The EU Referendum: Will It Be In Or Out?

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally posted on the 10 Gower Street blog on 9 June 2016.

drapeaux européens

On 8th June Birkbeck Politics staff discussed the UK’s EU referendum, looking at what has happened so far and what may yet take place on the 23rd June.

The panel began by looking into why the UK was having a referendum, discussing the many hidden and not to hidden factors behind it. These stretched from Cameron’s gamble, that a referendum would cure the short term threat of UKIP and unhappiness in the Conservative party, to the long term distrust towards the European Union project in the UK, harking all the way back to Britain’s campaign of attempted sabotage of the project in the 1950s and reluctant joining in the 1970s.

Reflecting on the campaign so far, the panel spoke of how referenda are, by their nature, proxies for all sorts of other subjects. The EU referendum is actually about immigration, democracy and sovereignty. Despite their popular appeal, they can also be anti-democratic in focusing so narrowly on a single decision, and pursuing a seemingly simple answer to what are complicated issues.

There was also concern at the low level of debate and failure, on both sides, to engage with facts or global realities, from international trade to the modern mass movement of people (see the Treasury Committee report here that similarly complained of the ‘inconsistent, unqualified and, in some cases, misleading claims and counter-claims’ made by both sides).

The panel also reflected on how different views of the EU split different parts of England and the United Kingdom-creating what has been called a Disunited Kingdom of intentions and support. What would happen if Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain but England and Wales wished to leave? It could all get complicated and this paper speaks of some of the profound constitutional consequences. But do referenda’s ever solve an issue (think Scotland in 2014)? The panel thought it is unlikely to be the last EU referendum the UK has.

In terms of the voting itself, the polls so far show a knife edge result, resting on the margin of error. To find out what our panel think will happen on the 23rd June (and why José Mourinho’s views could prove decisive) listen to the podcast below.

Find Out More

  • For polling data and analyses see John Curtice’s What UK Thinks website and Matt Singh’s Number Cruncher Politics
  • The betting odds are here  (it looks roughly 77% remain vs. 25-28% Leave)
  • The House of Commons Library impartial background research on the referendum, Brexit and issues it raises here
  • On the panel were: Rosie Campbell‎; Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos‎; Dermot Hodson‎; Deborah Mabbett‎; Jason Edwards
  • Courses in the Department of Politics
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Eric J. Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture 2016: “European History in the Age of Hobsbawm” by Sir Richard J. Evans – reflections from a Hobsbawm Scholar

This post was contributed by Antonio E Weiss, a PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology and a 2014 recipient of a Hobsbawm Schoalrship.

Sir Richard Evans’ lecture on “European History in the Age of Hobsbawm” provided an excellent opportunity to reflect on the nature and legacy of a towering figure of modern history in general, and Birkbeck College in particuar.

Evans opened with a 23 year-old Eric Hobsbawm on the verge of tears in 1940 as he packed his books in preparation for serving on the front-line in the war effort. Hobsbawm had a voracious appetite for a wide variety of literature – Balzac, Melville – and eclectic musical tastes, spanEric Hobsbawmning jazz and classical. As part of his latest work, Evans has had access to Hobsbawm’s diaries, providing a fascinating window into Hobsbawm’s life. It is Hobsbawm’s keen and wide interest in culture, of all forms and varieties, but with a particularly European focus, which helps to explain his emergence as such a special and influential figure of the twentieth century.

As a hugely grateful recipient of the generous Hobsbawm Scholarship Fund (to fund trips to Scottish and Irish archives as part of my PhD research on the history of the British state’s use of management consultancy firms in the twentieth century), Evans’ words on the unique contribution of Hobsbawm to historical scholarship made me reflect on the great privilege it is so receive support from the Fund. As Evans identified, The Age of Revolution (published in 1962 and the first of Hobsbawm’s trilogy of books on the “long nineteenth century”) was distinctive for two, critical, reasons. First, in an era when the focus of British historian was on nationalism and nation-states, Hobsbawm took a transnational approach, spanning his inquiry across countries. And second, highly influenced by the Annales School, Hobsbawm’s elevation of the importance of economic and social history, was in marked distinction to the focus on political and diplomatic history at the time, favoured by figures such as A.J.P. Taylor.

So much has been written and discussed about Eric Hobsbawm’s relationship with the Communist Party and his writings as a “Marxist historian” that attention has, potentially, been deflected from the enduring legacy of his contribution to history as a discipline. It is not hard to see the impact of Hobsbawm on my own research, even though the time and subject matter may initially appear far removed from Hobsbawm’s own historical concerns.

