Tag Archives: EU referendum

The Union Jack, the flag of the UK

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.


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 Party leader Jeremy Corbyn

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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Avignon - Place de l'Horloge - Hotel de Ville - French Flags and RF (Copyright Elliot Brown via Flickr)

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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the Downing Street sign, SW1, city of Westminster

Who will succeed David Cameron? A brief history of takeover Prime Ministers

This post was contributed by Dr Benjamin Worthy, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics.

Following David Cameron’s announcement that he will resign following the EU referendum, Dr Worthy assesses the experiences of Prime Ministers who have taken over mid-term, and considers what can be taken from this as we look forward to the upcoming Tory leadership battle.

this post first appeared on Democratic Audit on Friday 24 June.


Credit: Number 10 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

David Cameron will not be Prime Minister by October, and is going even earlier than I predicted. So what does the past tell us about who might take over as Prime Minister, and how they might fare? Who, out of these runners and riders, will be next as First Lord of the Treasury?

There’s generally two ways you can become Prime Minister in the UK through (i) winning a General Election (ii) winning a party leadership election (or in the pre-1965 Conservative party being ‘chosen’) to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves-see this great infographic here.[1]

Whoever sits in 10 Downing Street after David Cameron will be what I’m calling a ‘takeover’ leader, who takes over government by (ii) rather than (i). As the UK Cabinet Manual states:

Where a Prime Minister chooses to resign from his or her individual position at a time when his or her administration has an overall majority in the House of Commons, it is for the party or parties in government to identify who can be chosen as the successor (p.15).

Although often seen as ‘lame ducks’ or less legitimate, remember both Lloyd George and Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, number 1 and number 2 respectively in the highest rated Prime Ministers of the 20th century, got to 10 Downing Street without winning an election.

Here’s a table looking at the last six Post-war ‘takeover’ Prime Ministers that sets out who they took over from, their previous position before Prime Minister, and – the all-important question – whether they went on to win the next election.

Takeover Prime Ministers 1955-2010

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 09.59.48

Interestingly, of the 12 Post-war Prime Ministers almost half were actually takeovers. So how did these takeovers do in the General Elections that followed? It seems there are exactly even chances of winning or losing, as 3 takeovers lost their elections and three won, though drilling down it can be close. John Major had a very narrow win in 1992 and Alec Douglas-Home a surprisingly narrow loss in 1964. What the table doesn’t show is the danger in stepping into Downing Street without an election, which explains why the other 50 % failed to win. Takeover is a risky business even in tranquil times, as this great paper shows.

In terms of who does the taking over now, a superficial look at the table offers good news for Theresa May and Michael Gove and bad news for Boris Johnson. All the takeovers Post-War were already holders of ‘great offices of state’. In fact, 3 were Chancellors and 3 were Foreign Secretaries. This makes sense as it is senior politicians who will have the resources, the reputation and, most importantly, the support in the party to win a leadership election.

The past is not, of course, always a good guide to the future, especially in a Brexit-ing Britain. To be Conservative leader you must make it through a particular bottleneck, as two potential leaders must emerge from the votes of the Conservative MPs for a run-off with the rest of the party. This morning it is very, very unlikely that the next leader will be the (probably) soon to be ex-Chancellor George Osborne. Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond is, as far as we know, not interested.

The closest ‘great offices’ are Theresa May in the Home Office, whose chances have been talked up until yesterday, and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who has ruled himself out repeatedly (though so did his hero Lyndon Johnson, many times). However, Boris Johnson, who has no great office but was Mayor of London for eight years, will have a large amount of political capital and has powerfully bolstered his reputation. A Brexit Johnson versus a Eurosceptic May run-off looks likely.

Gauging how ‘successful’ the takeover leaders were is more tricky-the whole question of whether and how a Prime Minister ‘succeeds’ depends on how you measure it. Half of the leaders achieved the most basic aim of winning an election and a number of them not only won but also increased their majority. Beyond this, some are widely regarded as having failed amid crisis, splits and defeats, especially John Major and Gordon Brown. Not all takeovers are failures or lame ducks. Three of the leaders came number 4, 7 and 8 in the academic survey of the top ten Post-War Prime Ministers and Harold Macmillan in particular is widely regarded as a highly capable and astute Prime Minister.

Whoever takes over from Cameron will face deep problems. He or she will be in charge of a ruptured party, and a worrying in-tray of pressing problems. Being prime Minister of Brexit Britain will mean trying to hold together a divided country and Dis-united Kingdom, not to mention overseeing a hugely complex negotiation process. Whoever takes over will need a very healthy dose of fortune and skill to be a Macmillan rather than a Brown.


[1] There are other ways but it all gets a bit complicated and constitutional see p 15 ofthe Cabinet Manual 2.18-2.19. If a government falls and an opposition can muster up a majority then an opposition leader could become Prime Minister without an election (but would probably want to call a General Election soon after). The Cabinet Manual hedges its bets by saying ‘The Prime Minister will normally be the accepted leader of a political party that commands the majority of the House of Commons’.


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


Brexit as Nostalgia for Empire

This post was contributed by Dr Nadine El-Enany, lecturer in Law at Birkbeck’s School of Law School. On 15 June 2016, Dr El-Enany presented at Law on Trial – the School’s annual public lecture series which this year focused on the EU referendum. Here, Dr El-Enany touches on the themes she explored in her talk which explored Europe’s current migration crisis.

This post was originally published on CriticalThinking.org on Sunday 19 June 2016.

Law-on-Trial-slider -WEB

This week Jo Cox, a pro-immigration Labour MP was brutally murdered by a man who shouted Britain First as he killed her and who gave his name in court on being charged with her murder as “Death to traitors. Freedom for Britain”.

Jo Cox was killed a week before the referendum on Britain’s EU membership and following months of campaigning which has been dominated by the topic of migration. This referendum has not felt like an exercise in democracy. There is something painfully undemocratic about denying EU citizens from other Member States living in Britain a vote. The message to them is that they do not belong here. Their neighbours, co-workers, friends and family decide on their future for them. Worse still, the referendum has licensed the expression of racism and xenophobia, which has been unleashed with deadly consequences. The racist discourse that has defined the Brexit campaign must be understood in the context of Britain’s imperial legacy. The terms on which the debate around the referendum have taken place are symptomatic of a Britain struggling to conceive of its place in the world post-Empire.

