Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 3-2016, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich

The ‘Brexit’ – Clarifications on the cancellation of Britain’s EU membership by the state and the people

The British people voted for Brexit 52% to 48%. In view of this result, there is a sense of disbelief across the rest of Europe. Just how can such a fundamental question of the reason of state for the nation in particular, and for Europe in general, be put to the people to answer? How irresponsible of Prime Minister Cameron not only to gamble with Britain’s future in the EU but possibly risk the future of all Europe, simply because he wanted to have the upper hand against his Europhobic party members. The interested public in Germany and elsewhere may well understand the dual calculation of the British prime minister, namely to put pressure on the EU by threatening a referendum in order to negotiate more beneficial conditions of membership so that he could end the permanent row about EU membership that paralysed his party. But now that Cameron has ‘lost the gamble’, no one will understand any more. After the first spiteful comments – if you ask the people, you shouldn’t be surprised if you eventually fritter away not only your own career but also the future of the nation! – there is now general concern in Europe about how to end the ‘insecurity’ as fast as possible in the upcoming ‘difficult and lengthy negotiations’ with a British government that has decided to leave Europe; to limit the damage caused by losing a key member; and to rebuild a relationship with Britain that is useful for the present state and future progress of the EU. Britain on its part – for all the excitement that the supporters of the exit show about their regained ‘independence’ – has to bear in mind its continued politico-economic ‘dependence’ on the EU, that’s for sure.

I. Remain or leave? The people are allowed to decide which political alternative ‘makes Britain greater’

The Conservative Party ran their last election campaign mainly with the pledge to conduct an in-or-out referendum on the question of Britain’s EU membership. The outcome of the vote was to be binding for the party although it is not legally binding, as the democracy laid down in Her Majesty’s constitutional law recognises as legislative power only the elected Parliament, not a directly consulted people. Having won an absolute electoral majority that empowered him to rule without the pro-European Liberal Democrats, Prime Minister Cameron delivered on his election promise and presented to the British citizens a ballot asking: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ The people were to choose between the two options that had been subject to an ongoing debate in the ‘political class’ between and within the political parties responsible for exercising power.

‘We want our country back. Vote leave!’

The ‘Leave’ campaigners painted the public picture of a nation that had been subjugated by a European ‘superstate’ and incompetent ‘dictators in Brussels’, a nation that accordingly had to regain control of its own destiny so that politics would be done again on behalf of the people. This would be the case if and only if it were exclusively British politicians that do it:

Outside the EU we can become richer, safer and free at long last to forge our own destiny – as America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many other great democracies already do. And as we were the first to do centuries ago.

If we stay, Britain will be engulfed in a few short years by this relentlessly expanding German dominated federal state.

Greece is bankrupt.

Italy is in danger of going the same way, with even more disastrous consequences. … (The Sun, 23 June 2016)

British citizens were asked to understand their concerns primarily as something that only their national rulers could take well care of; that their interests in prosperity or security or whatever could realistically be pursued only as expectations directed at a ruling power that is responsible for them and for their living conditions; and that politicians could only adequately assume their responsibility if they could act absolutely independently, forever free of any – even well-meaning – external influence. This equation went around as something obvious, but was only intended to call upon a fundamentally wrong ‘understanding’ among those whose destiny it is to be governed.

On the one hand, the Brexit advocates talked about the British nation as a state actor in its external relations, i.e. vis-à-vis its peers, thus about the competition of nations. The nation, according to the slogan “Brussels or Britain”, was from the outset viewed as a completely self-contained entity struggling for self-assertion in a hostile environment. The EU was portrayed as a superstate – under German dictate – whose every intervention, no matter its content, violated the sacred egotism of the nation, jeopardising the state’s interest solely in its own affairs and its basis, excluding all other interests; in short, destroyed Great Britain’s sovereignty. The incompatibility of European intervention with a self-determined nation was spelled out to the people so that they would reach the ‘conclusion’ that a government, simply by getting involved with other sovereigns and their interests and by observing mutual agreements, surrenders the supreme good of the nation – its uncompromising self-interest – to foreign masters and foreign interests. Or conversely: only a government that liberates itself from any commitment to others and any consideration of foreign powers can do justice to the truly autistic nature of the national polity.

On the other hand, and in the same breath, the advocates of getting “OUT” made reference to the worries, concerns, and needs that the electorate knows all too well from their own daily struggle for livelihood and wellbeing. This was entailed in the WE that included all those who wanted to become “wealthier and more secure”, and this was meant when reference was made to the unbearable unemployment rates (elsewhere) that “the youth” in particular should be spared. In this way, the people were addressed as the active subjects of a competition in which they have to assert themselves and want to succeed because this competition is imposed on them by their own, very independent power in the form of the prescribed system of property ownership. They were, firstly, to recognise this very power as the ever responsible custodian of the concerns and needs which arise from the necessities of competition. And secondly – since the state is the correct target for their concerns only in a cynical sense, as it is the custodian only of the perpetuation of the hardships of competition – they were to interpret that as the apparent incapacity of their supreme power to provide the beneficial welfare it is supposed to deliver because it was somehow not quite itself. As a result of these two sides, the people, as British citizens, were to translate – unreasonably and with negative effects for themselves – the adversities they struggle with into a lack of autonomy on the part of their nation under which they now had to suffer. And thus they were to embrace this false identification of competition between nations and competition within the nation that the ‘Brexiteers’ used to rally the people to approve of their exit imperative. Pointing to the particular politico-economic crisis situation of the southern EU member countries and presenting them as a vivid illustration of this equation provided a perfect exemplar of that. Undoubtedly, the huge number of unemployed down there had to be due to European oversight from Brussels.

