What does the Brexit vote say about demoracy and EU?

Mural in Athens, Greece
Mural in Athens, Greece

I was woken up by the Guardian’s news alert notification that the UK had voted to leave the EU this morning. It was like waking to a nightmare. At first, a sinking feeling, then a sense of gloom and a switch to the personal “automatic pilot” to get through the morning’s routine, get the kids ready and out of the house. While preparing French toast, Austrian coffee and chocolate milk “produced in the EU”, the conversation gravitated rapidly to The Vote, while the Austrian ORF bilingual English/German language radio FM4 was announcing the news.*



On two iphones, a laptop and an ipad, young and older were trying to make sense of what had just happened. We reacted with German sensitivity – “F@ck! The UK is out!” – to British ‘cool’ – “Well, actually, no, if so, then within the next two years, as per Article 50” – thinking whether actually it was a moment for a cuppa, instead of coffee, before moving on to Greek philosophy – “People are fed up with oligarchs, but listened to demagogues”. Things can be confusing at times. Our trilingual children oscillated between “Is England out of the EU?” to “Mummy, remember Mater, McQueen’s best friend?” to “Scotland voted REMAIN!’ to “Is there no more Europe?” in one sentence. Among the four of us, we have three nationalities, seven passports and speak three languages at home, falling often prey to calling out national stereotypes. The UK was our home for several decades before we moved to Austria.


The signs had been clear, leading with mathematical precision to the 23rd of June 2016. The EU project has been fragile despite being the construct of some of the most financially and politically strong countries in the world. Its fragility derives from the systemic and systematic suspicion of and contempt for a demos-driven Europe, which would have seen higher and more substantial powers to the citizens determining the areas and directions of action the European polity should be taking. For years, identity formation in alignment with “some” European vision has been the core subject of academia and policy, albeit pointing often to misled and ill-conceived understandings – on both sides. Affective identification with “some” sort of Europe was sought after, examined, interrogated and analysed. EU public policy aimed at “making Europe known” to citizens, “helping them understand it” better, “communicating” its institutions and processes and dispelling myths happily constructed by national political and media elites for internal consumption and political gains. These efforts, amalgamated to a programme, which was short-lived yet generated perhaps the highest public visions and narratives of what Europe could be, especially among the youth. “From the 1970s, psephological studies of Euro elections, parties and processes grew. Column inches, ratio and television broadcasts within member states and by members of the European Broadcasting Union were measured. The conclusion was that ‘communicating Europe’ suffered from” lack of coherence; invisibility; lack of intelligibility; lack of common symbols.

But of course, the kind of Europe we (all of us) have envisioned is neither homogenous nor easy


But of course, the kind of Europe we (all of us) have envisioned is neither homogenous nor easy. 

Political and cultural invisibility plagued the EU when it came to its positive aspects, as a chronic condition treated with painkillers. The contribution of the EU towards mainstreaming Human Rights across all countries was a proud moment, as were smaller, but directly felt policies of student exchange, easy border crossing and travel, a sense of political and social rights shared among citizens irrespectively of their country of origin. And the right to vote for European and communal elections in the place where one resides, without being forever cemented by the place of birth or other categorisations of origin were some of the moments one could experience “Europe” and a direct connection to and from the place one lived.


For decades some of us, scholars in European integration and communication studies, have been pointing out that Legitimacy and Political Integration would be the guarantors of a stable and democratic European polity and guarantors of peace in the face of a turbulent and brutal historical memory. We warned that the lack of legitimacy and political integration were precisely the weakest elements of Europe. Our work has been politely listened to, sometimes. Most of the time, it remained discussed among concerned educators, artists, scholars, and some Parliamentarians, while national political elites and other bureaucracies bypassed anything that provided a shred of critique of the side-lining of democratic process. The points made about the impact of the crisis on Europe, culture and citizens are poignant.[1]


Social and political rights, and the richness of cultural life became secondary as soon as the financial stakes of national capital of the strongest market leaders became too high to ignore. Market centrality and financial priorities have been heralded as the panacea for all ills and the promise of a bright future. This same dogma of market ueber alles has led the normative framework within which the EU has drawn the harshest austerity policies against its own citizens, sending large parts of the population to a state of financial emergency, poverty, exclusion and victimisation. In crisis, the first victims soon were Europe’s poorest people, state support for health, education, culture, and ultimately democracy itself.


The European Union is in dire need of broader and more substantive legitimacy with regard to its decision-making mechanisms, being concerned with the unspoken imbalance of power of bigger and “central” countries in the polity and in protecting social rights. Despite legislative mechanisms to counter-act the form of Darwinian political relations and economic system, such as the Veto in the Council of Ministers or the co-legislation procedure of the European Parliament and Council, and the Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and policies of social cohesion across the continent, it took one global crisis for the true colours of Europeanism to emerge through the arbitrary governance mechanisms of the European Central Bank, the Eurogroup and the Commission. It took one shot at disregard of European citizens and their livelihoods, unpopular and antisocial policies, for a spiral of descent into para-state violence, right wing extremism, xenophobia and poverty to raise their ugly heads and claim political space across EU countries.