In this context waiting for Lexit is to be the frog in that cautionary tale — the one that sits in boiling water until it is too late. I have taught EU law for many years and have always tried to instil in my students a healthy scepticism about the EU. I have worked to show them that it is possible to be critical of the neoliberal, capitalist, imperialist EU and not fall into the anti-migrant, sovereignty-fetishising UKIP camp. When the EU referendum was first announced, I made a Lexit argument when the topic came up.

A vote for the EU is a vote for capitalism, austerity and militarised borders, I’d say. The reality is that argument has elicited only the minutest of echoes. The Brexit campaign has been entirely dominated by the ugliest form of Euroscepticism imaginable. As Priyamvada Gopal has put it, a vote for Brexit is a vote for the “magnificent lie that exploitation, austerity, greed and impoverishment have all come to Britain from the nasty outside”. Lexit is a dream that has not been realised. Waiting for Lexit is like waiting for Godot — in more ways than one. Graham Hassell has aptly described Beckett’s play of that name as “a metaphor for… mainland Britain, where society has ever been blighted by a greedy ruling élite keeping the working classes passive and ignorant by whatever means.”

The “means” adopted by the Brexit campaign in a bid to sway voters have primarily consisted of scare-mongering on the issue of migration. Despite the rhetoric about migrants being a drain on resources, HMRC tax figures for 2013–14 show that migrants contributed £2.5 billion more than theytook out in benefits, but I will neither myth-bust around migration nor be drawn into a debate about whether or not migrants enrich the societies in which live because fundamentally that is a racist question — it erases the history of the British Empire which has set in motion the migration of today and assumes a pre-existing, static society, membership of which can only be validly determined by birthright. Migrants tend to have the least capital and so are easiest to exploit. We have seen this in the unrelenting scapegoating of migrants that has characterised the Brexit campaign, a convenient distraction from the material consequences of the current government’s austerity measures.

It is not that I expected better of Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. I merely hoped they would not succeed, as they have, aided by the British mainstream media, in drowning out the possibility for a Left movement in opposition to the EU to emerge. It is difficult to choose a low point in the Brexit campaign. Was it when Nigel Farage had the gall to say to a black woman who challenged him on the racist rhetoric of the Brexit campaign in the course of a live televised debate that he is “used to being demonised”? Or Michael Gove’s Islamophobic rant about Turkish birthrates and criminality? Or UKIP donor-funded Leave.EU’s recent tweet, “act now before we see an Orlando-style tragedy here before too long”? Or Farage’s latest poster depicting non-white refugees crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015 along with the slogan “Breaking Point”, which has been reported to the police for inciting racial hatred?

Being faced with a choice between between David Cameron and Nigel Farage is a nightmare scenario for any anti-racist and anti-capitalist. With the debate on the referendum eclipsed by the topic of migration, it is no surprise Cameron is struggling to hold the fort having spent the last five years peddling the lie that migrants are to blame for society’s ills rather than his government of millionaires and their penchant for cuts to vital public services. But if Britain votes Leave, it does so on the terms of the racist and xenophobic Brexit campaign. A Leave vote would provide a mandate for Brexit leaders to push for Fortress Britain, which already exists insofar as it can as an EU Member State. Britain is the most fortified of all EU countries. It is not part of Schengen. It has a flexible opt-out from all EU law on immigration and asylum, which it has consistently exercised to opt into restrictive measures that further strengthen its capacity to exclude and out of those aimed at enhancing protection standards.

There is no “refugee crisis” in Britain. Britain has barely increased its resettlement quota in light of the movement of so many desperate Syrians, and a similar number of asylum applications have been made in Britain this year as in 2008 unlike the higher numbers we see in other EU countries. Britain has been the strongest advocate of the EU Dublin Regulation, which sees people seeking asylum confined to Southern Europe, sometimes under conditions found to constitute inhuman and degrading treatment by the European Court of Human Rights. We will see no loosening of Britain’s borders if it leaves the EU, quite the opposite. A Leave vote would provide a validating framework for the enactment of the ugly promises the Brexit campaign has made — take their wish for an Australian style immigration system for example, an idea originally proposed by Tony Blair, inspired by Australia’s “Pacific Solution”. We know what that looks like, visas for the white and privileged while brown and black refugees self-immolate in prisons on remote Pacific islands.

Nor is there a “migration crisis” in Britain. The only crisis identifiable is that caused by a capitalist system which sees the ongoing enrichment of the few and impoverishment of the many. Capitalist and imperialist structures enable oppression on a mass scale. Leaving the EU is not going to ameliorate this. In fact, the British government was so afraid that the EU might empower British workers that it negotiated an opt-out from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights because it guarantees the right of workers to take strike action. Unlike in other EU countries, there is no right to strike in Britain. Successive governments have legislated to curtail the possibility for industrial action, the most recent assault being in the form of the Trade Union Act 2016.

The run up to the EU referendum has shown Britain for what it is. Woodwork: the washed-up bracken of the British Empire, and the ugly flotsam of its legacy of racism. From this woodwork the Brexiters have emerged. They have long romanticised the days of Empire when Britannia ruled the waves and was defined by its racial and cultural superiority. It is no coincidence that Farage has a preference for migrants from India and Australia as compared with East Europeans, and has advocated stronger ties with the Commonwealth. This referendum has not been about Europe, but about Britain and its imperial legacy. For Brexiters, turning their back on Europe and turfing out their neighbours is a step toward salvaging the shipwreck of the British Empire, which 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 violence in the Brexit rhetoric of “taking back control of our borders”, of excluding others for self-interested goals at a time when thousands of refugees are dying at sea, is resonant of the racism that pervaded imperial Britain at the time of the 1781 Zong massacre which saw slaves thrown overboard by their captor to save a British slave ship and in the interest of profiting from an insurance claim. If what we want is to live in a more equitable society, it is dangerous to begin by voting for an outcome which has been driven by racism. A nostalgia for empire is no starting point for emancipatory struggle based on solidarity with the oppressed.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck

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Europe at the Crossroads: Professor Everson comments (Part 5)

This post was contributed by Michelle Everson, Professor of Law at Birkbeck. She has written widely on European Economic and Constitutional Law and has advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Central Bank on matters of European Law.