This plea against foreign control of the nation – purported to be the real reason for all the hardships of the habitual bourgeois-proletarian struggle for life – appealed to popular sentiment when it used this lie, not to attack a remote “Brussels” and an abstract “foreign”, but rather foreign people somehow recognisable as such, the palpable personification of foreign control of the nation:

To remain means being powerless to cut mass immigration which keeps wages low and puts catastrophic pressure on our schools, hospitals, roads and housing stock. (The Sun, ibid.)

The presence of people with a foreign passport, having a job or searching one, was purposefully mingled with the social question in the country, i.e. poverty and the dependence of the wage-dependent people. ‘Foreigners’ were referred to as jeopardising the lives of truly British citizens. If they were allowed to enter the country and the competition for jobs – i.e. if their cheap labour were utilised by capitalist enterprises and the public sector – they would supposedly be the cause of a low(er) living standard of the local population, the reason for low wages, long waits in hospitals, poor traffic conditions, and housing shortages. And the native participant in the competitive struggle for survival was to regard the existence of ‘foreigners’ on British soil as the hostile intervention of external powers. He was to identify foreigners – who were ostensibly responsible for his hardships simply because they were part of the same competition that he is – with foreign control of British sovereignty through intrusive measures of the European Union that didn’t let the British state control its own borders, and deprived it of its right to control the composition and thus the identity of its population. And this is why he was to speak out resolutely for an end to the powerlessness and ‘Brussels’-bondage of his own state.

What the advocates of ‘out’ thus presented to the people – fulfilling their obligation towards the people – was the liberation of British sovereignty from European bondage. If Britain wanted to be master of its own affairs, it had to be governed by politicians who didn’t have to listen to Europe any more. Back to square one, to where the public beguilement started:

This is our chance to make Britain even greater … Vote Leave, and we will reassert our sovereignty — embracing a future as a self-governing, powerful nation envied by all. … Our country has a glorious history. (ibid.)

It sounds like a joke when the Brexit advocates, addressing the people with all the existential hardships that result from capitalist competition, promote the past and future glory of their rulers as the ultimate goal of their desires. And indeed: that it is!

‘Vote remain!’ – because Britain is greater in the EU

In the same manner, the government-led ‘Remainers’ declared that remaining in the EU was ‘the best decision for the UK’ and at the same time ‘in the best interests of the people of the UK’, calling for the citizens to translate their own material interests into political expectations for the state, to acknowledge the expansion of its power as a positive condition of their lives, and to take an interest in it. The Cameron government had glossy leaflets distributed to every household in the UK promising a bright future for the nation as a part of the European Union and rejecting the promises of the Brexiteers as deceitful and untrustworthy. In opposition to their watchword that Brexit would liberate the nation from the chains imposed by the supranational regime of the EU and at the same time retain all privileges entailed by the participation in the common internal market, the government made it clear:

No other country has managed to secure significant access to the Single Market, without having to:
  • observe EU rules in which they have no real say
  • pay into the EU
  • accept EU citizens living and working in their country.

(HM Government, The EU referendum, 2016)

This was anything but an acknowledgement on the part of Cameron that enjoying the advantages of EU membership would inevitably be linked to a restriction of sovereignty and, as a result, a restriction of the UK’s global political ambitions. On the contrary. In its plea for an ‘in’ vote, the government presented this quintessence:

The UK as a leading force in the world: The UK is a strong, independent nation. Our EU membership magnifies the UK’s ability to get its way on the issues we care about. (ibid.)

In contrast to the Brexiteers’ claim that the once powerful Great Britain had become a country subjugated and humiliated by ‘Brussels’, Cameron & Co evoked the mighty nation’s capacity to become an even stronger sovereign nation by means of the EU. There could be no talk of deprivation of power or loss of liberties – the government praised itself like this: led by the Cameron government, Great Britain had made use of the EU including its supranational regulations as a means for its own success, and in cases where these regulations were in the way of the nation’s interests, had always found ways to push through its own demands with the help of ‘opt-out’ clauses and special rights, thus shaping the conditions of its participation in the European project according to its own purposes. Thanks to the negotiating skills of the conservative Prime Minister, which he proudly underscored, this would all the more be the case in the future – ‘The UK has secured a special status in the EU’ – and he wanted his people to understand it just so: like no other country, his country had managed to combine the advantages of the EU with avoidance of its disadvantages, utilising the Union and retaining sovereignty at the same time, thus having found and secured the ideal way, a ‘clear path into the future’ (ibid.).

The representatives of British power took it for granted that Britain’s participation in the EU was and had to be a good reason – not only for the British state power with its global political ambitions but also for the people whose service it commands – to consider this path to success as their own advantage. Nor were they devoid of ‘evidence’ which quite plainly showed to every ordinary citizen that the EU perspective would offer nothing but advantages; they would only have to see what the EU – comparatively – was offering or sparing them. To this end, the government assisted with a long list: a vote to leave ‘would risk higher prices of some household goods and damage living standards’. A vote to remain, on the other hand, would mean:

… more jobs. A stronger economy.

