Well, well, here we are, cleaning up the mess after the UK has voted to leave the European Union. It was quite a party, the hooligans were out among the lambs, detritus was thrown and left on the ground, hangovers were rampant, and come the mourning after, everyone had to get a grip on in order to keep down their Weetabix.
Apparently, already four million people (as of this writing) have signed a petition asking if they couldn’t just vote again – pleeeeeze. According to a Washington Post article, Britons spent the next day searching on line to find out what the European Union was. You’d think they’d have wanted to do that before they voted, wouldn’t you?
Lie to me
A good piece of the answer to why they didn’t comes with the now time-worn phrase, “The big lie.”
The term originally came from Adolf Hitler, who applied it to Jews in Mein Kampf. His propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, turned it into a technique that can be summed up as, people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.
Another characteristic of the big lie is to never give the public any rest from the pressure, and never admit any alternatives exist.
The story told by the “Leave” campaign contained a number of such big lies. Let’s look at one: The UK sends 350 million pounds to Brussels every week, and that money could build new hospitals, and would be used to beef up the ailing National Health Service (NHS) in Britain. The only problem is, while the UK does send that money out, it gets ⅔ of it back in the form of agricultural subsidies, and the famous blank cheque demanded by Margaret “I want my money back” Thatcher. The lion’s share of that return, by the way, comes from France.
After the referendum, on the TV programme, “Good Morning Britain,” UKIP leader Nigel Farage admitted that he could not guarantee that this money would all be spent on health, or that it even existed.
Another “Leave” campaign theme was immigration control. One image featured large queues of “foreign looking” candidates for asylum and raised the spectre of hoards of people “not like us” that might come if Britain stayed in. But immigration from inside the E.U. doesn’t come from Syria or Eritrea, it comes from Poland, Romania, Czech Republic, Greece, even France and Germany. And those immigrants are well-integrated into British society, they’re working, and are largely invisible.
Under a bilateral treaty, the Treaty of Touquet, the French-UK border is established on the French side of the English Channel, with disastrous consequences for the city of Calais, due to improvised camps of desperate would-be asylum seekers, blocked from entering the UK by French police (yes, France is protecting the UK’s borders against the “ugly masses”). With the UK out of the E.U., France has little incentive to continue this agreement, even though it was not conducted inside the E.U. framework. In other words, by voting itself out of the E.U. Britain may find itself with similar camps at Dover.
The Real Immigration Problem and the Generation Gap
The UK does have an immigration problem, and it is a domestic one. The UK has a population of 64.1 million people (2013 figures, per a variety of sources, including the World Bank). France has just a bit more, at 66.03 million (same year & sources). But the UK is just over ⅓ the size of France. The “immigration” problem is, in reality, a population problem. Town councils are struggling to provide infrastructure, and land is at a premium in a country that values its rural landscape highly.
That said, in the UK as in the rest of Europe, more people die every year than are born. This means that in the long term, the UK needs immigrants. What it has to do is find solutions to its short-term infrastructure and land use problems, so that the future population it needs can be accommodated.
That part of the story wasn’t told.
Young against old
Young people voted largely for “Remain.” Older folks (baby-boomers like me) voted for “Leave.” The young ones were born into, and grew up in, the European Union. I recall, when I received my French nationality, I told my then teenage (Spanish) son, “I’m French now.” He replied, “You’re European now.” Problem is, there are more of us than there are young folks in Britain, and those young people are now being deprived of the European citizenship they were born with.
The same complaint goes for the Scots and the Northern Irish. One of the reasons Scotland voted “No” in the recent independence referendum was that they were afraid of losing their European citizenship – something that could have happened had they separated from the UK. Now, with an imminent separation of the UK from the rest of Europe, Scotland sees no reason not to vote again – and prime minister Nicola Sturgeon says she’ll do it when she knows she can win.
The situation is perhaps even more delicate for Northern Ireland. With the UK out of the European Union, the Ulster-Republic of Ireland border closes down once again, becomes the border between the UK and the EU. When free and open passage across the border between the two Irelands has been a major part of the fragile peace in Northern Ireland, and when you note that Northern Ireland voted largely to remain in the EU, you can start to see the problem waiting to happen.
Lie to Me Some More
Well, they voted, and they voted to leave. So it’s settled, isn’t it?
Brexit – well, maybe not
Both Boris Johnson, the man most likely to take over Britain’s conservative party, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have stated publicly that there’s no hurry to start the process in motion. What?
The way it works is that the whole process is up to the UK. Article 50 of the European Union treaty requires that if a country wants to leave, that country must initiate the process described in the article. But David Cameron, who has resigned as prime minister, has said he will leave this job to his successor – in October. BoJo, as the most likely suspect is known, is in no hurry to get started either.
Update 30 June 2016: After Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced his candidacy for the Conservative Party leadership, Boris Johnson decided not to run. The current favourite seems to be Home Secretary Theresa May, who has advocated that the UK pull out of the European Court of Human Rights.
Seems the “Leave” camp had no plan for success. Indeed, they didn’t expect to win. Once the Article 50 process begins, they have two years to negotiate the disengagement. During that time, the UK will remain a member of the EU. Lots of questions are open.
- Will they still have veto power?
- Will they still have a European Commissioner?
- What about their EU parliament members, how can they vote on the future of the union?
- Will they still get their blank cheque?
The UK’s European Commissioner, Lord Hill, has resigned. He was in charge of financial services, and could have veto power over the finances of an organization his country had voted to leave. You can see how resigning was his only honourable course – especially since he supported the “Remain” camp. It also demonstrates the untenable contradiction in which the UK now finds itself.
Le Monde editorialist Arnaud Le Parmentier wrote last Saturday that “Brexit will never happen.” He quotes Pascal Lamy, former director of the World Trade Organisation, who said, “You can’t make eggs from an omelette.” If you liken the process to a divorce proceeding, it can go on forever, get very ugly, and at the end, the agreement is so awful that the parties decide to stay married.
In fact, the referendum was “merely” consultative. Initiating Article 50 must be voted by Parliament. The current parliament would most probably defeat such a measure. If Boris Johnson takes over the Conservative leadership – and thus the Prime Ministership – will he call new elections? It could take as long as two years before the measure even comes up for a vote – and it could be never, should the government not press.
A Symptom and a Warning
The story of poor communication that is the campaign for the referendum and its aftermath is not unique to the UK. It’s a manifestation of a communications breakdown between the governors and the governed throughout the Western World. Democracies are threatened by the Big Lie. The Big Lie is being told by politicians who are mostly interested in maintaining power, not leading.
Thus we can see Donald Trump, in the U.S. using similar tactics to the UK “Leave” campaign. We see Viktor Orban doing it in Hungary, and Beata Szydło in Poland. François Hollande, in France, promulgates laws that make exceptional restrictions on freedom permanent, “in order to protect freedom” – the same kind of arguments made by George W.Bush and his gang. In Spain, Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular can continue to govern and run in elections despite hundreds of millions of euros in corruption scandals, and flagrant proven illegal acts by the interior minister for political ends.
Instead of communication, we get spin. Sometimes, we don’t even get that, we just get lies.
In my next post, I’ll explain why, despite all that I’ve written here, I will be glad if the UK really does leave the European Union.
Thanks to David Stein and Neus Lorenzo for leading me to some of the information cited in this post.