What does the Brexit Vote Say about Democracy and the EU?

By Katharine Sarikakis

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.

Mural in Athens, Greece – Photo by K. Sarikakis

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.

In the past five years, however, the picture of Europe has changed dramatically.

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.

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 where 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 promoted the harshest austerity policies against its own citizens, sending large parts of the population into 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 noted that 75% of youth between 18-24 voted “Remain” and 56% of people aged 25-49. 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 tumbling down. Anything worthy of being called “European” is under strain. Over the past four days, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency held its first Fundamental Rights Forum in Vienna. There was an explosion of ideas, goodwill, and energy directed at making good things work, at defending rigorously human rights, at protecting privacy, at providing protection to the vulnerable, at standing tall against racism, sexism, ageism and xenophobia, indeed at standing tall against the very States that stray 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 what 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 what has become, 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 accused of being the source of major misunderstandings and 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, about European concerns, which however become highly nationalized. That would not be an issue if it were not for narratives  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 an interview with me by asking “Eine Griechin in Grossbritannien, von dort nach Oesterreich …..fuehlen Sie sich zerrissen?” (A Greek person in Great Britain, and from there to Austria … do you feel conflicted?” 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, that 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 on 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 them 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.

‘The RCM will redouble its efforts to safeguard its members’ employment rights, the status of the profession and women’s maternity entitlements and protections.

‘We will also be seeking assurances about the position and future of the many valued EU citizens who work in the NHS.’

To contact the RCM Press Office call 020 7312 3456, or email pressofficer@rcm.org.uk.

The RCM is the only trade union and professional association dedicated to serving midwifery and the whole midwifery team. We provide workplace advice and support, professional and clinical guidance and information, and learning opportunities with our broad range of events, conferences and online resources. For more information visit the RCM website at https://www.rcm.org.uk/.

If you would like to share where you were and how you reacted when you heard Brexit had occurred please do so by clicking Comment box at the end of this post.

[1] Sarikakis, K. (2014). Identity and diversity in European media policy: Crisis changes everything(?). In: Donders, K., Pauwels, C., & Loise, J. (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of European Media Policy. Palgrave Macmillan, 576 pages.

[2] p. 87 Sarikakis, K. (2007). Mediating Social Cohesion: Media and Cultural Policy in the European Union and Canada. European Studies. 24: 65-90.

3 thoughts on “What does the Brexit Vote Say about Democracy and the EU?

Add yours

  1. Fresh from my shift in the newsroom that was ending just as the polls closed, I stayed in the office until the first results hit and Farage conceded. Then I rushed home where I manically started refreshing the guardian live blog and results – that were shifting slowly towards brexit, until I dozed off at 5am greek time and woke up to what I think will be a drastically different continent and world.

  2. A beginning of an end is on the rise for the E.U. Nevertheless our European identity will not change after the fall of an ill geopoliticoeconomical partnership of diverse nations. Nothing to fear here.

    I am extatic that I have discovered this extraordinary article.

  3. well, as long as the public (elite) EU – discourse just stresses arguments of economical reasonability (even the brexit is now mostly discussed or lamented on that level), then no wonder that structural changes coming up (migration and so on) are valued as threats of economic welfare. If Europe was (communicated), what it is meant to be: a (comma)unity BECAUSE of diversity, then the migration-issue would have been discussed as a question of distribution of chances, not of quota of burdens.

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