Ground Hog Day for our next Prime Minister

Dr Ben Worthy from the Department of Politics reflects on the challenges facing the new prime minister and suggests that there is a way to overcome them.

Only one thing is predictable about our next prime minister: they will be a ground hog day leader. For all that the candidates are promising new deals, no deals and new directions, from day one they’ll face the same traps and tripwires that have destroyed May’s premiership.

No doubt May faced an uphill task, and had one of the worst in-trays of any peacetime prime minister. Particularly after June 2017, Theresa May faced a divided party, a split House of Commons and a divided country.

We should remember, before sending off our sympathy cards, that her decisions worsened what was already a bad situation. Her premiership was wrecked on her own promises and ‘red lines’, which she had to retreat from. Her neglect of Scotland and Northern Ireland led to talk of new referendums and separation.  And the less said about her decision to hold a ‘snap’ election the better, as she manged to somehow win while losing, doing away with a majority she very, very badly needed.

The problem for whoever the next prime minister is that nothing will have changed. It may be that the new prime minister has some skills that May lacked. Perhaps she will be more decisive, a better communicator or less divisive. She could even enjoy a (brief) bounce in the polls and, if she’s lucky, some good will.

Yet like Theresa May, our next leader will be a ‘takeover’ PM, getting to power by replacement not an election win. Being a takeover almost always limits a leader’s lifespan and, sometimes, their authority. I estimated ‘takeovers’ have about three years.

The Conservative party will still be deeply, hopelessly split. There’ll still be no majority for the government in the House of Commons, and the option of a general election, given the local and EU election results, should be, to put it diplomatically, reasonably unappealing. As for ‘re-opening’ or ‘no dealing’ Brexit, the prime minister looks set to be trapped between an EU who will not renegotiate and a parliament that will not allow a no deal Brexit.

In fact, it will probably be worse for May’s successor. If our new prime minister wins by promising no deal or radical re-negotiations, they’ll have to U-turn or backtrack. Tensions will probably worsen with Scotland, where there are new referendum rumblings, and the complexities of Northern Ireland and the border will stay unsolved. Labour’s dilemmas and problem could make everything worse, not better.

Is there a way out? Perhaps. Prime ministers, like presidents, have a power to persuade. John Harris and Marina Hyde, as well as academics like Rob Ford, have been making the point that no one is trying to change anyone’s mind, or even suggesting it could be done. Yet why people voted how they did was complex and changeable. The whole debate about Brexit has been tied up with a belief that the UK is hopelessly and irredeemably polarised, and that the will of the people is now set in stone (listen in to Albert Weale’s great talk).

Instead of labelling opponents as enemies, why doesn’t our new prime minister try to persuade them? Time after time, from Iraq to same-sex marriage, politicians have tried to persuade the public to re-think their views. Parts of the population were persuaded in 2016. Can’t they be talked back again? It’s the only way out of the loop.

Ben Worthy is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck. You can see more of his work on political leadership here.

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Why even a soft Brexit gives the oil oligarchs what they want

Dr Frederick Guy, Senior Lecturer in Management, explains how Britain’s decision to leave the European Union will hamper efforts to combat climate change and bolster the power of Putin and other major fossil fuel exporters.

Putin – whose name I use here as shorthand for the entire oligarchy of not just Russia but all major fossil fuel exporters – wants to prevent the emergence of international institutions which would be able to bring climate change under control. That is because the control of climate change would require destroying the oil and gas business, and with it his wealth and power.

To this end, two of the central objectives of the oil oligarchs have been the installation of a US government which is hostile to international cooperation in general and cooperation on climate in particular; and the fragmentation of the European Union. Trump, and Brexit; more broadly, a science-denying Republican party, and resurgent nationalism in every European country and region.

Even soft Brexit will be enough for Putin
I will explain below why these two political objectives, in the US and in the EU, are necessary – and, unfortunately, probably sufficient – for Putin’s ends. But first let me just say that, for Putin’s purposes, any Brexit will do, Hard, No Deal … or the softest of soft, as long as Britain withdraws from the political institutions of the EU.

In Britain, where anti-Brexit arguments have focused on the damage to the UK economy and the threat to peace in Ireland, a very soft Brexit is alluring: some kind of Norway ++ which keeps the UK essentially in both the Single Market and the Customs Union, but removes it from the political institutions of the EU. In British politics such an outcome would of course be a sorry face-saving compromise, letting politicians claim to have left the EU while retaining the economic advantages of membership (at some considerable cost in the form of lost voice in making the economic rules). For Putin, though, it would be a great victory, because what threatens Putin is a coherent West- and Central European voice on climate policy. The more he can fragment the EU – through the withdrawal of a big actor like Britain, and the discord which follows – the better off he is.

We can’t know how large a factor Putin has been in the political successes of Trump and Brexit. Obviously, there’s a lot more behind the surge of nationalism around the world than such plutocratic manipulation. Yet propaganda does work – ask Goebbels, ask Maddison Avenue, ask any company or political party that invests in public relations or advertising. And just the fact that Putin has made such obvious efforts to influence domestic politics in so many countries, raises the question of why he would do so.

Geopolitics in the anthropocene
I am writing here about the power of the oligarchs of oil: about the politics of plutocracy, and also about geo-politics.

The oligarchs of oil are just one segment of the larger plutocracy which afflicts our age. The oil oligarchs present us with a different set of problems than other oligarchs, however; our diagnosis of these problems is hindered if we think of plutocracy, or of capitalism, as one undifferentiated thing.

The other most prominent members of the plutocratic class have fortunes based on locking down parts of the digitized network economy (Amazon, Google, Microsoft,  privatized telephone networks, and so on), or on the extravagant protections now offered intellectual property (notable in pharma, biotechnology, and certain profitable corners of publishing). We might add to this list fortunes from the world of finance, but finance needs something to finance, and it is the monopoly sectors of the “real” economy – both in natural resources like oil and in information resources – which nourish finance. So let us speak simply of oil oligarchs and information oligarchs.

The two groups of oligarchs have a common interest in preventing the public from taking away their unearned hoards of wealth. The information oligarchs fear laws that would restore both our digital networks and our funds of accumulated knowledge to their proper state as a commons without monopolist tollgates – in short, that we will make their products free. The fossil fuel oligarchs fear that we will simply stop using their products. If justice ever comes for the information oligarchs it will be a piecemeal and prolonged set of battles, leaving the principals humbled but probably well heeled. The oil oligarchs, on the other hand, have their backs against the wall: they know that the health of the biosphere requires that their euthanasia – to borrow a technical economic term from Keynes – comes soon.

