Commentary / World

What Brexit reveals about the EU

by Bill Emmott

In another bizarre twist in the Brexit saga, the U.K. Parliament has signaled its acceptance of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s withdrawal deal with the European Union but has also decided there must be a general election on Dec. 12 before the deal can finally be ratified. EU leaders could be forgiven an ironic smile. Even though opinion polls give Johnson’s pro-Brexit Conservatives a commanding lead as the campaign opens, they also indicate that a clear majority of British voters — larger than the one that backed “leave” in the 2016 referendum — actually favors remaining in the EU.

But EU leaders may want to contain their smiles. The EU’s biggest enemy is not Euroskeptic hostility, but rather indifference. Although polls taken even before the Brexit referendum tended to show a majority for “remain,” they also found that most Britons didn’t care about the EU one way or another. The question of EU membership simply wasn’t a priority issue for most people. It was assumed that voters would select the less risky option and support staying in the bloc. In fact, their indifference put the referendum up for grabs.

As a result, random contingencies or the effectiveness of either side’s rhetoric had the potential to push the result over the line in either direction. In the event, immigration had become a potent issue in 2016, owing to media images of mass migration and refugee flows across the Mediterranean and the Balkans. For the leave campaign, the EU’s failure to manage the crisis was a boon.

Yet when future historians look back at this episode, they will probably conclude that there was an ocean of apathy between two sets of hard-core true believers on each side of the European question. Britain had always been a semi-reluctant EU member state, so it didn’t take much to tip the balance slightly in favor of leaving. The key moment came when Prime Minister David Cameron, driven by political dynamics within the Conservative Party, made the fateful decision to hold a referendum on the issue, amid the economic and political stress of the long recession that followed the 2008 global financial crisis.

Ever since the establishment of the European Economic Community (the precursor to the EU) in 1957, Britons have had a rather detached, sometimes even condescending, view of European integration. This remained the case even after the United Kingdom’s accession to the bloc in 1973, and even after a significant majority of British voters affirmed EU membership in a referendum in 1975. For the British, being a part of “Europe” was a transactional relationship, not a marriage of love.

By contrast, the countries that suffered the most from two world wars and German occupation during World War II (France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy) have always had deeper, more sentimental reasons for supporting the EU. The specter of war features prominently in these countries’ collective memory, even among younger generations that were born long after peace had been secured.

But even continental Europeans’ commitment to the European project should not be taken for granted. Last month, the think tank Friends of Europe published an opinion poll based on interviews with over 12,000 respondents across the 28 EU countries and found that 60 percent of respondents “aren’t sure they would miss the EU if it were gone.” That result should chill the bones of all EU leaders.

Predictably, the share of British respondents who aren’t sure if they would miss the EU is 63 percent. But a staggering 72 percent of French respondents feel the same way, as do 67 percent of Italians and 60 percent of Germans. On this evidence, the EU’s biggest problem is that citizens simply take it for granted, and do not particularly care whether it thrives or fades away.

This problem may reflect a failure of communication. After all, a supranational bureaucratic entity comprising an endless array of directorates, agencies and committees was always going to find it hard to be loved, or even to explain what it does and why it exists. But the bigger problem is that the EU struggles to make quick, clear and ambitious decisions. It has a far easier time saying no than yes. It is a lot better at defusing conflicts among members than it is at mustering collective action in the interest of clearly defined shared objectives.

This wasn’t always the case. The launch of the euro in 1999 was a big, clear, epochal moment, following a major political decision and the successful implementation of many technical measures. But since then, things haven’t gone well when it comes to the one issue that most concerns ordinary voters: the eurozone’s effectiveness at creating jobs and ensuring rising living standards. Nowadays, the euro elicits reluctant acceptance, not passion and conviction.

The slogan of Britain’s famed Special Air Service is, “Who Dares Wins.” But in the case of Brexit, one could adapt it to say, “Who Cares Wins.” In the run-up to the 2016 referendum, pro-EU forces failed to make enough Britons care about EU membership. Perhaps that will change during the December general election campaign, but it would be risky to bet on it. Proponents of the EU across the other member states should take note. Indifference is their greatest enemy.

Bill Emmott, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, is the author of “The Fate of the West.” ©Project Syndicate, 2019

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