In the aftermath of World War II, some European politicians and political thinkers contemplated forging unity among democratic countries in that continent. This was viewed by them as a way to avert extreme forms of nationalism and future wars in Europe and also as a means to ensure peace among European nations.
Winston Churchill, the then Prime Minister of Britain, envisaged a United States of Europe in a speech on September 19, 1946 at the University of Zürich, Switzerland. “We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only, will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes….” However, in the same speech, he made it clear that he did not visualise Britain as a part of that United States of Europe: “We British have our own Commonwealth of Nations...France and Germany must take the lead together…,” said Churchill.
The creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 was declared to be “a first step towards the federation of Europe”. The UK, however, kept itself aloof from the first initiatives toward European integration. It did not join the European Economic Community (EEC) until 1973. But Britain didn't have smooth and unswerving relations with the EU for many years after joining it. Its relations were increasingly riddled with ambivalence as the EU's integration process deepened.
The Brexit referendum was held on June 23, 2016 and more than half of the British people supporting the Leave campaign won it, although by a narrow margin of 3.78 percent (51.89 percent to 48.11 percent). That paved Britain's way out of the EU.
But why did the British people really vote for Brexit in the first place? Most analysts primarily focus on the economic causes of Brexit. Of course, there is no gainsaying that there were economic dimensions to the Leave voters' choice for Brexit. People complained about the ever-increasing numbers of immigrants and the EU rules allowing free movement of labour into Britain, thus creating pressure on the job market. While young immigrants from other EU countries got good jobs, many young Britons, especially from the country's rural backwaters, remained unemployed. So, the Leave vote was a kind of protest by those who felt economically left out in the present-day Britain.
However, there were more fundamental but less spoken of and less obvious causes behind it. The British attach immense value to the sovereignty of their country and consider it indivisible and inalienable. But under the EU, their sovereignty was being increasingly eroded away. The EU member states kept ceding more of their governing power to Brussels, with the role of their national governments in governing their respective countries gradually diminishing. Brussels was becoming the de facto capital of an evolving United States of Europe (USE). As all this happened, London—once the pivot of the now-defunct British Empire on which the sun never set—took steps, from time to time to keep itself relatively free from the EU's centripetal forces by negotiating opt-outs from some of its key policies, like the common (Euro) currency and the border-free Schengen area. London also negotiated a reduced budget contribution to the EU.
Viewed against what Churchill had said at the dawn of the European integration initiatives, all those steps taken by Britain were quite expected. Contrary to the objectives of the founding fathers of the EU, they wanted only trade and economic integration among the EU member states and loathed any political integration. The European project was indeed moving beyond the frontiers of mere economic integration, towards the envisioned USE in the fashion of the US.
Reclamation of sovereignty was actually the prime objective of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum. The Leave campaign complained that the EU had become “a suffocating bureaucracy” with its ever-expanding net of regulations. They detested the fact that the laws that governed Britain were decided by politicians from other nations whom they never elected and couldn't throw out. Brexit campaigners argued that reclamation of its national sovereignty would enable the UK to free itself from the shackles of the EU's burdensome regulations, to manage immigration better, and to stimulate more vibrant economic growth.
Leave voters were also concerned about the erosion and distortion of British culture under the pressure of inflows of immigrants from other EU countries like Poland, Hungary, Romania, etc., and longed for a return to their own distinct culture. They despised social and demographic changes due to unrestrained inflows of immigrants and grew averse to concepts like multiculturalism, social liberalism, etc.
As an EU member, Britain had to accept the free movement of EU citizens in and out of Britain; and allow them to live and work there. There were large waves of economic immigration from Eastern Europe following the EU's expansions in 2004 and 2007, boosting the rate of net immigration into Britain to more than 300,000 people annually by 2015. Such a high rate, which was never visualised by the UK, provoked xenophobia.
Some analysts argued that dissimilarities and conflictual features between the cultural and social values of the British people and those of the immigrant communities had more to do in forming the views of the Leave voters than income disparities and loss of employment opportunities due to huge and unrestrained immigrant inflows.
Given the British psyche and the state of affairs the EU had arrived at, Brexit seemed inevitable. There are other EU countries with similar outlooks. Hence, a paradigm shift in the EU's existing policies and drastic reforms in other areas are imperative for its survival. EU countries like France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, etc., should act in this regard.
Much of the sovereignty ceded to Brussels must be returned to the national capitals of EU nations. The desire of the founding fathers of the EU to eventually establish a USE must be abandoned as it does not suit the European psyche. There must be an official renunciation of the push for an “ever closer union”.
The change in the demographic composition of the EU member states through immigration from other EU countries or non-EU countries should be kept within acceptable limits. The EU must ensure that all segments of the population in each EU nation benefit from the EU's integration. Simultaneously, dissipation of cultural distinctness of the European nations must be stemmed. And the excessive bureaucracy and lack of democratic accountability in Brussels and its tangle of rules and regulations need to be reduced and streamlined.
If the EU's policies and objectives, rules and regulations, bureaucracy and its accountability, style of administration, etc., are not drastically reformed to reflect in them the changing views and preferences of EU nations, they (the nations) may eventually fall apart like the UK and Brussels may not be able to hold.
Muhammad Azizul Haque is Former Ambassador and Secretary.