Millions of UK citizens travel to Europe each year. The EU has made this easier and cheaper.

From next year, mobile phone roaming charges will be abolished across the EU.

EU membership means you and your family have the right to live, work or study abroad in any of the 27 other member countries. (ibid.)

The pro-European majority of the conservative government agitated its people as if an elaborate, imperialist union of states were designed to facilitate job search, travelling, and telephoning, and that their own nation was in the EU for exactly that reason. But here, too, the all-important message was: what benefits the nation, and hence automatically everybody, is not abstaining from the great European union but participating in it. And Cameron’s government would be the guarantee that this continues.

And finally, as regards the idea of restricting ‘uncontrolled immigration’, there was nothing people should worry about. For it was Cameron who also successfully fought for the liberty to discriminate against immigrants from the EU, thus sparing the state welfare costs and satisfying the objections of its own citizens to foreign parasites:

Immigration: The Government has negotiated a deal that will make our benefits system less of a draw for EU citizens. In future, new EU migrants will not have full access to certain benefits until they have worked here for up to four years. The Government will have greater powers to take action where there is abuse of our immigration system. (ibid.)

Moreover, better ‘law enforcement intelligence’ and ‘cooperation between secret services’ against incoming terrorists and criminals would work more efficiently inside the EU than outside.

Thus the questions of immigration and security, which for the Brexiteers stand for vexing EU regulations and a restriction of British sovereignty, reaffirmed the Remainers’ message that Britain would only be a ‘great nation’ if managed by a government that could, with this greatness in mind, successfully make use of Europe’s resources for the benefit of Great Britain. And this is exactly what the government claimed to have achieved. In the face of EU resistance, they managed to protect the British population from undesired immigration and the threat of terrorism. Which at the same time proved that their immigration management was in agreement with the people’s legitimate resentment against ‘foreigners’. Cameron’s message was a British ‘Yes we can’ in which the people only had to believe. His promise was not to dodge the challenge but to accept and win it. It contained a flat-out attack against the Brexiteers’ timidity, who only see the one resort of exit – thus degrading their own Great Nation in two ways: firstly, by considering it less ‘rich and strong’; and secondly, with regard to its honour and its pride – as if it weren’t on a par with the club of continental Europeans.

So this alternative served to the people used the same criterion and the same promise to strengthen the national-imperialist quality of the country, which was considered to thrive better ‘in’ than ‘out’. Which is why being a self-assured member would be the best method to secure the citizens’ right to have a self-ruled and assertive state.

The fight over the Europe-oriented reason of state of the ‘Great Nation’ – handed to the people as a vote of confidence

When democratic politicians hand their rift over the right course in the Europe question to the people, that turns into two options for the same matter – the only matter a people have to take an interest in: by which of the two programmes for rule am I governed well, i.e. better? This implies that the those governed basically put all their interests, concerns, and hardships in the hands of ‘their’ rulers, who alone are entitled and competent to decide all the questions of power – referred to as ‘issues’ – whose only objective is how to use and guide their manoeuvrable human resources, as well as how to deal with competing political powers. In this case, it was up to those governed to decide between two competing alternatives concerning the future relation of the nation with the European Union. ‘Brexiteers’ and ‘Remainers’ both wooed the electorate by presenting themselves as the best guarantors of the nation’s glorious future. The former pictured themselves as rescuers who would bail the nation out of a state of emergency, the latter as men of action who had long since rescued the nation from foreign control. The residents of the sovereign territory were addressed in their capacity as ordinary competitive actors who struggle for income and livelihood – and not merely go on holiday or make phone calls: as workers for a multinational corporation; as fishermen dependent on catch quotas; as cosmopolitan Londoners; as students on exchange programmes; as City bankers and brokers; etc. etc. Their entirely diverse and conflicting concerns were all targeted and referred to only to turn them equally into an argument for or against Brexit, thus for one of two ‘options’ to strengthen the state’s power to assert itself internally and externally. In actual fact, they were all addressed as subdivisions of the national collective, as British workers, British fishermen, London bankers, etc. They were asked to answer the one and only big question for which solely they, in their capacity as British people, are competent: whether they as real, live embodiments of the national cause find themselves well governed. That question they are allowed to decide, and they alone can bindingly decide: which type of rule is best suited for the nation’s self-assertion and strengthening: ‘What’s better for Britain?’

In this respect, the people were called on to show their trust. After all, to be decided was which alternative and thus at the same time which political team most credibly (re)presented ‘Britain first’ – the ‘common goal’ in which the mighty and the lowly were to see themselves as united. What the politicians would make of the outcome of the referendum was an entirely different question – not much different from a real election.

