Given the speed of events, it is easy to forget that only a year ago it was widely expected that the UK would stay within the EU. Despite the level of discontent among voters having reached unprecedented levels, the sense of complacency within Team Remain stayed fairly intact up until the final weeks of the referendum campaign. One thought in particular appeared to serve as a comfort blanket: “Since everyone ‘enlightened’ is a Remainer, surely things have to go our way.”
Yet the support of the elites for the European Project – and vice versa – turned out to be something of a double-edged sword. For years, it ensured that those objecting to ever closer union were dismissed as ridiculous. But in the end, this distanced the rulers from the ruled. The bias become so blatant that the voters turned against it.
And there is reason to think that the same melodrama is about to play out within other EU member states – albeit with a time lag.
The EU apologists who dominate the narrative in every member state capital are currently working hard to convince themselves that events in the UK were exceptional. “British voters were misled by Brexiteer misinformation and the Right-wing press,” they insist. “Things are now going so badly in the UK that the British example will convince other European voters that leaving the EU is undesirable.”
There is, it seems, no willingness to examine what the Brexiteers were really saying – just a sense that critics of the EU are largely oddballs and that the risk of any domino effect from Brexit has already been contained.
Yet take the situation in the Nordic EU countries; Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The EU policies of pretty much all of the traditional parties in these countries are almost mirror images of the UK Remain messages one year ago. “If we leave the EU, the world as we know it will end. We have to stay together, especially now when things are shaky.” Implying, of course, that the only way to stay together internationally is through the EU. And that the EU stabilises Europe, rather than the other way around.
Many Swedish, Finnish and Danish voters are fully aware, however, that the Establishment narrative is so one-eyed that it enters the territory of misinformation.
A few weeks ago, I co-wrote an article with leading critics of the EU from each Nordic country. It was published in in the largest Nordic newspaper, Sweden’s Aftonbladet. The reader reaction was overwhelmingly supportive: more than 80 per cent of approximately 3,600 readers polled agreed with our thesis. The article was subsequently republished in the leading Finnish business daily, and the leading Icelandic newspaper too.
So what did we argue? Among other things, that the EU has a strong track record of not delivering on its big promises. That it has turned decidedly anti-entrepreneurial while becoming structurally rigged in favour of the labour market titans (those big firms and big organisations with the resources to take part in the Brussels lobbying circus). We also pointed out that the “peacemaking” EU now creates so much political friction, both within and between member states, that it has developed into a source of conflict.
Looking to the future, we proposed that the Nordic countries should treat Brexit as an opportunity to weaken their respective EU links and develop new and more sustainable international links: “Norway and Iceland, the Nordic non-members, are through their EEA agreements stuck in a form of semi-membership. Their relative freedom is greater but their regulatory control is still limited; which erodes democracy while simultaneously maintaining alarmingly tight links between government administrators and the EU web of vested interests.
“We believe it is long overdue that Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland stop tying their prospects – and administrations – to an experiment which is already singing its swan song. Starting afresh, without the EU straitjacket, would reinvigorate society especially now when, due to Brexit, there is a golden opportunity to create new functional partnership links with other important trade and security partners.
“The UK is the most obvious example. Naturally the Nordic countries would seek to maintain strong links with remaining EU countries but, crucially, without a stifling political overcoat. Doing nothing would in our view ensure years of (continued) political deadlock.”
We concluded our article like this: “The EU apologists like to claim the EU is part of modernity. It is no such thing. Rigged inflexible superstructures deaf to the concerns of the people belong – or should belong – to the past. What once made Europe unique was that at least its northern parts broke away from a rigged political-economic social order. This great deed now needs to be repeated. Nothing would do more to secure both prosperity and peace.”
Brexit does indeed open new international possibilities for other potential Exiteers. That will appeal to Nordic voters who do want to co-operate internationally, but have lost faith in the abilities of the EU architects.
To this equation you need to add parliamentary advances by the parties of discontent, such as the Sweden Democrats, across the Nordic nations. And also the expected controversy surrounding the upcoming EU budget war: with the UK contribution about to end, other net contributors will be facing mounting pressure to make up the shortfall. It does not require an oracle to predict that simply imitating the PR people in Brussels will soon no longer be a vote-winner for contenders for office in the Nordic countries.
From the UK’s perspective, the most important conclusion from this is that the playing field in Europe is changing. Politicians will eventually be elected who will be more than happy to shape new win-win partnerships based on functional merit and mutual consent – without an agenda built on punishment or divorce bills.
That suggests, in turn, that it may actually be a good thing if no London-Brussels deal can be reached within the two-year deadline: with only a little patience, a good deal will be forthcoming. The worst-case scenario is an additional couple of years of uncertainty; but even in such a scenario, probably less uncertainty than if the UK had remained within the EU.
And for those across Europe, there is the prospect of international partnership links which could foster stability while not being as constricting as the current EU arrangements. Which would also more closely reflect what many Europeans – myself included – thought they were voting for when we joined the EU in the first place.