(First published in E&T Magazine.) It is my contention that the British vote for Brexit wasn’t so much against European bureaucrats and parliamentarians as against immigration and globalisation, as I argued in this month’s magazine column.
It was a vote by “normal people” in the shires and depressed industrial towns who hadn’t felt personally the benefits of the EU – unlike special interest groups such as British farmers, British scientists, qualified engineers, footloose British students and corporate executives. These normal people sensed in a vague way they had lost out in the “globalisation package” which has included open borders, greater inequalities but more opportunities, greater uncertainties, and the permanent destabilisation caused by the free flow of capital and skills across borders. The EU was a facilitator of this, but it was wrong just to blame those fabled “bureaucrats of Brussels”.
Much of the legislation for the EU single market was strongly pushed by Britain; indeed foisted onto the bureaucracy itself as well as the other member states. London became the wealthy crown jewel of Europe – whose banks became prime beneficiaries of a financial European single market – but for the English and Welsh outside the university towns and the capital, there was less joy; and they voted for Brexit.
The newly formed Theresa May government now stands at a crossroads. They know – must know, surely – that they are in power because people voted against immigration and the sense that the British elite had benefited from all this; that the elite have privatised the benefits of globalisation and socialised the costs.
At the same time, the cabinet contains people such as Liam Fox who want even more globalisation for Britain and even closer ties to the global businesses who liked Brussels because it was a one-stop shop for legislation that allowed them to create pan-continental business strategies. There are powerful lobbies behind British politicians; but they will have no public mandate for “more of the same”. So will they listen to the referendum result, which was a kind of thumbs down against globalisation?
The TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – negotiations will be a litmus test. This deal, dubbed an”Economic NATO”, was a far reaching trade agreement meant to tie Europe and America closer economically and politically; a cynic would replace the “and” with a “to”, as the superpower is worried about slipping influence elsewhere due to the rise of multipolar forces elsewhere in the world.
It makes sense for Washington to have a Europe that is united economically but politically impotent, as is the case now, not least because of constant British sabotage of any moves towards political unity. TTIP has been very controversial in France and Germany, not least because of the provision that would allow US corporations to sue European states under certain conditions for billions of dollars if profits are jeopardised, if I have understood the arguments against the so called Investor Settlement Dispute Mechanism correctly.
Activism against TTIP in Germany has been particularly strong. Anti-TTIP campaigners have scored points by highlighting the completely undemocratic nature of the negotiations.
Even MEPs are only allowed to view papers related to the negotiations by entering a sealed room on the European Parliament building. They are allowed to bring pencils and a notepad, but not mobile phones.
According to the Brussels based Politico news magazine, polls in Germany show that support for TTIP stands at just 17%. Now, with Britain leaving, the United States is losing its strongest backer inside the EU for TTIP (and indeed supporter for much else that accords with the American interest). So TTIP is even less likely to be concluded now, between a UK-free EU and the USA.
But what about a TTIP that just takes in Britain and the United States? The Guardian reports that, after a recent meeting between Boris Johnson, new foreign secretary, and John Kerry, US secretary of state, a “potentially swift bilateral trade and investment deal with the UK is being suggested by American officials”. The “investment deal would in essence allow US companies access to the UK. Britain is the US’s largest trading partner in the EU as measured by the total export value for goods”. The paper added that there was “strong support in the US Senate for a UK-US deal” which would be able to benefit from “adapting and picking up on the framework and progress made in the current TTIP talks.”
Discussion in Britain about TTIP has been almost non existent compared to the debate in Europe. I can’t claim to be an expert on TTIP myself, but my guess is that, if all those people who voted for Brexit knew what was in TTIP and knew that the British government was going to push it through, there would be a lot of unease, perhaps even a vague sense of betrayal. The British people wanted the country they once knew back; and their interests are not identical to those of politicians in the Tory party with chums in the City and on the other side of the Atlantic.