Professor Everson is hosting a week long debate on ‘Europe at the Crossroads’ at Birkbeck (13-17 June). For details and to book your place, please visit the ‘European Law on Trial’ website.

Every day this week, Professor Everson writes for Birkbeck Comments, offering up her thoughts, opinions, and analysis on the EU referendum. Read part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4 of her blog.

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European borders: a paradoxical sting in the tail?

A couple of weeks ago, as we were stuck in Rome’s eternal traffic jam, an Italian Professor friend of mine told me a story I recognised, and not without a sliver of pain. In the early 1970s, his father, also an academic, took a sabbatical year at the University of London. Subject to his parents’ irrepressibly optimistic openness to the world, my friend found himself at one of the (little-lamented) Inner London Educational Authority’s finest primary school establishments in Richmond. He did so, however, without any local cultural knowledge, or indeed, being able to speak a word of English. The well-meaning school nonetheless stepped up to the European challenge and provided my friend with mentor, a little girl of mixed Italian-British heritage who might translate. The one problem in this arrangement was the fact that up until this time the little girl had done all in her power to hide her Italian heritage from her playmates, keeping her mother away from the school gates and denying all icons of culture that were not 100% British in origin. Her mortification was absolute. My friend’s embarrassment was total.

Being of much the same age and having grown up with a German mother in Chingford, I immediately recognised the pathology, though for some perverse reason (having a French name perhaps) I always followed a reverse psychology to dealing with the inevitable issues by flaunting my Germanness. No one who didn’t grow up in those grey and xenophobic days can truly understand the frustrations of living within the imagination-stagnation of a culturally-enclosed space, and worse still of a cultural space that seemed far past its sell-by date: Sunday afternoons of interminable repeats of British war films often found me pleading with the Luftwaffe Kommandant on the television not to give Douglas Baader his legs back. At a personal level, and even though I am sometimes shocked by lawlessness of the Italian-Polish mushroom wars now playing out in Epping Forest, I am grateful beyond measure that Europe is at home in London.

Yet, by the same tokens of location and age, I am also a middle-aged Londoner and wholly aware that the xenophobia of the 1970s and 1980s was not, or was not even primarily reserved for Europeans. As successive waves of immigrants from the Caribbean, from East Africa, from the Turkish communities of Cyprus, from Vietnam and from Latin America joined my world, the ineptitude of a UK television culture which persisted in a time warp that never allowed Germans to shed their Swastikas, paled into insignificance in the face of the ready offensiveness of British society towards what was perceived as the rest of the world. Those days are not yet over, but London is at least now more globally inclusive that it has ever been.

So what of Europe, with its by now painfully apparent, increasingly rigidly-enforced and often inhumane territorial borders? Is Europe now defining itself as a stagnant, culturally-enclosed space? This question is particularly relevant for a younger generation, with a heightened global outlook that makes little or any distinction between real or virtual friends in Sydney, Warsaw or Mombasa, or between market and cultural goods created in Beijing, Budapest or Rio de Janeiro. Is a concept of Europe a sustainable or even a just one in a globalising world? Within a social theory of European integration that identifies the only possible measure of a shared European culture as being that of the philosophical universalism which originated within the European Enlightenment, the question leads to the inevitably paradoxical conclusion that Europe can only ever be defined as Europe when it has dissolved itself in the success of its own universalising mission. Equally, from the altogether more pragmatic perspective of global economic development – or of the righting of the enduring structural wrongs of historically-engendered economic inequalities – is an ideational programme of European economic ordering a retrograde step and an act of global injustice?

Professor Michelle Everson

Professor Michelle Everson

In this latter regard, I cannot overcome paradox, and can only answer within the realms of my own personal experience and outlook. For me, Europe is only an ideal and not a place. I do not belong to the Habermasian circle of democratic federalists. At the same time, I cannot but feel that, as in the case of EU Enlargement, a global market justice that is founded in the precept of competitive labour advantage, or the notion that I will correct my own disadvantaged position by working for less than you do, is not justice at all, but a recipe for the abasement of the whole of the human condition. If, in its tentative and messy mastery of the innate tensions between a human desire for economic opportunity and a human want for cultural security, the European Union manages to provide at least a hint of a new model for the globalised economy; if it reminds the world that markets must exist within rather than take dominance over society, it will have done more than we might ever have expected of it.

Law on Trial 2016: The European Union at the Crossroads, runs at Birkbeck from Monday 13 to Friday 17 June. Book a free place here.

Listen to Professor Everson on the topic of the EU referendum in the latest edition of Birkbeck Voices

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck

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Europe at the Crossroads: Professor Everson comments (Part 4)

This post was contributed by Michelle Everson, Professor of Law at Birkbeck. She has written widely on European Economic and Constitutional Law and has advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Central Bank on matters of European Law.

Professor Everson is hosting a week long debate on ‘Europe at the Crossroads’ at Birkbeck (13-17 June). For details and to book your place, please visit the ‘European Law on Trial’ website.

Every day this week, Professor Everson writes for Birkbeck Comments, offering up her thoughts, opinions, and analysis on the EU referendum. Read part 1, part 2 and part 3 of her blog.

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More order, but less Europe

My vote for Europe is not a vote for its current malaise of totalising economic rationalism, for its political, legal and intellectual abdication, or for its heedlessness for the dispossessed of Athens or Lisbon. It is a vote for the European Union qua its status as institution; an institution unique within a global mass of bilateral trade agreements that is bestridden, at the point of its judicial application, by the disembedded economic thinking of a culturally-denuded World Trade Organisation. However imperfectly, the EU, qua institution, is open to the voices of cultural and social self-determination and also to the voices of economic value that are not simply disregarded, but also traduced within dominant economic rationality. Hobbes is very long dead: In their rush to resurrect the dusty fairy tale of national sovereignty, Brexit campaigners, would have us abdicate at the global level, all potential for the re-establishment of political and social self-determination over the economy. We, by contrast, should take our fight for the soul of economic liberalism to Europe.

