to Boris Johnson not running for the prospect of being David Cameron’s successor as Prime Minister  .
Meanwhile, the pound sterling fell to historic lows, the stock markets tumbled (and even their recovery since then is far from structurally sound), the United Kingdom’s erstwhile excellent credit rating was downgraded    by the ratings agencies (therefore making public debt borrowing by the UK Government much more expensive), assets worth $1 trillion were wiped out, the EU27 came together to oppose any withdrawal deal that would exclude free movement of people, the German Confederation of Business pushed back against claims by the Leave camp, the Chancellor (in line with his, admittedly, ferocious warnings) announced a new series of tax rises and further spending cuts, the Scottish First Minister announced that she would initiate the legislative process towards a second independence referendum (with secessionist sentiment rising), Spain staked a claim of co-sovereignty over Gibraltar, the White House maintained that President Obama stood by his comments   about Britain being at the back of the queue  and many companies announced that they were moving jobs  out or were actively considering the possibility (which is code for “we will do it after a grace period, and upon having let the dust of the referendum settle”).
What is even more troubling is that the referendum appears to have encouraged perpetrators of racial hatred to come out of the woodwork – a range of British citizens from ethnic minorities, EU nationals and Commonwealth citizens reported being told to “get out” or “go home, we voted to leave”. Despite the fact that they themselves prepared their supporters for the possibility of the referendum being rigged (whether through an extended registration period or, in one of the more scurrilous conspiracy theories out there, a plot by Britain’s domestic intelligence service, MI5), upon actually winning the referendum, Leave supporters began incessant pleas on social media and via their official spokesmen for unity, which began to ring increasingly hollow in light of the divisions across the United Kingdom – with generations, families and citizens no longer recognizing each other’s political views.
Ironically, the one politician who does seem to have a clear plan extending beyond lunchtime is Nicola Sturgeon – Scotland’s First Minister, and the woman who is most likely to get her ultimate wish: Scottish independence.
2. It’s time Europe got the message: More Europe isn’t the solution. It’s the problem.
During the referendum campaign, the Leave advocates had two favourite targets for everything that was wrong with Brussels: Jean-Claude Juncker    , the President of the European Commission, and Martin Schulz  , the Speaker of the European Parliament. Much of the portrayal of those two gentlemen was exaggerated and amounted to caricaturing them as devious pantomime villains. However, their reaction to the results of the national referendum revealed their political and diplomatic skills to be completely inappropriate and incommensurate to the needs of the moment. Instead of acknowledging the results of the vote in the United Kingdom in a dignified manner and expressing their sincere respect for the choice made by British voters, they demanded the immediate invocation of the rather vague Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, the withdrawal clause to be used by a Member State wishing to leave the European Union (for a comprehensive and well-researched explanation by the politically non-partisan House of Commons Library see here). Meanwhile, there has emerged an interesting constitutonal debate about whether Parliament would need to be involved in the invocation of Article 50 (see  and  as examples of contributions arguing for parliamentary approval preceding notification of withdrawal according to Article 50; see  and  for the argument that the Prime Minister can exercise this prerogative without involving Parliament; finally see here for the likely legal effects of withdrawal).
However, these demands had no basis in EU law, especially as Article 50 does not define three things: namely a legally, constitutionally or politically relevant event or events that could trigger/could be plausibly seen as triggering Article 50, a minimum period within which the Article has to be triggered by a state, or providing the option of the remainder of the European Council (the forum of all EU heads of state and government setting the political direction for the Union) formally triggering the Article 50 mechanism. Thus, the legal position (as it stands now) is quite simple: It is for the United Kingdom to notify withdrawal at a time when it is ready – not when it’s convenient for the remaining Member States (see also this briefing by the European Parliament’s Research Service, page 3).
Considering this clear position in EU law, later confirmed by an EU official, Juncker and Schulz came across as ignorant of the EU Treaties at best, and bullying at worst. Privately, Mr Schulz is entitled to his opinion, but in his capacity as a speaker of the European Parliament, he is supposed to be a neutral arbiter over meetings of the European Parliament – not an enforcer of his version of European integration. His recent comments proposing a European government come across as brazenly tone-deaf and play right into the hands of Eurosceptics concerned about a loss of sovereignty (for a summary of the interview conducted in German, see here).
Immediately prior to the vote, before the result was even known, the European Commission had started to deliberately minimize the use of English, despite the fact that it is the continent’s lingua franca – and the United Kingdom legally remains a member of the European Union until a withdrawal agreement takes effect. To be fair, this particular issue seems to have been resolved, as any amendments to the language regime of the EU need to be agreed upon by ALL member States.
Even leaving the legality of such efforts aside, the claim that English, the most widely understood language across the EU and the language of commerce, law and diplomacy across the world (besides also being an official language in Ireland and Cyprus) could be eliminated came from, the irony, the chairperson of the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament – think of this what you wish. These measures have apparently been speeded up now – and it is likely that British officials at the EU Institutions will be sidelined. The United Kingdom has not even triggered Article 50 yet, and the referendum was not legally binding, but some European Union leaders are already looking like they couldn’t wait to show the British the door. Yes, some federalists will possibly say: “Well, the British made their bed – and now they have to sleep in it”. Technically, this may very well be true – and their disappointment is somewhat understandable. That said, this level of vindictiveness towards the United Kingdom reflects poorly on the European Union, and only serves to confirm the worst prejudices of Eurosceptics about “Brussels” bullying Member States to do its bidding.
It appears that Chancellor Merkel’s closest confidants are also beginning to have severe doubts about Mr Juncker’s long-term viability as Commission President  . Given the realities on the ground and popular sentiment, Germany would certainly be well-advised to push for a new Commission President who is a true centrist, an excellent communicator and able to engage the growing public scepticism of big initiatives from Brussels. One man for the job? Frans Timmermans, the former Dutch foreign minister and current Vice President of the Commission – the appointment of a Commission President from the Eurosceptic Netherlands, possibly the location of a “Nexit” referendum on EU membership, would be a signal that the threat from the Eurosceptic camp is being acknowledged and seen as a priority.