We can also think of what Putin and his ilk do in terms of state power – they act not merely as wealthy and influential individuals but as rulers – and thus of geo-politics. At first blush, we might think in terms of traditional Great Power or superpower rivalries. Putin’s politics, however, are about oil. And the geo-politics of oil is no longer primarily about control of the oil supply, but about the right to keep selling it. Any effective climate policy will sharply reduce demand for fossil fuels, which will mean, even if it is not all left in the ground, that both the quantity sold and the price will fall – shredding colossal oil fortunes.

If it seems far-fetched to reduce the policy objectives of a large state, once a superpower and still possessed of a huge nuclear arsenal, to permission to sell a single product, just look at the dependence of Russia on fuel (oil, gas, coal) exports. In 2017 – the latest year for which the World Bank provides these figures – Russia’s net exports of fuel amounted to 13% of GDP – an astonishing level for a country of that size. The only countries with higher levels of dependence on oil exports are states, like the Gulf monarchies, which produce little else (see Figure 1). Leaving the oil in the ground would not destroy Russia – if anything, it would free the country from the influence of oil, which entrenches corruption and despotism, and crowds out most other economic initiative – but it would destroy Russia’s oligarchy.

Figure 1

This is why the interests of the Russian state and the House of Saud, despite their quarrel over dominance in Syria and the Gulf, align at the global level: they need to block the emergence of institutions of international governance capable of dealing with the problem of climate change.

Governing climate change
The governance problem is well known: eliminating greenhouse gas emissions requires deep changes to our material way of life; attendant social changes; and vast investments in new clean technologies and clean infrastructure. Moreover, we have dallied so long that, in order to have any realistic hope of preventing very dangerous climate change, we need to decarbonize fast (Figure 2) – meaning that the process will be more expensive, more socially disruptive, and more politically difficult than it would have been had action been taken when the problem was first understood some decades ago.

Figure 2. Past delays mean that rapid decarbonization is necessary for climate stabilization. Graph from http://folk.uio.no/roberan

What nation will undertake such changes without the assurance that other nations will do so as well? Technically, this is what we call a “collective action problem”, a prisoner’s dilemma game with many players, blown up to the global level. Agreements are made – in Porto Alegre, Kyoto, Copenhagen and Paris – but there is nobody to enforce them, and greenhouse gasses continue to accumulate.

Dealing with climate change of course requires action at every level, from the global down to individual and community choices about how to live and what to consume. But without an overall grip on the collective action problem between countries, there won’t be effective national policies in most countries. And without effective national policies, the efforts of individuals and local communities will be weakened by the knowledge that others are taking no action, and so will not add up to enough.

For the past quarter century we have had climate agreements which have no teeth. There is no prospect of having an actual global government to enforce the agreements. How, then, do collective action problems get solved at a global level? Some say it only happens in periods of history when single hegemonic power – notably, Britain from the defeat of Napoleon until the mid-1800s, and the USA in the decades after World War II – had the weight to enforce international rules of trade and finance (rules used, of course, to the hegemon’s advantage); the same might serve for rules about greenhouse gas emissions, but there is no single dominant world power to play that role today.

Our best hope – is it shocking that it has come to a point where this is something more to hope for than to fear? – is that a small number of very large powers would act in concert as leaders, and enforcers, of international agreements to cut greenhouse gasses. The method of enforcement could be a combination of threatened withdrawal of access to export markets, and conditions placed on foreign investment.

What countries could exercise such power? In Figure 3a I plot the GDP and the greenhouse gas emissions of the world’s 25 largest economies – again, treating the EU as one country. Note that I have used ratio (logarithmic) scales, so the differences between the larger and smaller countries are compressed on the graph, but even so three big ones stand out in both GDP and emissions: China, the USA, and the EU. Big as they are, if these three giant economies decarbonized, it would not be enough to stop global warming. But all other countries depend on access to these three big markets, and investment from them. Individually, none is globally hegemonic; together, they could fill that role.

Figure 3

Figure 3b plots the same information, but with the EU split up. This leaves the US, China, and then a large mass of mid-sized emitters: six of the 25 biggest CO2 emitters are members of the EU. It is within in the mass of mid-size CO2 emitters that the collective action problem becomes overwhelming, each saying “after you”, each proposing actions that will shift costs to others. It is a recipe for non-action, for fatal delay, and that is why Putin needs to make the EU ineffective as a political unit. If you add to that the effective side-lining of the USA – its de facto alliance with Putin and the House of Saud – this configuration leaves no plausible leader, no plausible enforcer, for climate policy.

It may seem a faint hope any of that those three powers – China, the EU, and the USA – will actually choose to take decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps it is, but other hopes are fainter still. And, if it were really such a far-fetched possibility, I do not think that the petro-powers, together with fossil fuel interests in the industrial countries themselves, would be doing so much to prevent it. Their support for both Trump and Brexit – any Brexit – is a central part of that effort to prevent the US and EU from taking decisive action on climate change.

What this should say to you if you are looking forward to any sort of Brexit, whether it be the ice bath of No Deal or the warm shower of Norway++, is that Putin will thank you for it, and that your great grandchildren, if they are among humanity’s survivors, will curse you.

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The deep historically rooted misperceptions revealed by Brexit

Dr Jessica Reinisch, Reader in Modern European History, discusses the ahistorical narrative around the UK and its European neighbours that is shaping Brexit. 

History has been part of the Brexit madness from the start. It’s hardly news that thinking about things that happened in the past is often directly shaped by perceived priorities in the present, but something rather more one-sided has been going on with history under Brexit. From the small group of Eurosceptic historians around David Abulafia and their problematic claims about Britain’s past, to the Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski’s wilful ignorance of the role of Marshall Aid in post-war Britain: history has never been far away from the Brexit politics of today.

Since the UK referendum campaigns, politicians have tried to bolster their support of ‘Leave’ with claims about history and arguments about the present in the light of the past. Some academic historians and a range of history buffs have been eager to oblige these efforts. For them, what Abulafia called “a historical perspective” involves rifling through the past for evidence that the Brexit project is valid, desirable, perhaps even inevitable. As their once marginalised opinions have become mainstream and their confidence has grown, Brexit-supporting historians have set the pace of historical debate, if we can call it that – or rather the proclamation of more or less uncontextualized (or simply false) statements about the past, followed by an often bewildered chorus of disquiet from historians at large.

