Brexit: Nobody loves a bureaucracy

Jules Maaten

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Slow, legalistic, elitist, humorless – nobody really wants the kind of dull, faceless cooperation that the EU currently has on offer

The world was taken aback by the British vote to leave the European Union (EU) in last Thursday’s (June 23) referendum. We needn’t have been so surprised. The experience with EU referenda in countries like France, the Netherlands and Ireland taught us that they are often used as a way for the people to kick their rulers in the teeth. Never mind the question that they are actually being asked on the ballot paper.

In this case of course, the referendum result has far reaching consequences, especially for the British themselves. Sure, for the EU it is a setback too, but one that it is sturdy enough to overcome. And without the British, the EU may even be able to finally adopt some urgently needed cooperative measures that the British used to block. The British may enjoy a short while of what they call “independence”, and then discover that they are beset by global forces that are much easier controlled from within the EU, and that they lose all the advantages of the economy of scale that the EU offers. It is not a coincidence that the remain-vote had a large majority amongst the younger voters, who will no longer have the possibility to easily work and study in the other 27 member states. Scotland, that voted to remain in the EU, may now well leave the UK. In fact, within a day or two of the referendum a petition calling for a new referendum got more than 2 million signatures.

But the vote was not merely about the European Union. It was as much about immigration, about the government’s austerity measures, and about a general sense that Britain isn’t what it used to be. Apart from Scotland, the remain-vote had a majority in urban centers like London, Manchester and Liverpool, and the leave-vote was strongest in the countryside and in traditional industrial Labour-heartlands that suffer particularly under the measures of the current Conservative government.

No doubt there is a sense of fear amongst a large part of the electorate, not only in Britain. We see it in other northwest European countries, we see it in the United States, and elsewhere. Many people understand the global processes that are going on, and that they have the potential of bringing great benefits (and in many cases have already done so) and bring opportunities, but many more find these processes bewildering and the changes that they bring frightful, and believe that the challenges that they pose are almost impossible to overcome.

Thanks to modern technology, such as the internet, today’s society is incomparably faster and more complex than it was even only 20 years ago. If you are not part of it, you easily feel left behind. This is an important cause of what is called the “disconnect” between decision makers, media and large businesses on the one hand, and the rest of us on the other.

Only the United States seems to be able to harness globalization to some extent, but it is not as if the national government there (whichever the ruling party) is always so popular either.

To cut a long story short, a referendum on EU issues is a wonderful opportunity to vent the accumulated fear and anger.

A Union Jack flag flutters next to European Union flags at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, January 29, 2016. Photo by Laurent Dubrule/EPA

It is incongruous, because as a project the EU is singularly successful. It has produced legislation that is arguably of great benefit to its citizens, in a whole lot of areas from consumer protection and health issues to food production and environmental protection. The Erasmus system allows students to enjoy education in other member states, and now also has a global component.

The EU brought democracy to the formerly communist countries in Eastern Europe, and its soft-power foreign policy is increasingly successful, even if in both cases there is room for improvement. The euro currency, despite the problems with Greece, has actually been a success, leading to greater monetary stability than Europe has ever known in its history. The so-called Schengen-cooperation of passport and visa free travel works well. Britain, of course, wasn’t part of either the euro or of Schengen. For most, and probably all EU-member states it would be impossible to handle super-powers like the United States, Russia and China on their own.

And yet, contrary to the 1970s and 80s, the EU has managed to become entirely un-loved by large chunks of the European citizenry. However magnificently the bureaucracy works, it is still a bureaucracy behind splendid glass façades. It has become slow, legalistic and elitist, and worst of all it has developed a humorless kind of institutional arrogance. What is needed to face to problems of the modern age is better and often more intensive cooperation, but nobody really wants the kind of dull, faceless cooperation that the EU currently has on offer.

Sure, one major problem has also been that leaders of European governments have for decades engaged in an us-and-them rhetoric, blaming Europe for unpopular decisions that they themselves have just taken collectively. But the European institutions have made it easy for them to do so.

These problems are not impossible to solve. They require creativity and agility, and the political will – thus far hardly noticeable on the part of the member states’ governments – to make the European project once again inspiring. They also require simple, practical measures that show benefits for ordinary people. The recent legislation on mobile telephony, doing away with high charges when people take their mobile phone abroad within the EU, are a positive example.

This is what they mean when European decision makers say that the Brexit, for all its problems, is also an opportunity to finally move forward. A relaunch of the European project is possible, even necessary. And if that happens successfully, one should not be surprised if at some point in the future, 10 or 20 years ahead, a British (or English) government would reasonably argue that it would quite like their country to be part of it again. –

Jules Maaten was Country Director of the Philippines office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom – a German NGO – from 2010-2016. From 1999-2009 he was a Member of the European Parliament.

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