The aggressive tone adopted by Schulz & Juncker (which was thankfully not reflected by the much more measured President of the European Council, Donald Tusk) was compounded by their resort to the standard response of EU political leaders: “More Europe”. Even during the campaign, there were a number of statements coming out of Brussels, but also from French politicians  , which could easily be interpreted as perceiving the United Kingdom as an unwanted member which was merely holding up the ambitions of federalist European politicians. In the immediate aftermath, with (once again) the notable exception of Donald Tusk, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, none of the leaders concerned paused to reflect carefully and honestly about the reasons behind most British voters choosing to leave the European Union.
Even before the UK’s referendum, the (first) Austrian presidential election, a series of legislative assembly elections across Germany, the Dutch Ukraine/EU Association Agreement referendum, the severe gains by the Front National in the 2015 French regional elections, the gains of Eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament elections, the rise of resentment during the 2015/16 refugee crisis, the passions aroused during the Greek bailout crisis [some of which was wholeheartedly fuelled by many media outlets ] (and the rejection of EU terms in the 2015 bailout referendum) and a line of decisions right up to the French and Dutch rejection of the proposed European Constitution in 2005 already represented clear warning signs about the popular mood across our Continent. Most Europeans don’t wish to have further transfers of power in principle, and more importantly, without their direct consent. Instead of dismissing these signs as the noises made by the proverbial ignorant rabble, it is vital to take these indications seriously.
Responsible leaders should heed the message by taking a centrist, unsentimental, pragmatic path. Instead of elevating membership of a currency union to something sacrosanct, it is important to understand that the Eurozone can only work if the economies in that currency union are broadly similar in terms of structure and economic outlook   (unlike the divergence between national economies right now). The mandatory requirement for Member States to adopt the euro is ill thought-out, foolish and smacks of adherence to ideology (instead of economic realities). Countries that clearly cannot deal with the fiscal and economic requirements of being a Eurozone member need to be prevailed upon to leave, regardless of any short-term market adjustments – and be offered extensive transitional financial assistance to help them weather the switch to a new national currency or perhaps a split into a Northern and Southern Eurozone with separate sets of single currency.
That way, financially stable countries can forge ahead with a functioning currency union whilst permitting weaker economies within the EU to restore their sovereignty over fiscal affairs and chart their own economic course – with the consent of their electorates. Forcing countries like Spain, Portugal, Italy or Greece to stay in the Eurozone for fear of “the markets” or a misplaced sense of European manifest destiny has only caused resentment on all sides. Given the Leave campaign’s success, the tough requirements of the Eurozone are only prone to provide additional ammunition to Eurosceptics keen on undermining the cause of European cooperation. Ending the mandatory requirement to join the Euro would also enable members who don’t want to hand over control over their financial affairs to the European Union, but otherwise fulfil all other conditions of membership, to more easily join the EU.
Focusing On What Matters
The European Union needs to turn away from the idealist, but impractical objective of full political union. Most Europeans don’t want it , don’t possess the basic trust in the EU needed to make such initiatives feasible and don’t want such grand ambitions to supersede what the European Union must deal with: the facilitation of real social mobility, the establishment of a meritocratic (instead of a commercial) ethos in higher education and the move towards an innovative, green economy seizing the innovation opportunity that a challenge like climate change represents for European enterprise. Why should we wait for India and China to seize the future, when we already have the know-how, talent and ambition to get things done? Why should we leave the first Mars landing to the Americans or the discovery of the cure to cancer to the Russians, Japanese or South Koreans? These are the new, relevant challenges of a globalizing world. The winner of this competitive race will mould the 21st century in its image. Isn’t it time we Europeans aspired to much more than just being content, comfortable and retreating into our private lives? We can do better.
This moment in time requires a much more streamlined European Commission, a smaller and less expensive European Parliament and a much faster (and better-funded) European Court of Justice. We don’t need separate directorates-general for Enlargement, External Affairs and Humanitarian Aid at the European Commission. MEPs don’t need to be paid €98,000/year while most citizens in countries like Portugal, Spain, Greece and Italy barely get by with less than one-quarter of that. Like everyone else, MEPs and Commissioners should be responsible for making their own pension and healthcare arrangements. In a time in which many pensioners barely get by with €500-600/a month (if even that), surely that’s not too much to expect. Solidarity, an oft-misused term in European politics, must start right at the top.
Beware the Siren Calls from the Elysée
To the extent that the withdrawal negotiations with the United Kingdom are concerned, a pragmatic tone should be adopted. No, principle of the free movement of European Union citizens to work, travel, study and retire in another EEA country (and vice versa) should not be negotiable – at least not until such a stage that the EU itself comes to the realization that emergency brakes in case of major movements across its borders may be required. However, the EU member states may wish to think about suspending Schengen for third-country nationals, returning to national visa systems and the grant of visas by the Member States for their own territories only, rather than the entire Schengen zone. Cooler heads need to prevail in the Brexit negotiations: The likes of President Hollande of France have adopted a hardline position towards Britain, which is cheered on by pro-Europeans of the philosophically federalist persuasion.
The problem with this approach is multifold: It makes Mr Hollande look increasingly desperate (rather than strong), especially as a brief look at the opinion polls in France reveals his historically low approval ratings , coupled with the high likelihood that his own Socialist Party will not re-nominate him for a second term  and that even if that were to happen, he would be soundly beaten in the presidential elections by either Alain Juppé (the most likely mainstream centre-right candidate)    or Marine Le Pen (the leader of France’s far-right National Front). Oh, and that doesn’t consider the fact that Emmanuel Macron, Mr Hollande’s own 38-year-old Minister of Economics, has emerged as a real threat. Chancellor Merkel would be well-advised to not align her strategy concerning the United Kingdom to that of a political leader clearly on his own way out of the Elysée.