The claims put forward by the ‘Historians for Britain’ were quickly rebuffed by historians across the UK, who presented plenty of evidence that undermined the supposed exceptionality and benevolence of the British path and its immutable separation from the rest of Europe. “Britain’s past”, they pointed out, was “neither so exalted nor so unique.” In a more recent piece in the New Statesman, Richard Evans, never one to run from a good fight, lists a catalogue of examples where today’s Brexiteers have manipulated and distorted the past to fit their political agenda. But these efforts notwithstanding, the politics of Brexit has spawned what Simon Jenkins has fittingly called “yah-boo history: binary storytelling charged with fake emotion, sucked dry of fact or balance.” Jenkins’ comment made reference to Labour’s John McDonnell, though as Richard Evans shows, the Tory Brexiteers’ list of abuses of history is rather more substantial and significant.

The problem isn’t so much that apparently everyone feels entitled to serendipitously dip into the past for findings to support whatever they believe in; it is rather that much of this history is so very un- and anti-historical. History has become a caricature of parochial dreams, nostalgias and made-up analogies to prop up binary political choices. At stake is the nature, direction and meaning of British history and Britain’s place in the world. But just as important is the question of whether history can really be scaled down to an apparently singular ‘British’ vs ‘European’ position.

It is high time for historians to restore complexity and take seriously the variety of geographical and historical vantage points which can bring to light very different timelines and priorities. The contributions to a roundtable debate, published by Contemporary European History, have tried to do just that. It asked 19 historians of Europe working within very different national and historiographical traditions to reflect on the historical significance and contexts that gave rise to Brexit and within which it should be understood. The result is a palette of pertinent historical contexts in which Brexit has made an appearance and can be analysed. As a result, some of the certainties appearing in the Brexiteers’ version of history suddenly seem much less certain.

The upshot of this roundtable cannot be easily reduced to a political headline, and that is precisely the point. Serious history rarely works that way. As the contributors show, the prospect of Brexit has revealed deep historically-rooted misperceptions between the UK and its European neighbours; Brexit in this sense is a process of stripping away dusty historical delusions about national paths and those of neighbouring countries. The essays demonstrate that Brexit has to be understood in the context of a long history of British claims about the uniqueness of the UK’s past. Europeans at times recognised British history as a model to be emulated. But they periodically also challenged the applicability of the British yardstick to their own national exceptionalisms, or pointed to an equally long history of connections between the UK, the British Empire and the European continent. The present debates about British history and its place in Europe and the world alter readings of the past, in some cases significantly. History is, once more, being rewritten in the light of Brexit.

This article first appeared on the Cambridge Core blog

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Theresa May: leaking leadership capital?

Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, and Mark Bennister explore Theresa May’s leadership capital. They conclude that although she may gain capital after an election win, her strained relations with her Cabinet and the ongoing crises of Brexit, Scotland, and Northern Ireland may eventually diminish her reputation.theresamay

Measuring leadership is a tricky business. Our work has experimented with the concept of ‘leadership capital’ to analyse a leader’s ‘stock of authority’. Journalists and commentators often talk about political capital as a sort of ‘credit’ stock accumulated by and gifted to politicians. Leadership capital is, we argue, made up of three attributes:

  • Skills: personalised ability to communicate, present a vision, and gain popularity
  • Relations: with the political party, the voting public, and colleagues
  • Reputation: levels of trust, ability to influence policy, and get things done.

Our Leadership Capital Index tracks the trajectory of leadership capital over time. The general tendency is for capital to be high when a leader gains office (because they win an election, are popular etc.) and to inevitably decline over time as mistakes, scandals, and inability to solve ‘wicked’ public policy problems diminish it. High capital leaders tend to be transformative, pushing change, and presenting bold policies. Low capital leaders struggle to have an impact and are often consumed with fighting off threats to their leadership, both at elections and with internal challenges. We apply this approach in a new edited volume published by Oxford University Press, using a range of case studies. So how does Theresa May’s leadership capital look so far?

leadershipTheresa May seemingly accumulated high levels of leadership capital when she assumed office in July 2016 in the wake of the EU referendum result, even though, like many prime ministers before her, she came into power by ‘taking over’ rather than winning a General Election. May arrived after a vicious and very public internal party war, to become the unifier for both the Conservative party and the country in the grip of uncertainty and division.

In terms of skills, May championed a clear, if rather succinct, vision of Brexit (‘Brexit means Brexit’) while her forthright and direct style offered a contrast with Cameron’s slick and rather too smooth rhetoric. She entered power with high poll ratings and levels of trust and, perhaps most remarkably, a relatively united party after the civil war over Brexit. Her experience as Home Secretary was seen to demonstrate both firmness and a mastery of details.

In policy terms, May blended a wider policy agenda of reforming capitalism with a populist agenda pitched on the side of working families. Her uncontested party leadership coronation left no rivals with only Boris Johnson in the ‘gilded cage’ of the Foreign Office where he could do no harm. May was the candidate who could and would ‘get things done’ with plenty of leadership capital to do it.

Jump forward to June 2017 and May’s capital looks a little different. It is still high. May retains her high poll ratings and trust: May is much more popular than her party while the reverse is true for Corbyn. Perhaps most remarkably, the Conservative party has fallen into line behind her stance on Brexit. The General Election of 2017, and with campaign emphasis on May herself, has hinged on these positives. This election, in a sense, is a leadership capital election as this Populus party leader polling shows. The strategic, personalised focus on her leadership was a deliberate approach to contrast with her opponent.

But there have been signs of fraying capital. Her communicative style has been derided as robotic, under the intense media scrutiny of a campaign. Meanwhile her firmness and mastery of detail have been exposed as less positive attributes, once her tendency towards secretive and closed group decision-making became evident, and after some less than certain public performances. The Brexit process has seen White Papers and speeches that appeared less than detailed, while electioneering slogans have glossed over a lack of depth of policy planning. The reformist agenda so far has been a little underwhelming.

When a leader’s communication and policy control falters, leadership capital – gifted to them by supporters, commentators and electors – declines. May’s problems are exemplified by the U-turn on social care policy, an embarrassing volte-face during an election campaign. As a poorly thought through policy, it apparently by-passed Cabinet and so damaged her relations, not only with colleagues, but also the grassroots members busy knocking on doors. May’s attempts to defend the policy left the party rather unhappy and less convinced by her competence. As Janan Ganesh argued:

“Her self-image as a firm leader hinged on her fidelity to this brave, contentious idea…Colleagues who defended her proposal in public, lobby interests who fought it and any EU negotiators tuning in from the continent will infer the same lesson: this prime minister is strong and stable, until you test her.”