II. The politico-economic content of the Brexit referendum: the euro crisis and European crisis competition escalate the contradictions between the Eurozone and United Kingdom – to the point of an ultimate decision by the nation on the usefulness of its EU membership

Complaints about autocratic bureaucrats in Brussels; about the no longer acceptable injustice of Britain having to pay out billions in pound sterling as a net contributor to the European budget, money that could much better be spent on the National Health Service; about the millions of Eastern European immigrant workers who the EU allowed to enter Britain, steal jobs there, exploit the welfare state and, even worse, destroy the national identity; but also the depictions of post-Brexit nightmare scenarios because Europe would ultimately be indispensable for the economy, for jobs, and for British cosmopolitanism – all these were one thing: election rhetoric, meant to beguile the people to nationalistic tunes. The other thing was the information provided by the government in a less excited, more factual tone in pre-referendum negotiations with the EU as to why today’s European Union no longer served the national interest and therefore had to change, or else be abandoned:

The European Union must change. … It needs to put relations between the countries inside the Euro and those outside it – like Britain – onto a stable, long-term basis. … Today there are 2 sorts of members of the European Union. There are euro members and there are non-euro members. The changes which the eurozone will need to implement will have profound implications for both types of members. So non-euro members like Britain which are outside the eurozone need certain safeguards in order to protect the single market and our ability to decide its rules and to ensure that we face neither discrimination nor additional costs from the integration of the eurozone. …

So the EU needs flexibility to accommodate both those inside and outside the eurozone both those who are contemplating much closer economic and political integration and those countries like Britain which will never embrace that goal. This is a matter of cardinal importance for the United Kingdom. Because if the European Union were to evolve into a single currency club, where those outside the single currency are pushed aside and over-ruled, then it would no longer be a club for us. We need this issue fixed – so that the UK is not obliged to fight a series of running battles which would only corrode trust among member states. And we have to make sure that there is a point to being in the EU but not in the eurozone, and that that position does not turn a country into a rule-taker instead of a rule-maker. (Cameron, Chatham House speech, 10 Nov 2015)

‘Europe today’, from the British standpoint, meant a no longer acceptable rift splitting the European Union into two member-categories with different rights and duties: eurozone states and non-euro countries. Even Great Britain acknowledged the pressure exerted by the persisting eurozone state-debt crisis on the euro countries to move closer together economically and politically as an inherent necessity of the common currency. But the government could not and would not accept the pressure for eurozone integration at the expense of the states that were not part of it: if Britain’s power were no longer to play a decisive role in making European rules, then the European Union would no longer be useful for it! The outsider’s ambitions were much too great for it to allow itself to be demoted from ‘rule-maker’ to ‘rule-taker’ by the closed club of eurozone states – and so it threatened with an EU exit to force the Union to implement reforms and grant concessions that would render the exit unnecessary. The manoeuvres of both the Cameron government and its European counterparts, i.e. renegotiating British membership conditions so that the progress made in the eurozone wouldn’t escalate into a Brexit, have brought about just this result; and have demonstrated that the relationship between Great Britain and the EU with its common currency and the eurozone as its political core is unsustainable.

The fundamental contradiction of a leading EU member state that has its own currency and is part of a single market managed by 19 eurozone states with a common currency

The United Kingdom, against the decision of the European Union to complete the internal market with the creation of a common currency, secured for itself the ‘opt-out’ option. The obligation for all member states – the European treaties require any candidate that fulfils the accession criteria to sooner or later join the currency union – has not applied to Great Britain. The nation has refused to underwrite the project vigorously promoted by Germany and France, be it with different motives, to create for all member states a common currency that has not only spurred accumulation in the entire European economic area but also substantially increased the credit capacity of the entire Union and its component parts by creating a new world money that in its quantity and the scope of the business done with it has been a viable dollar competitor. Every British government, be it Tory or Labour, has had its own good reasons to say No to the euro. After all, the nation had with its pound Sterling its own, established world trade and world reserve currency competing with the dollar. Its weight may have been considerably diminished but its credit capacity was still on a par with the deutschmark of long-standing export champion Germany, based on the money-market operations and capital transactions at its international financial centre, London, and in the former Commonwealth states, and based on the involvement of its national currency in financial operations of the entire world of states. So it never was a question for Great Britain to give up its sovereignty over its world money governed by the Bank of England in order to participate, as a member of the eurozone currency union, in a prospectively more potent world money, a money controlled and managed, however, by the supranational European Central Bank, with regulations based on the model of the German Deutschmark – i.e. modelled on the definitive standards of the leading EU power – and located not in London but Frankfurt (the place symbolising policymaking power). Since the introduction of the euro, the nation has always taken an outsider position in the Economic and Currency Union, which it has taken as an opportunity to profit from the eurozone. Great Britain has used the euro, whose creation it didn’t want and couldn’t prevent, as much as it can from its external position, thus securing the world-money quality of its pound Sterling against the new European world money.