Norman Tebbit tells an interesting tale of his own disenchantment with the European project. As an airline pilot, working together with colleagues from other European nations in order to ensure airline safety, he was seized by the commonality of his lived experience with the European group, excited and liberated by the ease of communication between pilot-experts who sought to solve common technical problems. Only later did he worry that this technocratic group, in all of its shared enthusiasm, had become divorced from the masses still locked in more generalist national cultural discourse. To this I answer, yes, you are right ‘Norman’ (I’m from Chingford, I can), but only insofar as you are utterly wrong. In academic jargon, ‘epistemic communities’ of shared expertise are major culprits within democracy-denuding technocratisation processes, as well as within the near collapse of the global financial system: why did no one see it coming? Yet, cross-European meetings of like minds can also produce visionary rationalities; and I count myself blessed to be able to sometimes join the first generations of Eurocrats in toasts to their retirements. But, also in the medium of day-to-day, Ryanair-facilitated movement around Europe, in the Europeanisation of media discourse (German television transmitted the Farage-Cameron debate live and in full), in the Europeanisation of consumer, environmentalist, and economic pressure groups, the far broader conversation amongst European peoples can be heard, and is similarly exciting for its commonalities, rather than made discordant by its differences.

What do the peoples of Europe want? They want what we all want: economic and political autonomy, welfare and an effective means of their realisation. In a globalised age that is as unsettling as it is exciting, people want an order of opportunity and of security; and therein lies the common ‘European’ cause for those of the left and of the right. Here, we can identify the joint project for those with tradition and for those who wish to break free from their own cultural confines, the shared programme for those who wish to make use of their new opportunities and for those who prefer their own four stone walls. Yet, this want will never be satisfied, this order will never be created, where we continue to sacrifice ourselves to the totalising and socially-disembedding powers of a dominant economic rationality that is as socially-amoral as it is delusional.

By contrast, our first sacrificial victim in the effort to save economic liberalism within Europe, or to re-establish civilised EU order, must be the notion of economic efficiency, the founding myth of bastardised capitalism. Who on the streets of Athens believes that the unbearable pain of insecurity, of myriad ruined, even curtailed lives can in some way be made good in the maybe never-to-be fulfilled promise of future riches? Also, and perhaps more significantly so, what price the economic opportunities of the farmer or the supplier forced out of business by the price-cutting imperatives of ‘perfectly-efficient’ competition between ever more fast concentrations of economic power? The second sacrifice follows from the first, and for the foreseeable future at least must be given in a commitment to less rather than more Europe.

Professor Michelle Everson

Professor Michelle Everson

Certainly, in European economic constitutionalist mode we can create circumscribed rights of cross-border economic opportunity and can similarly seek to reverse the sad surrender of a once economically-decentralising European competition policy to the efficiency demands of the globally-dominant Chicago School of economics. Yet, by the same ordered token, where the primary locus of social, cultural and emotional attachment remains local, regional or national we must curtail European regulatory impulses, however attractive they might occasionally appear. The complex of ordo-liberal, (Christian) corporatist and social-democratic interests that still, to a certain extent, defines life in Bochum would go down like a lead balloon in Birmingham. Vice versa: the National Health Service, the one major survivor of Britain’s post-war universalist welfare tradition is still met with as much incomprehension in continental Europe as it is in the United States. It is certainly possible that, with time, Europe will find its own way to cultural unity and will embed a European economy within a European society.

In the meantime, however, in the manner of European federalism, this is all just a very pretty dream. The remnants of our national economic traditions left to us are perhaps sometimes irritatingly quaint, but they are still the greatest expression of ‘independent state action in a framework of respect for the economic and political autonomy of citizens,’ and we must all defend them determinedly within the institutions of the European Union, within its law, within its Parliament and within its source of executive competence (the European Council).

Law on Trial 2016: The European Union at the Crossroads, runs at Birkbeck from Monday 13 to Friday 17 June. Book a free place here.

Listen to Professor Everson on the topic of the EU referendum in the latest edition of Birkbeck Voices

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck

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Europe at the Crossroads: Professor Everson comments (Part 3)

This post was contributed by Michelle Everson, Professor of Law at Birkbeck. She has written widely on European Economic and Constitutional Law and has advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Central Bank on matters of European Law.

Professor Everson is hosting a week long debate on ‘Europe at the Crossroads’ at Birkbeck (13-17 June). For details and to book your place, please visit the ‘European Law on Trial’ website.

Every day this week, Professor Everson writes for Birkbeck Comments, offering up her thoughts, opinions, and analysis on the EU referendum. Read part 1 and part 2 of her blog.

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The crisis in economic liberalism: A common ground for the fight?

To confirm the worst suspicions of Eurosceptics, I once met Gisella Stewart, acceptable face of the Brexit campaign, on a bit of junket in Vienna. Maybe I did fly Ryanair (into Bratislava), but I admit that I was also a touch squiffy on a sparking little Zweigelt when, in the hotel lobby, she voiced to me her concerns about the democratic futures of the Union. It was the time of the European Convention and ‘Gisella’ (if I may) was a UK parliamentary delegate to conferences preparing for the birth and unveiling of a shiny Constitution for the Peoples of Europe. Being then as now of a cynical frame of mind I was more relieved than upset by the eventual failure of the European Constitution and the subsequently functionalist approach taken by the European Commission and the member states in the redrafting of the constitutional draft as the Lisbon Treaty.

On the one hand, the sight of past leaders of France and Italy, Valerie Giscard D’Estaing and Guliano Amato (betimes in their battle bus) suborning the peoples of Europe to join them in a glorious democratic future, induced in me only a vaguely Brechtian feeling of alienation. On the other, in my travels around Europe, the only committed federalists I have ever met have been members of the Federalist party (go figure), and some (but definitely not all) EU employees.

