Brexit has happened. On 31st January the United Kingdom left the European Union (EU) after 47 years. How did this happen, and does it tell us anything about populism and the possibility that Poland might one day also leave the EU?
The roots of the British problem go back to the UK’s joining what was, in 1973, the European Economic Community (EEC). Although the Treaty of Rome is quite clear about the direction of travel being towards an ever-closer political union, the UK government deliberately mislead the British people. Realising that with a proud history of freedom and genuine democratic accountability, an eventual political union would not be acceptable, the government cynically portrayed membership as a purely economic arrangement, a free trade relationship, which did chime with popular sentiment. It was on this basis that the referendum of 1975 saw a majority to remain within the EEC.
Thus were sown the seeds of the whirlwind that would be reaped in the 2016 referendum, when the UK narrowly voted to leave what had by then become the EU. In simple terms, the UK had been asked to join a football match which the British government then misrepresented to voters as an invitation to a rugby match. To a certain extent both sides have been playing with differently shaped balls and goals ever since.
Entry also got off on the wrong foot when access to British fishing waters, which had not been included in the original entry negotiations, were slipped in at the very last moment. So desperate was the then British prime minister, Ted Heath, to join the EU, that he sacrificed a wider British interest. Alas, this generosity of spirt gained the UK nothing in the longer term but did set the scene for the belief in Brussels, that in the final analysis a UK government would always give way. A fatal miscalculation as it were.
This is not the place to catalogue 47 years of misunderstanding, but it is worth pointing to a profound cultural difference at the heart of the tension. Since Magna Carta in 1215, English and later British history has been a gradual weakening of the power of the monarch in favour of Parliament. This, combined with the long tradition of the rule of law, resulted in traditionally relatively few laws, but laws that were impartially and effectively enforced.
Many member states of the EU do not share this long history of being independent states, being part for example, of the Hapsburg or Ottoman imperial arrangements. Thus, edicts from distant Vienna or Madrid could be greeted with the shrugged shoulders of indifference, much as the modern successor states might seek to treat directive from Brussels. The UK, with its different tradition, has often taken EU directives and “gold-plated” them, thus creating and enforcing regulations with a rigour not seen elsewhere.
That the UK made a rod for its own back is hardly the fault of the EU but the effect, combined with British ministers appearing helpless in the face of regulation perceived as being imposed from an unaccountable overseas body, created a hostile environment for all things EU. Voters were used to ministers standing up in Parliament and being held accountable for policy, and able to change legislation if necessary, something alien to EU arrangements.
Similarly with immigration. That the UK failed to utilise the immigration tools available to all EU members states is hardly the EU’s fault, but it became very easy for the issue to be portrayed as another example of the UK needing to “take back control”, inaccurately described as only possible by leaving the EU.
And so to the 2016 referendum result – the outcome of several factors: long standing opposition to the EU, a reaction to the uncertainty caused by the effects of globalisation; a poor campaign by the government which was too negative, failed to talk up the benefits of EU membership, and made the mistake of including warnings from IMF head Christine Lagarde, and US President Obama – nothing could have been more calculated to get folks’ backs up than foreign leaders seeking to give orders; and, above all, the delight which voters always feel when having the opportunity to vote against the government.
Such is the deeply engrained respect for democracy that the government considered itself bound to give effect to the result. Even though it could be, and was, argued that the referendum result was not legally binding, the government had said it would honour the result and it did. This respect for the democratic will is a bright spot in a world where democracy is under threat. The EU also prefers countries to re-run referenda where the result doesn’t suit them. Not this time.
For the EU, for those who wished to remain, for the cocooned political elites, this was but another example of the scourge of populism which had delivered US President Trump, Viktor Orban, and host of other, in their view, undesirable political parties across Europe including Law and Justice in Poland. How dare folk vote in this way, don’t they know that we know what’s best – cry the elites from Washington to Warsaw.
But populism is not the sinister force the elites would have folk believe. It is the voice of frustration, the voice of those who are fed up of having their legitimate concerns ignored, who feel ignored, who see their politicians unwilling to help them face the challenges of globalisation, who appear helpless in face of mass immigration and disguise their unwillingness to act by accusing those opposing them of being racist, misrepresent the economic benefits, and champion the false god of diversity. Populism is not the danger – but economy with the truth and disdain for the voters is.
Be that as it may, will Brexit lead to Polexit? This seems unlikely. The EU remains very popular in Poland and the benefits to Poland and its citizens are tangible. More important, is the geo-political imperative. After centuries of turmoil, EU membership anchors Poland to western Europe. This, together with NATO membership, gives Poland the security it has not known for centuries. The historical factors which influenced the Brexit decision are not the same for Poland.
Of course, politicians being politicians, the rhetoric in Poland, particularly from the current government, its judicial reforms and what it sees as a defence of European Christian values, might appear to suggest otherwise, but Polexit is not on the agenda. Conversely, despite the rhetoric, the UK was a model member state. Behind the scenes it was an energetic worker, it created the single market and paid its memberships fees – it was one of the largest net contributors to EU funds – on time, as well as adopting EU directives promptly.
The lesson to be learned is that for the EU – the political objective will always win and the UK’s more pragmatic rational approach to negotiations was, for that reason, doomed to fail. Perhaps Poland’s more bloody-minded approach of sticking to its guns while enjoying all the benefits of membership will be seen the better one.
Nicholas Richardson is a British expat and business owner living in Poland. He often comments on current events, as well as Polish culture and what life is like for foreigners here.
He also publishes his own blog – ThePolishedLawyer.com