‘You can check out any time you like…’ | Roderick Pace

Has Europe become a neo-conservative prison from which one can never really escape? Prof. Roderick Pace, of the University’s European Institute, on the wider implications of ‘Brexit’

European Studies Professor Roderick Pace. Photo: Chris Mangion
European Studies Professor Roderick Pace. Photo: Chris Mangion

Rarely has the European democratic process seemed quite as messy as it is today, in the wake of last week’s shock ‘Brexit’ referendum result.

On paper, the situation appears simple enough. The UK was given the opportunity to make a straight choice: to either remain a member of the EU, where its immediate future (for better or worse) was more or less predictable; or to take a great leap in the dark, on the vague promise of a better life as a non-member state. 

There is nothing intrinsically unusual in that process. All 2004 enlargement countries also took a comparable decision by nationwide referendum. And yet, this otherwise routine decision immediately plunged Britain itself into a crisis from which it may conceivably not recover: not, at any rate, in the form of a ‘United’ Kingdom. 

The same threat of fragmentation now looms over the rest of the EU, too, with several countries demanding similar referendums of their own.

How does this square up with the European Union’s credentials as a force for democracy in the world? How did we reach a stage whereby ‘democracy’, in its purest form, threatens to demolish the EU altogether?

Prof. Roderick Pace is the director of the University of Malta’s Institute of European Studies. What does he make of this conundrum?

“There is turmoil, no doubt about that. The only British politician/statesman left standing on her feet is Nicola Sturgeon. The rest have been knocked off their pedestals, so to speak…”

This fact alone, he suggests, attests to the possibility that ‘Leave’ were taken by surprise by the success of their own campaign. “The theory about Boris Johnson is that he plunged into this on the expectation that Leave would not win… and that he would be poised to take his best friend’s job – David Cameron was his best friend – but of course when he realised what a herculean task lay ahead, he backed out. Also because he was stabbed in the back by his colleague, Michael Gove…”

Viewed from this angle, the situation does appear decidedly messy. It gets worse when you factor in the apparent self-destruction of the Opposition.

“On the other hand, there is the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who refuses to step down. I think he should also shoulder that responsibility. He has already lost a vote of confidence by his parliamentary group; but he should also go for having mishandled the whole campaign…”

Again, however, this points towards other more far-reaching anomalies exposed by the result. Corbyn, an old-school Socialist and in many ways the antithesis of the ‘Blairites’ he replaced, supported ‘remain’ on paper… yet the results indicate that the poor and the marginalised (i.e., the ones who would be expected to support Labour) voted against staying in.

“It’s a great anomaly. Sometimes I ask myself, was he [Corbyn] aware of the great social concerns that motivated many voters to vote the way they did? Is that why he took a low-key approach to campaigning? Perhaps he did not want to irritate the grassroots. He did at one point say that he was elected by constituents to do a certain job… and not to give comfort to the Prime Minister.”

Isn’t there another contradiction, though? Why would someone like Corbyn, who champions the people from poorer and less privileged backgrounds, want to support EU membership, anyway? If you look at the EU for what it ultimately is – the largest trade bloc in the world – and the way it has put up trade barriers to block imports from developing countries, the picture is not exactly very ‘socialist’. In fact, it is the opposite: the EU operates along neo-liberal lines… 

“Yes, Europe is neo-liberal. But its internationalist objectives, the integration between states, its European values, human rights… the political objectives of the EU are all the old objectives of the Left. Historically, the Left never favoured the nation state as such. Besides, what we overlook is that a lot of work has been done by the EU for the environment, for food safety, for consumer protection, for human rights and workers’ rights. It’s not just a trading bloc…”

Perhaps, but to judge by the general reaction to ‘Brexit’, one would think that the EU was some kind of Utopia from which one would be mad to escape. Isn’t there also an ugly side to this Utopia? The EU’s policies on agriculture, for instance, have contributed directly to keeping African countries in a permanent state of poverty: by denying them export markets that would bring about a material difference to those countries.