In Puglia, Carla looks to the Regione when her vines fail, in Manchester, Martha collects plates of royal weddings, in North Germany, Christian rejoices when Werder Bremen avoids relegation. The daily experience of the vast majority of people in Europe is one of political, cultural and emotional attachment to the local, regional or national level. Although the visions of a democratically-federal Europe proposed, amongst others by great minds such as Jürgen Habermas, offer an obvious and immediate solution to problems of democratic deficit within Europe, the precipitate federalisation of the prisoner’s dilemma would only de-legitimate itself. Bismarck and Garibaldi are long dead: today, the only sustainable European federalisation would be one that felt in the soul as strongly as it is born in conviction.

Nevertheless, Gisella Stewart now makes a telling point. For the left, or so she argues, the European Union is a lost cause. The majority of European governments are formed by right wing or Christian Democratic parties, the European Parliament voted to be led by Claude Juncker, not by Martin Schultz. Fazit: the left can never defeat the dominant economic rationality of the right within the Union. Now, this is all perhaps true, but vitally so, only insofar as the dominant economic rationality that now governs the EU, as it does the globe, is a natural appendage to the right. And here, returning slowly to our much-maligned German ordo-liberals, we might state that all is not as it seems, or that Gisella Stewart is wrong to dismiss the potential for revolution within EU institutions. To the contrary: She is wrong because she has yet to understand the depth of a current crisis that is not simply a crisis of capitalism, but is rather a crisis that challenges the entire political-social edifice of economic liberalism. Seen in this light, the left might yet have common cause with the right within the European Union.

In the years since financial crisis, I have found myself with some strange debating bedfellows; not just the usual cast of well-meaning Germans and culturally-exhausted Italians, but rather also chairs of global insurance companies, heads of compliance within multi-national banking corporations, Christian Democrats of many national hues, community organisers, small-scale entrepreneurs and anxiously-overburdened technocrats. Our shared ground, however, has been a desire to consign the rhetorical usage of the catch-all-hate-term ‘neo-liberalism’, to the dustbin: blindly hating capitalism, or those facets of capitalism we feel are bad does little to extricate us from economic malaise.

Contemporary crisis has its roots in very many distinct movements, not just in unbridled and unprincipled rent-seeking on the part of private actors, but also – in a term coined by the political scientist, Colin Crouch – within a ‘privatised Keynsianism’ promoted by Governments of the left and of the right across the globe, which is predicated on substitution of a putatively endless supply of self-generating private capital for the fiscally-engendered revenues of the now economically-castrated nation state; a process which still continues, albeit now subject to Central Bank oversight of private money creation within a new, but still very vaguely-defined, technocratic function of macro-prudential supervision. Neo-liberalism, when used to denote a rampant and uncontrolled state of market nature, first misses the immediate point that the systemic failure of capitalism is not only being overseen, but is also being promoted, within an exponential growth of regulatory oversight that is dedicated to the service of the chimera of efficiently-perfected competition. Secondly, however, and far more importantly it also misplaces the fatal underlying alienation of all of our dominant economic rationalities from our political and social mores.

If one thing unites the disparate strands of our dominant economic rationality, it is their social amorality, or a denuded worldview that is exhibited either in their belief that man is no more than an economic animal (homo economicus) flourishing or failing in a state of market nature in which not even God finds a place, or in their contrary reification of ‘scientifically-constructed’ and market-fostering regulation, and concomitant denial of any (Hayekian) uncertainty in the affairs of the market or of man: ‘if only we can identify the right logarithms, Capital will always beget more Capital, Amen.’

This is all so very far from a first incarnation of the term neo-liberalism in 1930s Paris as a moral response to the communist and fascist challenge then being made not simply to free markets, but also to the liberal framework of social constitution within which classical economic liberalism had always suspended them. It is also light years away from a first and enduring clarification of this defensive liberalism in the Berlin of 1938. It is a world away from the rebirth of a cornered but still battling economic liberalism by the (anti-) heroes of German ordo-liberalism who sought to secure an ordered, economic constitutionalism within the nation’s highest laws. It is a travesty of the work of academics, steeped in Lutheran tradition, such as, the economists Alexander Rüstow and Walter Eucken, the latter of whom, also bravely resisted Martin Heidegger’s determined attempts to Nazify the University of Heidelberg, as well as the lawyer, Franz Böhm.

For clarity’s sake, I am of the left, and consequently cannot but disagree with vast tracts of ordo-liberal writing. Reading this work often sends me screaming into the garden. Nonetheless, it is not the individual precepts of ordo-liberalism that are at issue here, but rather its idealised view of the economy within society, a model more recently enunciated by one last living link with the beginnings of the movement, the Hamburg Law Professor, Ernst-Joachim-Mestmäcker.

The Economic Constitution:

‘constitutes the political potency of the economic realm … but not with an eye to offering up this realm to the democratic regime; instead, it does so in order to place the democratic regime in a position from which it might disinterestedly achieve its tasks of securing justice and social welfare. The role of the Economic Constitution is not one of securing the priority of the economic realm. Instead, its role is one of enabling the exercise of independent state action in a framework of respect for the economic and political autonomy of citizens.’

In his very final lectures at the Collège de France, Michèl Foucault distinguished ordo-liberal thinkers from what he termed ‘anarcho-liberals’ (read Milton Friedman). Ordo-liberals, so he argued, had an abiding fear of social forces and hence sought to suppress all revolution and reaction by means of their pre-emption within a constraining narrative of constitutionalised freedom. And, indeed, for a radical or collectivist left, this distinction must inevitably mutate into a critique of the forces of conservatism with a small ‘c’ which would similarly deny socialist governments the full use of the political potency of the economic realm.

