Danube Institute
Batthyány Lajos Alapítvány
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Friends of Hungary Foundation
Magyar Szemle

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14 March 2019

Brexit: The Prospects – A Danube Institute Discussion

"In the last 30 years there has really been an extraordinary centralisation of administrative processes in the United Kingdom. Scotland is obviously separate politically rather than just administratively. Northern Ireland too, Wales to a lesser extent. There is a concentration of power, and with power prestige, in London."


Let me start by clarifying my own position on Brexit. I am going to call this position a “bregretter” one, that is to say that I regret the outcome, but I accept it absolutely. Majorities have rights, and in this instance the majority voted to leave the European Union. That is the political reality with which we have to live.

What is missing, I think, from the British perspective is that the European Union will not disappear. It will continue to be a factor in British politics, and I think that this perspective is absent from the British discussion. I believe the United Kingdom will have to come to terms with the fact that the European Union will not just vanish into thin air but it will play a role, directly and indirectly, in British politics. So what I am suggesting to you is that the European Union is a stakeholder in what happens in the United Kingdom.

Obvious issues in this relationship are trade (with which Peter has dealt very thoroughly) and citizens: that is to say the UK citizens in the EU-27 and EU citizens in the United Kingdom. We are talking of roughly three million people. What are their rights in both directions? Though this question is largely settled, there are some concerns on the EU side about what will happen to the citizens in both jurisdictions.

Let me suggest to you that the United Kingdom was a member of the European Union for a long, long time, and that membership has left a mark. The way in which the United Kingdom economy is structured, how the United Kingdom thinks about politics and so on, these things have obviously been affected by these four decades. They simply cannot be undone. They can be dismantled very slowly, but never be dismantled completely. In the same way that the United States is a stakeholder in what happens in the European Union, the asymmetry of power is something one cannot get away from, whether we like it or not. In the very interesting relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, we have shared interests but we have very little shared identity.

What I do see is that there are very deep divisions in the United Kingdom, and these will affect the country’s stability which of course then is a factor for the European Union as a stakeholder in the future of the United Kingdom. I see a number of divisions. I think there is a constitutional division. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have asymmetrical relationships with one another, and that is very seldom considered from the London perspective. London as you all know is an extraordinary place with its own very powerful dynamics which make it very difficult to see what the rest of the country is like. Behind and beyond this, hidden in a way, is the question of England: what does it mean to be English?

There is an Imperial English identity struggling to get out, but we rarely know what it is except that much that is defined as Englishness is really “we are not EU, we are not Europeans”. We all know that with the thousand years of dispute and friction with France, historically both countries have been opponents, enemies, and at crucial times allies. But that is a relationship which I think has turned fairly sour. Part of it is to do with the popular media which have taken a very anti- European or anti-Continental line, fascinating on its own, but to my mind, not what the construction of an identity is about, or at least not enough.

To some degree, a much lesser degree, but I think it is still there, some of the antagonism towards Scotland (above all the Barnett formula on the basis of which Scotland receives from the UK Exchequer much more than it pays in) has worked its way at the popular level into the English identity. I do not know what the outcome will be – it is a process being constructed at this very time, but it clearly influences how the political class and opinion formers see the rest of the world, the United Kingdom itself, and the European Union.

The second division, to which I want to draw your attention, is the one between London, and what I am going to call non-London. Some of you may know the work of Christophe Guilluy, a French social geographer who talks about the internal periphery in France. There was a quite interesting article by him in The Guardian in December 2018 and the yellow vests we see in France today are in a way fulfilling Guilluy’s prophecy. In his book, Fractured France, he argued that there is a globalised France, and a non-globalised France, and that the latter is not really integrated into the French political republican tradition. I see some of this being replicated – paralleled is a better word – in the United Kingdom. By the way, this is not a uniquely a French or British problem. In pretty much every European country in one form or another, there is a disequilibrium, some of which is economic and is to do with differential rates of real income growth in different parts of the country.

Those of you who know London, I am sure you find it very exciting, but then if you go north to places that none of you probably have ever visited, like West Hartlepool, northeast of England, things are different. People are not starving, do not get me wrong, but there is a palpable difference between the dynamism of the southeast which produces something like 50 per cent of the UK’s GDP. It is not a disproportion, it is an asymmetry, and this is to do also with centralisation.

In the last 30 years there has really been an extraordinary centralisation of administrative processes in the United Kingdom. Scotland is obviously separate politically rather than just administratively. Northern Ireland too, Wales to a lesser extent. There is a concentration of power, and with power prestige, in London. That of course means some of the asymmetry I have been talking about is continuously reproduced, and over time there is a loss of status of the parts of what I am calling non-London. That is also a part of the loss of control that Peter was talking about, and there is a loss of control obviously.

As regards the European Union and its legislative power, much of which is unaccountable here, I am very much on the same page as Peter. I think that huge amounts of power have accumulated in Brussels which is not accountable. We in the European Parliament, some of us try to do our best, but a great many people in Brussels and Strasbourg have a kind of inherent belief in the virtue of ever more integration. That is certainly not my position. In that sense the loss of control is a general experience of all the 28 countries in the EU today.

So where do we go from here? Well, I cannnot predict, I have no idea what the politics of the United Kingdom will be, but the problems that I have sketched will not go away. The constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom are an internal matter. But if you accept my argument that there is an asymmetry between the UK’s different nations and regions, and no attempt to tackle it directly is made, then the current disequilibria and de-correlation will continue and will function as irritants through the entire polity. To some degree destabilisation is likely to follow, not in any extreme fashion, but as something that the London government will continuously have to look at. That is why it seems to me that some kind of stabilisation through a constitutional arrangement should be a part of any national agenda.

As I have already suggested, that is something the European Union also has to face. What is to be the future relationship between the member states and Brussels? Historically, what the European Union was established to do among other things, was to correct these disequilibria, these asymmetries of power.

Yet it is not doing so. The European Union has been an absolutely superb conflict resolution mechanism. It seems to have lost this function, not completely, but think about it. There are all sorts of hidden conflicts with which the European Union is not dealing. Think about Cyprus: it has been divided since 1974. The European Union, to the best of my knowledge, has never said a single word about Catalonia. Now this is very strange because there is a major crisis in Spain. You can argue it in legal terms or political terms but you cannot get away from it. Right off the agenda, but bubbling away beneath the surface we should all know about, there is the Croatian–Slovenian frontier dispute. I will not go into the arcana, but it is there. Yet the EU is dead quiet; that tells me that the particular approach to Europe of solving problems or conflicts is not taken very seriously. My sense is that it has been replaced by human rights, which has its own particular problematics. If you say that human rights transcend everything, which many people do, you are making a moral statement, and the problem with that is that it is very difficult to compromise morality, and politics is about compromise. So on that particular note I will leave you.




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