Europe is about to make it’s next political blunder. The EU thinks that if they make Brexit nice and painful, they can prevent other countries from walking out as well. That is based on a complete miscalculation of what drives the anti-EU camp. Financial arguments did nothing to stop the Brexiteers, and they will do anything to stop Wilders.
There is a huge misunderstanding in Europe about Brexit. Everyone seems to think it’s because of hubristic Brits who long for the days when they were a world power. That was the starting point of all the comments in the Netherlands, from this bitterly poor piece in Joop (by a former MP, even!) to Joris Luyendijk, who blames it on a ‘lost empire complex’. Even Peter Breedveld, who I hold in high regard, came up with a quote from George Orwell, which was about the xenophobic attitude of the British soldiers in the First World War.
Point is: since then there has been some changes. In the past century, the British have had their noses rubbed in the fact that they are not a world power so often that even the biggest drunken hooligan knows it now. It began with the First World War, where they came out so poor that they were unable to prevent a second. After WW2, the situation was even worse: while the Netherlands grew in the wake of the German Wirtschaftswunder, there was rationing here well into the fifties.
Then the colonies managed to get away, and in the Suez crisis they found out that that military intervention overseas – still the trademark of a world power – could only be done with American agreement. Then, the inflation of the 70s came with repeated devaluations of the pound. The oil crisis was compounded by the fact that the unions went on strike, leaving the country unable to produce enough electricity to keep all its offices and factories warm and having to declare a three-day working week. To solve the problems they wanted to join the EEC (!), but that de Gaulle scuppered that. Then the tough deindustrialization came under Thatcher. The row of humiliations ended with the British flight out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, an event of immense importance in setting the thinking about Europe, about which I have yet to read a single word in a Dutch newspaper.
No: England has been through the mud so often in the last hundred years nobody in this country really believes that it will ever amount to anything. And that is the psychology of the Brexit voter: things are so bad, we’d better try something, anything. Brexit is a leap in the dark for most people, not a glorious step towards Empire.
You saw that on the morning after the referendum. It was quiet in the streets. There were almost no celebrations, besides the people running the campaign itself. The morning after Brexit I saw no flag wasn’t already out for the football. The atmosphere was one of “hope against hope” and not of “Rule, Britannia”.
You see the same pattern when you consider the subject of the Brexit: immigration. At the time that this was an empire, you could settle freely here. Your passport would not be checked. Worrying about immigration is not something a self-assured country does, it is something that a frightened country does that hopes to keep a few crumbs together. Here, exactly the same thing happened as in the American South. A group of people who for generations have been told long that they are the master race is suddenly pushed to face the facts. Then nothing happens for decades, and eventually there will be someone who says, ‘I’ll build a wall.’
Anyway, what does all this mean for the European strategy regarding Brexit? The constituency that has driven Brexit is not susceptible to economic arguments. The only thing that Europe will achieve by turning the thumbscrews is the to lengthen the list of humiliations I dished up by one entry. The British will only be confirmed in their idea that Europe is a threat, and that they did well to leave. Farrage knows this; it is the reason that today he visited the Euro parliament to be jeerded at by the MEPs. That sucker Junker has just given him what he wanted.
And there’s more: in part the Brexiteers are entirely right not to listen to the economic arguments. Much of the economic disaster that was threatened was irrelevant for the working poor with just nothing to lose. One of the arguments that showed the communication gap best was the Remain threat that housing prices would plummet in the event of Brexit. The point is that there is a rental crisis going on in this country. There is a housing shortage. In Oxford, people live in tents. I can imagine few things that would be more beneficial for the common man in this country than the implosion of the housing market. Are you really that surprised – if you so completely reason from the rich propertied middle class – that a poor tenant is not going listening to you?
The question remains: what should the EU have done? Or, to cast the net wider: what should we all do, if we want to resist the toxic coalition of racist, right-wing fanatics and hooligans which is emerging in Europe?
I’ve seen, two answers so far that seem to me both unsatisfactory. One answer is simply all-out repression. A large part of the population is quite simply racist, says this argument, and we can do nothing other than just surpress these people. This is the logic behind the Wilders trial, behind people like Rob Riemen, but also behind the endless ‘I told you so’ pieces that were in the Dutch newspapers in the last few days.
The other extreme is the sociologists approach, which says that it is all the fault of poverty. That is also far too easy: part of the population is just inherently racist. In the 24 hours after Brexit a Facebook album appeared that catalogues 124 racist incidents. Those people you do not convince with a decent pension plan and investment in health care: they are just Nazis.
I think the solution starts with recognizing that the fault line of pro-EU / non-EU (or pro-Wilders / anti-Wilders) doesn’t quite run along class lines. There are plenty of wealthy who hope they can ride the gravy train of the racist revolt towards a smaller government, while there are plenty of poor who understand a strong government is in their interest. That mismatch has always been there: no factory workers were present when the SDAP (the forerunner of the Labor Party) was founded. There were always leftist workers, but the working class was not necessarily leftist.
What has changed is this: there is no one that communicates to our people in the working class. Fifty years ago, for each Telegraph-reading uncle you had an uncle who read Het Vrije Volk. Nowadays they have GeenStijl, and we have nothing. We have completely forgotten the art of making our ideas understandable to the common man. But the problem is bigger than that: it’s not that we can’t communicate, it’s that we don’t want to.
That in turn has everything to do with the EU, and so we’ve come full circle. The EU was created with the intention to bury all Large Political Feelings under a blanket of bureaucracy. The essence of the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the EU – was to bind together the French and German steel industry and so prevent war between those countries. The entire postwar political structure in Europe was built on the idea that flags and banners, and big plans for the future ultimately only lead to Auschwitz.
It is this mindset, that combination of postwar anti-politics coupled with technocracy, where we need to get away from. The ease with which the left in Britain settled comfortably into the EU when they discovered that it was an easy way to get through social legislation also shows this huge disdain for citizens. The same can be seen in the Netherlands: the Labour Party is collapsing, all the while thumping their chests that they provide such good governance.
The reason why the brexiteers in the end won with the narrowest of margins was that they had a plan. If you have the choice between someone who provides an endless series of ever-deteriorating tables of purchasing power statistics, and politics as a grand story, you will in your desperation always choose the second, whether it’s the Communist world revolution or Hitler or Brexit. And there is the correlation between the economic malaise and racism: the greater the misery, the greater the need for a big story. The fact that the EU is now trying to get the populists in line again with economic threats, shows that they have learned nothing from Brexit. If you want to save the EU, will have to rescue it from its technocratic supporters.