Besides, it is time that Berlin began to broaden the basis of its European Union strategy beyond the traditionally fruitful (though not under Mr Hollande) Franco-German alliance. What about closer ties with the Benelux countries, (Eurosceptic) Poland and the Scandinavian countries? They too should be seen as valuable allies – and, once again, the German government would be properly counselled if it took this opportunity to consult with these countries before taking any hasty decisions regarding Brexit or the future constitutional implications for the European Union.
Equally, the likely change of government in France will also lead to a calmer predisposition towards Britain. That said, unless the British government withdraws its notification (for example, after a change of government outlined above), “Out” does indeed mean “Out”. No concessions should be made, and no special statuses should be created to build a bridge towards the Leave camp. Instead, the tone should be businesslike and fully deploying the EU’s transactional leverage in negotiations in such a manner that the 48% who voted for Remain will not be completely repulsed by the attitude of EU leaders. In order to secure that, hardliners like Juncker, Schulz and Hollande will have to be reined in. This should indeed be the hour of pragmatists like Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte instead.
3. Don’t blame direct democracy – blame Cameron and Corbyn
Whenever there is a national referendum that does not produced an expected or preferred outcome for Europhile policies, observers tend to cast the blame on the very idea of direct democracy itself – essentially implying that the people were too stupid and utterly incapable of grasping the sheer complexities of European Union workings. So it was here as well.
But that’s a facile approach to take. Whilst it is true that the United Kingdom is a country whose government is based on the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, there was a precedent for a national referendum on an EU-related issues – namely, the 1975 referendum on UK’s membership of the European Economic Community, when British voters confirmed then-Prime Minister Ted Heath’s decision to take the country into the Common Market, by a margin of 2 to 1. In addition, the populist complaint about “the people” being too dim-witted is belied by facts: Since 1973, there have been 54 referendums on EEC/EU-related issues: of these 40 (74%) had a pro-European outcome – interestingly, this figure includes votes on EU membership, freedom of movement and Schengen referendums in Eurosceptic Switzerland, as well as the ratification of various Treaties.
In other contexts, such as the independence referendums held in Scotland and Québec, there were turnouts in excess of 90% and decisions to retain the status quo (i.e. to preserve Confederation in Canada/the Union in the United Kingdom). The Northern Ireland referendum produced an overwhelming majority for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, across the religious communities and despite a decades-long history of strife between Catholics and Protestants. Therefore, don’t blame “the stupid public” (disagree as one might, and as I do, with the decision itself) – blame the framework conditions and the decisions that went along with the referendum. Let me explain.
1.) Cameron managed expectations terribly
When the story of the Remain side’s defeat in the national referendum on European Union will be written by observers of British politics, it will begin sometime in 2009. “Why 2009? David Cameron wasn’t even in office then!”, I hear some of you say. Correct, at the time, Mr Cameron was a hopeful for the prime ministership wishing to end the 12-year rule of the Labour Party under Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. However, there was one decision that Mr Cameron had to make in relation to European affairs in his late phase as Leader of the Opposition. One of the promises he had made during his 2005 leadership campaign was his pledge to take his increasingly Eurosceptic Conservative Party out of the classical centre-right European Peoples Party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament. Bear in mind that the EPP consists of mainstream centre-right parties like German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union pour la Majorité Populaire (since then renamed as Les Républicains), the Austrian People’s Party, the Christian Social People’s Party of then-Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, the People’s Party of subsequent Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, the Moderate Party of then-Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt of Sweden – and so on. Cameron, a man of his word to his Eurosceptic wing, and wishing to avoid a backbench rebellion in the year prior to the 2010 general election, made good on his promise and took the Conservative Party out of the EPP. In the process, he isolated the Conservatives from many centre-right leaders and ended up causing some unneeded antipathy.
Those chickens came home to roost later on: in May 2010, Cameron won a relative majority and formed a Conservative/Liberal coalition. Instead of using his first months to build much-needed alliances for the inevitable day when his dispute with his own Eurosceptics would come to a head, Cameron began to appear like a recalcitrant leader. He refused to give ground on negotiations regarding the treaty amendments to save the Euro concluded in the wake of the first tremors of the Eurozone crisis. His veto (which failed to get him concessions regarding the City of London and the proposed exclusion of the UK from a financial services tax) led to the Fiscal Compact being signed by all EU members except the UK and the Czech Republic – a stunning isolation from the majority of EU members.
He lost even more goodwill when he failed to support Jean-Claude Juncker, without even so much as proposing an alternative candidate himself and doing the hard work of rallying support for his position. In the end, in a spectacular showdown, Hungary was the only country to support Britain in its rejection of Juncker’s appointment as President of the European Commission   . Then, he threw a temper tantrum when Britain was asked to pay a supplementary bill of €2.1 billion in 2013 – generating all kinds of unfavourable headlines in the tabloid press, but coming to naught when the Prime Minister backed down and paid up. His 2013 Bloomberg speech (which formed the ideological underpinning for the 2016 referendum) was peppered with references to the greatness of Britain and the inefficiencies, real or alleged, of the Brussels behemoth in the Berlaymont. It is this type of freelancing and tone-deafness in European affairs that made him look selfish at best, and a dilettante in European affairs at worst. Mr Cameron’s downfall began on the day of his greatest triumph.
