The EU Referendum: Taking over democracy on the right side? The implicit nationalism of the left case for Brexit

This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.

Our final contributor is Catherine Goetze, Senior Lecturer in Global Studies at the University of Sussex. Catherine is fluent in three languages and has lived and worked in various countries in Europe, America and Asia. Her research focuses on the sociology of global and transnational politics. Catherine’s book, The Distinction of Peace, on the sociology of peacebuilding is forthcoming this summer with the University of Michigan Press. Her publications can be found on her page and she blogs occasionally at

Reinvigorating’ sounds like spring, youth, detox and fun… so, who would not want to participate in ‘reinvigorating democracy’? And yet… the problem with the left-wing case for Brexit is that it remains utterly unclear why such a their proposed renaissance of democracy is predicated on Brexit. Contrary to Lee Jones I believe that of all political crucial moments the referendum of 23 June seems the most unlikely opportunity to re-invent democracy. Whether they like it or not, left-wing Brexiters are in the same boat as nationalists across Europe, and for two reasons. Brexit already bears the enormous risk of strengthening the UK’s and Europe’s nationalist and right-wing forces simply by setting a precedent. More importantly, however, left-wing Brexiters will only reinvigorate nationalism and not democracy because they are unable to identify the acting subject of their political project.

The rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe is real

Left-wing Brexiters haughtily dismiss the risk of Europe’s fascism as betrayal and ‘fear mongering’. Yet, the danger is real: In the Austrian presidential elections the right-wing candidate missed victory by 0.6%. If last year’s regional elections in France had been the first round of presidential elections, Marine Le Pen would have been one of the ‘dual’ candidates of the second round. In Germany, where right-wing nationalist discourses have long been taboo, the ‘Alliance for Germany’ has made a spectacular entry into several federal state parliaments; currently, the same party would receive 11% in federal parliamentary elections, hence becoming ‘king maker’ in parliament. The situation is the same in almost every single European country, from Sweden (13% for Sweden Democrats) and Denmark (21% for Danish People Party) in the North to Hungary (21% for Jobbik) in the East and Greece (7% for Golden Dawn) in the South. Although they didn’t win any seats, UKIP won 12.9% of votes in last year’s parliamentary elections.

The rise of right-wing nationalist parties cannot be easily explained away with conspiracy theories that this all is elite manipulation of masses; on the contrary, it is one response to the same crisis of politics that also generated the loss of confidence in the EU. Such crisis moments are nothing new so a look at historical experience might help explain what is at stake now.

Tragedy and farce of history: Democracy’s unravelling in Weimar

History does not repeat itself, that’s true, yet it is timely to remind democrats in Europe just how much this situation looks like the final years of the Weimar Republic. In the November 1932 elections, the NSDAP became the strongest party with 33.1% yet this alone did not assure Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. Crucially, all those political groupings whose first objective was to disavow established parties and Weimar’s democracy were complicit in his appointment; and that includes, indeed, everyone, even left-wing parties and public intellectuals (Carl von Ossietzky, Karl Kraus, Kurt Tucholsky, Bertolt Brecht, etc). Of course, they were horrified by the Nazis and many were subsequently killed or exiled; nevertheless, it needs to be remembered that in the early 1930s they did little to save the Weimar Republic which they found insufficient in too many ways: inegalitarian, bourgeois and capitalist, too removed from people’s real concerns, corrupt and ridiculously bureaucratic. “Germany is the only country where the lack of political competence is rewarded with the highest offices,” commented Carl von Ossietzky with dismay on elections in the 1920s.

