Institute for Policy Research

IPR Report: From Brexit to European Renewal

The UK referendum in 2016 revealed deep popular disaffection with the European Union (EU) – in particular, on the part of working-class communities that felt that they had been left behind, with their cohesion and their very identity under threat.

Some of the roots of this disaffection may lie elsewhere – in national government policies or in the effects of globalisation more generally. The disaffection may also have been stoked by opportunistic politicians. The blame may therefore have been laid unfairly on Johnny Foreigner – the Brussels Eurocrat as much as the Syrian refugee. Be that as it may, it was sufficient to provoke one of the worst crises in the history of the EU.

Three questions arise.

First, was this a uniquely British malaise, or did it tell a more general story about the European project and the European citizen? In 1848 Marx and Engels focussed their attention on the burgeoning industrial towns and cities of northern England. They assured the world at large ‘de te fabula narratur’: the story that is unfolding here shows you your own future. How far did the disaffection of working-class communities in the 2016 referendum, especially across that same northern England, encapsulate a larger unfolding story about Europe more generally? If it did, the European Commission (2017) gives little sign of paying heed, to judge by its White Paper on the Future of Europe, published in March.

Second, what are the roots of this disaffection and how appropriate is it to lay the blame at Europe’s door? Is the EU distributing the benefits of European integration evenly, so that all communities can share in its prosperity, or is it visiting the costs of change disproportionately on those who are already vulnerable? And how far is the discontent of the aggrieved being given any voice in the long-standing debates about the ‘democratic deficit’ of the EU?

Third, what reforms to the European project might address this malaise – and maybe in the process save the EU itself from further disintegration? Whether the promise of such reforms will suffice to reverse popular opinion in the UK, and even provoke the British electorate to apply an emergency brake to the whole Brexit process, is beyond the scope of this report. What seems clear however is that without such a positive vision of Europe’s future, capable of addressing the grievances that the UK referendum revealed, such a U-turn is highly unlikely.

It is with these three questions that this report is concerned.

Professor Graham Room, Professor of European Social Policy

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Release date: May 2017