The social care climb down has not been an isolated incident. It follows a series of mistakes and retreats from National Insurance rise to the fundamental decision to hold a snap election. There is also a tendency towards blaming others in a crisis – whether the EU for leaking or her own Chancellor for the aborted National Insurance rise. Recent headlines perhaps tell us the reputational damage. George Osborne’s London Evening Standard editorial described May’s campaign as an ‘abortive personality cult’ that, after the ‘self-inflicted wound’ of social care, could be summed up as “Honey, I shrunk the poll lead.” The Times ran with the headline ‘Mrs May has been rumbled as not very good’ and Paxman, with a phrase that could haunt May, suggested she was a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire.

May appears set for a convincing win, if not a landslide. Her polling and personal ratings mean she retains more than enough leadership capital to make this victory her win – though expectations may make a smaller win rather Pyrrhic. Framed as the Brexit election, she can still present herself as the leader with the capital and mandate to see it through, but her personalised campaign has been dented under close scrutiny and in the face of an unexpectedly resilient opponent.

She may gain capital on the back of an election win, but expect her to lose capital in her relations with her own cabinet: collegiality has been with her own Chancellor, tension between her team and the Cabinet, muttering in the party over U-turns and mistakes. Aside from the deep rolling crisis that is Brexit, many other problems will still loom large on June the 9th: from Scotland to the too long neglected divisions and stalemate in Northern Ireland. May’s leadership capital could well diminish swiftly after her election victory. As she faces the huge complexity of Brexit, her skills are not so evident, her relations are frayed, and her reputation dented.

Worthy and Bennister are co-authors, with Paul ‘t Hart, of The Leadership Capital Index, available from Oxford University Press.

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What will happen to arms exports under Brexit?

This article was written by Prof Ron Smith from Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics, with Maria Garcia-Alonso, (University of Kent) and Quentin Michel (Université de Liège). It originally appeared on The Conversation

The decision by the UK to leave the EU will have many implications, including consequences for the control of arms exports. Exports of weapons and dual-use equipment, which can have both military and civilian applications, raise major security concerns: you don’t want to arm your enemies and you don’t want your allies to arm your enemies either.

Most states have arms export control regulations and supplies are also restricted – to some extent – by international regimes like the Wassenaar Arrangement on export controls for conventional arms, as well as by UN embargoes and the Arms Trade Treaty that entered into force in December 2014.

European states are major suppliers of military equipment and close competitors in the export markets. But they have different economic and security interests, so a sale that seems problematic to one country may not seem so to another – see, for example, the disagreements about the supply of arms to various players in the Syrian civil war or the supply to Saudi Arabia of equipment used in the Yemen. However, the EU’s rules do not allow other states to block UK sales to Saudi Arabia.

So what are those rules? To avoid exactly this sort of problem, in 2008 the EU defined common rules governing control of exports of military technology and equipment which replaced an earlier code of conduct on arms exports. This EU Common Position is presently the sole example of a group of states that have agreed to coordinate conventional (usually interpreted as not nuclear, biological or chemical which are covered by different rules) arms exports with a supranational constraining mechanism.

While producer countries have individual incentives to control the quantity, quality and use of the arms they export, these incentives are affected by the interactions with other exporter countries who have their own security and industrial objectives. In such situations, coordination among exporters is required to ensure a better outcome for everyone involved.

However, uncertainty regarding the implementation of controls and fear of noncompliance are a barrier to the implementation of multilateral controls. In particular there needs to be a mechanism to stop “prisoner dilemma” situations in which countries think: “If we don’t export, others will.” To deal with the uncertainty, the EU has a list of items subject to control and a no-undercutting mechanism to stop the fear of noncompliance by others.

Finding common ground

The EU Common Position says that member states are determined to set high common standards for the management of – and restraint in – conventional arms transfers, and to strengthen the exchange of relevant information with a view to achieving greater transparency.

The criteria that govern export control include the respect for the international commitments of EU member states (including any UN sanctions). They also take into account the situation in the buyer country, which includes its respect of human rights, its internal security situation, its respect for international law and its technical and economic capacity. The common position is also concerned for the preservation of regional peace, security and stability and the existence of a risk that the equipment will be diverted into the wrong hands within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions.

Who gets the weapons? Yui Mok PA Archive/PA Images

To make sure all states interpret these criteria in the same way – and to avoid the risk of unfair competitions between member states’ defence industries, several mechanisms have been adopted. These include strengthening the exchange of information by requiring the notification to all EU member states of the denial of a licence, together with the no undercutting rule. This rule has been respected and member states have almost never undercut a licence denial without the consent of the state which has issued it.

There are many difficult areas where exchange of information is valuable. These include dual-use equipment – where countries may differ over whether it is going to be used for civilian or military purposes – and brokering – where a firm facilitating the transaction may be outside the control of national authorities. There has been discussion in many countries about the extent to which arms brokers should be registered.

Britain’s role

Britain plays a central role in this process, currently drafting the list of items subject to control. But when it leaves the EU it will lose access to this mechanism. This increases the risk that its defence industry will not face the same trade rules as its EU competitors. While the UK will no longer be constrained by EU rules, the converse is also true and – given the breadth of UK security interests – this may not be to its advantage.

Other EU states will be able to supply weapons for which the UK has denied a license and may not include on the control list items that the UK regards as sensitive. So given the value that countries attach to the sharing of arms export information, it may be in the interests of the UK and the other EU countries to maintain joint participation in these arrangements even in the post-Brexit era.

The Conversation

 

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Trump trolls, Pirate Parties and the Italian Five Star Movement: The internet meets politics

This article was written by Andrea Ballatore, Lecturer in Geographic Information Science, and Simone Natale, Loughborough University. It was originally published on The Conversation

We blame the internet for a lot of things, and now the list has grown to include our politics. In a turbulent year marked by the U.K.‘s decision to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump, some have started to wonder to what extent the recent events have to do with the technology that most defines our age.

In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, commentators accused Facebook of being indirectly responsible for his election. Specifically, they point to the role of social media in spreading virulent political propaganda and fake news. The internet has been increasingly presented as a possible cause for the post-truth culture that allegedly characterizes contemporary democracies.

These reactions are a reminder that new technologies often stimulate both hopes and fears about their impact on society and culture. The internet has been seen as both the harbinger of political participation and the main culprit for the decline of democracy. The network of networks is now more than a mere vehicle of political communication: It has become a powerful rhetorical symbol people are using to achieve political goals.

This is currently visible in Europe, where movements such as the Pirate Parties and the Italian Five Star Movement, which we have studied, build their political messages around the internet. To them, the internet is a catalyst for radical and democratic change that channels growing dissatisfaction with traditional political parties.

Web utopias and dystopias

The emergence of political enthusiasm for the internet owes much to U.S. culture in the 1990s. Internet connectivity was spreading from universities and corporations to an increasingly large portion of the population. During the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore made the “Information Superhighway” a flagship concept. He linked the development of a high-speed digital telecommunication network to a new era of enlightened market democracy.

