I had an interesting conversation the other day with someone from another EU country (Holland) and it led to something of a thought experiment. Why has no other country ever tried to leave the EU?
I mean its not as if euroscepticism is an entirely British phenomenon. There’s been several occasions where populists eurosceptic parties have held a majority in government, most recently in Italy for example. And polls show there’s a possibility such a thing could go through. Yet despite all the vitriol and anti-EU rhetoric they haven’t put their money where their mouth is and tried to hold a referendum and leave, Why? Well the answer tells us more about the UK than it does about the EU.
Most EU states are governed by constitutions which would require a legally binding referendum be held, prior to leaving, as an absolute minimum. In fact in some country’s you’d have to get a supermajority to approve it (+50% of the entire population, not just those who bother to show up at the polls, by contrast brexit only got the support of 37%). This is in stark contrast to the UK, whose constitution is a bunch of vague guidelines written on goatskin, which seems to assume any politician is going to be an honourable gentleman who’ll put the country first. And if he breaks the rules he gets called a knave and doesn’t get invited to the Speakers annual garden party.
Hence many of the dirty tricks employed by the brexiters to win the 2016 referendum would not be available to continental eurosceptics, as such antics would get them into very serious trouble. Prison time sort of trouble. The UK’s electoral commission has found that the vote leave campaign broke the law during the referendum. The only reason why the result wasn’t annulled by the courts (and why Cummings, Johnson, Farage et al aren’t serving prison terms) is because it was a non-legally binding advisory referendum. Eurosceptics on the continent dislike the EU yes. But very few of them hate it that much that they are willing to risk ending up in a 6×6 cell, sharing prison showers with a massive tattooed guy called Bubba.
Furthermore with a legally binding referendum you’d probably have to specify what kind of brexit you were aiming for. Otherwise it might be at risk of court challenges before a vote is even held. This was another problem with the referendum, the question asked was too vague, you may as well have asked “do you hate the French?” or “is blue your favourite colour?”. This allowed brexit to become a blank canvas onto which unicorns could be painted. Hence brexiters could sell the idea of the UK leaving, yet keeping all the benefits of staying in, without it costing a penny.
Specifying which brexit you are aiming for would present a problem, because much as the UK brexiters can’t agree what kind of brexit they want, European eurosceptics are as equally divided. The odds are such a bill would fail at the first hurdle as they’d not be able to get behind a proposal through parliament to trigger such a referendum. And once they’d nailed their colours to the mast, polls do show that when presented with a specific brexit option (Norway for now, May’s deal, no deal) support ebbs away (as people are forced to weight up the pro’s and cons). And generally remain wins any side by side comparison (because it means accepting you are worse off out than in).
And as many EU states are federations (Germany and Spain for example) with regional assemblies, they’d have to find a way to resolve what happens if say Catalonia vote to stay and Andalusia votes to leave. Not least because in some cases these regional assemblies might have to approve of any referendum before it can be held (which they won’t do until all the what if’s are resolved), not to mention pass the secondary legislation afterwards to allow the country as a whole to leave. Yes there’s usually a way for central government to railroad things through but, suffice to say, this is opening a massive can of worms. One which is firmly labelled “do not open this can, national self destruction may follow”.
And of course even if you can get the initial bill through parliament, get the public to vote for it (by a significant majority) you’ve still got to go to Brussels and negotiate an exit. And for the UK this is where the fireworks started. Basically this means putting on hold all important business so you can conduct the negotiations and push through the supporting legislation to allow for leaving the EU.
The Tories have gotten away with various dirty tricks to drive through brexit, using the dictatorial Henry VII powers, cancelling votes at the last minute, moving forward a vote when you realise several pro-remain MP’s are off sick, bribing MP’s with promises of peerages, stacking the lords with peers to filibuster any anti-brexit legislation and of course more recently proroguing parliament (i.e. suspending democracy), an act now deemed unlawful as its likely the PM lied to the Queen. Very little of this would be legal in other EU states, nor would politicians find it so easy to get away with it.
And given that many countries on the continent have had more recent experience of living under a dictatorship (fascists, junta’s or communists) electorates tend to be a bit more sensitive about this sort of behaviour. Plus because many European government’s are elected by proportional representation, that means they are often coalitions. And the odds are good that such a coalition would fracture under the strain of an EU exit process. So its possible the whole thing will collapse before the process is complete.
Oh and a just for good measure a 2nd referendum afterwards might also be needed to confirm everything (as its likely what was promised will be different from what exit you actually end up with, or you need to confirm constitutional changes with a referendum). And obviously the whole reason why brexiters in the UK are resisting this option is because they know they will likely lose such a vote.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it would be impossible for any other European country to leave the EU. After all many held votes to join in the first place, or approve the various EU treaties. So with enough public support and goodwill its possible. But perhaps that’s the point, there just isn’t the support for leaving (with the possible exception of Italy). Getting the turkey’s to vote to put the charismatic Mr Fox in charge of the hen house is one thing. Getting them to vote for Christmas is an entirely different matter. And given that leaving sounds a lot like hard work (with the added risk of prison time), most populists would rather not bother trying and instead prefer to busy themselves collecting kickbacks and bribes.
But even if populist eurosceptics could drag their country out of the EU, what then? Who are you going to blame when things go wrong? The EU gets a lot of blame for things because its a cheap shot. They are a large faceless bureaucracy and an obvious scapegoat who isn’t going to fight back. And this cuts to the heart of populism, which is basically about avoiding responsibility and blaming others for your own misfortune.
The economy collapses because you voted in a bunch of incompetent politicians who borrowed heavily and spent like sailors on shore leave? Not our fault, its the fault of the EU (who bailed you out, how mean of them forcing billions into your country’s coffers!)….oh and of course recently arrived migrants, its their fault too. Can’t get a council house? Not your fault for voting Tory (who basically stopped building them in the 80’s and sold off most of the stock) its immigrants and refugees coming in and taking them (actually they are no less likely to get one than a Brit). Late for work? Not your fault, its those lazy immigrant bus drivers….and EU elf N’ safety….somehow! This is what populism is all about, blame somebody else for everything that’s gone wrong. Don’t take responsibility for anything.
So if you are out of the EU, and you’ve deported all the migrants, who are you going to blame when things go wrong? Now granted, its pretty clear Johnson’s plan is to blame the EU for the UK’s post-brexit economic misfortune. However the major threat from brexit isn’t the short term dip afterwards, its the longer term consequences. Its going to be a bit rich 5-10 years after leaving for the Tories to still be blaming the EU every time a UK firm goes bust or for a drop in life expectancy. At some point the penny drops and the odds are the UK will simply re-join the EU under terms less favourable than it currently enjoys.
And this is why, despite all the bravado from continental eurosceptics, there’s been no other attempts to leave the EU. They have better things to do with their time than destroy their own parties and getting themselves arrested. We end up with a cat and dog like situation. The cat and the dog don’t like each other, but they just find a way to get along with one another. Its the same thing with the eurosceptics and the EU. The eurosceptic little doggie is quite happy to bark all day, but his bark is worse than his bite. After all it wasn’t Farage who called the referendum, but Cameron (Farage was quite happy to stay on as an MEP and collect his generous salary).
The only reason therefore the UK is posed to leave without a deal….and the chaos and blow back that will inevitably follow, is because of its broken political system. Leave or remain, these flaws will still exist, even if brexit is somehow swept from the political agenda. This is why reform of the UK’s entire political system is what parliament should be devoting its time towards, rather than arguing over brexit. For it is a symptom rather than the disease itself.