Whatever the result of the Brexit referendum, of one thing we can be sure: Britain will neither be invaded by marauding Turks, as anti-EU campaigners suggest might happen if the country votes ‘Yes’, nor will Western civilisation collapse, as European Union President Donald Tusk fears, after a ‘No’ vote.
There will undoubtedly be economic and political turbulence, but Britain will not fall into the abyss. Neither, though, will the key issues at the heart of the Brexit debate have been resolved.
Hostility towards the EU – not just in Britain, but throughout Europe – has been driven by frustrations about democracy and resentment about immigration.
The Remain (pro-EU) campaign, recognising that it has few answers, has largely avoided both issues, focusing almost entirely on economic arguments. Leave (anti-EU) campaigners have been equally opportunistic in the way they have addressed questions of democracy and immigration.
Many EU supporters dismiss the charge that the EU is undemocratic, pointing to the existence of the European parliament whose members are elected by all EU citizens. This is not only to overstate the influence of MEPs on EU policymaking; it is also to miss the point about popular resentment.
The reason people see the EU as undemocratic is not because they don’t think they can vote in European elections. It is because despite their vote, they feel that they have little say in the major decisions that shape their lives.
Other EU supporters argue that without such an elitist institution it would be impossible to respond effectively to major crises such as climate change or global recession.
This at least has the merit of being honest, acknowledging that the value of the EU lies in its ability to bypass democratic process in the name of the greater good. The trouble is, whenever the EU has faced a major crisis, its response has rarely enhanced the common good.
Take the migration crisis: After months of political paralysis, the EU eventually responded - by absolving itself of responsibility. It stitched together a series of deals with non-EU countries such as Turkey and Sudan, promising them huge sums of money for detaining potential migrants to the EU.
The EU’s consistent failure in the face of crises is not because it is shackled by the democratic process – as some suggest – but because it lacks a democratic mandate for its decisions, and so is often politically paralysed.
But while the EU is an undemocratic institution, leaving the EU would not, in itself, bridge the democratic deficit.
Today, there exists a much more profound disenchantment with mainstream political institutions, a disenchantment that is evident at national as well as at European level, and which, throughout Europe, has led to an upsurge in support for populist parties.
The background to this disenchantment is the narrowing of the ideological divides that once characterised politics.
One way in which people have felt this change is as a crisis of political representation, as a growing sense of being denied a voice. Brexit may restore a greater degree of sovereignty, but it will not address this deeper anger.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Beyond the Brexit debate’.