The Warsaw Voice » Politics » Monthly - July 13, 2016
Politics & Society
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Bye, Bye Britain
by Marek Orzechowski

So it’s happened. EU citizens have cast their ballots in 57 referendums concerning the European community since 1972. In two-thirds of the cases, they opted for stronger European integration. The 58th and arguably most important referendum on June 23, 2016 in Britain ended with the voters saying “no” to the EU. The problem is that the vote was not only about Britain and its continued membership of the EU. It was also about the future of Europe, our common future. Should we despair?

Politicians resent popular votes and in a way, they have a point. You can never tell what comes out of the ballot box and so to politicians, the populi in vox populi is really about populism. And populism can do without lofty declarations and enlightened visions. Populists never want to rise above the common folk. Visionaries feel somewhat offended by this earthbound attitude, which is why they prefer parliamentary votes, as those ensure majority protection for their projects. Direct democracy reflects the popular mood, while parliamentary votes reflect political arrangements. As a result, grand projects and referendums do not go together well, especially when the projects have a direct impact on people’s lives and the impact takes a long time before it can be correctly assessed.

Even though referendums reflect how people feel, they are not why people feel the way they do. Referendums provide a direct feedback on how democracy is functioning. The rules are simple: as long as people are happy with democracy and keep their frustration at bay, the result of a referendum is not a protest of any kind or a call for urgent change. Referendums are not about intuitions, as those can be wrong. Referendums let ordinary people have their say when faced with mistakes made by those above them.

Great political projects do not originate from referendums. They take visionaries who are ahead of their times and see the bigger picture. The EU project has come a long way thanks to the courage of such people and also because it has been embraced by millions, giving them a sense of responsibility for a common future. This has been a beautiful project and the most difficult one in European history. But if each of its stages had been subject to public approval in a referendum, the project would have never gone beyond the planning phase—not necessarily because most people had a different idea of Europe or were too immature to appreciate the vision they were being shown, but because politicians do not come up with visions for their own sake. Politicians are obligated to win people’s support for their visions and then make sure these ideals do not deteriorate. When people feel left behind and powerless against challenges, when ambitious projects defy common sense and when calls for corrections are all in vain, then it’s time to face the truth.

Should we all be in tears over Brexit, then? No, we need to remain calm. Even if the public mood in Britain echoes similar sentiment in other EU countries, there is just one Britain, which is to say you cannot copy or transplant its own distinctive problems. They have to be tackled by the Brits themselves and now that they have voted out of the EU, they will no longer have Brussels to blame for any obstructions, domination or deadlocks. Britain has had a privileged position in the EU, better than that of any other country, and yet it has been whimsical, demanding and aloof. The British have now regained full freedom—or even independence, as some argue. This almost sounds as if Britain has escaped some kind of Babylonian captivity. In reality, however, they have always been an insular country, both geographically and mentally. Britain only took a few steps into the mainland and now it is back to its island. No declarations, no statements and no debates can change the obvious truth: Britain has chosen isolation. Generations of European Brits have been defeated.

In other words, their problems are no longer ours and we will find our problems easier to solve without the British disinterest. We do not even need to wait for a new visionary. Times may have changed, but the old, original ideals of a united Europe still hold true. All we need to do is dust them off. As European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker nicely put it when he took office, we need to think big of big matters and small of small ones. The curvy banana must not eclipse our common safety and peace, but for now the reverse is happening. There’s no point in listing the EU’s shortcomings; any businessman, financier, banker, journalist, teacher, researcher and, last but not least, politician knows plenty of those. They all know the problems and feel totally powerless about them. The image of Brussels as a monster eating its own tail is sad but true. It is high time we scared the monster away and got our Community back.

We still have time to make amends, but a reform program requires a frank discussion. The European ideals are not the sole property of one or several countries. So instead of debating the conditions on which Britain should leave the EU (let the experts take care of that), we should seriously consider how an EU of 27 states should function. It sure cannot go on the way it is now. The English are not the only ones to feel frustrated, detached and convinced that the beautiful ideals of living as a Community are drowning in an ocean of regulations. You get all that in other nations as well and painful as it is, Brexit presents the first opportunity in years to examine our conscience, repent and then fix the EU. We need to get the EU closer to us and away from the bureaucrats. This is a pressing opportunity because the implications of Brexit cannot be swept under the carpet.

The coming weeks will show who is after what and whether different visions and desires can be reconciled. But the dust has to settle first. Splitting the EU into subgroups would be pointless, unlike easing the pressure on countries that want more peace and less smear campaigning. The “More Europe” slogan has to be replaced with “We Want a Better Europe” because a better Europe will mean more Europe.

The conception of the EU was not an immaculate one, so the EU has its own share of sins and shortcomings. We want to feel a connection with the EU because we live our lives in our home countries and not on Mount Olympus somewhere in Brussels. We do not want to be told what to do and what not to do. What we want is civil freedom, a space that we can enhance with our talents, skills, knowledge and enthusiasm, a space that we can take part in instead of feeling anxious and controlled. If a reform program is adopted, we will have to thank Britain for it. Otherwise London will be just the beginning.

But for now, we will not weep. Britain felt uncomfortable in the EU anyway and the years of persistent anti-EU campaigning have brought the much-anticipated results. The country will now be able to show to the world that, liberated from the burden of the EU, it can finally get back on its feet. Here’s hoping it will not stumble and fall.