From Victory to Defeat
On 7 May 2015, on a sunny day, Mr Cameron and the Conservative Party were returned with a majority government  in the 2015 general election. Meanwhile, Cameron’s junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats (with a tradition of pro-Europe policies), were essentially wiped off the map for U-turns on tuition fees and spending cuts. All of a sudden, Mr Cameron found himself in the position to implement all of his party’s manifesto commitments – including the one pledge that had been included in the manifesto (against the advice of senior advisors) to attempt a renegotiation of the UK’s political status within the EU and then stage an In/Out referendum (page 72) on the country’s membership. The problem? Given the widespread expectation of yet another hung parliament after the 2015 general election, it was believed that even if David Cameron managed to steer the Tories to the status of the single largest party, he would still have to discard the referendum promise in talks about the continuation of the Conservative/Liberal coalition – the pledge was widely perceived as a tactical gamble to hold down the threat of the insurgent-populist United Kingdom Independence Party, led by former City commodities trader, longtime MEP and arch-Eurosceptic Nigel Farage. In the event, the decimation of the Liberal Democrats took care of that and helped Mr Cameron get a majority in the House of Commons.
A Good Deal, Badly Sold
After years of arguing against Brussels and being isolated on many decisions, Mr Cameron built the proposed renegotiations of the United Kingdom’s terms of membership into something of a do-or-die moment. In a time in which most European leaders were busy with the refugee crisis (in which the United Kingdom played a more than unhelpful role in many respects, taking in a bare trickle of Syrian refugees – again, a concession to the rising scepticism towards immigration in the country) and the recalcitrant Greek government’s penchant for fiscal brinksmanship, Mr Cameron’s attempt to negotiate a new deal for the United Kingdom was seen as an unnecessary distraction at best, and yet another British temper tantrum at worst. Though continental Europeans, especially of the federalist persuasion, are also guilty of arrogance and condescension towards the United Kingdom, Mr Cameron merely needs to look in the mirror if he is looking for a culprit for the mismanaged expectations.
When he went to Brussels, he had stoked so much hope and passion in his Eurosceptic MPs and the equally rabidly Eurosceptic press that he could only disappoint them. Chancellor Merkel’s steadfast (and in retrospect: unwise) refusal to even consider a modification of the free movement principle (which pre-Maastricht was, after all, primarily applicable to those already having a job or a place of study) laid waste to any serious ambition that may have been behind Cameron’s intent to renegotiate. Whilst as a result of the renegotiation, he was able to get a few interesting concessions, they did not really amount to much more than an affirmation of the UK’s special status within the EU, which already included:
- No adoption of the Euro
- No participation in Schengen
- No participation in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice
- The ability to suspend the application of pre-Lisbon home affairs & justice rules
- The right to carry out border controls on persons
The modest concessions included
- A limited emergency brake on benefit claims
- Limited concessions on child benefits
- Non-Euro countries not to be compelled to participate in further Eurozone bailouts
- Disapplication of the “ever closer union” objective of the Treaty on European Union in Britain’s case
The Road Not Taken
Overall, not a bad deal at all – and one that a communicatively adept Prime Minister could have sold to a sceptical public. However, it stands to reason that had Mr Cameron bothered to build durable, consistent relationships within the European Council – especially with the leaders of Germany, France, the Benelux and Scandinavian nations, as well as Poland and the Czech Republic – he could have certainly been able to count on additional goodwill during the rough-and-tumble of the renegotiation on the UK’s political status. Moreover, I feel that an important opportunity was lost when the renegotiation took place: it would have been way more convincing for Mr Cameron to not just “go it alone” in the expression of his parochial concerns.
Instead, he could have acted as a dynamic force to sway the Eurozone towards monetarist solutions, promote a fix for youth unemployment, a much stronger role for national parliaments in the legislative process or even the introduction of plebiscitary elements (for example, the introduction of continental referendums), or spoken out on the debate about Switzerland’s restriction on the freedom of movement of EU citizens.
He could have advocated an intelligent solution to the free trade debate – for example by proposing that EU states should be able to go ahead with their own free trade negotiations with countries with which the EU does not happen to have an FTA. Many imaginative policy approaches could have been prepared by capable civil servants in Whitehall, and be sold by Cameron – a salesman par excellence. In fact, Mr Cameron could have sparked a much-needed, serious and substantive discussion about the democracy deficit in the EU’s political institutions (which, predictably, turned out to be one of the Leave campaign’s primary complaints).
Unfortunately, Mr Cameron had developed no such strategic instincts during his time as Prime Minister. Despite his communicative skills, he could not call on the relationships needed to see him through what anyone could have predicted to be a difficult circumnavigation of divergent national interests – especially given the fact that the United Kingdom had already received many opt-outs under prime ministers starting with Margaret Thatcher. If you behave like an outsider, chances are that others will treat you that way. A lesson to learn for any future head of government who might need to negotiate the departure of his country from the European Union – but also a future Prime Minister who will now need to get a good result for the UK in the withdrawal negotiations.
2.) Cameron got the framework wrong
This was compounded by the framework conditions that Mr Cameron was in a position to determine: first, Mr Cameron made the mistake of permitting his cabinet ministers to freely campaign on either side. Upon returning from Brussels, he announced that the UK Government would recommend to the British people that the UK remain in the European Union. However, with senior cabinet members like Justice Secretary Michael Gove, Employment Secretary Priti Patel and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers were permitted to campaign against the Prime Minister’s recommendation without being asked to resign. That lent Brexit campaigners the authority of ministerial office, and severely undermined Mr Cameron as he found himself in virtual shouting matches with many of the men and women who he is supposed to lead at the cabinet table   . Whilst some of the dismissed cabinet members would have cried foul, Cameron would have been able to use the patronage from a cabinet reshuffle to firm up the Remain camp’s resolve and maybe even win over some wavering members of his parliamentary party.
Second, Mr Cameron got the mechanics of the national referendum wrong: There was no concerted effort by the Prime Minister and his (in our timeline) split cabinet to amend cumbersome registration rules to enable automatic registration of all UK citizens. There was also no systematic effort by Mr Cameron to register and turn out young voters. In the United States, the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama made a targeted effort to motivate young voters to register for the general election, had the President turn out on TV programmes and social media outlets frequented by the younger generation and had a strong, credible social media presence.