Increasingly, a sustained disconnect of citizens to national and European institutions has been taking place. Yet, and despite this disconnect, it is remarkable that more people say they feel European, than not according to Eurostat. In the UK referendum YouGov published that 75% of youth between 18-24 voted “Remain” and 56% of 25-49 years old. This means two things: a. that despite the EU’s failures on the economic and democratic front, young people feel an affiliation to the EU as their natural extended home and field of action and b. these generations that have lived and experienced what it means to be European, not as a perfect or at times even desired politics of supranational governance, have seen the ways in which it helps them expand their thinking and everyone’s horizons by “connecting to their neighbours”.


But of course, the kind of Europe we (all of us) have envisioned is neither homogenous nor easy. These values, our democratic systems, our projects of education, wealth and solidarity are trembling down. Anything worthy to be called “European” is under strain. In the past four days, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency held its first Fundamental Rights Forum in Vienna. An explosion of ideas, goodwill, and energy to make good things work, to defend rigorously human rights, to protect privacy, to provide protection to the vulnerable, to stand tall against racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, to stand tall, indeed, against the very States that lose their way from democratic governance. I was a proud participant, yet it was all too clear that among the 700 participants, the sense of urgency was heavy in the rooms and the digital communications.  Europe, it seems, is becoming something less than a humanistic undertaking, a big part of the vision of Europe “shall” be has been at odds with political elites and the wave of right wing extremism that is sweeping the continent, steadily and, worryingly, almost without serious resistance. The story of what was hoped for and was became, lingers on since the 1950s and 1960s. “A striking mismatch between what the public expected the EC to do and what its actual constitutional powers were became evident. This gap was seen to be one of several causes for public disinterest in and/or disappointment with the EC.”


The media have been named as the source of major misunderstandings, lack of accurate information, of siding too much and for too long with the elites, of not being European enough, of sticking to nationalist and provincial worldviews, of constructing enemies, first certain parts of Europe in crisis, then the refugees, then “Brussels”. Scholars have wondered whether there will ever be a “genuine” European public sphere, whether there is one, whether a Europeanised national public sphere is what we can best hope for, whether we can point at any genuine public sphere at all.  Since 2008, we have seen that all the above is true, one at a time or at the same time. The public sphere generated is about Europe, on European concerns, which however become highly nationalized. That would not be an issue, if it were not for narratives as generated exclusively by political and economic elites, bypassing and at times actively silencing other narratives.


Almost ten years ago, back in 2007, I wrote:

“Indeed, the challenges facing today’s enlarged Europe are twofold: they concern inasmuch its own constitutional sustenance as the constitution of its identity and that appropriated by its peoples on one level. On another level, questions of cultural pluralism within nation-states, and of contested national identity make the relationship between the citizen, the nation ‘unit’ and the polity significantly more complex than any policy has acknowledged. Moreover, the tensions between individualistic approaches, through an overall policy agenda that bears the symptoms of market-culture, and the aims for social cohesion through diversity, multi/cosmopolitanism, recognition of hitherto ‘non-belonging’ social groups and minimum material wealth defeat the proclaimed aim.”[2]


When I first arrived in Vienna, a radio journalist opened his interview with me asking “Eine Griechin in Grossbritannien, von dort nach Oesterreich …..fuehlen Sie sich zerrissen?” I thought, what a funny way to look at things. I said “Of course not, I am a European”. I was convinced then, and I am convinced today, I am, we are, Europeans, how can we be anything else? Our fates are interwoven, our histories, ugly and devastating, powerful lessons, our values of solidarity and liberties something to brag about, our uncomfortable struggles to be more inclusive, more cosmopolitan, more humanist.


At the time of writing Universities and Public Organisations are issuing statements how they intend to deal with the referendum outcome. They all pledge their belief in and care for the international staff, students, colleagues, collaborators, teachers, clients who make those some of the greatest British and European institutions. Indicatively, below, we publish the announcement made by the Royal College of Midwives. They, midwives, were crucial in making sure my children, British citizens, came to the world healthy and safe. It is these organisations that make the European dream of humanity and solidarity, real, closer to citizens irrespective of colour, origins, accent and economic ability.



Royal College of Midwives statement on the outcome of the referendum on membership of the EU

‘The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) is digesting the implications of the result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.

‘The RCM is disappointed that the outcome of the referendum is a vote to leave the EU, although of course we respect the outcome of this democratic process.

‘During the referendum campaign, the RCM supported a vote to remain in the UK on the basis that this would be the best way to secure important maternity entitlements for pregnant women, legal protections for the midwifery profession, and employment rights for midwives and maternity support workers that were all benefits of EU membership.

‘The vote is likely to result in a period of considerable uncertainty for the UK. Whilst it will be some time before the full economic, political and social implications become clear, the impact that this will have on public finances and the funding of the NHS remains of concern to the RCM.



* Republication

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