The NSDAP’s rise to power was the final stage of popular disaffection with the Weimar Republic which was mainly due to the dissociation of representative institutions and Germany’s social structures. After the disaster of the First World War, the end of monarchy and the economic turmoil of the 1920s, political parties and social classes did not divide up neatly along party lines. Both sides of the fundamental political question, ‘who gets what?’, were disputed as Germans were desperately seeking Weimar’s demos. Communists asked whether workers were Germans or universal proletarians. Inversely, was the bourgeoisie part of the people or its (international and/or Jewish) enemy? Anti-Semites asked if Jews could be part of ‘us’, and liberal Jews rejected the idea that East-European orthodox Stedtl Jewry would be part of the civilized German nation. ‘Völkisch’ nationalists and historians argued about whether Romanian-speaking Suabians belonged to Germany and if, indeed, language and culture was the decisive criteria, then what about Austrians and Alsatians? Rhinelander Catholics had serious doubts that Protestant Prussian Junkers were really part of the German nation; and the Junkers themselves contended that they were the same kind of Germans as their land labourers…

The end of the Weimar Republic is not a tale of nationalism as external evil force; Nazism was home grown. Yet it was in no way specific to Germany. The Weimar Republic died because those who should have been its subject refused to recognize this democracy as theirs, and everyone did so for their own good reason.

The crisis of politics is not a matter of spatial distance

The contemporary lack (or loss) of confidence in the European Union is symptomatic of a crisis of politics that resembles the Weimar experience. If the EU is singled out as ‘undemocratic’, then not because of its institutions. In fact, constitutionally, the EU offers more opportunities to participate in legislative processes than the UK. What is questioned is the EU’s capacity to ‘truly’ represent the European demos. Brexiters deny this and reclaim their own: ‘we’, ‘I’ or ‘us’ want to decide and make politics, tackle the challenges ahead. They demand to reduce the ‘scale’ and to bring politics close to home (particularly well expressed in the juxtaposed movement words of the leave campaign: ‘Leave! Take back!’). This is Lee Jones’ plea. Its emotiveness, however, eludes the question of who the ‘we’ are. And yet, this is a crucial question: Who is the subject of that reinvigorated democracy?

Lee’s proposal, the national scale, is conveniently agentless. He explains that the national scale ‘is far smaller than the regional scale, local actors have a greater sense of mutual identification, and the structures of representative democracy, however flawed, do exist’. Who local actors are and who they represent, and if this representation is warranted remains obscure. The underlying assumption is that the crisis of representative democracy is simply a matter of spatial distance.

Yet, the crisis of representative democracy is a matter of socio-political, cultural and ideational-identitary distance. The causes for the dissociation of citizens and representation are manifold and by no means reducible to neoliberal governance. Enormous social transformations have dissolved those collective identities and social hierarchies which have shaped the party political structure of European democracies. These social transformations do not only involve the neoliberal dismantling and financialisation of the welfare state and public services, but also the accompanying shift from manufacturing, mining and agriculture to service industries, the introduction of new forms of production and organization, the participation of women in the workforce and the resulting changes in gender roles and families, the rise of ‘alter’ politics like queer or post-colonial politics, changes in education, the heightened mobility of Europe’s and global populations, the inversed age pyramid, the rising awareness and urgency of global environmental problems, and the changed nature of knowledge and communication.

Consequently, nations and social classes are not the ‘self-identifying collectivities marked by a common purpose and some sort of ethos’ anymore (Tormey 2015, 73). Societies have become infinitely more differentiated and ‘intelligible only as the result of aggregation and the overlapping of particularities’ (Rosanvallon 2012, 222). For the nation state the consequence is, as Tormey says, that ‘[…] we are left with an increasingly random assortment of individuals sharing territory, not community’ (op.cit.).

The crisis of representative democracy is, indeed, a crisis of representation in its double sense of delegation of decision-making power and of the interpretation of the citizen’s persona. Citizens more and more often do not wish to delegate their participation but want to act themselves; the tides of large social movements like Attack, the World Social Forums, Occupy or the current Nuit Debout movement in Paris clearly show that complexification, social individualization and political pluralisation have not resulted in apathy.