Additionally, Mr Cameron was clearly (despite his background in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford) not a particularly keen student of recent history, constitutional law or the experience other nations have made with referendums. For example, he could have taken the time to look at the aftermath of the 1995 Québec sovereignty referendum, especially given the fact that the EU referendum was consistently expected to be a rather close-run affair. The Québec independence referendum resulted in a very narrow majority of 50.58% (and a margin of 54,288 votes) in favour of remaining within Canada. It was its aftermath that was even more interesting. The Canadian House of Commons passed the controversial Clarity Act, which made provisions about judging whether a margin was sufficient to constitute a clear and unambiguous expression of the will of the people and even permitting the House of Commons to overrule the results of any future independence referendum in a Canadian province, if certain formal requirements were not met.
Granted, the EU referendum resulted in a larger margin of approximately 1 million votes. However, given the constitutional, legal, political, economic and cultural implications of deciding to sever the United Kingdom’s formal relationship, it would have been entirely justifiable for the Prime Minister to mandate a triple lock (see this House of Commons research briefing on the general issue of thresholds in referendums).
First, given the advisory nature of the referendum and variables like turnout being dependent on such mundane factors like the weather, the Referendum Act could have specified a minimum majority of 55% to be obtained by the Leave campaign across the country and simultaneous majorities of a minimum of 55% in 4 out of 5 home regions, including the capital (England, Scotland, Wales, London and Northern Ireland) in order to be deemed a “clear, unambiguous and unequivocal expression of the electorate’s authorization to leave the European Union”. Similar provisions are in force in Switzerland (a country frequently cited by the Leave campaign as being an example of democracy in action), Canada and Australia in order to prevent the possibility of one populous state/province/region triggering a referendum outcome without substantial support from the rest of the country. That’s precisely what has happened. Populous England has essentially voted decisively to leave the EU, whereas only a narrow majority supported withdrawal in Wales, whilst Scotland, Northern Ireland and London decisively voted to stay in the EU.
Cameron could have also instituted an automatic trigger in the EU Referendum Act 2015, providing for a second referendum to be automatically triggered with the question varying upon the scenario: In the event that Article 50 negotiations regarding the United Kingdom’s withdrawal were successful, then the second referendum would be used to seek popular consent for the new UK-EU Agreement. In the event that Article 50 negotiations between the UK and the EU failed completely, a second referendum would essentially re-run the first referendum and ask once more whether voters (having seen that no satisfactory deal was forthcoming) were still willing to leave the European Union.
The campaigning period of 4 months proved woefully short. Whilst it is epic in a country which typically only conducts election campaigns for a few weeks at most, an official campaigning period of 6-9 months might have given more time to the Remain campaign to
Finally, the Electoral Commission should have been empowered to rein in rivalling campaigns (both registered and unregistered), especially regarding their tone and some of their more absurd claims. Measures could have included the adoption of a binding Code of Conduct. Whilst it is clear that this still would not have stopped some of the more absurd myths and extreme views from being disseminated on Twitter, it certainly would have slowed down elements of both the Leave and Remain campaigns turning the making of incendiary statements into a campaign tactic – and thus giving cues for the divisions emerging among ordinary voters in Britain.
3.) Labour has just gone completely AWOL
With the Conservative Party finding itself in the midst of a leadership campaign after David Cameron’s announcement that he will resign before the Conservative Party conference in October, one would think that this would be the opposition’s finest hour. One might be especially forgiven for this train of thought, as the Leave campaign has been in utter disarray, without a plan and completely unprepared for the onslaught of challenges upon a successful Leave vote. Unfortunately, the Labour Party has decided at this very moment that this would be the most appropriate time to go absent without leave. Then again, it’s a typical catch-22 situation.
Ever since the Tony Blair era, Labour’s support among the working-class voters in the UK has been decreasing. However, this was papered over in the 2000s by the weakness of the pre-Cameron Conservatives and Labour’s rock-solid electoral performances in Scotland and Wales. Enter Gordon Brown who through a number of missteps and a rather mixed management of the 2008/2009 financial crisis ended up losing the confidence of voters. The 2010 election yielded a less heavy defeat and ushered in the brief interlude of Ed Miliband – who was essentially undone through a mixture of an unappealing personality, Labour’s failure to engage with its erstwhile working-class base (much of which began defecting to Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party).
With Labour defeated once again, the party’s membership (bolstered by left-wing militant unions) went for the political equivalent of chicken soup, Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Corbyn had hitherto been a backbench MP from the far-left of the party who believed in the nationalization of British Rail and an end to austerity economics. Mr Corbyn ended up winning 65% of the membership vote in the 2015 leadership election, leading to much shock within the political establishment. In a way, his election heralded the earthquake that has been triggered by Brexit. His supporters organized via the internet (similar to Vote Leave supporters), engaged in a skilled dismemberment of their more mainstream opponents and were better at targeting the key constituencies needed to win. Just like in the Brexit referendum, the mainstream candidates lining up against Mr Corbyn were divided, unsure and timid in formulating a clear response to the populist groundswell of sheer rage against the establishment. Following the maxim of “fire against fire”, Mr Corbyn (despite his divergence from mainstream political views) should have been an asset in the national referendum campaign for the Remain side.
Well, not so fast: Mr Corbyn came of political age when Labour was in the deep grip of strong opposition to the then-Common Market (even though it was a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who recommended the retention of the country’s EEC membership). This clearly stayed with him, as during this EU referendum campaign, he barely spoke out – and, when he did, did so in a completely lacklustre manner, as if his inner voice was still the firebrand Eurosceptic who wanted to leave the EU for reasons of austerity economics   . Given that almost 40% of Labour voters decided to bolt from the party’s official support for Remain and voted Leave instead, Mr Corbyn has to share some of the blame with the Prime Minister. Given the internal divisions and rifts opening up within the Conservative Party, Labour would have been in a prime position to mobilize voters in favour of the Remain campaign – especially due to its own formidable links with the trade unions. But it didn’t do so, and there are signs that Mr Corbyn’s staff actively prevented Labour MPs from addressing the issue of immigration.