No sooner was the euro created than the British nation seized on the euro-credit business. From the outset, the City of London operated as the most important trading venue worldwide for executing currency transactions with the new world money, for making profitable investments of euro assets, for marketing euro-denominated sovereign debt and all types of commercial credit, and in particular for doing business with financial derivatives based on the latter. The financial centre thrived on EU membership with its guaranteed unhindered access to the single internal market – the majority of business with the single currency took place outside the eurozone in London. The credit companies based there stood to profit from this situation; the growing euro business let the Sterling business grow, too, so that the British nation not only profited from capitalistic growth in foreign world-money but also the growing business in its own currency supported its creditworthiness, thus its financial power. For this power did not primarily rely on the export of goods but on the revenues from its financial industry, so in this respect not least on its management of the common currency.[1]

Great Britain’s special position towards the eurozone was indicative of its fundamental relationship with Europe. The country was ‘in’ – but only with numerous concessions granted not to be part of core areas of European integration: the currency union, the Schengen area with free movement of persons without border controls, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Being ‘in’ so that the nation could profit from the single market but without the burdens and losses of sovereignty that come with ever further deepening of the Union – the drawback of this was then that the nation no longer had a say in these questions, and played no role in setting political rules. The ambiguity of this eccentric position was particularly true for the main contribution that Great Britain made to the EU: its financial business. The conquest of the euro-credit business had its basis in a financial centre that belonged to the single European market with its free movement of capital yet lay outside the eurozone. Finance capital operating in Europe and worldwide didn’t consider this to be an adverse condition but more likely a favourable one for trading freely with the new, world money. For it ensured that whatever restrictions the eurozone envisaged for its credit management did not apply to the City. London’s external position in regard to the eurozone secured a combination of freedom and security, and worked as an extraordinary advantage for its location – on the one hand. On the other hand, this entailed at the same time a persistent threat to London’s financial venue: in the banking and the credit sector in particular, in the cross-border business with fictitious capital, it is the general political conditions, the statutory licences and liberties in trading foreign moneys that have a direct effect on business success – and these conditions were set by the members of the eurozone from which Great Britain was excluded. Since the introduction of the euro, the British government has repeatedly found itself in a defensive fight against the eurozone, whose decisions aim at taking the euro-credit business away from London and reserving it for itself.[2]

The intensification of the antagonistic relationship between eurozone and British ‘outsider’ in the euro crisis

The financial centre of London rendered outstanding service to the accumulation of euro credit, also dollar credit, in Europe. So naturally it was affected first and foremost by the collapse of the financial business in the US triggered by the global financial and economic crisis nine years ago. The crash in America jolted the financial centre into a crisis – and by way of London, also its more capable European partners. The British state was forced to rescue its banks at home, including the business they did with dollar and euro debts. A little later, the European states were forced to do the same with their banks and likewise put a considerable strain on their budgets. In the first phase, the euro became precarious, the London banks having a decisive hand in this: they helped to spread large dollar assets and debts across the whole of Europe, down to the smallest local savings banks, and they were now responsible for their large-scale devaluation. In the second phase, the same London banks played a crucial role in turning the bank rescue in the euro area into a sovereign debt crisis. Being financiers and traders of European sovereign debt, they were instrumental in assessing the creditworthiness of the eurozone countries. Faced with national budgets inflated by the states to rescue their financial capital, they helped to sort the eurozone into good debtors with still unlimited creditworthiness, and bad debtors, especially the southern European countries whose credit they terminated. The City played a decisive role in devaluing the euro-debt instruments, intervening in the economic life of the defaulting states and thus jeopardising a significant part of its own financial business; and with all this, it played its part in increasing the risk of the eurozone falling apart – with foreseeably disastrous consequences even for Great Britain.

In the face of the crisis, Britain’s dependence both on the euro and on the cohesion of the eurozone compelled the British government to take a position that it firmly opposed for its own nation: in accordance with the necessities of their now precarious single currency, the eurozone states were to grow ever closer together in integrated solidarity, to manage their money collectively once and for all, to develop their economic and currency union into a union based on joint liability with one budget and collective efforts to rescue their banks – all this, of course, exclusive of Great Britain. After all, London had only good reasons for not joining the eurozone, and apart from that, had always fought hard to bring down the supranationalism that it had willy-nilly accepted as part of EU membership, and to bring back the rule-setting powers it had conceded to Brussels. The competent authorities in London felt, on the one hand, vindicated in their position that not joining the eurozone was right. They still enjoyed the liberty to trade the euro from London and make money with it but without the liability of the successful eurozone countries for the debts of the loser countries, and without having their own currency brought down by eurozone member states that made use of euro credit without seeing it justified by successful growth. The rising exchange rate of the pound against the euro after the European sovereign-debt crisis was evidence for the nation that it was an advantage to secure for itself a permanent opt-out from the eurozone. On the other hand: to the extent that the eurozone area consolidated itself according to the logic of the objective constraints inherent to the single currency, in which Great Britain also saw a compelling necessity, the relation of the pound to the euro as it had been practised so far became precarious. The further the eurozone members integrated, the more Great Britain was marginalised. Not being an active party to the euro, its status as a leading political power in and over the EU as a whole diminished. But precisely that was, and had always been, the core of the nation’s ambitions, vividly illustrated in former prime minister Blair’s project to anchor Great Britain ‘in the centre of the EU’ as its third leading power so that it could define and control the advances of European imperialism from within. Instead, Great Britain as ‘opt-out nation’ increasingly, as it were, opted itself out of the union that it once wanted to determine. The more Great Britain became dependent on the rescue of the euro and its successful management in order to sustain the economic basis for its own pound Sterling, the more Europe failed to become a sphere of influence for the nation.