President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore joined volunteer efforts to wire schools to the internet in 1997. AP Photo/Greg Gibson

The enthusiasm for information technology and free-market economics spread from Silicon Valley and was dubbed Californian Ideology. It inspired a generation of digital entrepreneurs, technologists, politicians and activists in Silicon Valley and beyond. The 2000 dot-com crash only temporarily curbed the hype.

In the 2000s, the rise of sharing platforms and social media – often labeled as “Web 2.0” – supported the idea of a new era of increased participation of common citizens in the production of cultural content, software development and even political revolutions against authoritarian regimes.

The promise of the unrestrained flow of information also engendered deep fears. In 1990s, the web was already seen by critics as a vehicle for poor-quality information, hate speech and extreme pornography. We knew then that the Information Superhighway’s dark side was worryingly difficult to regulate.

Paradoxically, the promise of decentralization has resulted in few massive advertising empires like Facebook and Google, employing sophisticated mass surveillance techniques. Web-based companies like Uber and Airbnb bring new efficient services to millions of customers, but are also seen as potential monopolists that threaten local economies and squeeze profits out of impoverished communities.

The public’s views on digital media are rapidly shifting. In less than 10 years, the stories we tell about the internet have moved from praising its democratic potential to imagining it as a dangerous source of extreme politics, polarized echo chambers and a hive of misogynist and racist trolls.

Cyber-optimism in Europe

While cyber-utopian views have lost appeal in the U.S., the idea of the internet as a promise of radical reorganization of society has survived. In fact, it has become a defining element of political movements that thrive in Western Europe.

In Italy, an anti-establishment party know as the Five Star Movement became the second most-voted for party in Italy in the 2013 national elections. According to some polls, it might soon even win general elections in Italy.

The Five Star Movement’s Virginia Raggi, 37, was elected as Rome’s first female and youngest mayor in June. AP Photo/Fabio Frustaci

In our research, we analyzed how the Italian Five Star Movement uses a mythical idea of the internet as a catalyst for its political message. In the party’s rhetoric, declining and corrupt mainstream parties are allied with newspapers and television. By contrast, the movement claims to harness the power of the web to “kill” old politics and bring about direct democracy, efficiency and transparency in governance.

Similarly in Iceland, the Pirate Party is now poised to lead a coalition government. Throughout the few last years, other Pirate Parties have emerged and have been at times quite successful in other European countries, including Germany and Sweden. While they differ in many ways from the Five Star Movement, their leaders also insist that the internet will help enable new forms of democratic participation. Their success was made possible by the powerful vision of a new direct democracy facilitated by online technologies.

A vision of change

Many politicians all over the world run campaigns on the promise of change, communicating a positive message to potential voters. The rise of forces such as the Five Star Movement and the Pirate Parties in Europe is an example of how the rhetoric of political change and the rhetoric of the digital revolution can interact with each other, merging into a unique, coherent discourse.

In thinking about the impact of the internet in politics, we usually consider how social media, websites and other online resources are used as a vehicle of political communication. Yet, its impact as a symbol and a powerful narrative is equally strong.

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Trump and Brexit: why it’s again NOT the economy, stupid

This post was written by Professor Eric Kaufmann from Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally published on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog

As the final votes are counted, pundits and pollsters sit stunned as Donald J. Trump gets set to enter the White House. For anyone in Britain, there is a sharp tang of déjà vu in the air: this feels like the morning after the Brexit vote all over again. Eric Kaufmann explains that, as with Brexit, there’s little evidence that the vote had much to do with personal economic circumstances.

For months, commentators have flocked to diagnose the ills that have supposedly propelled Trump’s support, from the Republican primaries until now. As in Britain, many have settled on a ‘left behind’ narrative – that it is the poor, white, working-class losers from globalization that have put Trump over the top. Only a few clairvoyants – Michael Lind, Jonathan Haidt – have seen through the stereotypes.

But, as in Britain, there’s precious little evidence this vote had much to do with personal economic circumstances. Let’s look at Trump voting among white Americans from a Birkbeck College/Policy Exchange/YouGov survey I commissioned in late August. Look at the horizontal axis running along the bottom of figure 1. In the graph I have controlled for age, education and gender, with errors clustered on states. The average white American support for Trump on a 0-10 scale in the survey is 4.29.

You can see the two Trump support lines are higher among those at the highest end of the income scale (4) than the lowest (1). This is not, however, statistically significant. What is significant is the gap between the red and blue lines. A full two points in Trump support around a mean of 4.29. This huge spread reflects the difference between two groups of people giving different answers to a highly innocuous question: ‘Is it more important for a child to be considerate or well-mannered?’ The answers sound almost identical, but social psychologists know that ‘considerate’ taps other-directed emotions while ‘well-mannered’ is about respect for authority.

People’s answer to this question matters for Trump support because it taps into a cultural worldview sometimes known as Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). Rather than RWA, which is a loaded term, I would prefer to characterise this as the difference between those who prefer order and those who seek novelty. Social psychologist Karen Stenner presciently wrote that diversity and difference tends to alarm right-wing authoritarians, who seek order and stability. This, and not class, is what cuts the electoral pie in many western countries these days. Income and material circumstances, as a recent review of research on immigration attitudes suggests, is not especially important for understanding right-wing populism.

Figure 1.

1

Now look at the same graph in figure 2 with exactly the same questions and controls, fielded on the same day, in Britain. The only difference is that we are substituting people’s reported Brexit vote for Trump support. This time the income slope runs the other way, with poorer White British respondents more likely to be Brexiteers than the wealthy. But income is, once again, not statistically significant. What counts is the same chasm between people who answered that it was important for children to be well-mannered or considerate. In the case of Brexit vote among White Britons, this represents a 25-point difference around a mean of 45.8 per cent (the survey undersamples Brexiteers but this does not affect this kind of analysis). When it comes to Brexit or Trump, think successful plumber, not starving artist or temporary lecturer.

Figure 2.

2

Some might say that even though these populist voters aren’t poor, they really, actually, surely, naturally, are concerned about their economic welfare. Well, let’s take a look at the top concerns of Trump voters in figure 3. I’ve plotted the issues where there are the biggest differences between Trump supporters and detractors on the left-hand side. We can start with inequality. Is this REALLY the driving force behind the Trump vote – all that talk about unemployment, opioid addiction and suicide? Hardly. Nearly 40 per cent of those who gave Trump 0 out of 10 (blue bar) said inequality was the #1 issue facing America. Among folks rating the Donald 10 out of 10, only 4 per cent agreed. That’s a tenfold difference. Now look at immigration: top issue for 25 per cent of white Trump backers but hardly even registering among Trump detractors. Compared to immigration, even the gap between those concerned about terrorism, around 2:1, is not very striking.

