international analysis and commentary

Now, can we please get Brexit done?

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The Brits have spoken again. In less than three years after the 2016 referendum on European membership, the December 12th elections marked the third time citizens endorsed a prime minister to get Brexit done. The outcome of the elections saw the Conservative Party gaining a vast majority of vote thanks to an electoral campaign based mostly on the need to sort the UK exit from the EU as quickly as possible. As things stand, the UK is set to abandon the Union by the end of January.

Yet, polls highlight a different trend on Brexit. If a second referendum on Brexit were to be called today, 45% of British citizens would opt for remaining in the EU against 40% who are still determined to leave. Remainers are a small majority. The outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum saw 52% preferring to leave against the 48% supporting the Remain side.

What emerged even more clearly from this election is that British society is highly polarized. Against this backdrop, while the Conservatives understood that to win the elections they had to concentrate their efforts and electoral campaign on a precise output, which is Brexit, the Labour, led by Jeremy Corbin had a more ambiguous standing on the matter. On the other hand, although the Lib Dems openly supported the Remain side, their political history has been punishing them. In 2010, they entered into a coalition government with the Conservatives and they gave up the main point of their political agenda: the need to end university tuition fees. Then they allowed universities to triple their fees. This political shift cost them the loss of vast support from the Brits, who hardly forget such lack of coherence.

Similarly, even though the majority of Labour voterrs has been backing the Remain side, their leader, Corbyn, is a well-known Brexiteer, who has certainly softened his position, but has never openly declared to be willing to fight for the UK to remain in the EU. Instead he had proposed a third option: to renegotiate the Brexit deal and call for a second referendum based on the new agreement. This strategy, however, would have likely prolonged an agony of three years, resulting in an even harsher polarization of the society at large.

Even detractors of direct democracy admit that whatever policy plan is on the table, making people vote for it will allow the latter to acquire more legitimacy. Still, having the Brits voting again on Brexit and be confronted with something so delicate and technical as a negotiation agreement with the EU, would fuel the anger of those who have been supporting Brexit at all costs. A second referendum of this sort would have probably worked before the UK asked and obtained three times to extend its negotiating process. After three years of talks, with the British Parliament completely focused on the Brexit issue, asking for more time to verify whether citizens would be happy or not to leave under precise circumstances, would be emblematically democratic but also politically suicidal.

Indeed, while politicians were debating Brexit, austerity policies and the consequent reduction of welfare experienced since 2010 has resulted in the number of poor increasing by 2%, reaching a total of 14.3 million people in 2018. It is true that since the 2008 financial crisis, the GDP has been growing, unemployment is at 3.8% and the employment level has risen from 70% to 76%, scoring its highest rate since the Second World War. However, while the UK may be wealthier than ever as a country, job insecurity and low real wages have pushed many people to hold two jobs or work more hours to fight a well diffused phenomenon: in-work poverty that in the last 25 years has increased by 5%, reaching 18% of workers.

La maggior parte delle regioni del Regno Unito sono al di sotto, o molto al di sotto del PIL medio dell’Unione Europea — Fonte: Eurostat [2017]

 

This explains why many citizens are not interested in the Brexit technicalities. They want Brexit to be done as they believe that the above socio-economic problems are related to incoming cheap labor from the EU. At the same time, they perceive the national sovereignty of their country being diminished by a Brussels-centric bureaucratic apparatus. In addition, a well-diffused feeling of nostalgia of past British “greatness” and of wealthier times makes for an explosive mix, which has resulted in the working class supporting Boris Johnson instead of Jeremy Corbyn. This is despite Labour’s political agenda, based on the need to support the many and not the few, which focused on an expansion of state spending of £135 billion, the biggest increase since the first Wilson government in the roaring Sixties.

So Brexit was central in allowing Boris Johnson to win the election. Will it be enough to fix the UK and to solve citizens’ everyday problems? Surely not. Yet, it displays a clear message. Today traditional politics in the UK, as well as in other countries from the US to Italy, is not able to address the needs of those who have been left out from the advantages of globalization and the so-called liberal order. Considered very often as a minority that they are not, they are apparently the vast majority. Although not all of them suffer economically from international competition or socially from the migration crisis, they are still moved by a growing fear of instability and disorder and they look for a strong government to provide them with some certitude.

Beyond Brexit, what Brits want, at least the majority, is to exit the EU because they want the UK to start taking care of its own citizens, without having to ask permission from other European countries. Of course the reality is far from this assumption, as the UK already enjoyed a vast freedom of choice within its cherry-picked European membership. Yet the general perception and what the Brits believe is different. Blame the media for that.

So long live the Queen and Boris Johnson, as he is going to be the first “Post-Brexit UK” British Prime Minister – or maybe not, as Brexit has still to be sorted out.