Brexit, the anti-Grexit

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First published in Libération. Translated by David Broder.



Far be it from me to minimise the dramatic consequences the UK’s vote will have for the British as well as for Europe. But I am struck by the way in which the French and foreign newspaper headlines present us how things are "After Brexit…" With very few exceptions all of them seem to take it for given that a divorce has indeed taken place. In reality, while we are certainly entering into a turbulent period, the outcome is not at all clear. And what I want to try and comment on and interpret is this uncertainty. As we know, comparisons aren’t everything. But how could we fail to note that in the recent history of European politics national or multi-national referendum results have never been put into effect? Such was the case in 2005 and 2008 with the "European Constitution" and the Lisbon Treaty, and even more clearly in 2015 with the memorandum imposed on Greece. Very probably the same will be the case here, too. Above and beyond the personal conflicts that led to a difference of tactics, the British ruling class is manoeuvring to push back the deadlines and negotiate the terms of "exit" as best as possible. Certain governments (the French one in the lead) as well as European Commission spokespersons have been rattling their sabres ("out is out," "leave means leave"). But Germany isn’t listening with the same ear, and there will be no unanimity — at most a façade of it.

The most plausible result — at the end of a period of tensions, whose outcome we be determined less by public opinion than by the fluctuations of the finance markets — is that we will end up with a new geometry for the "system" of European states. The loss of formal EU membership will be in any case be offset by other structures: the Euro but also NATO, the border security system that takes over from Schengen, and a "free-trade zone" defined in function of economic power relations. Again from this point of view the comparison between Grexit and Brexit could prove instructive. The weakness of Greece — abandoned by all those who logically ought to have supported its demands — has led to a regime of internal exclusion; conversely, the relative strength of the UK (which can count on solid support within the EU) will doubtless lead to an accentuated form of external inclusion. Is that to say that this isn’t a turning point? Obviously not. Let’s briefly examine the "British side" and the "European side," before explaining why that are not separable, but instead represent two sides of one same coin.

Clearly in explaining the emergence of a hegemonic "anti-European" sentiment we have to consider Britain’s particular history, its imperial past, and its social history made up of abrupt reversals, The analyses provided thus far show the extraordinary variety of variables at work here, with division according to factors of class, generation, nationality and ethnicity. These factors potentially contradict one another, and it is this contradiction that the "sovereigntist" discourse manipulated by the partisans of Brexit overlays. So we should ask how long it will be able to mask the fact that the economic ravages to which a growing proportion of the "new poor" in the UK are now subject owe to the cumulated effect of neoliberal policies that not only the EU imposed on Great Britain. On the contrary, from the Thatcher period through the New Labour era the UK was one of the most active supporters of neoliberalism across all of Europe. Whatever its modalities, Brexit will not itself bring any correction to this situation. Evidently, that would only be the case if an alternative policy became a majority one. But not the least paradox of this situation is that in order for that to happen it would have to have a counterpart on the Continent, because the law of competition between "territories" will now impose itself more than ever. 

That brings us to the "European" side. Even properly taking all the different specificities into account, none of the problems hitting the UK is absent from the other nations of Europe. There is some truth in the "populist" ("neither Left nor Right") propaganda now breaking out across the whole EU, calling for referendums on the British model. Even in 2005 Chancellor Schmidt observed that if referendums like the ones staged in France and the Netherlands had taken place everywhere, without exception they would have resulted in "No" votes. All countries have seen the development of the crisis of legitimacy, of the return of nationalism, and of the tendency to project the social and cultural malaise onto an "enemy within" targeted by xenophobic and Islamophobic parities. The governments already won to austerity used the Greek crisis to make public debt into a spectre haunting the taxpayer. The refugee crisis has been collapsed into questions of security. Clearly what manifests itself in the UK as "separatism" is expressed everywhere in Europe in the tendency for societies to fragment, with their internal and external fractures aggravated.

We can put that better. We have passed a threshold in the process of the disaggregation of the European project. This is not because of the British vote, but the referendum did reveal tendencies toward polarisation in the European collective and a both moral and political crisis. As I have said, it is not only that we are in an "interregnum"; rather, we are witnessing a destituent process that for the moment has no constituent counterpart.

Are we powerless? That’s the whole question. For the short term I am very pessimistic, because the discourse about "refounding" Europe is in the hands of the political and technocratic class. A class, that is, that does not at all envisage changing the course that guarantees it the goodwill of hidden powers (those of the financial markets) and which does not want to deeply reform the system of government from which it draws its monopoly of representation. By consequence, the role of opposition is taken by parties and ideologues who seek to destroy the links between the peoples (or more generally the residents) of Europe. It will take a very long march before we arrive at the conjugation and clarification — in the eyes of the majority of citizens, across borders — of the close interdependence between shared sovereignty, transnational democracy, alter-globalisation, the co-development of regions and nations, and exchange among cultures. We are not at that point, and time is running short… All the more reason — if we do believe in Europe — to continue without relent to explain what is going on.