Making Sense of Britain's EU Referendum

People in Britain will vote tomorrow in a referendum on whether to exit the European Union. Whatever the outcome, it would be a historical decision: If Britain votes to leave, it would not only challenge the European Union, but will be one major political step in transforming the post-War global system; if it decides to stay, it would create a different dynamic in the EU and its future expansion, and in effect, transform the post-war system in a different way. However, though it is an event poised with meaning and significance, little substantiative debate on this has happened so far.

Indeed, I am writing this the morning after BBC-hosted big debate, where the cases for Remain and Leave campaigns were laid out by some of the leading figures, and an event that was eagerly watched around the country. However, the debate remained, as it was so far, too centred around personalities and their ambitions and prospects, a celebrity thing! The Leave side focused on 'Taking Back Control', repeating the expression in every sentence as if to brainwash the audience; the Remain side focused on how uncertain the promises that the Leave side are making, and made its own case, following a strategy that worked in the last Scottish referendum on Independence, on Expert opinions on one hand and the prospect of economic uncertainties on the other. But, among the rhetoric and the spin, no one wanted to discuss why this referendum is perhaps inevitable and that it embodies.

Such oversight is perhaps intended. There is no brownie point in making sense in the heat of a campaign. Both sides are playing by carefully planned campaign playbooks, playing on emotions and fears, tickling our desire for stimulation and safety, trying to win our votes tomorrow. With lots of money on stake, the issue for both sides is indeed 'control', another word for power, and the byline, who gets to be the Prime Minister, is not just the byline, it may indeed be the main story. 

However, it is important to try to make sense of this debate: For me, as a voter, this has wide significance well beyond tomorrow. The sky will not fall apart on Friday morning if the Leave side wins; neither life will get any better if they do. But, the assumptions we lived by so far will change, and the future will be quite different from what we thought it would be. It is important to understand, therefore, what this debate is about, raising our head above the details of pennies and pounds as well as the fears of nameless Syrian kids taking over Britain.

At the heart of this debate is the Globalization Paradox: That democracy, nation state and global markets can not coexist. Formulated by Harvard economist, Dani Rodrik, this trillemma represents one of the most fundamental problems in our societies - the three things that are projected as the most desirable can not live together. Britain, since 1980s, prospered by transforming, successfully as it appears, into an open global economy, aided by the European integration no less, and hence, its strong democratic traditions and nation state feelings have come to a head. This is somewhat inevitable, and every major nation is facing these challenges: The United States has its Trump, for example! However, in the debate about the referendum, this issue appeared in a muddled form. The Leave campaign made 'Democracy' the centre-piece of their campaign, though the issue they are campaigning for is a Nation State 1930s style and not democracy (that Britain is voting on the issue means democracy is not dead). However, the Remain side do not want to talk about this - at least not directly - as they feared that they can not win the argument against Nationalism. 

The point is, of course, that is what this debate has become. And, this made Remain side falter somewhat: This has become Nationalism versus Internationalism, an unwinnable debate somewhat, particularly with a country squeezed in the middle of shift of economic powers and a disappearing welfare state. But the implications of losing this debate is significant: However odious the UKIP posters may look (a direct invocation of Nazi iconography), that is what nationalism looks like. The Post-War system, which was created on the twin basis of economic nationalism (the Bretton Woods system) and Political Cooperation (UN and other organisations), was being dismantled for a while, with WTO and other trade deals like TPP, unmaking its economic aspect and making global capital possible and potent. The 'Brexit' debate is one of the first assault on its political edifice, on a significant post-war organisation from a major country. This, and as other things will follow (like a Trump win, perhaps), may set the process back to what it was - Global Capital with Nation States - something that gave us, among other things, two World Wars of the Twentieth Century.


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