In the sense of impersonating the citizen, most people find it increasingly difficult to identify with any of the established political parties, politicians and other political organizations like labour unions, whether on local, national or European level. Political identities are not anymore those IKEA flat packs of class politics; rather political identities have become more fluid, diverse, multidimensional and, also, more globalized. Political identities often transcend predefined geographical spaces with citizens engaging in acts of political solidarity with communities in far-away places or addressing problems of transnational scale.

The missing democratic subject of the national scale

Given this complexity, fluidity and globality, who is comprised in the left-wing Brexiters’ ‘national scale’? Is the subject of national scale democracy the ethnic Briton (and then the English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, too? And only the Protestant Irish or alos the Catholic Irish?), the people who live in Great-Britain no matter their original national belonging, only those people who think they belong (how will we know?), or those people who are affected by the political decisions taken whether they reside in Great-Britain or not, those who contribute constructively to the politics of national scale (and then what does that mean)?

The left-wing project of national rescaling needs to answer these questions beyond simply rejecting the EU representational mechanisms. The default option is the UKIP one: the white, English, male, straight, authoritarian tabloid reader (if he reads at all). Not only exactly the kind of citizen who is most unlikely to support a left-wing experiment in reinvigorating democracy.

As Rosanvallon so concisely says: “One of the most important transformations in our societies reside in the fact that the ’mode of production’ of generality has been transformed. Traditional regimes of generality were conceived in a unitary and aggregate sense […] while present-day generality more often has to be understood as rooted in the partial parallelism of singularities” (Rosanvallon 2012, 222). People’s political and social choices are not made in two-dimensional hierarchies anymore but in three-dimensional, variable, movable and multiple spaces that might or might not include the national scale. This makes politics so much more disorderly, erratic, singularized, glocalized and multifaceted. The attractiveness of right-wing parties resides in their capacity to seemingly reduce this multiplicity by replacing it with a simple binary: in or out. They, indeed, rescale complexity to linear two-dimensionality: White vs. Brown, Christian vs. Muslim, Occident vs. Orient, Native vs. Immigrant, and National vs. European. Being defined in opposition to the transnational and globalizing political project of European integration, Lee Jones’ ‘rescaling’ does not look any different.

There is, certainly, much wrong with the EU. Without doubt, there are still many emancipatory struggles to fight in Europe. Clearly, the project of European federalism is ill designed to respond to the crisis of politics. Yet, although the geometrics of politics have changed, these changes do not follow the linear patterns of the old nation-state’s socio-political structures. Although the identity crisis of the EU shows that recalibration of identity and politics is in order, it is not national rescaling that will reinvigorate democracy; particularly not if the rescalers are not able to positively identify the democratic subject. National rescaling can only reinvigorate nationalism, that’s all. So, if we want to re-create spaces for democratic innovation, it is not by ‘rescaling’ the horizon of possible participation(s) that this will happen.

The EU Referendum: “We will burn it all down” – War, Blackmail and the Case for the European Union

This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.

Our next guest contributor to the EU forum is Philip Cunliffe. Philip is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent and editor-in-chief of the journal International Peacekeeping. He is co-editor, with Chris Bickerton and Alex Gourevitch, of Politics Without Sovereignty (UCL Press, 2007), and author of Legions of Peace: UN Peacekeepers from the Global South (Hurst, 2014).  His most recent book, co-edited with Kai Michael Kenkel, is Brazil as a Rising Power: Intervention Norms and the Contestation of Global Order (Routledge, 2016).

It’s often heard that the European Union (EU) is a peace project – an institution engineered to bring peace, prosperity and stability to a war-torn continent that was at the core of global conflict over the last century. This was the animus behind UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on 9 May 2016, in which he claimed that Britain leaving the EU could lead to renewed rivalries, geopolitical tension and ultimately war in Europe. It is one of the most powerful, popular and enduring claims given in defence of the EU and one that drastically raises the political stakes in the debate over Brexit.

