European Union must prevent any Brexit contagion

Paul Gillespie: Britain’s Imperial legacy writ large via links with rest of world

The British state itself looks less secure after this result. Scottish independence is once more put on the agenda. Photograph: Getty Images

The British state itself looks less secure after this result. Scottish independence is once more put on the agenda. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Britain is part of Europe yet it has more links with the rest of the world because of its imperial legacy than other European states and peoples.

That distinctive position and identity played strongly into the referendum decision to leave the European Union. The multiple crises it now faces are the final working-out of that legacy.

British history cannot be understood aside from its European involvement over the last thousand and more years. Through invasions, wars, migrations, dynastic alliances, trade and investment, indelible bonds were forged which will survive this historic and apparently isolationist decision.

All this goes alongside the othering of European states and peoples which forged Britain’s imperial nationalism and informs the nationalism that drove this 72 per cent turnout.

The links with the rest of the world – and especially the Anglosphere – were highlighted by Leave campaigners as providing an opportunity to escape Europe’s sclerotic economy and expand relations with India, China, the Americas and Africa. Yet Britain trades more with Ireland than with all the Commonwealth countries combined and it has a large trade deficit with EU members.

The strongest supporters of remaining in the EU were precisely the non-white Commonwealth immigrants who fear being targeted by new controls.

Those leaders most vociferously claiming victory now have to live with these contradictions. Divided between economic libertarians, anti-immigrant campaigners and absolute sovereigntists, they have to decide on whether to prioritise access to the EU’s single market through a Norwegian-type model or a much more distant relationship like Canada’s free trade one.

The first involves paying into the EU budget and accepting free labour movement, while the second would require new trade deals.

Polarised society

It is overwhelmingly concentrated in northern, northeastern, eastern and midlands England, polarised against the more prosperous and cosmopolitan London. The result counterposes younger, more educated and middle-class voters for the EU against older, more working-class ones in favour of leaving. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted with London to remain.

The quality of the debate at elite level badly served the majority. Many voters opted for poorly argued and ill-informed positions on sovereignty, immigration and global trade as a proxy protest against spending cuts by the Conservatives, collapsing trust in political elites and a failure to offer constructive European narratives.

Gordon Brown was almost alone among the Labour leaders to propose ambitious European investment funds to create jobs or compensate communities where heightened immigration strains public services. Too little was heard about constructive ways to improve democratic accountability at European level.

Nationalistic identity

But that does not make its decision to leave exceptional. They represent concerns readily visible elsewhere in the EU. Recent Pew polling shows disenchantment with the EU and political elites at nearly equal levels in France, Spain, Italy and even Germany.

It is a mistake to collapse this alienation simply into a Eurosceptic box, even though there are many such parties.

Sceptics who demand more national sovereignty should be distinguished from Eurocritics who seek a different and more socially involved EU with deeper integration and larger budgets capable of responding to working-class concerns on employment and welfare.

Liberals and centrists satisfied with policy balances face much more political contestation on these issues. The EU will have to respond to these new political pressures if it is to avoid a British exit becoming contagious.

The British state itself looks less secure after this result. Scottish independence is once more put on the agenda.

Ireland is exposed to a series of asymmetric shocks because of our distinct interdependence with the UK. Northern Ireland will struggle to retain its transfers from London and Brussels and both parts of the country face a huge challenge.

pegillespie@gmail.com

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