quarta-feira, 15 de junho de 2016
Brussels is in Brexit denial
Brussels is in Brexit denial
Leave is not as unthinkable as people in EU institutions might think: British politics is unforgiving.
By TIM KING 6/16/16, 5:39 AM CET
Much of Brussels underestimates the likelihood of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. For most people working in or around the EU institutions, the merits of the Union are obvious. And because they perceive Britain’s membership of the EU as good for Britain (and mostly good for the rest of the EU), they cannot believe that the British electorate would be so daft as to vote to leave. It will be all right on the night, they are hoping.
For me, it’s all reminiscent of the spring of 1997 when I was working in the election newsroom of the Daily Telegraph, which in those days was widely respected for the breadth and thoroughness of its news coverage. Its comment pages were dominated by Conservative opinion and in theory the newspaper was, according to its long-established tradition, backing the Conservative Party led by John Major, the prime minister.
In practice, Charles Moore, the Daily Telegraph’s editor, was encouraging a civil war within the party over Britain’s relationship with the EU — a war that continues to this day. Despite that, many of those around the offices of the Telegraph were still dreaming of a Conservative victory. They thought that just as Major had won against expectations in the 1992 election, he might pull off a miracle. Wishful thinking distorted their judgment. The office sweepstake predictions of the result of the election, written on a whiteboard on the election newsroom wall, bore witness to their deluded optimism.
They underestimate the brutality of the British political set-up
One Telegraph journalist who did not succumb to this group-think was Boris Johnson, who nowadays is a leading figure in the campaign for Britain to leave the EU. Perhaps he was more realistic about Conservative chances because he wasn’t in the office: He was out on the campaign trail, standing as a Conservative candidate in a no-hope constituency in north Wales. He phoned in to the election newsroom bunker one day and I took the call — because more important people were out to lunch. In the course of our conversation, Boris delivered a forecast that the scale of defeat was going to be huge. And so it proved: Tony Blair’s New Labour swept to power, winning 43 percent of the vote and 418 seats in the 659-seat parliament. The Conservatives took 165 seats on 31 percent of the vote.
Tony Blair, is greeted by fans upon arriving at No 10 Downing Street, after Britain returned a Labour government in 1997
Some of the people in Brussels who discount the possibility of Britain leaving the EU are kidding themselves that even if the vote on June 23 is in favor of a Brexit, it still will not happen. They imagine that the British government, or the EU, will find some way of revisiting the question and averting the consequences. This is another form of delusion. They underestimate the brutality of the British political set-up, whose parliamentary elections give no compensation to losers: They are winner-takes-all. In the constituencies of roughly 100,000 voters, the candidate who wins a plurality of votes — i.e. more votes than each of the other candidates, but not necessarily more votes than the other candidates combined — wins the seat. Votes are not transferable and there is no proportional representation, so no list-system of candidates. Hence what happens in an individual constituency can make or break a political career, independently of the fortunes of the candidate’s political party.
At the 1992 election, as a local newspaper reporter I was in the count at Bath town hall when Chris Patten, the Conservative Party chairman, admitted to me that he was “a few thousand short.” Despite being the architect of the campaign that sneaked a Conservative victory that night for Major, Patten lost his seat because Labour voters in Bath defected en masse to vote tactically with Liberals. That was the end of his career in domestic politics. In similar fashion, Michael Portillo, the then defense minister, was turned out in 1997. Last year, Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow finance minister and a former education minister (2007-2010), was also despatched to the ranks of the unelected.
* * *
British voters have been indoctrinated with the idea that their country gave parliamentary democracy to the rest of the world, and that therefore the British version is by definition better than any others. In this referendum campaign, Brexit supporters are mostly inarticulate about what they mean by “sovereignty” or by “taking back control” — a favorite slogan of the Leave campaign. But they occasionally allude to their inability to vote out the powers that be in Brussels.
If pressed to define what makes British parliamentary democracy special, many would express attachment to this idea that the voter can get rid of his or her member of parliament or the ruling party. In reality, very few voters have such power — they do not live in marginal constituencies (the British small-scale equivalent of swing states), and the ruling party usually has a majority much greater than its share of the popular vote might warrant. But the brutality of British politics — Balls, Portillo and Patten doing the electoral equivalent of the perp walk before the television cameras; a defeated prime minister being turfed out of Number 10, Downing Street, the day after the election — all these reinforce an illusion of accountability in British politics.
This is not a political system that sets much store by checks and balances, or the separation of powers
That is why it is unthinkable that the referendum result can be countermanded. Whatever the margin — whether 65 percent or 50.5 percent — then, if Leave is in the majority, no government of whatever political hue will be able to do anything other than take Britain out of the EU. And, given the viciousness of the in-fighting between Conservatives, I would not expect David Cameron to survive as prime minister.
What people in Brussels are often slow to appreciate is that this is not a political system that sets much store by checks and balances, or the separation of powers. Its simplicity — power concentrated in the hands of the parliamentary majority — in turn makes it harder for British voters to understand the complexities of European politics. In Britain, coalition governments — despite the experience of 2010-2015 — are a rarity, almost an electoral freak. The upper house of parliament, the House of Lords, has had only minimal reform and without a democratic mandate cannot challenge the lower house.
Regional government does not exist in England, though considerable power has been devolved to Scotland and some to Wales and Northern Ireland. Local government has been steadily stripped of its powers — a process that began in 1974 and accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. Local authorities have lost their control of public services partly through privatization (notably housing and public utilities), partly, as with schools and hospitals, through centralization. This disemboweling of local government has hollowed out the space between the central state and the citizens, many of whom feel disconnected from a professional political class. Euroskeptics campaigning for Britain to leave the EU are channeling this sense of frustration with the political establishment, though directing it at Brussels rather than Westminster.
At the same time, the Remain camp is struggling to counter fears stoked by the Leave campaign that high levels of immigration into the U.K. threaten the provision of school places, health care and housing. That migration has become such a big feature of the campaign is not explained by racism alone (though there is a streak): it is because the referendum has been turned into a vote on the provision of public services.
The argument of the Leave campaign — arguably, their biggest lie — is that by leaving the EU Britain will have more money to spend on public services. The Remain campaign is divided: with Cameron and George Osborne unable to own up to having damaged public services through their austerity policies and Labour curiously obsessed with TTIP and workers’ rights. If people in Brussels were to understand that for most people this will not, primarily, be a vote about the EU, they would be better prepared for Britain’s eventual exit.
Tim King writes POLITICO‘s Brussels Sketch.