Figure 3.

3For Brexit vote, shown in figure 4, the story is much the same, with a few wrinkles. The gap on immigration and inequality is enormous. The one difference is on ‘the economy in general,’ which Trump supporters worry about more than Brexiteers. This could be because in the graph above I am comparing extreme Trump backers with extreme detractors whereas the Brexit-Bremain numbers include all voters. Still, what jumps out is how much more important immigration is for populist voters than inequality.

Figure 4.

4Why is Trump, Brexit, Höfer, Le Pen and Wilders happening now? Immigration and ethnic change. This is unsettling that portion of the white electorate that prefers cultural order over change.

The US was about 90 percent white in 1960, is 63 percent white today and over half of American babies are now from ethnic minorities. Most white Americans already think they are in the minority, and many are beginning to vote in a more ethnopolitical way. The last time the share of foreign born in America reached current levels, immigration restrictionist sentiment was off the charts and the Ku Klux Klan had 6 million members – mainly in northern states concerned about Catholic immigration.

Ethnic change can happen nationally or locally, and it matters in both Britain and America. Figure 5, which includes a series of demographic and area controls, looks at the rate of Latino increase in a white American survey respondent’s ZIP code (average population around 30,000 in this data). The share of white Americans rating Trump 10 out of 10 rises from just over 25 percent in locales with no ethnic change to almost 70 percent in places with a 30-point increase in Latino population.

The town of Arcadia in Wisconsin – fittingly a state that has flipped to Trump – profiled in a recent Wall Street Journal article, shows what can happen. Thomas Vicino has chronicled the phenomenon in other towns, such as Farmer’s Branch, Texas or Carpentersville, Illinois. There are very few ZIP codes that have seen change on this scale, hence the small sample and wide error bars toward the right. Still, this confirms what virtually all the academic research shows: rapid ethnic change leads to an increase in anti-immigration sentiment and populism, even if this subsequently fades. The news also spreads and can shape the wider climate of public opinion, even in places untouched by immigration.

Figure 5.

5Now let’s look in figure 6 at Brexit, and how White British voters in wards with fast East European growth in the 2000s voted. With similar controls, it’s the same story: when we control for the level of minorities in a ward, local ethnic change is linked with a much higher rate of Brexit voting. From under 40 percent in places with no ethnic change to over 60 percent voting Brexit in the fastest changing areas. Think Boston in Lincolnshire, which had the strongest Brexit vote in the country and where the share of East Europeans jumped from essentially zero in 2001 to the highest in the country by 2011.

Figure 6.

6

The Trump and Brexit votes are the opening shots which define a new political era in which the values divide between voters – especially among whites – is the main axis of politics. In a period of rapid ethnic change, this cleavage separates those who prefer cultural continuity and order from novelty-seekers open to diversity. Policymakers and pundits should face this instead of imagining that old remedies – schools, hospitals, jobs – will put the populist genie back in the bottle.

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The Iraq War, Brexit and Imperial blowback

This post was contributed by Dr Nadine El-Enany, lecturer at Birkbeck’s School of Law. Here, Dr El-Enany shares her personal thoughts on the historical context of the EU referendum, and the British vote to leave. This post first appeared on Truthout on Wednesday 6 July 2016.

The Union Jack, the flag of the UK

Brexit is a disaster we can only understand in the context of Britain’s imperial exploits. A Bullingdon boy (Oxford frat boy) gamble has thrown Britain into the deepest political and economic crisis since the second world war and has made minority groups across the UK vulnerable to racist and xenophobic hatred and violence.

People of colour, in particular those in the global South, know all too well what it is to be at the receiving end of the British establishment’s divisive top-down interventions. Scapegoating migrants is a divisive tool favoured by successive governments, but the British establishment’s divide and rule tactic was honed much further afield in the course of its colonial exploits. Britain has a long history of invading, exploiting, enslaving and murdering vast numbers of people, crimes for which it has never been held accountable.

Brexit

While the British Empire may be a thing of the past, British imperialism is not. This month the Chilcot inquiry reported on the role of Tony Blair’s government in the 2003 invasion of Iraq which resulted in the death of nearly half a million Iraqis and the destabilization of the region, for which its inhabitants continue to pay the price. It is no coincidence that the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, amidst the Brexit chaos, launched a coup against their current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was set to call for Blair to be put on trial for warcrimes.

The referendum that resulted in a 52 percent vote in favour of Britain leaving the EU was initiated by the Conservative government. Shortly after the result was announced, it became clear that the leaders of the Brexit campaign had not wanted this result. Boris Johnson MP appeared ashen-faced at a press conference. He had neither expected nor wanted to win the referendum. He only wanted to be next in line for Number 10 Downing Street. David Cameron, who had led the Remain campaign, resigned as Prime Minister immediately. He had called the referendum in a bid to keep the Conservative Party together, without sparing a thought for the lives that would be destroyed if the bet did not pay off. His gamble backfired, as did Boris Johnson’s. Michael Gove MP, who had been Johnson’s right-hand man in the Leave campaign, betrayed him within days of the result, announcing he would be running for Prime Minister, thereby ending Johnson’s bid to lead the country.

This series of events has thrown the Conservative Party into disarray, the very outcome Cameron had wanted to avoid. Nigel Farage, who stoked up unprecendented levels of racist hate and deserves much of the credit for the Brexit win, resigned as leader of the UK Independence Party on Monday, saying he “wants his life back.”

As political leaders jump ship in the wake of the Brexit vote, reports have emerged of a Britain divided, of a traumatized population, grieving and suffering the onset of depression. There is talk of the need for reconciliation in a country where communities and families have been divided. Alongside this, there are expressions of anger and demands for the British establishment to be held accountable for the outcome of the referendum.

There is no doubt that the feelings of anger and loss in the wake of Brexit are real, but where is our collective sense of outrage in the face of the establishment’s divisive and destructive actions elsewhere? After all, the deregulatory reforms entailed in austerity policies imposed in EU countries with disastrous consequences, including cuts to vital welfare services, following the 2007 financial crisis, as Diamond Ashiagbor has argued, is “medicine first trialled on the global South since the 70s”. Ashiagbor notes “European states are experiencing this as a category error, in part because they have not been on the receiving end of such policies”, which are all too familiar in the global South.

Brexit is the fruit of empire

In the week following the announcement of the referendum results, two news items probably escaped most people’s attention. The UK Supreme Court delivered a ruling that further impedes the prospect of the Chagos Islanders returning to the home from which they were forcibly removed in 1971 by the colonial British government as part of a deal to allow the US to establish a military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia.