So here lay the irony: Great Britain acknowledged in the European club the inherent necessity for political union – i.e. for the loss of sovereignty – that it so vehemently ruled out for Europe in general and for itself in particular. This surrender of sovereignty for the benefit of a comprehensive, politico-economic regime and thus a European power to define rules, above all the German power, had in fact been progressively enforced by the crisis. But with it, the long since communitised economic basis of the British nation was now increasingly removed from its own disposition and responsibility. In the run-up to the referendum, a parliamentary committee described that with British understatement as ‘somewhat of a paradox’:

This poses somewhat of a paradox for the UK inside the EU. On the one hand, an effective, high-performing and sustainable eurozone would be likely to benefit the UK economically. On the other hand, the reforms proposed for the euro area, including more economic, financial and fiscal co-ordination would, if implemented, represent a substantial deepening of integration between those states. This has led to concerns that the UK could be left on the outside of an ever-tighter decision-making majority, which, by voting as a bloc, could introduce measures that threaten UK interests in the single market. … For this reason, as part of its renegotiation package, the Government secured agreement on principles to prevent non-eurozone states being discriminated against (enforceable by the ECJ and by UK domestic courts), and on a mechanism for any one non-euro state to request further discussion on proposed measures that might contravene the principles. …Witnesses told us that eurozone countries might indeed begin to club together on matters relating to the economic governance of the eurozone itself, and potentially on financial regulation. (House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee: Implications of the referendum on EU membership for the UK’s role in the world; Fifth Report of Session 2015–16)

So the nation found itself increasingly pushed into the defensive to retain its sovereignty.

Translating the objective antagonism between Great Britain and the EU into two political positions – and its result: Brexit, the cancellation of this contradictory relationship.

In view of its contradictory EU membership – the increasingly precarious combination of being in and being out in order to secure ‘the best of both worlds’ for the nation – the British Government decided to put the political plight of the nation on the agenda in the form of an alternative: a decision for or against the EU, staying or leaving? In either case, the nation – being guarantor of its largely Community-determined and thus precarious living conditions – saw itself challenged to provide a clear demonstration of its power! Cameron threatened with an exit in order to obtain concessions for British sovereignty from the EU partners as a prerequisite for staying in the union – a test of power that itself included exit as an alternative. And Brexit was all the more such a demonstration of power that the nation, according to the Brexiteers, had to stage – an alternative ‘Yes, we can!’ from the nation’s defensive position.

Led by Prime Minister Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Osborne, the ‘Remainers’ in the political class took the view that a fight for the sustainability of Britain’s outside position to Europe was necessary but could only be fought in and with Europe: ‘We are stronger, safer and better off in the EU’. Following this line, Cameron renegotiated new membership conditions for Britain, and presented to his people the nation’s fought-for rights : safeguards for the financial centre London; a mechanism for consultations if eurozone decisions were to negatively affect non-eurozone countries; an ‘emergency brake’ granting Britain the right to discriminate against workers from the EU and curb welfare benefits for them, in order to cap labour migration to Britain; the partners’ concession that the treaty commitment to ‘ever closer union’ did not apply to Great Britain:

So if we stay, Britain will be in there keeping a lid on the budget, protecting our rebate, stripping away unnecessary regulation and seeing through the commitments we have secured in this renegotiation.

Ensuring that Britain truly can have the best of both worlds, in the parts of Europe that work for us, and out of those that don’t.

In the single market. Free to travel around Europe.

Part of an organisation where co-operation on security and trade can make Britain and its partners safer and more prosperous.

But with guarantees that we will:

  • never be part of the euro
  • never be part of Schengen
  • never be part of a European army
  • never be forced to bail out the eurozone with our taxpayers’ money
  • and never be part of a European superstate.

(Cameron, Prime Minister’s statement on EU renegotiation, House of Commons, 3 February 2016)

Far all his messages of success, Cameron was not rid of the contradiction of British EU membership: the EU still reserved the right for itself to decide on the elementary politico-economic means of the nation – ranging from how the euro could be used in the British financial centre, to regulations for managing the national business location – and this proviso remained implicitly in force and acknowledged. That was documented in the Prime Minister’s determination, which also meant his need, always to ‘secure’ the benefits the nation gained from Europe, and against the EU to ‘insist on guarantees’ that the government managed to negotiate. What the ‘remainers’ achieved was basically that Great Britain was allowed to stay outside: a stricter ‘opt-out’ as a concession!

The ‘Leavers’ fought against this, a broad alliance of ever-euroskeptic Tories, Labour MPs, and UK Independence Party politicians who always pleaded for EU exit as the only way of properly mending ‘our relationship with Europe’. The message was unmistakable: ‘Take back control!’ They aimed at resolving the contradiction of British EU membership, which the ‘Remainers’ perpetuated and exacerbated, by cancelling it: Great Britain would only have a beneficial relationship with Europe, and predictable influence on Europe, if it regained its sovereignty, so that it could renegotiate its relationship with the EU on its own terms:

The issue of European Union membership is the most important political question of our lifetime. That is why the forthcoming referendum on whether to ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ is vital: it will determine whether we want to be in a United States of Europe with an EU army, flag and anthem; or whether we wish to be a self-governing, independent, United Kingdom. … Today, it is clearer than ever before that if we remain in the European Union, further, deeper political integration is inevitable. … As we’ve seen from everything from the eurozone’s worsening economic state to the migrant crisis, the answer in Brussels will always be ‘more EU’.