That was the last straw that triggered a full-scale rebellion against Mr Corbyn by the Labour MPs in the House of Commons. Outcome? Completely unknown at this stage. A split in the Labour Party, between a hard-left, populist party led by Mr Corbyn and a much more mainstream social-democratic, centrist party is entirely plausible. The crisis in the Labour Party is significant as it currently incapacitates Labour as a credible alternative government in waiting. So bad is its state that even David Cameron, the Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister decided to express his open revulsion at the meltdown of the Official Opposition.
More significantly, it currently precludes the possibility of a swift change of government – which currently appears as the only option to stave off Britain’s destined date with Brexit. The 48% who voted Remain across the country are ripe for the picking and would, alongside many of the up to 1 million regretful Leave voters, as well as the 27% of all voters who stayed home, be willing to give serious consideration to an opposition that has its act together.
Provided Labour does remove Mr Corbyn and replace him with a charismatic leader, said leader could ally with the pro-European Liberal Democrats (who, despite their decimation in the 2015 general election, still retain a notable presence at the local level) and Greens and run on the central pledge of terminating the withdrawal process. My money right now is on a metropolitan figure like former Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer or (in an unlikelier twist) David Miliband, the former Foreign Secretary and more articulate of the Miliband Brothers as the Labour Party leader, paired with a “salt of the earth” populist from northern England.
However, with the Labour Party in a shambles, the next Conservative leader and Prime Minister (most likely the current Home Secretary, Theresa May) could take advantage of the chaos and call a general election. Such an election could plausibly result in a Labour split (between a Corbyn wing and a moderate, establishment wing) leading to Labour being pushed into third place by Nigel Farage’s UKIP, especially as his party came in second in many constituencies in Labour’s northern heartlands – many of those same constituencies delivered a Leave majority in last week’s referendum. Needless to say, the new Conservative leader could see his/her party’s majority government winning a decisive mandate from the British people, something made even easier by the first-past-the-post electoral system used in British general elections. Depending on the size of the Conservative majority, Leave supporters could have a decisive say (in case of a narrow majority) or be weakened (in case May wins a very sizable majority).
It’s time the Labour Party returned as an effective fighting force, if only to provide a robust opposition to the current government. The time for symbolism has long passed.
4.) Passion Matters
One of the effects of the EU referendum was to trigger a wave of revulsion among Remain supporters, who struggled to deal with the new realities, as ordained by the referendum outcome. There were online petitions being circulated for a second referendum, London independence and Parliament to exercise its prerogative to just ignore the results. Something hitherto unheard of, passionate pro-EU demonstrations were organized in favour of remaining in the European Union – managing to fill Trafalgar Square in one instance. There is much thoughtful reflection among younger Britons about European Union membership and just how vital it was to them.
That said, where was the same passion during the referendum campaign? It was on the side of the Leave voters. Maybe it is inherent in the terms: The word “Remain” sounds like a status quo, stability, but also “no change”. The word “Leave” implies action, dynamism and movement. Maybe that was a semantic disadvantage, but it didn’t have to be one for the referendum campaign. For many years and decades, political leaders in London either underestimated or casually ignored the concerns of working-class and lower middle-class citizens in regions of England – especially the country’s northeast, previously hit by a complex process of deindustrialization.
Broadly speaking, Leave voters can be grouped into the following sections:
- Working-class voters    feeling left behind by the twin processes of globalization and Europeanization; many of these live on so-called council estates (state-provided housing)
- Voters (including second and third-generation migrants) fearful about migration issues, whether for reasons related to a scarcity of resources (hospitals, schools, housing, benefits) or ethnic resentment (something that has been a powerful undercurrent in a segment of the working-class and middle-class population since the days of controversial Conservative stalwart Enoch Powell in the 1960s)
- Protest voters wishing to send a message to “the establishment”, primarily consisting of the political leadership and corporations based in London; alternatively, these voters looked to protest  against economically liberal policies or international institutions
- Anti-EU voters concerned about the EU’s long-term viability and who were given plenty of ammunition in recent years by the refugee crisis, the Eurozone crisis, the undisputable democratic deficit in the European Union, age-old fears about German dominance, the poor performance of many (Southern) Eurozone economies (France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece)
The Remain side, it must be said, ran a campaign not just devoid of any passion, but also of the necessary rapid-response operation and message discipline needed to win. The tone set by the Prime Minister and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, was not one marked by an unapologetic, positive and robust defence of European Union membership. There was hardly a mention about the terms negotiated by Mr Cameron during the February summit in Brussels. Instead, voters (many of whom were hampered by a shocking lack of knowledge of what the EU actually does) were overwhelmed with statistics, forecasts and negative projections. Economic Armageddon was promised on a daily basis, should Britain vote to leave the EU. The Remain side rolled out MP after MP, foreign heads of state (President Obama being chief among them) and business leaders to make the case that leaving would be an economic catastrophe.