Given that this claim comes from our political leaders, it is a remarkably menacing way of eliciting popular support: Vote for us, they seem to be saying, vote for the European Union, or war will be the result ... That political elites could threaten voters so brazenly while implying their own powerlessness to control the course of events at the same time speaks to the strength of popular (mis)conceptions about the origins of conflict in Europe.

A screenshot from "Paxman in Brussels" (BBC), shot in the EU visitors' centre (h/t Ben Pile)

A screenshot from “Paxman in Brussels” (BBC), shot in the EU visitors’ centre (h/t Ben Pile)

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The EU Referendum: Brexit’s Imperial Delusions

This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.

haastrupOur next guest contributor is Toni Haastrup. Toni is Lecturer in International Security and a Deputy Director of the Global Europe Centre at the University of Kent. Her current research focuses on: the gendered dynamics of institutional transformation within regional security institutions especially in Europe and Africa; feminist approaches to IR; and the politics of knowledge production about the subaltern. She is author of Charting Transformation through Security: Contemporary EU-Africa Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and coeditor, with Yong-Soo Eun, of Regionalizing Global Crises (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

One key aspect of the EU referendum debate has been the rise of competing narratives about Britain’s role in the world inside and outside of the EU. On the Brexit side, campaigners argue that escaping the EU would revive Britain’s standing, allowing it to reconfigure relations with Europe, strengthen existing non-European partnerships, and forge new ones. These claims rest on a series of self-delusions about Britain’s capacity to unilaterally set the terms of its international partnerships. Brexiteers willfully ignore those prospective partners who say that a post-Brexit UK would be a less attractive partner. Their narrative seems to rest more on imperial delusions than solid ground – and it is hardly a narrative appropriate for a truly democratic, internationalist country.

A Part of Europe, Apart from the EU: What is Possible?

Pro-Brexit campaigners often suggest that if the UK were to leave the EU, it could fashion a new kind of relationship with Europe similar to the one Norway enjoys. Norway is viewed as a country that has maintained its sovereignty while remaining a close partner of the EU.

But of course, Norway is different. It is a thriving smaller country that is dependent on oil reserves that are much larger than the UK’s. Further, Norway negotiated a very specific entry into the European Economic Association (EEA) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). If the UK was to depart, a relationship with the rest of western Europe especially in the context of EFTA is possible, but it is not automatic. Further, a relationship between the UK and other countries that currently exists only in the context of a regional EU relationship will have to be renegotiated, with no guarantee that the UK will indeed be better off outside the EU.

Those in favour of staying within the EU, or Bremain, thus rightly question this narrative as one that is based on uncertainty and the UK’s self-imagining, rather than the realities of the international environment. The idea that Britain would regain its sovereignty way from the EU is a myth whose consequence even the Norwegians warn against.

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The EU Referendum: Brexit, the Politics of Scale and State Transformation

This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.

The choice facing Britain in the EU referendum is best understood, I suggest, using two concepts that I’ve used a lot in my work with Shahar Hameiri recently: ‘the politics of scale’, and state transformation. In a nutshell: the EU emerged through the rescaling of governance to inter-elite networks insulated – by design – from popular control, which lock in anti-democratic and conservative policies. Restoring popular control has to involve leaving the EU and revitalising national democracy in a progressive, internationalist direction.

In political geography, a ‘scale’ is a defined socio-political space, which is usually located within one or more hierarchies of related spaces. Examples can include tiers of established governance – boroughs, cities, provinces, nations, and regions, for example. They could be defined ethnically or religiously – a parish, the ummah – or even environmentally – habitats, bio-regions or the global environment. What’s fundamentally at stake in the EU referendum is the primary scale at which British citizens should be governed: the national (Brexit) or the regional scale (Bremain). The scale of governance is contested because different scales involve different configurations of actors, resources, power relations and opportunity structures, privileging some interests and agendas over others.