David Cameron’s promised referendum is, therefore, a golden opportunity for our country. It represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the UK to throw off the shackles of EU membership and stand proud again in the world. … So now is the time for all those across the political spectrum who want a United Kingdom that controls its borders, makes its own laws and is free to negotiate its own trade deals, to come together to get the UK out of the EU. (Nigel Farage, Leader of UKIP; Tom Pursglove, Tory PM; Kate Hoey, Labour MP; in The Telegraph, 6 January 2016)[3]

For the ‘Leavers’, Brexit would be a clean break for the nation: it would regain its capacity to autonomously shape the conditions for its business location, and could act as an independent imperialist. But at the same time: they might well be rid of the contradiction of EU membership by cancelling it, but cancelling it unilaterally would not be equivalent to an increase in power. By exiting, Great Britain would be acknowledging in a practical sense that it did not command the imperialistic power to determine and shape the EU according to its wishes. Moreover, regaining formal sovereignty would be detrimental to the material foundations of the nation. For in fact, if the costs and duties of the nation are rejected, its means of success and its rights will also be cancelled to start with. The foundations of national life have long since depended on the Community and are embodied in a host of European legal and economic interdependencies. Talk is of ‘6987 directly applicable EU regulations and over 50 EU trade agreements’ (House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee) that would have to be renegotiated after the Brexit. Nearly all economic relations and cooperation projects are now at stake – starting with the import and export of goods and going well beyond the cooperation of universities in teaching and research – only underlining that the well-established politico-economic dependence of Great Britain on Europe reaches very far. Thus, the Brexit proves two things: even in the supranational European Union, states remain sovereign nations that can decide on exit from the EU; but they also gain little with their formal independence from the single market and eurozone, because damage is certain to be caused to the basis of a long since Europeanised sovereignty.[4]

There is no way to dissolve the relationship with Europe into liberties to be gained and dependencies to be foregone. Now begins the practical fight for regaining substantial sovereignty by restructuring the material conditions of life – and hence a power struggle with the EU concerning new, advantageous relations for trade and business. The due renegotiations are going to be nasty because two parties essentially rely on using the other side and are both determined to show little consideration towards the other side’s interests.

With this in mind, the new Prime Minister Theresa May has made unambiguously clear to all in the country and in Europe who speculate on the government backing down: ‘Brexit means Brexit!’ She is ringing in the struggle for a new relationship with the EU – an indispensable relationship but one that first has to be rendered useful again – by insisting on being in control over the due procedures: it is up to her country to decide when it starts the exit process; and it won’t allow the EU to make it immediately trigger Article 50 of the EU treaties. Deciding the start of the negotiations is already part of the new, competitive struggle with the EU that is now at issue. On their part, EU representatives demand control over the procedures because the Brexit is exactly the kind of damage the EU was hoping to avoid.

III. Brexit – a loss for the EU: the union of states loses in imperialistic power, and Germany fights for its cohesion

For the first time, the EU is losing a member state. This constitutes a material injury to the whole imperialistic project insofar as the method of building the Community is impaired: Great Britain’s exit gives evidence that the European union is not irreversible. It calls into question the procedure to establish an entire system of dependencies by transferring ever more legal rights and economic decisions to the Community, i.e. by the member states’ transfer of sovereignty to supranational institutions, which entails a loss of sovereignty over the national currency; a procedure that acts as a politico-economic objective necessity towards an irreversible ‘ever closer union’. In view of this, Brexit not only would substantially damage the hitherto successful method of integration but also reject the political purpose pursued with it.

The practical effects of this can now already be seen, even before membership has been cancelled. Great Britain’s exit from the EU does not simply mean the latter loses a member, but it loses the second biggest economic power and trading nation, including an international financial centre; as well as a diplomatic and military heavyweight in global politics that possesses the status of UN veto power and the deterrent capacity of a nuclear power. In terms of global politics, Great Britain’s decision to exit the EU already diminishes Europe’s imperialistic clout and that of each member. Not only the European Commission but every politician of a EU member-state that shows his face to the world appears in the name of the power lent him by the states of an entire continent collected in the EU. Left to its own, no European country – not even the biggest – is strong enough to become an independent, imperialistic actor on a par with the ‘super powers’. The EU has always been more than a big free-trade zone – by politico-economic amalgamation it has increasingly integrated the nations and pooled their powers to become the supranational, imperialist actor that it is today. For the likes of European Commission president Juncker and German Chancellor Merkel, it makes a huge difference whether they can draw on an entire continent including the British power when they present themselves to the outside world. Or whether in the future they will have to make do without these capacities in their struggle with the other powers over global order, with partners, rivals and enemies.

Great Britain also played a decisive role in the balance of power within the EU as it helped to define the continent. It competed first and foremost with the other two leading powers, but also cooperated with one against the other or with both against the majority of smaller member states when decisions were to be taken about what kind of club the European states should be overall. As the second largest net payer to the EU, it makes a substantial financial contribution to the EU budget, and has a say in how it is used. It pushed through the reduction of the EU agricultural budget against France; its ‘neo-liberal’ ideas on the European single market are shown not least by the 800,000 Polish work migrants in the UK, but also by the commitment to free trade it shared with Germany against the protectionist reservations of the southern European states. Germany has also always wanted to retain Britain as the third influential power in the EU to secure its own leading power, and as a functional counterweight to France’s ambitions.