Also in the news last week were reports of 94-year-old Kenyan, Nelson Njao Munyaka, who testified in the High Court about killings he witnessed by British soldiers under 1950s British colonial rule. Munyaka is one of 40,000 Kenyans suing the British government over injuries and loss suffered in the course of its repression of the Mau Mau independence movement. Munyaka spoke of witnessing the shooting of his workmates, being made to carry their corpses and the flashbacks he suffers of the physical and verbal assaults he endured at the hands of British soldiers.

Brexit is not only nostalgia for empire — it is also the fruit of empire. Britain is reaping what it sowed. The legacies of British imperialism have never been addressed, including that of racism. British colonial rule saw the exploitation of peoples, their subjugation on the basis of race, a system that was maintained through the brutal and systematic violence of the colonial authorities.

The prevalence of structural and institutional racism in Britain today made it fertile ground for the effectiveness of the Brexit campaign’s racist and dehumanizing rhetoric of “taking back control” and reaching “breaking point.” This rhetoric is entirely divorced from an understanding of British colonial history, including the country’s recent imperial exploits, which have destabilized and exploited regions and set in motion the migration of today.

Islamophobia powered the Blair-Bush war machine, allowing the lie to be peddled that only the Arab world produces brutal despots, and that the lives of nearly half a million Iraqis are an acceptable price to pay for Britain to be the closest ally of the world’s superpower. Just as the political leaders who called the EU referendum along with those who led the Leave campaign did so with no plan in place for the aftermath, so did the Bush-Blair coalition embark on the 2003 invasion of Iraq with catastrophic consequences. Thirteen years on, Iraqis continue to feel viscerally the trauma of war and the pain of their divided society. Only this week, another suicide bombing in a busy market place took the lives of more than 200 people.

Read Dr Nadine El-Enany's original blog post at Truthout

Read Dr Nadine El-Enany’s original blog post at Truthout

The British establishment does not care to learn lessons from the past. Recall its thoughtless and entirely self-interested military intervention in Libya in 2011, which has left the country in a war-torn state of violence and chaos, a hot-bed for ISIS. But we can learn lessons — lessons that might help the left build solidarity and resist repression in more productive ways. We can begin by understanding Brexit instability and our feelings of loss and fear in the context of longstanding and far-reaching oppression elsewhere. As for privileged Remainers with power and influence, they are disingenuous not to accept a large slice of responsibility for the outcome of the EU referendum. From New Labour’s redefining of the Left as “extreme centre,” to Labour’s “austerity lite,” to their support for imperial wars and the mainstream media’s marginalization of left voices and people of color, and their denial of racism, they oiled the wheels of the Brexit battle bus. It is no use for the powerful liberal mainstream to cry crocodile tears now. They would do better to recognize their role in creating the conditions for the sort of racism that propelled the Brexit campaign to victory.

Note: This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck, University of London

(Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission)

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Labour’s contradictions on European integration after the referendum

This post was contributed by Dr Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics where he directs the MSc programme in European Politics & Policy. Here, Dr Dimitrakopoulos  looks at what the recent month’s activities indicates about the Labour Party’s possible future. A version of this post was commissioned by the ESRC’s ‘The UK in a Changing EU’ programme, and published on its website.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn

When Mark Rutte, the Liberal prime minister of the Netherlands, said that “England has collapsed”, he was not referring to England’s elimination from the European football championship by Iceland. What he meant was that the UK has collapsed, in his words, “politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically”.

Far from looking like a party of government in waiting, capable of offering an answer, the Labour party has become entangled in this systemic crisis and may end up splitting as a result. The party’s reaction to the outcome of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union demonstrates that the image of unity and pro-European conviction that could be detected before the referendum was little more than a façade.  The pro-European conviction is being shaken to the core and unity, if it ever existed, has evaporated.

Key facts indicate that it did not have to be like that.  Recent polling indicates that 81% of Labour party members are in favour of the UK’s membership of the EU.  Nearly two thirds of those who voted Labour in 2015 are estimated to have voted for the country to remain a member of the EU.  More than 90% of Labour’s MPs were active supporters of the Remain campaign and the leaders of virtually all trade unions and the TUC.  For a party that over the past year has been divided over a number of policies, these are indications of a remarkable degree of unity. In reality, though, things are quite different.  The behaviour of leading Labour politicians indicates that both the left and the right wing of the party find it very easy indeed to move away from their declared pro-EU stance.

Corbyn, and immigration

Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in the referendum campaign was so lackluster and he was, arguably, so late in supporting the Remain camp (a stance that may be the result of his Bennite associations), that a couple of weeks before the referendum almost half of Labour’s voters said they did not know where the party stood on the referendum question.  The extraordinary degree of hostility from the media towards its leader (a hostility that brings to mind the mendacity of the British press against the EU that arguably had a decisive impact on the referendum’s outcome) can explain only part of this state of affairs.  Even if one ignores the multiple allegations that Corbyn and his collaborators actively sabotaged the party’s Remain campaign, the suspicion that Corbyn actually preferred Brexit was compounded by his spokesman’s statement that the result shows that Corbyn’s view is much closer to the views held by the British public.

Secondly, the extent of anti-EU sentiment in the party’s former heartlands in the North of England was such that just days before the referendum leading members of the party’s frontbench like its deputy leader Tom Watson and prominent backbenchers like Yvette Cooper argued in favour of restrictions in the free movement of people inside the EU.  Cooper in particular was so desperate in this attempt that she argued in favour of the abolition (in all but name) of the essence of Schengen area (i.e. one of the most significant achievements of the process of European integration) despite the fact that the UK is not part of it.  This was a belated and ultimately unsuccessful effort to appease the anti-immigrant (to put it mildly) feeling that was unleashed by the referendum.

It was reminiscent of the party’s 2015 general election pledge to reduce new EU migrants’ access to some benefits for two years: late, wide of the mark, out of line with the party’s pro-EU stance and ultimately unsuccessful. Crucially, these Labour politicians did not try to confront the public’s misconceptions and prejudices at a time when academic research shows the significant contribution that EU immigrants make to the exchequer, even before one considers the cultural and other forms of their contribution.  Nor did they say much about the fact that for decades non-EU immigration (for which the UK has sole responsibility) has been higher than immigration from the EU.

So, even if one (despite the evidence) believes that immigration in the UK is a problem, policy failed in the part that is under the control of the UK government.  Though changing public perceptions during the post-fact politics is anything but easy, these Labour politicians have failed the party and the country by allowing the fact-free, anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiment to settle.