Professor Michelle Everson

Professor Michelle Everson

Yet, today, in the face of socially- and politically-alienating economic rationalities that have simply forgotten, or choose to ignore the fact that the market exists within society, the painful irony of the left enjoining in a battle to overcome the crisis within economic liberalism is perhaps ameliorated. In its ordo-liberal form, the moral language of economic liberalism is one that we can recognise and engage with. Far more importantly, it is a moral language of political self-restraint which has proven itself accommodating to the demands of counter-posing forces of social tradition and of the left. The success and stability of Germany’s post war economy – and social settlement – was not the work of ordo-liberals alone, but rather the graft of ordo-liberals who fought with but similarly adapted themselves to other world views.

The reforming economic zeal of Ludwig Erhard was open to its tempering within the traditional politics of (Catholic) corporatism pursued by Germany’s first post-war Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. In turn, the forces of social democracy, embodied by Willi Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, also shaped a now sadly-unravelling composite variety of German capitalism – a sometimes frustrating, but always democratic, culturally-rooted and socially-embedded capitalism.

Law on Trial 2016: The European Union at the Crossroads, runs at Birkbeck from Monday 13 to Friday 17 June. Book a free place here.

Listen to Professor Everson on the topic of the EU referendum in the latest edition of Birkbeck Voices

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck

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Europe at the Crossroads: Professor Everson comments (Part 2)

This post was contributed by Michelle Everson, Professor of Law at Birkbeck. She has written widely on European Economic and Constitutional Law and has advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Central Bank on matters of European Law.

Professor Everson is hosting a week long debate on ‘Europe at the Crossroads’ at Birkbeck (13-17 June). For details and to book your place, please visit the ‘European Law on Trial’ website.

Every day this week, Professor Everson writes for Birkbeck Comments, offering up her thoughts, opinions, and analysis on the EU referendum. Read part 1 of her blog here.

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What can we learn from European malaise?

In my time, I have been patronised by the very best of them, including in the late 1990s, Horst Krenzler, an eminence grise of the founding European Commission and, at that time, Chair of a working group on the Eastern Enlargement of the EU. Acting as Rapporteur for a mixed group of functionaries and academics, my frustrations with the – to me – all-too-perverse implications of sealing the liberated futures of newly re-instated nations by requiring them to submit wholesale to the established (and already vast) EU economic rule book, boiled over into the high-pitched question: ‘Why can’t we just give them a Marshall Plan?’ An outburst of general laughter followed, and then, ‘Young lady [I was young then], no-one will pay for it!’

A perception that latter-day surrender of the Union to economic rationalities of market utility dates to, and was precipitated by the unforeseen geopolitical earthquake that followed the fall of the Berlin wall, has much to recommend it. The final surrender of the Deutschmark to long-resisted plans to create a European currency within the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992 was the price that the Federal Republic had to pay for German reunification. By the same token, the EU’s decision to alter the rules of the game of accession to the Union by requiring the nations of Eastern Europe to adopt all European market regulation prior to beginning membership negotiations, cemented the enduring paradigm, whereby Eastern Europe is required to compete itself to economic parity with Western European States.

Not for Poland or Hungary, the long process of adaptation to European rules afforded to the privileged post-dictatorial nations of Portugal and Spain; a break with tradition that also has as its flip-side in an inevitable pressure on wages and social provision in Western Europe, as Eastern workers make full use of their competitive labour advantage. And finally, as Germany – under pressure both from unfavourable Eurozone interest rates and from the financial burdens of reunification  emerged in the early 2000s as the sick man of Europe, economic conditionality first made itself felt when the then socialist Government bequeathed to us all the first lodestone of subsequent austerity regimes in its brutal curtailment of national welfare provision and simultaneous establishment of a debt brake on national expenditure.

If full truth be told, however, the destructive potentialities of economic rationality had already begun to afflict the European Economic Community a decade earlier as the rhetorical dominance of Thatcherism and Reagnomics extended throughout the Continent, colonising market integration logics to lever out distinct varieties of European capitalism from complex national patterns of sometimes corporatist, and sometimes welfarist economic-political organisation.

Campaigners for Brexit are obsessed to the point of absurdity with the safeguarding of a national sovereignty that is a simple chimera in our contemporary world of global economic interdependence. They pay little if any attention to the historical paradox that, whilst the then European Court of Justice had established its doctrine of the limitation of national sovereignty as early as the 1960s (in the now legendary cases of Van Gend en Loos and Costa v ENEL), a palpable loss of national territorial control only emerged with the success – originating at national level – of programmes of new economic liberalism in the 1980s. Far more than the Single European Act of 1986, establishing majority voting in the Council of Ministers for measures creating the Single European Market, it was this new predominance of the liberalising economic-political mind that created a beginning of the end of human self-determination, be that self-determination national, European or global.

That markets are never simply markets became very clear to me with regard to my then field of study: the integration of private insurance and finance markets. Comparing German with UK provision, I was left disquieted by the happy coincidence between demands for the capital-generating efficiency promised by a single European finance market and the concomitant integrative unravelling through legislation and case law of decades-long schemes of regulation with all of their underlying interest accommodations between consumers, industry and national economic policy. Certainly, in this case the already-liberal UK was not to be an immediate looser as the axe fell instead upon a largely stagnant scheme of German financial regulation, which had escaped the reformist zeal of the Federal Republic’s economically-liberalising post-war Finance Minister, Ludwig Erhard, and which seemed instead to serve more corporatist interests within a controlled economic policy of inward investment.

Yet, as the 1980s progressed into the 1990s, which also brought with them a sea-change in European competition policy away from range of market offer and towards economic efficiency, with its concomitant prising out of Germany’s local investment banks (Landesbanken) from their restrictively-controlled role of (state-supported) structural financing, we were all soon to pay a very high price indeed for the rolling out of a level competitive field by means of the flattening of distinct, nationally-embedded economies.

The example of insurance and finance markets may be a small one, but it was replicated across the Single Market, and also gains in vital significance when seen in the light of sovereign debt crisis and the EU’s own austerity regime imposed in order to shore up the Euro. A powerful analysis squarely lays the blame for the anti-democratic and economically self-defeating regime of New Economic Governance within the Eurozone on the shoulders of a German theory and ideal of ‘ordo-liberalism’. Working with the powerful mantra of ‘never again’, ordo-liberalism, it is said, seeks still, in its unfortunately-displaced act of memory politics, to fight the bogey of hyper-inflation experienced in Germany in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street crash, asserting its supreme goal of the constitutionalisation of monetary stability throughout the Eurozone within new European technocratic crisis law.