Brexit is also in that regard a blow to German hegemony over Europe, which sees itself compelled to limit the damage. Chancellor Merkel wants to retain as much cooperation with the UK as possible in the upcoming exit negotiations. She wants to ‘avoid confrontation with Britain but wishes a future relationship based on close partnership, both economically and in key policy areas, for instance the central role of Great Britain in NATO’ (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 28 June 2016). To achieve this, she is relying on the current state of European unification: an institutionalised set of rules for economic and political dependencies has been created by transferring the foundations of national existence to the Community, to the single market, and to the common foreign and security policy; these rules cannot simply be discarded but have to be renegotiated. Great Britain has to secure, and wants to secure, free access to the single market – and conversely, neither the EU in general nor Germany as an export nation in particular can do without, or wants to do without, the third largest partner in the single market. After all, the dependencies are mutual – even though Merkel takes for granted that a confederation of twenty-seven states would then have greater leverage in the upcoming negotiation marathon. So she warns her negotiation partner up front: ‘We will make sure that there will be no cherry-picking exercise in the exit negotiations. There must be, and there will be, a palpable difference between those countries who want to be members of the European family and those who don’t. No one can expect that after their EU exit their obligations are dropped but their privileges remain.’ (Süddeutsche Zeitung, ibid.)

This clarification is not exclusively targeted at the British government. There is another dimension to the damage limitation which the German leading power considers imperative: renegotiating the relationship of the UK with the EU has to be done with its effect on the rest of Europe in mind, so has to be ‘hard’ on Britain and thus a deterrent to the other member states where Eurosceptic political forces gaining influence and power are not discouraged by Brexit but rather are spurred on in their ambitions to liberate their peoples from the shackles of the EU. Prophecies or rather fears that Britain’s exit may be ‘the beginning of the end of the EU’ must by no means come true!

The Brexit intensifies all the contradictions of the EU, which the German leading power recognises as a practical necessity to hold Europe together. For Merkel, it is clear what she must not do in this situation: exacerbate existing front lines or open up new ones which would place the members’ commitment to Europe under renewed strain, and erode it. But what must be done is anything but clear: is it more communitisation of the money, the border regime, the foreign and defence policy with a view to bonding Europe closer together – or is it better to halt the unification process that even now is provoking so much resistance; perhaps partly return responsibilities to the parliaments of the member states? As an important member walks out, and as irritation prevails in Europe, the German government mulls over the question of whether the hitherto successful and still effective mechanism of unification – creating a quasi-equivalent to a common sovereignty by ever new connections and objective necessities – does not overstrain the member states’ commitment to unification, thus weakening it. This is how Britain’s EU exit forces the German leading power to continue its struggle to safeguard the European project.


[1] Everything there is to know about the financial centre London, the service it provides for the nation’s credit power, the contributions it makes to the growth of European and global credit, the role it plays in the global financial crisis and the crisis competition into which the nation enters with its EU partners, including the issue of membership, can be found in an article in Gegenstandpunkt 2-13, ‘Crisis and competition in Europe: Great Britain – the nation fights for its credit, and for the benefits from its EU membership.’

[2] Decisions made by the eurozone concern questions like whether banks should be allowed to operate from London without subsidiaries in the eurozone, and whether the ‘single passport for issuers of securities’ should also cover the clearing business with euros. In this case, the eurozone states wanted to obligate the clearing banks to do their sizeable euro business only in the eurozone, so in effect relocate their activities from London to the eurozone.

[3] Pomoting Brexit with flowery rhetoric was the special contribution made by Boris Johnson, Cameron’s former, prominent chum: ‘Boris Johnson has said being in the EU is like being in a jail where “the jailer has accidentally left the door open”, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that leaving would be “wonderful”. The London Mayor put the case for Brexit in effusive terms, calling the referendum scheduled for the 23 June a “once in a lifetime opportunity that will not come again”. And hitting out at what he described as the negative tactics of the Remain campaign, he said: “This is like the jailer has accidentally left the door of the jail open and people can see the sunlit land beyond. And everybody is suddenly wrangling about the terrors of the world outside. Actually it would be wonderful. It would be a huge weight lifted from British business.” Mr Johnson spoke at length about Britain’s “proud democracy” and the need to “take back control over our borders and control over our democracy”.’ (The Independent, 6 March 2016). Such talk earned Boris Johnson the post of Foreign Secretary after Cameron’s resignation.

[4] The extent to which sovereignty is regained at the expense of its underlying Europeanised business basis was manifested by ‘the markets’. For the markets, simply the vote for Brexit, not even its practical implementation, provided an occasion to speculate against the currency and on an expected economic downturn – thus bringing about both. The crash of pound Sterling against dollar and euro along with all indications of a renewed recession forced the Bank of England back into crisis mode. The BoE governor, Mark Carney, said that Great Britain was even now suffering from ‘economic post-traumatic stress disorder’, and the BoE would do everything it took to secure the national credit and economic growth – ‘whatever is needed’.

© GegenStandpunkt 2016