Brexit: Evolution or Revolution?

Full Professor at Sciences Po CERI, Christian Lequesne specialises on actors and practices of Foreign Policies in the EU, French european policy, as well as foreign services in the world. He is part of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) project called “The UK in a Changing Europe.” Christian Lequesne answers Four Questions on Brexit in an interview by Corinne Deloy (CERI). 

How can we explain that the British, or should we say the English, are pulling back into their glorious past and thus going against the trend of the world's evolution, and that the Conservatives are defending national sovereignty at the expense of the economic liberalism they have always embodied?

This phenomenon must be seen in a long term perspective. People in Great Britain have never really adhered to the idea of an ever closer Union. The Conservatives’ Eurosceptic ideology emerged in the 1980s and has developed for several reasons. First, economic neoliberalism considers that the European project should be limited to the market. This may explain that Margaret Thatcher had accepted to contribute to the creation of the large EU internal market. Going beyond market has never had any sense for the Neoliberals of the Conservative Party, because for them, markets just drive politics. For them again, the European Union is a polity too regulated by institutions. This is the exact opposite of the French version of left-wing Euroscepticism. The second factor is the rise of British nationalism since the middle of the 1990s, in opposition to devolution and to the increased powers given to Northern Ireland and Scotland. The conservative establishment believes more in England, which is according to them a great glorious power that is self-sufficient because it invented parliamentarism, habeas corpus, etc. The third factor is an EU immigration related one. Central European and Baltic immigration, starting in 2004, was rapidly the object of criticism within the British society. The phenomenon was exploited by UKIP, a far right political party. In parallel, the 2009 Eurozone crisis totally delegitimised the European project in the United Kingdom. This set of factors contribute to explaining why at some point the Conservatives considered they had to “regain control” and ask themselves whether it was necessary for London to remain within the European Union or not. Some, like David Cameron expressed their will to remain within Europe in a minimal way, whereas others were in favour of Brexit. The latter won the June 2016 referendum.

You have written “A large part of the British Conservative elites lives in a world that does not correspond to reality.” Can you develop this idea? Do you mean that a nationalist ideology may have perverted a ruling class that was until then known for its pragmatism? Can you explain this?

I think that part of the British Conservative establishment has trouble admitting that Great Britain—just as France and Germany—has become a middle range power on the global scale. Conservatives are tense on glorious symbols of the past (the Empire, the invention of parliamentarism) and they consider with suspicion anything that could jeopardize the country’s image of greatness. They remind me of French orthodox Gaullists until the 1990s. Their vision of Great Britain is very ideological and they are convinced their country can face the world alone. They totally ignore economic pragmatism, which is interesting to study. Indeed, the British Conservative party used to listen to the business sector—a sector well known to be opposed to Brexit—but the situation has changed today. The way some hard Brexiteers from the Conservatives explain that Great Britain will leave the EU to renegotiate, as an independent member of the WTO, better agreements with India, China and Brazil is very telling about the way they overestimate their country. They build on a glorious past and on the image of a resisting Great Britain (Hitler never invaded the island) and believe that the country can only truly exist by going solo. This explains both the idea that the European Union would prevent Great Britain from being truly what it is, and the rhetoric about “taking back control” that has invaded the debate about Brexit.

What do you think will happen at the border between the two Irelands? Is there a risk for the 1998 peace agreements?

If the British do not accept a compromise on the customs union, a border will necessarily have to be re-established between the two Irelands. The Twenty-Seven have been saying this since the start of negotiations, but the hard Brexiteers refuse to hear it, just as the Northern Irish unionists (Democratic Unionist Party) whom Theresa May had to rely on to gain majority at the House of Commons. I do not dare saying that she still needs them because I am not sure the Prime Minister really has any majority at the House of Commons, as shown by the two rejections of the exit deal. Reinstating a border would indeed challenge the idea behind the Good Friday Agreement, i.e. peace and freedom of movements between the two parts of the island. Interestingly, the British Conservatives have totally underestimated the problem because they do not put Ireland at the heart of politics. However, I do not think anyone wishes a return to violence in Ireland. The Irish (both sides) suffered enough during thirty years. But Sinn Fein seized the occasion to encourage a reunification of the two parts. All this could lead to new political tensions, that would be clearly exacerbated by Brexit.

Finally, let’s attempt some forecasting. How do you see the two “great” political parties in the near future, and considering Brexit?

The deep division that Brexit has produced within the Conservative Party but also within the Labour Party will leave its mark and prevent these two parties from presenting truly innovative and forward-looking programmes. If Brexit occurs indeed (which no-one can tell today), maybe the Conservative Party will have a greater capacity to recover than Labour. There is a strong institutional survival instinct among Tories, even if Brexit has generated profound divisions. Labour is torn between Jeremy Corbyn—a left-wing leader who is in favour of Brexit, who has been accused of antisemitism and whose only programme seems to be opposition to capitalism—and MPs assuming the Blair legacy and who are in majority opposed to Brexit. But today, the party structure is controlled by the Corbyn people. I wonder if the Labour is not in a worse position than the Conservatives.

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