"We don’t know how women have voted in the referendum, but there are roughly one million more women than men in the UK so, potentially, women could have determined the outcome". Elizabeth Pollitzer analysis on the Brexit lessons

Lessons from Brexit.
Is this the Eu’s zero hour?

6 min read
Foto: Flickr/Jeff Djevdet

On 23rd June, 16,141,241 people in the UK voted to remain in the EU and 17,410,742 voted for exit: a majority of 1,269,501. Whilst it is gratifying that as a consequence, the UK has gained its second female Prime Minister in the person of Teresa May, this cannot remove deep concerns on how the referendum campaign was conducted, and what will happen next. 

Firstly, the political pressure from Europe in the run up to the referendum promoted polarization of opinion by threatening to punish the UK if it decides to leave the EU.  Certainly, the view in Brussels appeared to be ‘He that is not with me is against me’. Was the UK case used by the European leaders to prevent other countries from also considering breaking away?

It is important to state that not all of the 17 million who supported Brexit fully reject the European Union ideal. Most people want Britain to be part of Europe but they also want some degree of choice in what kind of Europe it should be. It is also important to state that not all of the 16 million who supported the Remain campaign fully accept the European Union as it is today.  There are many in and outside the UK who share British misgivings about the Grand Projet, who question if political and economic integration at any cost is the right way to promote unity in Europe.  

We don’t know how women have voted in the referendum, but there are roughly one million more women than men in the UK so, potentially, women could have determined the outcome. The Brexit campaign recognized this and targeted women with arguments designed to exploit their strongly held beliefs and values as mothers and care givers.  One of their central messages, for example, blamed failures in the National Health Systems (e.g. delays in breast cancer diagnosis) and problems with the school system (e.g. shortage of school places in some Local Authority areas) on the freedom of movement that gives EU citizens the right to work and live in the UK.  The ‘women factor’ was further exploited by Brexit leaders through half-truths that promoted the benefits of life outside the EU, quoting in particular the examples of Norway and Switzerland, while saying nothing about the crucial differences between the attitudes to gender in both these countries. Namely, in Norway there is a long-standing commitment to gender equality, in both culture and legislation; but in Switzerland, women were granted the right to vote only in 1971.

By contrast, the Remain campaign ignored women, perhaps because they were not seen as relevant to the arguments that magnified the threat of Britain losing economic influence in Europe, and the benefits of access to the Single Market?  This should not surprise anyone, since, in general, both politicians and economists everywhere tend to ignore the significance of women’s economic activities.  The Remain campaign could have easily made their arguments relevant to women if they had focused on the benefits women in Britain, and Europe, have gained because equality between women and men is one of the fundamental principles of EU law, and gender equality is part of several treaties.

Another opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of an EU membership that was ignored by the Remain campaign were the lessons of history, in particular, all sides disregarded the fact that the seeds of the European Union ideal were sown in May 1945, when the Allied forces realized that it was hugely important to help the defeated and demoralized Germans re-establish their humanity after 15 years of Nazi indoctrination. 

In her book, The Bitter Taste of Victory, Lara Feigel recounts the debates between Britain, USA, France and Russia on how to create a new Germany, and a new Europe. The answer was: culture, and not punishment. And, so, the USA sent to Berlin Martha Gellhorn, Marlene Dietrich, Ernest Hemingway, Billy Wilder and other journalists, actors, writers and filmmakers to promote the American ideal of democracy and culture. The UK sent Rebecca West, Stephen Spender, Wystan Hugh Auden, and Laura Knight, as well as other writers, poets and painters to promote the Anglo-Saxon ideal of democracy and culture.  And, France sent Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, “because the existentialist ideas had particular appeal for those anxious to classify 1945 as zero hour”. 

Both Britain and the EU (with all the countries in it) must look at the UK ‘exit’ as a leap into the unknown. The withdrawal process is specified in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in 250 words.  In this limited space there are three important conditions: 1) a limit of two years to complete the withdrawal negotiations, once started; 2) the requirement that the withdrawal terms must be agreed to by the Council of Europe; and 3) that the European Parliament must formally consent to the negotiated terms, as well.  Failure to satisfy these conditions would leave the UK facing the prospect of having its EU membership come to an end without a deal.   ‘No deal’ will mean that scientists in the UK will have no access to Horizon 2020, and the UK Government will have no obligation to comply with the EU gender equality directives.  Without these, it is unlikely that actions to promote gender balance and gender dimension in science knowledge and practice in the way that Horizon 2020 is doing will be supported. 

Little was said about Article 50 during the referendum campaign, and the question to ask now is: Have Brexit leaders planned all along to use Article 50 to orchestrate a failure in negotiating a mutually satisfactory exit, knowing they can blame the failure not on their own reckless ambitions but on the EU?

What can and should be done now?  A poll of post-Brexit opinions by the British Future thinktank found dissatisfaction with the way the referendum campaign was conducted, with half the public (52%) saying that the Leave campaign talked too much about unproven facts and figures. The petition for the second referendum in the UK has attracted, so far, over 4.1 million signatures.  The Parliamentary Committee has now agreed to schedule a House of Commons debate on the Petition on 5th September 2016.  This debate will allow MPs to put forward views on behalf of their constituents and for the Government to make a reasoned response.  Hopefully, this debate will be restricted to facts. One way that our friends in Europe could influence the tone of this debate is to say very loudly to the UK, and to the European Parliament, ‘We want Europe with the UK’, perhaps by launching an EU Petition under this theme to lobby political leaders in Europe that the UK referendum result is a new zero hour for Europe. 

The Brexit experience shows how easily people’s views and beliefs could be polarized and made extreme when subjected to arguments that use half-truths to play with their beliefs and values.  It is not punishment of the UK that is needed now but re-examination of the core values of the European ideal, based on knowledge and with a central role given to culture and cultural relationships.

We should reflect on what happened in Germany in 1945, and learn that citizens will resent well-meaning political visions they have no voice in, regardless of the claims of a better world ahead. History tells us that unity thrives better on the principle: he that is not against me is with me’, because this provides space for tolerance, cooperation, and for intercultural dialogue that promotes mutual understanding and trust.