Britain's European Catharsis

By Ulrike Guerot

Much has been written these days about 'Brexit' after PM David Cameron's speech last week on Europe, which was indeed a game-changing event in so far as it potentially opens up a real in or out choice for the UK to leave the EU in 2017.

Among those who find it backward looking and those who find it dangerous as the uncertainty about an exit may impact on British investments during the next five years (see here), I argue that both arguments are right - but there is a German saying that nothing is eaten as hot as it is cooked. Five years are an eternity in politics.

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Obviously, with this speech, the ‘exit-camp' among British Conservatives is riding high. But this should be the moment when counter-arguments are built up - and normally this is just a matter of time. The City will eventually wake up and realize that it may lose its standing as the most important stock market in the European time zone, if regulatory and political authorities move to the continent (Brussels, Berlin, Frankfurt) in the wake of a deeper integration of the Eurozone, as Euroland pursues the path of a genuine, deep economic and monetary union. British youngsters are mostly in favour of remaining in the EU and at some point they will also voice their vision of a European future. So there is hope for the UK of a genuine and rational discussion, with facts and figures about the cost of staying and the costs of leaving, in the not too distant future.

Another key element is that very soon British industries will no longer be able to afford being in denial about the real economic situation in the UK, which is far worse than many in the UK have yet recognised. Not only has the pound dramatically lost value over the past five years, but the UK now has a deficit more than twice as high as that of Italy. In terms of GDP, the UK has not only been outperformed in recent years by Germany or the US, but did even worse than most of the Southern European crisis countries, bar Spain.

It is therefore interesting how the Daily Mail and other 'Murdoch newspapers' can knit out of these data a thesis according to which the UK (so they say) is so very much better off not being part of the Eurozone - which is also the underlying assumption of Cameron's speech. This claim is, at least, highly contentious; or at the very least, it follows that the British economy is not performing so much better than the Eurozone after all as one might have expected, if we accept that the Euro was such a fundamental mistake and the member countries in such bad shape as regards their competitiveness.

What is more important over the next five years is whether the UK - its media, its elites, its civil society and its citizens - will have the collective power to resist sweeping populism. It is as Voltaire famously said in Candide: 'Il faut cultiver son jardin'. You have to keep your garden in order. If not, bad and allegedly facile arguments sprout in public discourse like weed in a cottage garden. This is not to say that all arguments Cameron mobilised in his speech are bad. But reducing e.g. the flexibility requirement of the EU down to working hours directives for NHS doctors seems to somehow miss the point.

In politics, when facts are dismissed, overwhelmed by emotions and irrational arguments, popular sentiments such as national or regional feeling, old stereotypes and half-truths often win out. In recent years, the US Republican Party painfully experienced how a whole, respectable party could be destroyed by honing its arguments for the stomach rather than aiming for the ratio, amalgamating notions such as ‘socialism' with health care and migration policies with ‘fascism', losing all control of wording, framing and factual accuracy in political discourse. When rational choice becomes 'irrational choice' and public discourse is determined by emotions and fears rather than data, clear choices and informed narratives, then a Tea Party is imminent.


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Ulrike Guérot is head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). This article originally appeared in openDemocracy and is published under a Creative Commons licence.

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