Brexit Is a Test of the Extent of Political Deafness

24/06/2016 15:53

When I first moved to the Netherlands three years ago quite a few things turned out just as I expected them. Many were much more positive that I had thought. But one thing stood out as a big surprise - the extent of Euroscepticism among the Dutch voting public. As a Brit, I thought we had a monopoly on deep Euroscepticism. The result of the EU referendum indeed underlines British attitudes. But I was obviously mistaken in believing this to be an exclusively British issue.

Now that Britain has answered for itself the question of its relationship with the EU, the next big question to be answered is by the EU itself - what does all this mean for Europe and for the future vision and structure of the EU?

Two things stand out about the British referendum campaign and result. The first is the almost total deafness of the political class to the concerns and attitudes of the voting public. The second is that threats and predictions of catastrophe (the whole basis of the Remain campaign) don't work. Deep-seated emotional responses will always win out against so-called "rational" and technocratic arguments. This is something that I pointed out to the Remain campaign strategists early on but, of course, was totally ignored.

The big question now is how the rest of Europe will respond to a British exit. The temptation is to punish Britain and make sure that the threats of catastrophe come to pass. The rationale for such an approach is exactly the same as that used by the Remain campaign - it will put off those in other countries that are pressing for a referendum of their own. Just like the Remain campaign, it will not work. It will simply indicate to voters that the deafness of the political and Brussels elite is total. That not even having a major country decide to leave is a sufficiently large signal to be heard. It will likely generate what in Britain we like to call the spirit of the blitz - that when you are under sustained attack you hunker down, resist and fight back. Dislike for the EU will increase as voters across the Netherlands, France, Poland, Austria, Hungary and other countries will want to show that they will not allow themselves to be terrified into submission by a political class that they despise.

Most of my friends voted to remain in the EU. But by far the vast majority of them did so while holding their nose. They felt that the EU in its current form stinks but they might still be better off in than out. There is no way back for the EU to gain wide public support except through root and branch reform and through re-visiting and re-defining some of the basic principles that the Brussels elite have come to consider as unchallengeable. Chief among them is the free movement of people across the continent, but there are many others.

I am hoping that the unbelievably idiotic standard Brussels response that the only answer to Europe's problems is more Europe will, after this week, be consigned to the dustbin of history. However, I fear that the blindness and deafness of the European ideologues that still populate the European corridors of power may well be total. That, by their actions and behaviour, they will convert what could be a temporary setback to a catastrophic unravelling of the whole European project. We shall see.