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We've triggered Article 50. Is this such a tragedy for Europe?

in Berlin, one of 70 cities participating in the 7th 'Pulse of Europe' event demonstrating pro the EU on March 26, 2017. NurPhoto/press Association. All rights reserved.

This is a very
sad day for Britain. There is still a possibility that it can be reversed if parliament and the country get a vote on the final deal. But if it does go
ahead, among the consequences we can expect are:

1) The end of Britain, as Scotland chooses
independence and Northern Ireland descends into renewed conflict

2) A poorer more authoritarian, more small-minded,
xenophobic and more violent England and Wales

3) The destruction of our public
institutions (universities, the NHS and the BBC) both as a result of declining
public spending and the loss of EU funding as well as workers, doctors, nurses
and students

4) The loss of prospects to travel, study
and work across Europe and the loss of European identity to a whole generation
who have grown up with those rights

Perhaps the only silver lining might be the decline of the City, which is responsible for the tendency of British governments to express overweening ambition and to neglect the needs of the poor in this country, even though it will also mean big job losses not only in London.

Perhaps the
only silver lining might be the decline of the City, which is responsible for
the tendency of British governments to express overweening ambition and to
neglect the needs of the poor in this country.

What does this leave our European neighbours?

But is Brexit
also a tragedy for the rest of Europe? On the one hand, many worry that the UK
offers an example for other parts of Europe and for populists everywhere, and
that this is the beginning of a disintegrative process akin to the fall of
Yugoslavia. They might be right.

On the other
hand, it is possible that the kind of changes that need to be made if the EU is to survive might be more likely without the obstacles
that Britain tends to pose to further integration. 

First, it is
worthwhile pondering the nature of populism. It can be argued that since the
financial crisis of 2008, the US and the UK have become rentier states, somewhat similar to oil states in the Middle East. Rentier states are ones which depend
on external revenues rather than taxation. In such states, the political class
no longer depends on a social contract with the population; their main interest
is gaining access to the resources of the state and they are ready to use any
kind of trick in the book to win elections.

They do not
have to worry about growing inequality or poverty as long as they can win
elections. Central European countries
like Hungary and Poland are rentier
states that depend on EU structural funds; even though they rail against the EU
for domestic political purposes, they would never actually leave the EU because
they would lose their sources of revenue and of patronage. The irony of the Brexit vote
is that those who wanted to take back control are those most likely to lose
control.

The US and the
UK governments are increasingly dependent on global finance as a source of
revenue and this may explain their rentier
character and the rise of populism. By populism, I mean the appeal to the
disenfranchised on the basis of scapegoating migrants or Muslims or foreigners
and the disregard for truth, expertise or reason. Neoliberalism never went as
far in west European states. They still depend on a social contract and,
despite large-scale unemployment, they still have welfare states. That means
that political debate still to a large extent involves argument, deliberation and
substance rather than populist slogans; this is even true of the Netherlands
and France despite the rise of populist parties. I may be proved totally wrong
but I have some optimism that these states, even France, will not succumb to a
similar type of populism. 

Secondly,
Brexit may turn out to be a wake-up call for the EU. Many civil society groups
who were concerned with single issues or with opposing neo-liberalism are
increasingly preoccupied with Europe. Activists from the group Pulse of Europe take to the streets
in towns across Europe every Sunday. Large pro-European demonstrations took
place on March 25 – the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaty.

The EU needs
reform and the most important reform is social; the EU needs to abandon
austerity policy and to develop fiscal mechanisms that will make possible largescale
social redistribution across Europe. The introduction of the euro was
associated with neoliberal policies that contributed to big economic
disparities across Europe and to growing precarity for the poorest people. 

The EU needs to
be able control financial speculation and find ways to tax those who evade
taxation through crossing borders. This is the only way the euro can be saved;
otherwise sooner or later, there will be another euro crisis that will make all
the dire predictions of disintegration come true. Saving Greece is emblematic
of what needs to be done to save the euro and reform the EU. Is it possible
that new governments in France and Germany (led by Macron and Schulz) will respond to
civil society pressure and do what is needed without being blocked by Britain? Saving Greece is emblematic of what needs to be done to
save the euro and reform the EU.

Thirdly, could
Brexit usher in a new type of individual citizenship? As citizens of the EU, British citizens have the right to move
and reside freely within the EU, to vote for and stand as a candidate in
European parliamentary elections as well as in local municipal elections across
the European Union, to be protected by the diplomatic and consular services of
any other EU member states, as well as a range of rights concerning petitions
to European institutions, access to the EU ombudsperson, or EU documents. A proposal
to allow individual citizens to retain their European citizenship whether or not Britain leaves the EU
in return for a membership fee or tax has already been put forward in the
European parliament and has been taken up by the negotiator on behalf of the parliament,
Guy Verhofstadt. The main objection is reciprocity; surely European citizens
should have the
same rights in Britain?

But suppose the
European Union were to introduce a type of individual citizenship along these
lines that does involve reciprocity, this would break the link between
citizenship and nationality and would open much greater possibilities for
democratisation, including the possibility that non-national residents could
become citizens thereby contributing to the multicultural character of the EU,
and the prospect of political coalitions across borders. But suppose the European Union were to introduce a type
of individual citizenship that does involve reciprocity. This would open up much greater possibilities for democratisation.

The 'Pulse of Europe' movement intends to be a pro-European counterpart to populists, nationalists, right-wing movements throughout Europe. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.

All these are
huge ifs. The point of this argument is not to suggest that it is better for
Europe if Britain leaves. Rather it is to suggest that those of us in Britain
who want to hold on to their European identity should strongly support the
potential for European reform and maybe just possibly, this will reverberate in
this country, shifting opinion about the European Union and opening up a
reversal path. It is about trying realistically to identify those possible
directions that could reduce the more dire consequences of Brexit.

The irony of the
Brexit vote is that those who wanted to take back control are those most likely
to lose control. In our globalised interdependent world, taking back control
turned out to mean giving control to a small right wing clique who want Britain
to become a safe haven for mutlinational corporations to the total neglect of
the young, the underpaid and those who live in large parts of this country. Those of us in Britain who want to hold on to their European identity should strongly support the potential for EU reform – maybe, just possibly, it will reverberate in this country.

The only way to
take back control is through European efforts to regulate and control the worst
aspects of globalisation (climate change, financial speculation, closing
mutlinational tax havens, addressing conflicts) so as to enable people at local
levels to participate meaningfully in politics. There is also a generational
irony. Those who voted for Brexit were determining the future of a younger
generation with very different hopes and aspirations.

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