The European Union flag

A major dilemma

To his credit Corbyn publicly rejected the notion that immigration is a problem.  Both he and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, were right to argue that parts of the country were feeling the negative impact of immigration as a result of decisions made in Whitehall, not Brussels.  Proof of this is the scrapping by the Conservative/Liberal coalition government in August 2010 of the fund that was meant to help ease the pressure on housing, hospitals and schools felt by these communities.

The huge row inside the Labour party after the referendum has focused much more on Corbyn than on the policies that the party ought to pursue in the future. In this context even some of Corbyn’s supporters (including amongst trade union members) have acknowledged that under his leadership Labour cannot make the electoral progress that it needs to make and offer the country a real alternative to the Conservative government.

At the same time, internal analysis of Labour’s performance in last May’s local elections shows that the party has increased its share of votes in areas where this progress would not affect the outcome of a general election.  As the authors of that analysis put it:

“The strategic problem is that only 14% of our gains were in areas we need in order to win general elections – while just under 50% of our losses were in those areas.”

This poses a major dilemma, the answer to which will determine the fate of the Labour party in the next decade or so.  Should it abandon its pro-Europeanism of which its support for immigration is a key indication and hope to attract some of the voters it has lost in its Welsh and northern English former heartlands or should it stick to facts and principles and try to change (rather than echo) the views of these voters some of whom harbour xenophobic opinions.  In other words, at the end of the day, it must decide whether it is a progressive, left-wing party or not.

Those amongst its most prominent MPs and officials who (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) prefer the former to the latter must be aware of the costs that this option will entail. Joining the anti-immigration bandwagon (instead of, for example, attacking austerity and beefing up labour standards) is no free lunch.

The millions of cosmopolitan, urban dwellers (including those who helped propel Sadiq Khan to victory in the 2016 London mayoral elections) who support Labour (and have boosted its membership since Corbyn’s victory) will abandon it if it becomes little more than ‘red UKIP’ while it is hard to see why other voters (who could be tempted by the anti-immigration line) will prefer the copy to the original.  After all, preliminary evidence shows that a) there is absolutely no correlation between wage growth and support for Brexit and b) culture and personality, rather than material circumstances, lie behind majority support for Brexit.

Note: This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck, University of London

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Three French words to explain the European Revolution and one word to leave that dream: Brexit

This post was contributed by Daniele D’Alvia, MPhil Law student in Birkbeck’s School of Law. Here, Daniele shares his personal thoughts on the Leave result of the UK EU referendum.

Avignon - Place de l'Horloge - Hotel de Ville - Liberte Egalite Fraternite

I am European. I am Italian. The day after Brexit on the 24th of June 2016 I started to attend a law course in Paris at the Sorbonne School of Law as part of my Ph.D. research in London. As soon as I entered the main building three words attracted my attention. They are the words of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, and fraternité. They are the words that on the 23rd of June 2016 when the UK population decided to leave Europe I felt as forgotten in my soul and in my heart.

I teach seminars in European Union Law since I have started my Ph.D. at Birkbeck University of London and I have always been taught by my Italian law Professors that the principle of integration in Europe does not translate and never will constitute a conflict between sovereignties. The limitation and the sharing of competences between the EU sphere and the national sphere is not a limitation. By contrast, it is an opportunity for growth. Europe is not just an idea. It is not just a motivation to fight for ideals. Europe is a pure sentiment of cohesion of ideals and motivations.

I say this because I have lived the European integration in 2013 when I decided to leave my own country and I started to study an LL.M. in London. The UK was an extremely welcoming country and London made my mind vivid again. After only seven months I won a Ph.D. and I became a Ronnie Warrington Scholar. I started to teach European Union Law and I was appointed as the module convenor for Comparative Law at Birkbeck. I saw the opportunity for growth that was called Europe. I have lived that opportunity and it is beautiful.

The French Revolution: 3 words to explain the European Revolution  

Liberté, égalité, and fraternité these are the words that you can read on the front face of the building of the Sorbonne School of Law in Paris. In my view, these three simple words can clearly explain what Europe is about.

Firstly, liberté means freedom. During the French revolution freedom and the right to freedom was much more than a political idea of rebellion against the constituted power. Indeed, it was so important that it translates as the raison d’être of any other political and civil right that comes from a general conception of freedom. In the same fashion, the European Union has established four fundamental freedoms: free movement of goods, services, capitals and persons. These rights to freedom are the legal grounds for the establishment of any other civil or political rights within the Union (for instance, think to the right to non-discrimination not only as free movement of workers and security of the same job conditions, but specifically as free movement of goods in order to not discriminate against imported goods, or consumer protection).

Secondly, égalité means equality. It has a strong meaning, and it is the celebration of the humanity of law. In this light, the judge should be the bush de la loue, in other words he should speak for the law, not against the law. He has to interpret and apply the law for the ordinated coexistence of men. The law is above the judge. The European Union has always followed the same principle through the judicial review process of the European Court of Justice. Furthermore, think to the principle of supremacy of EU law over national legislation – can’t you see the glorification of law over domestic powers? It is a great harmonization of law for the first time, isn’t it? Again this is not a conflict between sovereignties. This is an opportunity for growth by virtue of the principle of integration.

Thirdly, fraternité is a motion to understand that all men are created equal. It is the French Déclaration Universelle des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (1789). In Europe it is the European Convention of Human Rights (1950) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2007). It means that the natural law is above positive law. In other words, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union has been approved in order to recognise the existence of a series of fundamental human rights that exist and are legitimised before the Law.

Three words

In the end, three words that derive from the French Revolution are capable of explaining the European idea of Union. This is the real Revolution. To think of Europe by virtue of three words is a Revolution itself that can explain much more to the reader than any complex view of European Union law as a pure technical exercise. It is for the first time a unique instance of a universal conception of law.

Law academic Daniele D'Alvia props his elbow on a mantlepiece

Daniele D’Alvia

For this, although I have seen Brexit in 2016, I am still in love for Europe. In particular, the challenge I would like to pose here – or better, provoke (I am Italian for this, we love to provoke) – is the following: if three words can explain Europe and, therefore, show that in front of the famous complexity and technocracy of Europe there is only a real opportunity for growth and unification, what does the word ‘Brexit’ alone mean? Can the significance of one word explain the significance of a decision to leave and reject all the universal meanings that only Europe is capable of conveying, and even before Europe the French Revolution?

I don’t think so. The dream of an “ever closer Union among the peoples of Europe” of the Treaty of Rome was not just a dream but is becoming and will soon become a reality despite Brexit.

Note: This post represents the views of the authors and not those of Birkbeck, University of London

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