SAGE International Australia
Last Thursday night, (28 March), I attended a local university panel on Brexit. Having studied Brexit, and much of Europe’s ‘counter-reformation’ against the European Union over the past few years, I have familiarised myself with the arguments for and against.
As a scholar, I believe that it is up to academics to try to pull away from facile and simplistic arguments lest they descend into petty bias’, bandwagonism and self-congratulatory praise. I was shocked at what was on display. Four scholars, experts in their own field, all ‘pro-Remainer’, telling a narrative that was for all intents and purposes the same. Brexit is wrong, those who voted for it are ignorant, the politicians who played their part in it foolish, the British political establishment incompetent, corrupt and insidiously dangerous.
These claims were not the well-reasoned analysis of scholars, they were the personal opinions of people who failed the first test of scholarship – keep your opinions away from the public domain and stick to the examination of the topic.
There are plenty of interesting reasons why 51.89 percent of Britons voted the way they did back in 2016. Whether one agrees with those reasons or not is for the audience to determine, not for the panellists to decide. And even were one more generous in allowing scholars to ‘take a partisan position’ publicly, then there should have been at least two of the four on the panel who could argue in favour of Brexit. That would have made for a far more informed and better discussion.
Whether Brexit is a good idea remains to be seen. History will be the final arbiter.
The international media certainly has its view (similar to the view expressed by the abovementioned scholars). In fact, it seems that pro-EU sentiment makes this a binary proposition – the good, sane, rational, cosmopolitan EU supporters vs. the bad, ignorant, foolish, racist Brexit supporters. Somehow this view ignores the fact that the EU is not a ‘self-evident’ structure. Brussels has a ton of complex problems that it is finding hard to contend with. Economically the Mediterranean states, especially Greece are far from stable and prosperous. There is no ‘unified’ diplomatic or strategic voice to underpin the EU, NATO, effectively a collection of sovereign European states and the US determines that end of the spectrum. And populist right-wing movements are spreading their hateful and narrow-minded messages with EU politicians unable or incapable of countering them.
If the EU was a legitimate expression of the interests of the ‘European people’ the right-wing would remain on the fringes of political life. So, something is wrong with the EU project. Perhaps that it is the preserve of technocrats unwilling to engage ‘the people’ lest their interests diverge from public sentiment? One doesn’t need to be a student of history to understand where such a position may lead. It certainly does not look favourably on the notion of democracy.
And if anyone were to ask me, where do I stand? My opinion is that, from the distance of Australia, I like the idea of a united Europe, but I understand the scepticism of those who criticise it. While I am disturbed by the political turmoil gripping London, and the deepening polarisation among Britons, unless a ‘new deal’ emerges whereby the EU parliament and those who run the EU apparatus can more easily make their agendas understood by the man and woman in the street; where the EU bureaucracy looks less remote from everyday life and more a part of everyday public aspirations, perhaps the current structure can redeem itself. But as we all know; political organisations are not good at reform. Usually they either dominate contemporary thinking or they break entirely, giving way to a completely different sort of framework.
The European Union from its western to its eastern frontiers is looking decidedly problematic. The centre can only hold if the people feel as though they are part of it.
But there is a historic truth which is uncomfortable to confront.
Europe was at its strongest when it was a Europe of sovereign entities. Internal competition, whether for land, political, social or economic primacy made the Continent one of clear winners and losers. Since the EU project took form in the 1950s, Europe may well have been at its most peaceful, but it has also become stagnant. Its politics uninspiring, its mechanisms overly bureaucratic and hard to fathom. Whatever happens over Brexit, this single act of defiance against Brussels by London will have lasting strategic implications. That is why studying Brexit should demand more objective academic rigour and less opinion.