My research, on consultancy and the state, takes an emphatically transnational approach as it seeks to understand the transmission of ideas on management and managerialism from the United States to Europe in the postwar period; this is in a similarly vein to the transnational concerns Hobsbawm brought to the fore in The Age of Revolution. And to understand the relationship between consultancy and the state requires an appreciation of the economic and social trends and forces at play as Hobsbawm achieved in his work; not the mere machinations of political elites.

Evans, in responding to a question from a full floor, responded that Hobsbawm’s legacy was hard to pin down because it was so diffuse and general. It is precisely this diffusion which is so impressive – it can be seen in the multidisciplinary nature of current historical research, in the recognition of the importance of more than just policy and diplomacy in historical inquiry, and in the shift to the scientific and analytical method, away from narrative history. Hobsbawm’s legacy as a “Marxist historian” is huge, but it is his influence on history as a discipline which I feel even more keenly.

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Five years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?

This post was contributed by Dr Barbara Zollner, lecturer in Middle East Politics, Department of Politics. Here Dr Zollner offers an insight into issues to be discussed at a public colloquium at Birkbeck (“Five years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?”) on Friday 10 June. The colloquium is run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research

‘There is no freedom when you are in fear’; so goes the title strip of the song Akher Okhneya (Last Song) by the Egyptian music-group Cairokee. The rap, which is shot on a deserted railway-line in Cairo, echoes the feelings of many young Egyptians. The mass-movement against authoritarianism in Middle Eastern countries, commonly known as the Arab Spring, gave hope to their call for political and personal freedom.

Thousands joined the protest, but subsequently many saw themselves excluded from democracy-building. Fewer continue to dream of revolution today. The view of these shabab (literally, young people, but usually refers to the Tahrir movement) is that Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood ‘hijacked’ the prospect of political change. This led them to side with the Tamarrod movement against President Mursi, which in turn opened the door for al-Sisi’s military coup.

Now, five years after their Arab Spring, Egypt faces another authoritarian military regime under President al-Sisi that uses nationalist overtones to crush any social movement, any contentious politics, any dissent.

‘The beneficiary is the one who controls you, the one who’s making you passive, who’s dictating you where to go, the one who’s predominating you. They imprisoned you inside your mind, the bars are your fear. You are afraid to think free, because you are afraid they might catch you.’ Cairokee, Akher Oghniya


The future of democracy looks bleak

Egypt, although an obvious case, is not the only example that the hopes associated with the Arab Spring are crushed by new authoritarianism, civil war, ethnic and sectarian strife. All over the Middle East, whether in Gulf oil-monarchies, eastern-Mediterranean and north-African republics (with perhaps Tunisia as a remarkable exception) and even in constitutional monarchies, the future of democracy looks rather bleak.

Within this turmoil, social movements (SM) are severely restrained in their activities, yet they continue to shout HURIYYA – FREEDOM. It is these movements, that continue a struggle for political reform across the Middle East, that are the focal point for a one day colloquium at Birkbeck.

Despite considerable interest in the current regional crisis, there is surprisingly little systematic research on the responsibility of SMs in successful or indeed failed democratic transitions. The short period of the Arab Spring provides rich material to explore this theme. It allows us to analyse, compare and theorise on specific empirical cases, including Islamist and secular movements that depart from the mainstream focus.

Questions arise such as whether and, if so, to what extent, SMs are responsible for the failure of democratic transition in the Middle East. Moreover, what happened to SMs and SMOs five years after the Arab Spring? Did they simply implode or did they reconfigure their political activism, potentially even turning towards violence?

The one-day colloquium intends to explore these issues. It seeks to bring together Middle East experts with an interest in contentious politics to study how these relate to processes of fundamental political change such as democratic transition, civil war, the rise of extremist movements and counter-revolutions.

“5 years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?” – a one day Colloquium, run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, will be held at Birkbeck on Friday 10 June.

Book on to the colloquium and view the full programme here

Find out more

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Understanding the European financial crises: Martin Sandbu at Birkbeck

Martin Sandbu, the economics leader writer for the Financial Times (FT), was the special guest at a recent talk at Birkbeck on 19 February. This event was organised under the auspices of the Birkbeck Politics Department’s MSc programme in European Politics & Policy in association with Birkbeck’s Departments of Management and Economics, Mathematics & Statistics.

As one of the UK’s most influential UK economics commentators, Martin provided his insight into whether Europe’s economy has turned a corner, and whether the Eurozone’s fragile recovery is sustainable. Here, Charles Shaw and Ahmed Razzaq of the Birkbeck Economics and Finance Society report from the event

In a recent talk at Birkbeck, FT’s Martin Sandbu located the economic failure of the Eurozone in institutional arrangements and policy choices that laid the basis for organisational deficiencies.

