Post-Brexit EU must fight the descent into populism

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Remain campaigners had high hopes for a victory on 23 June. [James Sibley]

The forces that led to Brexit are not unique to the UK. Europeans must react against populism, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and “post-truth” politics before the EU’s values become a thing of the past, writes James Sibley.

James Sibley is a policy & public affairs executive at the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors, a British citizen and a campaigner for the UK to stay in the European Union. Here he writes in a personal capacity.

As a British citizen born in Denmark, as a former immigrant to Belgium, as someone who’s worked on European politics for five years now, I can’t truly explain how distraught I am that the UK has voted to leave a union that has maintained peace between its members for 60 years.

While I was prepared for this, I’m sad. One of the many legitimate criticisms of the EU is that there is no European identity. But, to borrow a marketing phrase, I’m part of “Generation easyJet”. You could equally call it generation Erasmus, generation Interrail, generation “the stag do is in Tallinn, book your tickets”.

And should people claim this just applies to a “European elite”, they would be wrong. During my time at university, in Exeter in rural Devon, I worked at a McDonald’s. I worked there with people from across the world, and I saw many examples of British-EU friendships, relationships, and even babies from those relationships.

I’m not going to claim that a European identity exists. But maybe, just maybe, 20 or so years after the Maastricht Treaty was signed, one was emerging. One layered on top of our strong national identities – not substituting or engulfing it. But now we may well be moving away from that. I consider that a tragedy.

But mainly I’m angry.

If the remain side exaggerated its claims, the leave side simply lied. The idea that Turkey, complete with its jailed journalists and its support for the occupation of northern Cyprus, is joining the EU anytime soon is fantasy. The infamous and long-discredited £350 million a week claim was repeated until it stuck (and was then dropped immediately).

More than anything the idea that we are “ruled” by Brussels is a horrible twisting of the truth; one that settled into the consciousness of many after years of “Up Yours Delors” coverage of the EU.

There are about 55,000 EU civil servants in Brussels. There are over 200,000 in Whitehall. If we are truly ruled by Brussels and have (insert made up percentage here) of our laws decided for us by the EU, what are those civil servants in Whitehall doing?

The UK is a sovereign country. The EU did not decide for us to invade Iraq. Brussels did not decide to bail out our banks in 2008. It did not force us to cut local services to the bone in the aftermath.

But take back control, we were told. Of what? Standards for vacuum cleaners? Rules that now ensure that the imported beef you’re eating is not, in fact, horse?

The rules that the EU proposes are largely technical, but nevertheless important in a single market where goods and services should be traded freely and without technical barriers.

Our MEPs, our civil service, and our government scrutinise and amend these rules as part of the EU legislative process. Furthermore, the UK government has been in the winning majority for votes in the Council of the EU 87% of the time since the expansion east. That does not suggest, to me, a UK having laws foisted upon it.

And then there’s immigration. Farage’s awful “breaking point” poster and the “send them back” mentality that has emerged have been an embarrassment to this country and deeply concerning.

Nevertheless I have some sympathy with immigration concerns. I can understand why areas such as Boston or Peterborough, small towns that have seen a concentrated influx of EU migrants in recent years, voted to leave. Public services probably were put under strain in these areas. However, this is not true everywhere and often comes down to management.

And ultimately, as has been pointed out repeatedly, EU migrants are not responsible for austerity. The reason the NHS is under strain is that its funding has been frozen for the past six years.

I imagine the anger that I feel about these lies and exaggerations will be matched and then some by many people who voted leave when they realise they were lied to and patronised by leave leaders who view many of them with contempt.

Gove, Johnson, and Dan Hannan have all come out in favour of the “Norway option” since the vote. If the EU is feeling generous and allows us to enter the EEA, we’re still going to have the EU migrants and equivalent, if not larger, budgetary contributions. The alternative is a return to tariffs and a genuine economic catastrophe.

But enough of that…

One small positive out of the entire referendum was my local involvement in the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign in Camberwell and Peckham. The nation voted leave, but my home constituency voted remain by around 85%(!).

For those that voted remain, and those that campaigned for remain in particular, the aim now is ensuring that the deal struck between the UK and Europe is as outward looking, as internationalist, and as inclusive as the United Kingdom that we want. It’s ensuring that the xenophobic forces unleashed by this referendum do not become the norm.

Europe is at its weakest point in its modern history. It is confronted by four major crises: the refugee crisis, the euro, a belligerent Russia, and now – pathetically – Brexit.

For my European friends, it’s important not to think that the forces that led to a leave vote are not an exception specific to the UK. Populism, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and “post-truth” politics are prevalent across the continent. Austria just came within 31,000 ballots of electing a far-right president. We’re staring down the barrel of a second French presidential election involving a Le Pen in the second round.

For the EU to succeed, a lot of effort will be needed not just by politicians, but by individual citizens who decide that they don’t recognise their country and want to do something about it. For people to say that they want what’s best for their country, but also what’s best for their continent. It’s important to start before it’s too late.

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