However, the Remain side failed in one fundamental task: to first tear down the false assumptions about EU membership – namely:
- That EU membership is too expensive
- That Britain has no influence and no benefits from EU membership
- That EU membership does not benefit local communities
- That Britain is frequently outvoted in the European Institutions
- That the EU is becoming a federalist superstate
- That the European Institutions are foreign
- That Britain has essentially handed over its independence on a silver platter
- That Britain will ultimately go the way of Greece and Spain if it doesn’t leave
- That the most realistic alternatives to EU membership will be better
- That the regulations by Brussels have only added an unnecessary overbeating bureaucracy
These complaints were well-known for the past few years. In fact, Brexit supporters have been telegraphing their lines of attack in various newspapers (not just of the tabloid persuasion) incessantly. Stories about bendy bananas, proposed (and mythical) bans on toasters, lightbulbs and vacuum cleaners have become legendary in their misleading nature, all the while much of the British media (especially the newspapers owned by Australian-American media baron Rupert Murdoch) have vilified anything even remotely Europhile. Having been a media executive himself and given his own experiences with the Murdoch media empire, one would have thought that David Cameron of all people would be ready. One would have thought that the Remain campaign would be staffed by highly skilled media professionals ready to bat away every single falsehood, misleading claim and exaggeration by the Leave campaign and simultaneously make a skilled, socially calibrated case for an active membership of the European Union. One would have thought that upon dropping the writ for the referendum, the Prime Minister’s team would ruthlessly prosecute the campaign to remain in the EU: after all, the referendum put the UK’s relationship with Europe and its economic ties across the world on the line.
Mind you, despite the incessant media fire, the Remain campaign could have made a compelling case for EU membership. It could have
- Demonstrated that EU membership is clearly cheaper than most monthly expenses
- Shown the various (unknown) gains in ordinary British life through EU membership
- Talked about the jobs that were created as a result of EU investment
- Shown the EU immigrants who HAVE successfully integrated into British society and changed their communities for the better. If you read the Daily Mail, you could have imagined EU nationals to be a crushing burden on Britons
- Visualized the meaning of the EU by showing Brits who built great friendships, relationships and families across the EU divide. The campaign could have shown those Brits who benefited from going on Erasmus, who were able to accomplish more because of EU research grants and who ended up getting the help they need in
- Calmly batted back claims that Britain had lost its sovereignty
- Elaborated on the policy areas in which the UK is leading the rest of the EU
- Fought back on the cherry-picking of the Leave campaign on issues from youth unemployment to the assertion that the EU is incapable of reform to
- Cited instances in which European Court of Justice cases actually helped assert British interests
- Underlined the many examples of constructive investments by the European Investment Bank and other EU Institutions in infrastructure and other projects across the UK
Years and decades of media exaggeration of legitimate concerns and fictional narration about the EU have indeed taken their toll on the British public. That is certainly the responsibility of media barons like Rupert Murdoch. However, the likes of Messrs Juncker, Tusk and Schulz, as well as other prominent pro-Europeans also have their share of the blame to accept. When was the last time you saw a member of the European Commission engage the public in anything other than set-piece interviews with star anchors like CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, rather than on, say, BBC’s Question Time, the 20:00 news on France 2 or the Anne Will talk show on Germany’s Channel 1? Why don’t we see European Commissioners stage, at the very least, digital town halls where they answer questions from the public about their work?
They may not be directly elected by the people (and it’s perfectly acceptable that they aren’t), but these types of events can certainly assuage soft Eurosceptics about the Commission’s willingness to engage the public it purports to serve, instead of just lecturing Member States from the safe confines of the Berlaymont Building in Brussels. Had the Commission worked in advance of the referendum campaign on improving that impression – and as a new Commission President, Mr Juncker certainly had the opportunity to signal a clean break from his lacklustre predecessor, José Manuel Barroso – the most die-hard supporters of Britain’s withdrawal may not have been convinced, but soft Eurosceptics may not have been as receptive to the Leave campaign’s trump card (other than immigration): the democratic deficit of the European Institutions.
The positive case that could have been made for the European Union is multifold, and something I have already articulated previously. The choice could have been boiled down to the opportunities of future generations of Britons and the economic windfall that EU membership has already brought to the country in so many ways. But what would have been even more important was the use of words. The Leave campaign was successful in appropriating powerful imagery contained in phrases like “Take back control” or “Let’s take our country back”, as well as words like “freedom”, “democracy” and “independence”.
The Remain campaign failed to rebut the Leave case that Britain had, in the eyes of those backing withdrawal, effectively turned into some kind of nightmarish EU colony controlled by Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker. The truth is that despite its proven bureaucracy, rhetorical narcissism and red tape, EU membership grants additional freedoms to its citizens, across our Continent. In many ways, it actually provides Europeans with greater control in the midst of a world in turmoil, where European nations would otherwise find themselves riven between the United States, a re-emerging Russian Federation, a self-confident China and an emerging India – and that does not begin to think about the likes of South Africa, Brazil, Japan and the rest of Asia. These are economic and geopolitical realities, and the existence of the EU gives us a shot at guarding our very own interests – instead of being at the mercies of others, no matter how friendly our relations at this time. The European Union grants freedoms to Britons as consumers, through a tough enforcement of competition law, the elimination of protectionist measures and giving them more consumer choice (in telecommunications, aviation, food and the like). And so on.
The positive case for the EU is there. It wasn’t made. Supporters of European Union membership in France, the Netherlands, Sweden and elsewhere better take note. You must make your case. And you must make it in a way that shows you being upbeat about it. If, like Mr Cameron and Mr Corbyn, you’re ambivalent about membership or have been known to bash the EU at every turn, you will not be able to convince the public to go with your view.
5.) Citizenship comes with responsibilities. Every Day.
Finally, a word about the idea of citizenship itself – and let me also return to the idea of letting the people decide. On 23 June, millions of Britons went to the polling stations to cast their ballots in the national referendum. Casting a ballot is the kind of right that people from across the world live, fight and die for across the world. That’s the right Egyptians claimed for themselves when they staged the revolution that brought down the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. That’s the right that Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians struggled for throughout their forced membership of the Soviet Union. That’s the right for which people in countries like Zimbabwe, North Korea, Turkey, Sudan, China and Syria have been tortured, persecuted and executed in their thousands. It’s the right for which Allied soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy for.