Financial Times columnist, Martin Sandbu

Financial Times columnist, Martin Sandbu

During the Eurozone crisis, the message from European policymakers was abundantly clear: that the euro fostered many of the recent problems, or at least was a strong contributor to the high budget deficits at the heart of the crisis, and that there was no alternative to the bailout packages. Subsequent large transfers from Germany to the debtor countries were therefore justified along these lines, in exchange for harsh austerity, overly tight monetary policy, and structural reforms.

In his new book – “Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro and the Politics of Debt” – Martin Sandbu perceptively argues that this accepted orthodoxy is in fact at odds with history and evidence from the period. Nothing is wrong with the euro itself, he suggests. It is rather the policies of the governments of the Eurozone and the European Central Bank that were and are wrong. If true, what implication does this have for our understanding of the wider economy and the implementation of policy initiatives? Further, what can we expect in the short to medium term, given the costly spillover effects of a sustained drop in energy and commodity prices, and revived fears of a new recession in advanced economies?

BNP Paribas recently noted that last month was “the worst for risky assets for many years, if not on record.” Given this current affairs backdrop – of a recently announced date for the UK’s referendum on EU membership, and extremely negative levels of sentiment and investor positioning – Martin’s talk on the politics of Eurozone debt could not have been more timely.

Dispelling some of the post-crisis myths

European Central Bank in Frankfurt (Image copyright Eoghan OLlonnain via Flickr)

European Central Bank in Frankfurt (Image copyright Eoghan OLlonnain via Flickr)

On the evening, Sandbu lucidly examined the case for the Euro, not by focussing on virtues of a single currency, but focusing instead on the failure of European macroeconomic policy and in particular the inflexibility of the European Central Bank, European Commission, and Member State Governments to allow for restructuring of private, and later sovereign, debt.

Many analyses of the crisis blamed an unholy trinity of weak financial regulation, ineffective supervision, and profligacy on the periphery. Sandbu was able to provide an important corrective to such gross simplifications and dispel some of the post-crisis myths by pointing out, for example, that profligacy was not at the core of the problem. With the exception of Greece, the economies that had to resort to bailouts were not those with the highest debt-to-GDP ratios.

This and other forms of evidence allowed Martin to convincingly make a nuanced case for the Euro being more of a scapegoat than catalyst in this affair. If there was a smoking gun in the run up to the crisis then, Sandbu argued, it was not the Euro per se. He went further, stating that the sovereign debt crisis would have likely occurred without the single currency due to the magnitude of nominal rigidities observed at macro level, incomplete institutional infrastructure, and the fact that Eurozone governments that ran into trouble had no lender of last resort.

When questioned on whether he would agree that a more centralised Europe would be better able to cope with these issues in the future, Sandbu would not be coaxed. Whilst sceptical of the utility of European fiscal and political union, Sandbu did identify efforts made in establishing Eurozone equity markets as conducive to heading off some of the risk of a similar debt crisis in the region going forward.

The ‘liquidationist’ alternative

If there was one take away from the evening it is that the Euro may not have caused the crisis but the main actors, in dealing with the crisis, compounded the severity of events. In what Martin Wolf described as the “liquidationist” alternative, Sandbu made the case for restructuring of debt and a softer landing, albeit with the pain of haircuts for bond holders.

This was a point of view recently echoed by Professor Lord King, Governor of the Bank of England throughout the period, who, in a recent talk at the London School of Economics, supported Sandbu’s call for a restructuring of Greek debt as the only way out of a Depression that he could not fathom getting so out of hand in the post-war period, let alone in the twenty-first century.

Sandbu is not a lone voice on this issue. Others, such as Ashoka Mody, the former IMF bail-out chief in Europe, have argued that ECB not only failed to provide stimulus to the Eurozone economy when needed, but, as a result of an apparent battle between political will and economic arithmetic, allowed it to slip into a “low-inflationary trap” (i.e. a negative feedback loop where inflation is dropping because the economy is weak, whilst the same economy being weakened by falling inflation).

According to Mody, the fact that ECB allowed the Eurozone to slip into such a predicament is a reflection of the monetary union’s faulty architecture. Such comments echo Milton Friedman’s infamous 1997 letter to The Times, which suggested that the economic foundations for the Eurozone are built on sand, and that the demise of the euro is possible, if not probable.

The Eurozone crisis appears to be in remission. However, with the expectation of a U.S. Federal Reserve interest rate rise, combined with the possibility of global shocks due to China’s rebalancing, the Eurozone cracks look set to increase in prominence. Martin Sandbu’s timely analysis is carefully defined, clearly presented, and one that serves as an important contribution to the current debate. His book, “Europe’s Orphan”, should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the European financial crises, and is a sophisticated and accessible insight on an otherwise too commonly obfuscated and misrepresented topic.

Further Information

The School of Business, Economics and Informatics will hold an Open Evening on Thursday 14 April 2016. Find out more

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