Moravcsik interview, part I: Britain is the exception to the rule

United for Europe demo. London, 27 March. [Ed Everett/Flickr]

Brexit was an extremely unlikely occurrence, Princeton University’s Andrew Moravcsik told EURACTIV Slovakia.

Andrew Moravcsik is a professor of politics and director of the European Union Program at Princeton University. He developed one of the fundamental theories of European affairs, liberal intergovernmentalism.

Moravcsik spoke to’s Senior Editor, Pavol Szalai.

We see the rise of populism all over Europe, in the West and in the East. Is this a new trend or a short-term deviation?

It is a change in a trend that has been true in Europe for 50 years.

There have always been 20%-25% of population in many countries, in France, among the extremes of the British political spectrum, in Italy. They have not been entirely comfortable with capitalist democracy.

The question a political scientist like myself would ask about them is: Under what institutional conditions, an extreme party actually comes into power. And in this respect, there are reasons to be much more optimistic. We see that in a system like in the Netherlands – with lots of parties in a parliamentary rule – it is very hard for extreme parties to be part of the system. Actually, we learnt from Austria 10 years ago that when they become part of the system, it weakens them.

In France, there is a two-round presidential election. It is easy for them to win the first round, because they need only 25 or 20 percent of the votes, but impossible for them to win the second round.

In other countries, it is equally difficult to imagine a truly Eurosceptic party coming into power except a few smaller countries like Poland and Hungary. And what do we see? They never pull the trigger on something like pulling out of the EU, because that would be suicidal.

EXCLUSIVE: EU leaders ready for orderly Brexit, but prepared for failure

EXCLUSIVE / In a draft European Council statement seen by EURACTIV, EU member states regret that the UK will leave the Union, but “are ready for the process that now will have to follow”.

You need to look very carefully and institutionally what the possibilities are for these parties to rule, not why they get 20 or 25% of the votes.

Britain is the exception that proves the rule. Parties like the UKIP and even the right wing of the Tory party have never been able to dominate the British politics. Nobody from UKIP has ever been elected to the Parliament. And the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party did not have a majority in the Parliament.

But if you create an institutional possibility like referendum – particularly a referendum about something very broad like the future of Europe, which does not trigger the traditional cultural values people have like what party they vote for or how they feel about economic redistribution – then you will see people voting in paradoxical, confusing ways. Like Labour Party people voting for Brexit, believing that it will be better from a political and economic standpoint. Things like that really make no sense.

So, you need to avoid political scenarios like referenda or European Parliament elections, which in fact are zones of no cultural or institutional ordering. But in a normally ordered European polity with a parliamentary government and two-stage presidential election, it is impossible.

I understand the institutional argument. But in France, for example, the support for Marine Le Pen has been growing. Her father Jean-Marie had 18% in the second round, she would have 44% if she was against François Fillon. Her public support is growing.

Anybody can win European elections. Nigel Farage can win European elections. Because they are protest votes. And the reason is people do not understand what is at stake in them.

Marine Le Pen is also popular in the regions. She has mayors in some cities.

So did the Italian and French Communist parties. A lot of people have mayors. That is not the same thing as saying this is going to dominate the political spectrum of Western democracies.

People have the view there are never contrary or paradoxical trends in Western democracies. There always are. Voters are very unruly people. But the question is: Who governs? If you try to ask the question, it is very hard to see how far-right wing parties are going to call the shorts.

So you believe that far-right or nationalist parties will not take out the moderate parties.

Absolutely, they will not. But they will influence those parties on a very small number of issues. And those are only issues, which independently really matter to the voters. There are really only two. One is migration, the other is macro-economic growth.

On migration, the EU will move in a direction more closed. It has every advanced industrial democracy moving in that direction. We do not have to ask, whether it is moral or immoral, good or bad. It is what the voters want and what they actually have a strong view about. And since big European countries have roughly 15% of immigrants already, it is going to be a big number. I am not saying it is good. It is inevitable.

Immigration topped concerns for Brexit voters

Migration was the main motivation for almost half of Leave voters in the Brexit referendum, but areas with the most immigrants tended to vote Remain. EURACTIV’s partner La Tribune reports.

In the case of macro-economic stability, people are very frustrated by the fact that the macro-economic health of European countries is not good. And they are not wrong when they say the EU, in particularly the European Monetary Union, has something to do with that.

Are you criticising austerity, which can fuel anti-establishment sentiments?

Absolutely. But unfortunately, that would be too easy. Because then the solution would be just to be more generous. For example, Greece is a small country and should have been bailed out at the start, can be bailed out now and be forgiven the debt.

But, unfortunately, it is much more difficult with a country like Italy or Spain. These countries are much bigger, they have genuinely robust political economies. Giving them money, but leaving them uncompetitive, just does not solve the problem. There, I think the best solution would be for them to pull out of the eurozone. But I understand why politicians – who always do what is in their short-term interest rather than what is in the long-term interest of their country – are unlikely to do that. I am less hopeful about that particular issue. It will probably awake some kind of a crisis.

In your work, you assume states are rational actors. Supposing it is good for the UK to be in the EU – as the proponents pointed out – doesn’t Brexit prove you wrong? Didn’t the UK decide to go against its interest?

First of all, state interests are not necessarily what we think they are.

But Brexit was an extremely unlikely occurrence. It was unlikely somebody would be foolish enough to call a referendum. It would be unlikely they would also lose it. And now the government is stuck.

The truth is most people in that government were opposed to or had ambivalent feelings about Brexit. Now they are stuck for a short period of time with an openly pro-hard-Brexit policy.

But it will take five, ten years to actually do this.

To negotiate the new relationship?

Yes. You can sign an agreement saying Britain will exit the European Union. But to replace it with something else and then to replace it with trade agreements with everybody else in the world…

The last major trade agreement cited in the British debate – as evidence it could be done quickly – was the trade agreement between Columbia and Korea. They are two countries that barely trade with each other. It was claimed it took 15 months to sign that agreement. It actually takes 15 years to sign, implement and negotiate that agreement.

So, Britain will be at this for a very long time. It is not enough to say, well, right now British voters seem to be 55 or 45% in favour of Brexit. The question is what they will feel like three, five years from now.


Subscribe to our newsletters