In this article, I’m going to discuss my perspective on Brexit. The perspective of a German exchange student is probably not completely neutral, I admit; I benefit from the Erasmus programme, where the EU facilitates traveling and living in other European countries. Furthermore, Germany is heavily dependent on exports and therefore relies on the free trade provided by the customs union to keep the economy active. Subsequently, a big trading partner, such as the UK, leaving the union is therefore not exactly the most preferred option.
Politics in Europe has been intertwined for centuries and major changes in one country always affect the political system in other countries. Brexit has dominated the media for the last two years since the referendum, but a perspective from the “outside” may still be interesting to read and potentially lead to a new way of thinking. According to an Ipsos poll, Brexit is by far seen as the most important political issue by most Britons at the moment, and there is still a lot of uncertainty concerning the details of the exit.
Even if Germany is gaining a lot (probably the most) out of membership of the EU, there is no reason to be arrogant and see the skepticism against the union as a problem limited to Great Britain. The introduction of the Euro lead to a wave of criticism across the Eurozone as everything was perceived as too pricy. These resentments calmed down for a couple of years, until the European debt crisis lead to incomprehension concerning the use of German tax money for the states in trouble. This was prominently advocated by the new party AfD (Alternative for Germany), which used this anti-EU sentiment to win seats at the European Parliament elections. They changed their main focus in the last years towards stricter laws concerning immigration, but ending the monetary union remains in their manifesto. Similar to this, there are anti-EU parties in nearly every European country; the Front National in France, the PVV in the Netherlands or the ÖVP in Austria, to name but a few. All these parties shifted their focus during the refugee crisis, but they still want to reduce the influence of the EU or even leave it. These parties got quite good results in recent elections too. Simply put, Great Britain is the only one leaving the EU, mainly because they are the only country that held a referendum in the recent years. Trust in the EU in Britain is actually just 4% lower than in France, according to the Eurobarometer. European skepticism is by no means a British-only feeling as you would assume.
It is indeed questionable, if the membership in the EU is an issue that should be pushed into the realm of direct democracy. The consequences of the Brexit are heavy, especially in the long run and it is problematic to assume that citizens have enough competence to be informed about everything connected to this exit. Most of the “Leave”-voters told the public that the main reason to vote against the European union was their current immigration policy. But, according to an analysis by the Washington Post, there was no correlation between the number of immigrants and the number of Leave-voters in the different regions. In fact, it was concern about Chinese imports that correlated more closely with those that voted “leave”. This can be seen as a misinterpretation of economic difficulties, since cheap Chinese products are not completely the fault of the EU. If people voted in certain ways because they misattributed the reasons for their own economic situation, it shows a problem with giving decisions directly to the population. On top of that, the referendum was held without a clear plan for the aftermath, therefore it was nearly impossible for the population to evaluate the different options correctly. You could argue that referendums are used in Switzerland quite successfully, and have been for several decades, but the options are defined beforehand in nearly all cases. A missing strategy for Brexit can surely be attributed to a lot of people, especially the government that was in office before the referendum. This is certainly not the fault of the voters for each side.
But is it still relevant to discuss these flaws? The referendum is over and there was a democratic decision made. But what is happening until the official Brexit date? It is still unclear even two years after the referendum how the relationship between Great Britain and the EU will look like in the future. And it is indeed a difficult position in negotiations for both sides. The British side deals with a lot of different positions even in the governing party. Apart from that they also need to look at public opinion, which is also pretty diverse. It is hard to convince a population that you are following the right course concerning Brexit, when 48% voted against in anyways. At the moment, no politician is able to assemble big majorities behind them and there is no real leader in British politics whose suggestions would be backed with huge support from the population. This makes it difficult to present a convincing case to the EU in negotiations. The EU is also in a difficult position, since they do not want to lose attachment to the second biggest economy on this continent, but if they would guarantee all advantages that Britain had before the Brexit, it would lead to disapproval in the other states. If you are getting all the positive aspects of the membership, without actually contributing to the project, many other countries would follow suit – damaging the idea of a united Europe. An idea quite important for the safety on this continent after the second world war.
The coming months will certainly be very eventful and lead to major changes in British politics. It is doubtful that this government can work together productively in the next years, dealing with the problems arising from Brexit. It is still advisable to form a strong Europe, to deal with issues in world politics with a higher bargaining power. But there is no way that satisfies all the demands on all sides and it is going to be tough to find compromises. This might seem like a depressing perspective, but from a realistic point of view, there is no easy way back to the time before the referendum. Despite that, I believe it is still possible to find a solution for cooperation in the future, if everyone tries to pay attention to the motivation and goals of the other actors.
Linus is a 3rd year exchange student from University Mannheim in Germany, studying at the University of Exeter for the Autumn term.