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Saturday, 24 February 2018

Britain sees Europe through the distorting mirror of Brexit

"Brexit has had the unfortunate effect of turning British political analysts into football fans. The issue is so divisive that the two camps — Leave and Remain — are no longer capable of dispassionate analysis. Instead, they react to news from Europe like football supporters; cheering anything that seems to confirm their prejudices — and dismissing any discordant information, with the partisan certainty of a fan disputing an offside call against his team.

Any new development — viewed from Britain — now goes through the distorting mirror of confirmation bias. So Leavers saw the recent crisis in Catalonia, as confirmation of their belief that the EU is falling apart and is, besides, an anti-democratic project. They were also delighted by the struggles of Angela Merkel to form a coalition government; further evidence, as they saw it, that the EU is collapsing. By contrast, Ms Merkel’s apparent success in forming a coalition government and the easing of the Catalan crisis is interpreted by Remainers as confirmation of the innate stability of the European project.

The truth is more nuanced and more interesting. After a lousy half decade, the EU has had a very good year. Fears of a populist surge were beaten back in France and the Netherlands in 2017.

In Emmanuel Macron, the French president, the EU has found a new and charismatic champion. Economic growth is reviving — undermining the Leavers’ claim that being a member of the EU is liked “being shackled to a corpse”.

But it is also true that the long-term questions facing the European project have not been answered. The pro-EU centre is shrinking and political developments that would once have seemed shocking are now greeted with a shrug.

A decade ago, the powers-that-be in Brussels regarded Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, as a dangerous populist and Eurosceptic. But the rise of more radical populists is now so pronounced that the EU is left hoping that Mr Berlusconi will emerge as the kingmaker, after next month’s Italian election. In 2000, the presence of the nationalist Freedom party in the Austrian government was shocking enough to provoke the rest of the EU to shun the country. But when the Freedom party rejoined the government in Vienna a few months ago, there was little reaction from Brussels.

This lack of comment reflects the fact that the EU now faces even more troubling political challenges in central Europe — where both the Hungarian and Polish governments have moved in an increasingly illiberal direction. And even if the “grand coalition” goes through in Germany, the political centre is likely to continue to shrink — as the venerable, centre-left Social Democrat party loses support to the far-right and the far-left.

The danger for Britain’s Remainers, (and I am one of them), is that they are so determined to prove the idiocy of leaving the EU, that they endorse a one-sided narrative, in which everything is rosy in the Brussels garden. When bad news from Europe comes along — and there will be plenty — Remainers will be in danger of looking loftily out of touch.

Leavers have the opposite problem. Their difficulty is being the “boy who cries wolf” — forever proclaiming the imminent collapse of the EU, and then looking petulant and dishonest when the much-anticipated crisis fizzles out.

Britain’s anti-EU forces already have a record of consistently underestimating the resilience of the European project. This analytical flaw stems partly from a failure to understand the utter determination of the European elite to preserve the bloc’s integrity.

The Brexit process is also underlining another important point — the extent to which the EU underpins what businesses and ordinary citizens now regard as normal life in Europe. Breaking up the EU — by reimposing border controls and tariffs and restrictions on freedom of movement — would have a disastrous effect on the operations of businesses and a hugely disruptive impact on the lives of millions of people.

Ideology aside, Brexit is illustrating that the EU now provides the framework of laws and regulations that keep goods and people moving. The EU undoubtedly faces serious problems and — after a good patch — these may worsen again. But as long as the single market exists and the EU hangs together, the UK will still clearly suffer economically from leaving.

And then there is a moral question, as well as a practical one. Britain’s Leavers are so desperate for confirmation of their view that the EU is heading for disaster, that they often slide into quietly cheering on some of the darkest forces in Europe; tacitly supporting every nationalist movement, from Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France to Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary.

In that sense, the current problems of the EU actually support the case for remaining — not leaving. When faced with problems such as supporting liberal values in Hungary, dealing with the refugee crisis or preserving financial stability in Europe, there is no substitute for the EU. For all its flaws, it is the only real mechanism for trying to find solutions to pan-European problems that are legal, humane and equitable, and that prevent Europe sliding backwards into beggar-thy-neighbour nationalistic antagonisms. Britain should be part of the effort to find those solutions. Instead, through Brexit, it has become part of the problem."

Source: FT article written by Gideon Rachman

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