The Blog

You Reap What You Sow: Why Remain's Leaders Lost the Referendum

One reason why a majority of British voters have just chosen 'Brexit' is the populist campaign successfully mounted by leaders of the 'out' camp. However, the much deeper cause lies in the way pro-E.U. elites in the UK have repeatedly undermined the European political project over the last thirty years. There are two dimensions to this spectacular 'own goal': the failure of these actors to legitimize the E.U. within Britain and, more fundamentally still, the part they have played in the paucity of the project itself.

The legitimation failure lies in Britain's pro-E.U. protagonists failing to develop and communicate a positive discourse about the EU other than by simply listing the economic benefits of 'the single market'. Despite what such stakeholders claim, economic 'facts' do not speak for themselves, they have to be given social and political meaning. This is precisely where the vast majority of these actors have failed: at no time have they recognized and made it clear to a wider public that being a member of the E.U. made the UK an integral part of a European-wide political system. On the contrary, a 'them' and 'us' vision of the E.U. has consistently been purveyed, be it by Margaret Thatcher with her 'we want our money back', John Major and the opt-outs obtained at Maastricht, Tony Blair and his 'red lines' over issues ranging from banking to defence, or David Cameron and the so-called deal he brought back 'from Brussels' earlier this year. Throughout, the fictional image of the E.U. as run by a technocratic Commission and federalist continentals has never been assertively countered. On the contrary, Britain's political leaders have consistently failed to promote E.U. policies despite having accepted them, often enthusiastically, in the Council of Ministers. Little wonder then, that during the referendum campaign the political project of European integration was so rarely explained and defended. Moreover, this failure to legitimate what they were ostensibly fighting for meant that Remain's leading proponents also failed to make clear the regime-changing consequences of a vote for Brexit. As has become patently obvious over the last few days, leaving the EU is not just a modification of Britain's international relations; it radically changes the way Britain itself has been governed for nearly half a century.

More fundamentally still, however, this reduction of debate over Britain's E.U. membership to arguments of 'economic necessity' raises the deeper question of the poverty of the project for Europe that has been foisted upon its peoples by virtually all its leading actors since the early 1990s. By failing to consistently distinguish European integration from simply adapting to a so-called 'globalized economy', the underlying project of not just Britain's elites but those of Europe as a whole, has simply been to extend the single market concept through ensuring that a restricted vision of 'economic freedom' trumps all else. Consequently, few if any arguments for EU policies based on other values have been made. For instance, a case could have been made for positive trade discrimination against countries like China who laugh at democracy, abuse human rights and practice unfair economic competition. However, such a policy has not even been considered because of kneejerk kow-towing to the W.T.O.. Similarly, having abandoned the principle of economic security at home, the E.U. itself no longer possesses a competition policy which consistently fights oligopolistic domination of markets by massive multinationals. Meanwhile, having abandoned any notion of acting differently from the U.S., and therefore without a clear set of first principles of its own, E.U. policy in the Middle-East has been muddled in its reasoning and just as muddled in its implementation.

The list of E.U. policy debacles goes on, but what is important to retain here is that leading British actors, together with their continental counterparts, have been responsible for them. In so doing, these supposedly pro-Euro elites have not only shot themselves in the foot, they have now left Britons who are genuinely open to values other than economic freedom with virtually no leg to stand on.

Ultimately, the positive thing that may come out of the referendum result is a generalized realization that these elites need replacing, together with the political project they have imposed upon both Britain and Europe since the 1980s. These people are about to reap what they have sowed. The challenge is to ensure that their weakly principled ideology suffers the same fate.