“The European Union has been defensive and protectionist in agriculture, when it shouldn’t have been. Many African countries depend on exports of primary products and agricultural goods. The more these are liberalised globally, the more income these countries will get. What they do with that income is, however, another question. Unless something is done about internal governance issues in these countries, the material difference you mention would be minimal. In political science today, there is a growing concern about ‘ethical leadership’ and ‘kleptocracy’: how thievery and corruption are undermining governments and their ability to lead development programmes. It’s a very serious issue. We tend to only ever talk about one side of the equation: what can the developed world do to help them catch up? We don’t ask what the developing countries can do to help themselves.”

All the same, Prof. Pace concedes that the EU system in its present form has not always lived up to its ideals of social justice.

“We have basically accepted a model of unbridled capitalism, governed by market forces, tax cuts that often benefit the affluent, and a race for profits. We lower taxes to attract investment, thereby instantly rewarding the profit-makers who don’t always (though there are exceptions) put anything back into the system. This creates entire brackets of people who are poor, because there is no real redistributive model.

“How is wealth distributed? Through social services, the NHS and education. With social services, there is a tendency to say: if we are too generous, people won’t go out to work. It is true there is abuse; but surely there must be an administrative way of catching the abuser, without punishing those who need the services most. When it comes to budgets, there is a constant drive to cut down government spending and balance the books while reducing revenue through corporate tax reductions. At a glance you might think this is fair; but then, without the necessary funds, how can a government operate its education services… so important in the creation of a knowledge-based economy, which is our main competitive advantage as a nation? And national health services everywhere are running at a loss. Here in Malta, too. We are running out of steam…”

This takes us back to the Brexit referendum. One way to interpret the result is that the British people (and other populations in Europe seem to agree) simply never felt the benefits of EU membership. How can they be blamed for wanting to pull out? 

“I tend to agree with the leading article in today’s Economist, which says that many people voted in anger. The social condition of many people – the ‘working poor’: those without a job, or households with two or more jobs, and still can’t make ends meet – was a determining factor. Not everyone leads the lifestyle many people are used to and take for granted. Not everyone can afford to go on holiday once in a while; take their family out to eat, and so on.

“Many people are struggling. Youth unemployment in Europe is high. Pensioners, as in Malta, are expected to get by on a risible monthly income. Can you imagine anyone living on less than 1,000 euros a month here? Even 1,000 is scraping the bottom of the barrel. Pensioners get around half that. It is not the EU alone that must change but also our own countries must return to a model of a social market economy in the true meaning of word.”

But doesn’t this only make the result of the Brexit referendum that much harder to dismiss? What are we telling these huge brackets of people, by heaping scorn on their democratic decision to leave the EU? That they’re lumped with a system that has impoverished them? That, even to those who voted to stay, there is no alternative to a system that is manifestly socially unjust?

If so, doesn’t that make the EU a little like ‘Hotel California’? “You can check out any time you like… but you can never leave?”

“No; the result has to be respected. The UK has checked out, and it will leave. That is why, from a certain angle, I agree that the UK should activate Article 50 without delay. They need to start negotiating to see how to disentangle themselves from the EU; and after that, they need to negotiate a new agreement. On the other hand, I also accept that the situation at the moment is a shambles, really. How can you have a serious interlocutor on the other side, if they haven’t even elected a new prime minister yet… let alone settled all the other issues: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland?”

Yet the EU seems hell-bent on Britain leaving as soon as possible. What does Prof. Pace make of this rush? Isn’t that an open invitation to further chaos and uncertainty?

“The reasons for this rush are twofold. Firstly, there are those who wish to punish the UK. I don’t agree with them at all; I must underline this. Punishing the UK may yield its political dividends, in the sense that other countries will be discouraged from following suit. But let’s not forget we are dealing with a country that has had 43 years of relationship with the EU, and which is now looking to continue some kind of relationship in future. After 43 years of marriage, one side has no right to use its strength to demolish the other, just because they have separated. Especially not if the intention is only to teach the next wife a lesson to ‘stay put’…”  

The question of how fast the UK should withdraw, however, becomes more complicated on closer scrutiny.

