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European Union

Bad news from Britain

by Hans Dembowski


Populism has triumphed.

Populism has triumphed.

The majority of the citizens of the United Kingdom have decided in a referendum that their country should leave the European Union. For several reasons, this will have detrimental impacts on global development.

Combined, the EU and its members are the international community’s most important donors by far. Their efforts and their spending could be coordinated better, but EU action could also be much more incoherent. In the past two decades, Britain was an important force for raising aid levels and improving aid effectiveness. Without Britain, European policymaking is likely to become more fragmented and less focused.

Brexit is harmful in a more profound way as well. The idea of national sovereignty is outdated. Nation states on their own, cannot rise to the many challenges humanity is facing. No government can tackle climate change, infectious diseases or tax evasion on its own. Global commons – from the protection of biodiversity to governance of the internet or a stable financial architecture – require global cooperation.

After World War II, regional integration in the EU set an example of making peace by pooling sovereignty. Later, the EU contributed to managing the transition from Soviet style communism peacefully by letting central and eastern European countries join. Allowing this continental order to unravel is the wrong message to a world that needs more international cooperation, not less.

In Britain’s referendum, the dangerous romanticism of nationalist populism has trumped sober-minded analysis. Populism, according to the political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, is an ideology that pretends that there is such a thing as a homogenous people who make up a nation and who know what is normal and how things should be. This nation, it is assumed, is not affected by internal conflicts of interests, but is exploited by elites who have teamed up with undeserving minorities and the anti-social underclass. Populists, according to Müller, claim to represent the people’s will directly and dispute the legitimacy of all other political forces.

This kind of nationalist populism is currently affecting many countries. Donald Trump in the USA or Marine le Pen in France are examples, and so are Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or Narendra Modi in India. Germany’s AfD, Austria’s FPÖ and Poland’s PiS are parties that thrive on this kind of ideology as well. They all have in common that they do not engage in reasoned debate with opponents, but prefer to demonise their opponents and make promises of national grandeur that don’t give scope for cooperation with others.

The irony is that they can express frustrations felt by many people, but they cannot deliver on their promises. The imaginary nation they promote does not exist since every community on earth has its internal divisions and conflicts. The immediate result of the Brexit vote will not be some kind of liberation for the UK, but economic volatility followed by complicated and frustrating negotiations of how to undo the regional integration already achieved. We’re likely to hear more simplistic and nationalist rhetoric from Brexit proponents who have no simple answers to the complex questions that arise from their referendum victory.   

The Brexit camp has fostered a climate of fear and anger. It must accept some of the blame for creating the political climate in which a madman murdered Jo Cox, a pro-EU Labour MP. Asked to say his name in court, Cox’s killer answered: “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” The mere idea that someone who has a different vision of ones country’s future is a traitor is anti-pluralistic and anti-democratic. But it is typical of populism.

The EU is not a perfect union. It has serious downsides. It could perform better in terms of living up to human-rights principles, for instance. Moreover, instead of ensuring social protection for all its people in times of need, member states have been forced to dismantle welfare institutions in the course of the euro crisis. No doubt, the EU needs reform. But does anybody really believe that weakening the EU will somehow boost human rights or welfare-state institutions anywhere in the world? The truth is that Brexit is bad for global aid efforts, undermines international cooperation and promotes an irrational phantasy of nationhood.

Hans Dembowski