Contrary to the explicit terms of the European treaties, financial succour may be given to the debtor nations of the Eurozone, but – with the full blessing of the Court of European Justice (Pringle) – will necessarily be subject to the imposed brutality of an economic conditionality which makes even the International Monetary Fund think again. The hands of the European Central Bank will be tied by the constitutionalised principle of monetary stability, such that it cannot engage in the inflationary policies that might save the Eurozone without imposing unbearable pain upon its weakest members.

Finally, the air of permanent austerity is cemented within the Eurozone and far beyond as its members are required to constitutionalise a debt brake, and its non-members, or their politicians, seize on the rhetorical powers of financially self-restraining government to garner votes from a public bludgeoned in to believing that there is simply no alternative. Germany reaps and Greece weeps: German history, its painful remembrances, dictate the rules of the Eurozone game such that all Greeks – and with them all Europeans – who dream of a different way of doing things are left bereft, devoid of political voice in their vain battering against a tight mesh of legal and technocratic inevitability.

So far so German, but a slightly more nuanced tale may also be told: ‘Zutiefst unDeutsch’ is my ungrammatical and increasingly exasperated cry each time I stagger out of a Ryanair flight in Berlin, Frankfurt or Munich. This is all so unGerman. All those things that used to irritate me as much as I prized them: the ridiculously restricted shopping hours nonetheless balanced by service from an assistant who knew, after years of apprenticeship, exactly which vegetable peeler I might need to tackle my slightly woody asparagus; the sense of innovative ambition frustrated by centuries of craft and guild tradition counter-posed in equal measure by continuity and security.

All gone, or going, in the blink of an eye, or in the 30 years of an equalising and disembedding bastardisation of capitalism that has seen German financial institutions ejected from their drearily-constructive roles of fostering engineering enterprises in Dresden, Dortmund and Detmold and unpreparedly-launched instead upon a global financial market ruled by a myth as insane as it an opiate for the masses who have been ejected from their economic vocations, to now flit instead from zero-hours contract to zero-hours contract: Capital will beget Capital, world without end, Amen. Take a look at the destructive role played by WestLB, once the proudest and most constant donators of venture capital to Wolfgang in Wuppertal, in the Irish housing, and ask yourself this: did Germanness or unGermanness cause financial crisis in the first place?

Professor Michelle Everson

Professor Michelle Everson

So what have we learned from Europe? That it is bad, or that it is good? In its ideological substance, it is neither, but it has been held captive for the past 30 years by an economic rationality that was born and nurtured at national level, is now dominant on a global stage, and is often seized upon by equalising institutions as a short cut to European integration. Yet, within the EU, we do at least have institutions – institutions that have betimes resisted bastardised capitalism, the extraordinarily measured European Court of Justice of the 1980s being a case in point. It is this that distinguishes Europe from the still-uncivilised global stage; meanwhile, European institutions provide us with the best framework within which we can begin the fight back.

Brexit campaigners would have us believe that with its sovereignty restored, the UK will bestride a global stage, operating autonomously and serenely within the World Trade Organisation here, and calmly concluding bilateral trade agreements there. The delusion is absolute: neither the WTO, nor international treaties possess ameliorating institutions; the Investor Protection principle – now being successfully resisted by the institution of the European Parliament within bilateral trade negotiations between the EU and the US (TTIP) – is not only the sine qua non of all existing bilateral trade agreements, but also the final bonfire of the vanity of national sovereignty, establishing the absolute primacy of all trade interests and requiring signatory states to compensate economic forces who have been so sadly inconvenienced by their (social as well as economic) regulatory protections.

Law on Trial 2016: The European Union at the Crossroads, runs at Birkbeck from Monday 13 to Friday 17 June. Book a free place here.

Listen to Professor Everson on the topic of the EU referendum in the latest edition of Birkbeck Voices


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If we want the UK-born poor to vote Remain we need to take their grievances seriously

This post was contributed by Professor Stephen Wright, of Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics.

drapeaux européens

I am a Remainer. As an economist the arguments for staying in the EU seem to me pretty clearly to outweigh the arguments for leaving. As a private individual I also clearly benefit from the EU. Polish carers look after my 97-year old mother (very well). I work in multiethnic and prosperous London. I have a Serbian-Dutch prospective son-in-law. I travel quite often in Europe and like the cheap flights (who doesn’t?). And the Central and Eastern Europeans who serve my coffee at the station are so polite and efficient.

But when personal incentives coincide with intellectual arguments we need to be careful. When I criticised the pro-Brexit arguments of Patrick Minford of Cardiff University in an email he responded that my arguments were a “metro-elite rant”. He had a point.

I quote from his email (my insertions in parentheses for clarity)

The problem is the balance between skilled and unskilled (migrants) and the complete lack of control that affects large swathes of the country with pressure from large numbers of
unskilled (migrant) workers: effects on housing, hospitals and schools, not to speak of wages (though evidence here is hard to get). Look, if the elite will not compensate these guys they must expect a political explosion which they have now got.

I reiterate: I am, and remain, a Remainer. But Patrick does have a point. If we Remainers do not take these arguments seriously, and – ideally – try to persuade policymakers to do something about these problems – there is a very serious risk that the Brexiteers will win the vote.

One chart, from the LSE’s John Van Reenen and co-authors (See Footnote 1) tells most of the story.


Source: CEP analysis of Labour Force Survey. Wadsworth et al. (2016: 7). Notes: Median wage is deflated by the CPI.

And, as with so many charts, the story that it tells depends on your perspective. From the perspective of a UK-born worker at the lower end of the distribution what they can see, without any advice from expert economists, is that the real value of their wages has fallen almost continuously (by around 10% for someone on the median wage –See Footnote 2) since the peak before the crisis. They can also see, without the aid of the chart (who cannot?) that at the same time the share of EU migrants in the population has risen steadily. And, inevitably they draw a link between the two phenomena.