“We face problems and challenges on many counts. The first challenge is for Britain to have a stable government, so that Europe can negotiate with someone who has the approval of parliament. That is why Cameron set himself three months to prepare for the next general conference to elect a new party leader, so that his successor would have the full constitutional authority to lead negotiations. Secondly, things have to calm down. It is important for the EU that Brexit is negotiated quickly, but also properly. The logical sequential process should be: first the UK becomes a non-member; then, a new form of relationship is negotiated. We also have to acknowledge that, though many voted in haste or in anger, many also voted on conviction. When I see Nigel Farage on TV, I don’t agree with his views… many of them make me laugh, to be honest… but in a democracy, those views have to be respected, whether you agree with them or not.”

Speaking of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations… implicit in the reaction to Brexit is the widespread view that Britain has just ‘shot herself in the foot’. Certainly the immediate impact – on the sterling, on Britain’s stock market, etc. – has been dire. But the eurozone has arguably been harder hit over the years… and the EU still faces an unresolved debt crisis, not to mention skyrocketing youth unemployment.

Why is there the assumption that Britain is in a weaker negotiating position than the EU?

“I don’t think the UK is in a strong position. Quite the contrary, because she now has to negotiate some form of agreement from the outside. 63% of the UK’s agricultural products, as well as goods and services, go to the EU. What happens now? As an outsider, will the UK be able to export its goods and services in the same way as before? Also, the UK will still have to adopt around 80% of EU law without participating in their approval and amendment from here on.”

But trade is a two-way affair, and the question can be turned on its head. Is it in the EU’s interest to lose the source of 60% of its imports? And France, for instance – the second largest EU economy – is a major exporter to the UK. Doesn’t the UK have a case when it says that it is in the EU’s own interest to continue trading with her?

“For one thing, I think it will be hard for the UK to reach a deal on agriculture, because of the reformed Common Agricultural Policy. But leaving that aside: what I think will happen is this. The EU is going to say: ‘look, I spend so many billions in my regional and social policies, from a budget to which you [the UK] are not contributing’. So, as is the case with the European Economic Area – Norway, Iceland and Switzerland – the EU will ask for a direct contribution from the UK. The way I see it, both the UK and the EU have need of each other…. but the EU is going to insist that the UK will not have free access to the internal market without contributing to its budget. That’s the cost. Now, each member state will do its own sums, and see how its own economy will be affected. A country like France, for instance, might conclude that the loss of its UK export market, in the event of no agreement, could be offset by diversion of trade. But these are guesses. The real picture isn’t clear… not to the British, nor to the rest of Europe. Least of all to me…”

There is another problem with predicting the outcome of future negotiations with the UK. As Brexit itself shows, the EU is still technically at the mercy of any one member state when it comes to taking decisions. Any one member state, for whatever reason, can veto any deal struck between Britain and the EU.

Isn’t this a flaw in the system? And if so: doesn’t it also mean that ‘democracy’ is the flaw?

“If it is a flaw, it was introduced in the treaties, which are after all an accord between states. States insisted they wanted to have the last word on any treaty reform, in accordance with their own constitutional set-ups. The EU is a union of states, and also a union of peoples. So the anomaly you mention can never really be removed, because states will always argue that it is their sovereign right to retain it…”

Brexit itself was an example of sovereignty in action, too. The British people exercised their sovereign right to take a national decision, and they voted to pull out…

“Yes, but they cannot pull out and continue to enjoy the advantages of membership. It works both ways. This also means that if a country decides, for whatever reason, to veto the new agreement… it can. It is a drawback of the system and I cannot see how it can be straightened.  To use an analogy: in our system, we elect a government every five years, but what that government does from day one, to the last day of its mandate… the citizen has no control whatsoever, because it is left to his representative in parliament. Citizens and civil society can exert pressure on MPs, and get issues discussed. But most times this doesn’t happen – in practical terms, the citizen is completely cut off from the decision-making process, except during elections. There is a democratic deficit built into the system. We talk of the EU’s democratic deficit, but we don’t talk so much about our own. Some of these deficits are inherent to the political systems, and are not easy to remove.”