There is an emerging conventional wisdom that the Brexit vote resulted from specific domestic factors in Britain, such as divisions within the ruling Conservative party, the rise of UKIP, strong reaction to increased immigration, all set against the backdrop of globalisation and its adverse effects. The end result was a populist revolt.
British voters have traditionally been amongst the most eurosceptic within the twenty‐eight nations in the EU. Thus, it is easy to blame British voters and/or the British government under David Cameron for the Brexit outcome.
But what if the EU itself played a key role in the creation of the current crisis within the EU?
Why conventional wisdom could be wrong
Although the above factors were certainly very important, it seems unlikely that the immigration issue or, indeed, the effects of globalisation, are the sole causes of this erosion of support for European integration. If there is an EU crisis now, it has been a long time in the making and the main causes of it are probably to be found within the EU's own policy‐making institutions. The EU policy‐making state has run far ahead of what voters at the national level want.
European elites and the EU institutions which they developed (unwittingly) created the seismic conditions for an event such as the Brexit vote.
So, how did the increasing alienation from the EU come about?
The central paradox within the EU
There is a central paradox within the EU, namely that the European elite which runs the EU has introduced some very beneficial public policies, yet that elite has become increasingly out of touch with its peoples.
The case of motor vehicle safety is worth dwelling on as a typical example of this paradox. Motor vehicle safety is a very technical issue, yet is also very important for most citizens. Few would dispute the need for state regulation in this field. Moreover, few would dispute the need for some common international standards for motor vehicle safety, but even very technical legislation (such car regulation) is actually quite coercive in the sense that it is not optional.
After Brexit, most EU law will still be in place but will simply be called UK law. Indeed, it is difficult to envisage British vehicle manufacturers ignoring any future EU safety rules post‐Brexit if they hope to sell cars in the EU.
My argument is not that the EU has passed a lot of bad legislation. My argument is that the EU has constructed a huge superstructure of public policy via a process of Brussels based elite policy‐making which, in the end, has raced well ahead of what European peoples feel comfortable with.
The primary causes of the EU crisis
Task expansion, or the seemingly inexorable expansion of EU public policy by stealth, has lead to the emergence of an increasingly coercive EU.
The EU has acquired for itself the central function of a modern state, namely the power to decide (in considerable detail) a vast range public policies that affect the daily lives of its citizens. The EU has also acquired considerable powers of enforcement. All of the EU's institutions such as European Court of Justice and especially the European Commission have been very adept at task expansion. Similarly, the European Parliament, though of course containing avowed eurosceptics, has essentially been a pro‐integration legislature looking for work.
Finally, there is the role of interest groups in the process of Europeanisation. The close integration of interest groups into Commission deliberations might have had the perverse effect of distancing the Commission from broader public opinion. The Commission has been a very open bureaucracy, ever eager to facilitate interest group access, but interest groups do not equal ‘the public’ as was seen in the UK's referendum.
The so‐called ‘permissive consensus’ which allowed such a productive (and mostly benign) EU policy machine to develop has been greatly eroded.
The totality of the various intra‐EU trends over a very long period has resulted in the creation of a broadly based European elite in favour of a continuous process of integration (‘ever closer union’) – a kind of Brussels ‘groupthink’.
The shift in policy‐making power to Brussels created a vacuum at the national level which new anti‐EU parties have been able to fill.
Time to change?
The EU actually has no option but to do less (probably a lot less) if popular support for the Union is not to decline still further.
To be fair to the EU institutions, particularly the Commission, they some time ago began to recognise that it was time to ease off on the accelerator. But this recognition was much too late.
As one observer put it ‘the EU is good at writing rules: what it needs to do is strengthen the capacity to suspend, ignore, or replace rules that are obviously not working’. I doubt if anyone would seriously object to the EU's legislation on the safety of children in cars, but equally, not many people would support regulating the sale of misshaped bananas.
This issue was seen in the referendum as an example of Boris Johnson's hyperbole, but it was not a figment of his eurosceptic imagination. Regulation EU No1333/2011, issued on 10 December 2011 does, indeed, specify minimum requirements for marketing bananas. For example, bananas must be ‘free from malformation or abnormal curvature of the fingers’.
Thus, there are two good reasons for believing that a different kind of EU might emerge in the coming years. First, it is patently clear to even the most ardent supporter of ‘ever closer union’ that such a policy is going to be an increasingly hard sell to European electorates. Secondly, the fact that voters are becoming mobilised over EU matters might even be a healthy sign.
However, if the EU's institutions were to make this (big) cultural shift, the irony would be that Britain need not have left the EU after all.
Jeremy Richardson is an Emeritus Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, and Adjunct Professor at the National Centre for Research on Europe, the University of Canterbury, NZ.
This article is an edited version of a longer piece in the Political Quarterly journal.
Image by Kevin O'Mara.