Citizenship isn’t about having a passport. Citizenship is about more than that (important and essential) official document. At its very best, being a citizen is about your fidelity to the values of democracy, sovereignty and the rule of law – but also putting your country’s and community’s interest before your own self-interest. It’s about living those noble terms and filling them with real life: by actively debating political issues with your family & friends, by being engaged in what’s going on, by asking questions and retaining an open mind, by holding your elected representatives to account for their actions, and by taking the time to do your research.
Especially before such a major decision. When I say “research”, I don’t mean conspiratorial websites (entertaining as those might be) or tabloids whose journalistic accuracy has been doubted – I mean weighing a range of reputable sources (of all political persuasions), whether media outlets, academic commentary and fact-checking websites. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist in order to sit down and do that research.
Seeing many Leave voters concede their dismay, saying that they had voted Leave out of protest (and were now regretting their choice ) and did not expect their vote to count does, at first, conjure a sense of utter despair. Some may say, “Seriously, these people have a vote?” Yes, they do, and we have to accept that. You see, even though Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (and sadly, other otherwise intellectually not completely incapacitated individuals) gave a good fighting talk about big words like “democracy”, “sovereignty” and “independence”   , they failed to understand that democracy does not consist of the folding of the ballot and its deposit in a booth.
That act is merely the culmination of a true democracy. Democracy, in my view anyway, needs to be a frequent engagement with the world around you, with an interest in politics that goes beyond the entertaining soundbites. For that, we need to encourage citizens to express their views – no matter whether they are out of the mainstream or unpalatable to political leaders in the government or the parties of the official opposition. But democracy is also about a society that encourages debates on politics as something necessary, not something completely unseemly.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not expecting the majority of people to behave like Roman senators or Athenian politicians of yore. But at least a greater sense of community and the awareness that the political is social is personal. We may laugh about Mr Wilders’ wild coiffure today, criticize the appropriation of the Austrian national flag by the Freedom Party, be annoyed by right-wingers in Germany attempting to slander one of our footballers and ridicule Marine Le Pen’s latest incendiary statement today – and then go on with our lives.
But these people will not disappear. Just like Nigel Farage and his band of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” (David Cameron) did not disappear out of sight. They drew their energy from the wilful ignorance of many, including those who later voted Remain. But not ignorance in the sense of being stupid. When I talk about ignorance, it’s those moments when you step back from a political discussion because it could alienate you from your friends. It includes the moments when you (rightly or wrongly) prioritize the trivial over the significant. Yes, we all need distraction from busy lives and they matter. But if we can “Netflix and chill”, then surely our responsibilities as citizens, our duty towards our fellow citizens, should also take up some space which is not merely confined to casting a ballot every four of five years – or whenever the government decides to call a national referendum.
Society doubtlessly needs to address the yawning income gap, the growing sense of despair, the entitlement culture, the worrying trend of old people sliding into poverty, the lack of social mobility and the lack of a meritocratic culture of achievement. It shouldn’t matter where you studied, which passport you have and which background you come from – and yes, I’m saying this as a centre-right economic liberal. This economy does not work for everyone, in fact it has failed to work for a large section of the public – and we must find sustainable solutions for them, for they (like it or not) are and will remain part of our wider community. But with this collective responsibility to engage, to listen and to find solutions comes an individual duty of every citizen as well.
In the internet age, when the internet (in Europe and North America) is accessible to a very wide range of citizens, it is quite simply inexcusable for anyone to fail doing their own research – and examining the claims they have been confronted with. Just blindly parroting the doomsday scenarios of the Chancellor of the Exchequer is letting your fellow citizens down as much as mindlessly regurgitating the Daily Mail’s journalistic jeremiad against immigration and “Westminster politicians”. There is much talk about holding Boris Johnson and Michael Gove responsible for their campaigning style, their economy with the truth and their utter fecklessness regarding the plans needed for the day after a success. But what about holding citizens accountable?
It appears to me that many on the Remain side took victory for granted or believed in common sense. But just bombarding people with pure statistics and rolling out expert after expert isn’t going to cut it. Remain needed to break down the benefits of EU membership and boil down the facts in a simple message, whilst making the positive case for membership. As we can see in the United States, those campaigners operating with nuance inevitably tend to have a more difficult time with opponents who break the issues down to simple binary choices: “Us versus them”, “citizens against foreigners”, “the people vs the elites”. But the battle has to be joined – and it’s winnable even now. We need to simplify the message and not be afraid of being punchy.
If the EU referendum has taught us anything, it is that things cannot be taken for granted, that they can change at any moment – and that that such (undesirable or welcome) starts with shifts of mentality: I don’t happen to have the ideal recipe for this. Maybe it would be a good start for all of us to be mindful, to not duck the tough discussions, to be willing to (constructively engage) and to learn to debate. Again, we’re not Parliament – that’s what we have elected representatives for. But the state of our democracies has to be a concern for all of us, and we cannot permit a bunch of populist “saviours” to appropriate concepts like “democracy” and “freedom” (or, for that matter, our national symbols like our flags) for their agendas. Democracy is responsibility, from our politicians, but also from citizens paying attention and not looking like shocked deer in the headlights when decisions are made on the basis of half-truths, blatantly misleading claims and outright lies. We have seen in the past few days how quickly the likes of Messrs Johnson, Farage, (in effect) and Gove jumped ship.
That sense of responsibility that these gentlemen failed to exhibit in light of the state of affairs they caused will be direly needed, all across Europe (and, as far as I’m concerned, that includes the UK) finds itself at a critical juncture. “Business as usual” will no longer do. A long hard look is needed at the causes of this referendum result – and, for once, listening to the people (infuriating as some of the reasons that underpinned the voting decisions of some may be) would be a very good start. Let’s hope that this is only the beginning of a vigorous, open debate on all sides about what kind of Europe we all want – for it is only by tackling the issues that this referendum has underlined head-on that we can reach ever-greater heights in the future.