Van Reenen and co-authors point out (quite correctly) that the share of EU migrants had been rising well before real wages started falling, indeed, as the chart shows, during a period in which real wages were still rising steadily. They also point to a range of evidence showing a lack of a link between EU migration and UK-born wages or unemployment. And they reiterate the arguments that Brexit would lower GDP via reduced trade, job losses, and higher prices of imported goods.

So should we just dismiss the arguments about EU migration as xenophobic scaremongering? Well of course a lot of it is pretty unpleasant, and often verges on the xenophobic. But that does not mean we can simply dismiss the arguments out of hand.

Wages and unemployment, first of all. Is the case against a link proven by the lack of a correlation? Here is one of the charts that Van Reenen and co-authors use to make their case.

Source: CEP analysis of Labour Force Survey. Wadsworth et al. (2016: 10). Notes: Each dot represents a UK local authority. The solid line is the predicted ‘best fit’ from a regression of local authority percentage change in wages on the local authority change in share of EU immigrants. These are weighted by the sample population in each area. Slope of this line is -0.08 with standard error of 0.15, statistically insignificantly different from zero.

Source: CEP analysis of Labour Force Survey. Wadsworth et al. (2016: 10).
Notes: Each dot represents a UK local authority. The solid line is the predicted ‘best fit’ from a regression of local authority percentage change in wages on the local authority change in share of EU immigrants. These are weighted by the sample population in each area. Slope of this line is -0.08 with standard error of 0.15, statistically insignificantly different from zero.

This shows that there has been essentially a zero correlation between changes in real wages in any given local authority and the increase in EU migration in the same local authority. Case proven, it seems.

But pause, just for a moment. Basic statistics courses teach that “correlation need not imply causation”. But there is a subtler version: lack of correlation need not imply lack of causation. Here’s a simple argument (which is easy to substantiate with a couple of lines of algebra).

Suppose that real wages at a regional level tend to be stronger (which in recent years typically means to fall less rapidly than the average – look at the y-axis on the chart) where the regional economy is stronger. And suppose that EU migrants know this. Where will they tend to move to in the UK? Well, to the more prosperous regions, of course. Now suppose that the Remain arguments are correct, and more EU migrants do not have any effect on wages. If that was the case, then we should expect to see a positive correlation in the scatter diagram, but we do not. Whereas if EU migrants do depress wages, this would dampen the positive relationship and possibly result in no correlation at all. Which is what we see in the chart.

Now Van Reenen and his co-authors are all excellent econometricians so they all know this kind of argument perfectly well. Which makes their arguments all the more disingenuous. I’m not claiming that this proves there has been a serious impact on wages. There has been plenty of more sophisticated research which suggests it is hard to find an impact either way (and which Minford acknowledges in the quote above). But that does not in itself prove the argument wrong.

What about hospitals and schools? Well here the Remain argument is on the face of it much stronger. Van Reenen and others have shown that EU migrants are pretty clearly net contributors to the public purse. But the only problem with this argument to the UK-born worker is that there is no direct observable impact of these higher tax receipts on hospitals and schools. We do not have labels on CT scanners or smart whiteboards saying “these facilities were paid for using the extra tax receipts from EU migrants paypackets”. All they can see is the queues and the letters assigning their child to a school two bus rides away.

And finally, of course, housing. Well here of course, all the economists agree. And the policymakers. Everyone agrees. Absolutely everyone. We must build more houses.

But we don’t. Or at least not enough. Nor have we, for decades. As a result, UK households spend more on housing, per square metre of residential land, then any other European country except Luxembourg (See Footnote 3).

Does EU migration make things worse? Well of course it must do. (Even Nigel Farage can be right once in a while.) The CEP paper documents that the number of EU migrants in the UK rose by 2.4 million between 1995 and 2015. That accounts for roughly one third of the total growth of population in the UK over that period. And meanwhile, as Bank of England governor Mark Carney pointed out back in 2014, the UK builds half as many houses each year as Canada despite having twice the population.

No one disagrees that this is crazy. Yet neither the government nor the opposition have made any move to do anything serious about it. Despite the fact that bringing down the cost of housing could be the most effective way (and possibly the only effective way) of raising living standards for UK workers in the medium to long term.

But don’t get me started on housing. It is a serious, a very serious problem, that goes way beyond arguments about Brexit. But, I reiterate, EU migration must be making it worse.

Does all of this mean that I think we should stop EU migration? (Even if we could, which is of course debatable, even post-Brexit). It does not. Despite the fact that, as I noted at the start, my personal interests coincide with my professional judgement, I stick with that judgement. The EU brings benefits. EU migrants bring benefits. To me, and people like me, especially. To the economy on average, almost certainly. But not to everyone.

Pro-Remain policymakers need to start thinking fast about acknowledging this, and how to offer something to the poor and dispossessed of this country to compensate them explicitly for the costs of EU migration. This would not be impossible: remember the last-ditch crossparty promises before the Scottish vote? Maybe these made a difference, maybe they didn’t. But it is worth a try. Very soon it will be too late.

Find out more

Courses at the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics

Images sourced from Wadsworth, J., Dhingra, S., Ottaviano, G., Van Reenen, J., and Vaitilingam, R. (2016) ‘Brexit and the Impact of Immigration on the UK’. CEP BREXIT ANALYSIS NO. 5. Available online, last retrieved 13 June 2016.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck


  1. “Brexit and the Impact of Immigration on the UK”, Jonathan Wadsworth, Swati Dhingra, Gianmarco Ottaviano and John Van Reenen, CEP Brexit Analysis No. 5.
  2. The CEP document shows that the fall for those on the 10th decile has been somewhat larger, and started
  3. De La Porte Simonsen, L and Wright, S (2016) “Residential Land Supply in 27 EU Countries: Pigovian Controls or Nimbyism?, paper presented to Birkbeck Centre for Applied Macroeconomics Annual Workshop, May 2016.