Beyond the Brexit blame game


Picture of László Andor
László Andor

Secretary-General of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), former European commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion, and Trustee of Friends of Europe

In the Europe of 2016, an unlikely candidate for the most relevant political theorist is Lyndon B. Johnson. The late American President famously noted of a senior government official, J. Edgar Hoover, that “it is probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in”. The Johnson theorem largely explains why 27 government leaders went out of their way to compromise with David Cameron, and tried to keep the UK inside the EU.

The majority of them now have a different problem – and one that, alongside Brexit, they will have to confront at this Friday’s informal summit meeting in Bratislava. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczyński, are inside the tent, but keep pissing inwards, as they systematically break with European values and undermine EU cooperation and solidarity.

As Europe tries to come together after the British referendum, the four-country Visegrád group, and notably Orbán and Kaczyński, are in the vanguard of opposition to a deeper Europe. They are building their current populist campaign on an inverted interpretation of Brexit: it happened, they state, because Brussels ignored everyone – not just the British. They don’t want to exit the EU, but their desired form of integration would focus only on supporting the less-developed countries, not on common political norms and social standards.

Orbán and Kaczyński are in the vanguard of opposition to a deeper Europe, building a populist campaign on an inverted interpretation of Brexit

EU and NATO allies are worried. They have repeatedly warned the pair against turning their countries into illiberal rogue states. Orbán and Kaczyński, meanwhile, insist they are creating a model for others: ‘The European dream has moved East’, they say. But this is a nightmare rather than a dream.

You don’t need to be Jean Asselborn to realise that Hungary is ruled today without respect to European values. Orbán’s reforms have hollowed out democracy and the rule of law, and a Putin-esque war was launched against civil society. The abuse of EU funds has become a systemic problem.

Orbán’s inhuman treatment of refugees is particularly striking. It triggered an infringement procedure from the European Commission and a call from Viviane Reding, a leading light of the centre-right, to suspend or expel his Fidesz party from the European People’s Party.

But Orbán’s hatred of foreigners is not new. In Spring 2011, during the Hungarian presidency of the EU Council, he told a conference that he excludes only two solutions to the demographic crisis: immigration and cloning. He sells citizenship to rich immigrants who can buy government bonds wholesale but fights against poorer migrants and desperate refugees in a ruthless and unscrupulous manner.

For the time being, Kaczyński is a pale imitation of Orbán, who had a five-year head-start on launching his own country’s ‘counter-revolution’, having taken power in 2010. But he is catching up fast. If progressive and centre-right forces do not find ways to address popular concerns in the Eastern member states, and fail to organise against such tendencies of political degeneration, the integrity of the entire EU may be put in jeopardy.

We are all responsible for Brexit… those who wanted to keep the UK in the EU, but chose the wrong tactics, are also culpable

Addressing popular concerns requires learning the real lessons of Brexit.

We are all responsible for Brexit. The greater blame lies with those who campaigned for it, not only in the first half of 2016, but for about a quarter of a century. But those who wanted to keep the UK in the EU, but chose the wrong tactics, are also culpable.

Responsibility starts at the top. Conservative- and Labour-led governments were fairly successful in representing British interests in Brussels but collectively failed to ensure that all regions and social groups in the UK felt the benefit and the helping hand of the EU.

As a result, popular anger against Westminster was diverted and turned against Brussels, unencumbered by any real knowledge of how the EU functions. The tabloid press and the Boris Johnson school of EU reporting were their main sources of information, while the BBC favoured impartiality over objectivity.

On the continent, a post-referendum rise in support for the EU can be seen. However, this was certainly not proof of satisfaction with the status quo. It should be read an invitation for leaders, not least in the European Council, to improve the economic, social and security situation in all countries in the short term, as well as to improve the long-term resilience of the EU economy. Fail, and anti-EU parties will grow to a level at which they can paralyse the European Parliament post-2019.

Indecision, inaction and hesitation, mixed with a confluence of crises, can destabilise the EU and push it towards disintegration

Addressing popular concerns should have been the focus after the last European elections, which saw a surge of various populists and Eurosceptics. However, instead of focusing on better performance the institutions lightened the EU policy agenda, and especially legislation, believing that too much action at EU level irritates citizens and fuels disaffection. As Brexit and other developments show, this strategy does not impress people. Indecision, inaction and hesitation, mixed with a confluence of crises, can destabilise the EU and push it towards disintegration.

Addressing popular concerns means finding solutions to the key problems of today – which in today’s Europe is only possible through more cooperation. Germany cannot find a solution to the refugee crisis alone. France cannot enhance security in a national context. Italy cannot revive its economy purely through domestic reforms. With this symmetry of major problems, a grand bargain can emerge, and deepening of the EU can become a win-win game.

The EU’s post-referendum focus should be on the key reforms that are needed to reinforce the Union’s structures and improve their performance. This can succeed even if Orbán and Kaczyński remain inside the tent. In the longer run, however, the EU cannot remain credible if such pretenders are treated as respectable partners, whether they come from East or West.

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