In the post-war decades, the entire Western-led global economic and political order was designed to consolidate the nation-state as a ‘taken-for-granted’ scale and space of governance. Within Western states, a new Fordist-Keynesian bargain was struck between key social forces, brokered by corporatist states: capitalists bought social peace from labour in exchange for steady expansion in wages and living standards. The Bretton Woods settlement supported this by restricting international finance and regulating currencies, which helped states plan their economies. The postwar order thus upheld ‘the primacy of national economies, national welfare states, and national societies managed by national states concerned to unify national territories and reduce uneven development’, as Bob Jessop puts it. Even the early phase of European integration was designed to support national development, thereby securing ‘the European rescue of the nation-state’.

This consolidation of the national scale and its associated institutions afforded unprecedented access to policymaking for organised labour. Moderate trade unions were directly inserted into decision-making forums alongside government bureaucrats and business representatives. Ordinary people could also hold governments to account through democratic practices. In this peak era of state sovereignty, lines of responsibility and accountability were clear.

This all began to change in the 1970s. That decade’s crisis of capitalist profitability eroded the basis of the Fordist-Keynesian social compact, which shattered amidst renewed labour insurgency. The new right’s solution to the crisis was to smash organised labour, deregulate industry and finance, and restore capitalist hegemony on the basis of a neoliberal social order. Scale was a crucial element in this struggle. The quest for nationally-based development was essentially jettisoned in favour of what we now call ‘globalisation’: the transnationalisation of investment, production and consumption. Allowing investment to flow globally – to wherever had the most ‘competitive’ wages and operating environment – was a vital means to erode the power of organised labour.

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The EU Referendum: The EU Mirage

This is the first post in a Disorder forum on the EU referendum. Click here for the forum introduction with the links to the other posts.

Chris BickertonOur first guest author is Christopher J. Bickerton. Chris is University Lecturer in politics at POLIS and an Official Fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge. He has taught at Oxford, the University of Amsterdam and Sciences Po in Paris. He is author of European Union Foreign Policy: From Effectiveness to Functionality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States (Oxford University Press, 2012) and, most recently, The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide (Penguin, 2016). Chris is a regular contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique and The Wall Street Journal, and has written for the Financial Times, New York Times and Foreign Affairs.

 When I am asked to describe the EU, I often say that it is a bit like a mirage. We all know how a mirage works. From far away, the image is clear and strong. As you get closer, it starts to wobble and shimmer until eventually, it disappears.

The EU is like that. Seen from national capitals, from London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Bratislava or Madrid, it looks clear and distinct. It has its own institutions, its own buildings, even its own legal order. It can punish national governments for over-spending and close national banks. But as you get closer to Brussels, this image begins to wobble. Finally, when you are really up close, it disappears altogether.

What is left are our own national leaders – Merkel, Hollande, Renzi, Cameron – taking decisions between themselves in meetings closed to the general public. We also find our own civil servants and fonctionnaires filling the Thalys trains, the TGVs and the Eurostar, travelling from their own capitals to Brussels to take part in working group meetings that craft and shape EU legislation. Some power is delegated to EU institutions but it is closely policed by member states.

Traditional EU institutions, like the European Commission, have lost much of their power in recent decades, with a leading role played by the European Council which is made up of heads of state and government. Even an institution like the European Central Bank, with its shiny new headquarters in Frankfurt, is far weaker than many think. Its new powers were foisted onto it by national governments keen to distance themselves from the responsibility of solving the Eurozone’s economic and financial crisis.

Looking at the EU as a whole, we cannot say that it stands above its member states, dominating them and issuing orders that national governments must comply with. In fact, the EU is these member states. But why doesn’t it look that way? Continue reading

The EU Referendum: A Disorders Forum

In exactly one month, Britain will hold a referendum on its membership of the European Union, its first since 1975. So far, the debate on ‘Brexit’ has been risible, reflecting both the narrowness and myopia of contemporary politics, and the fact that the debate is being ‘led’ on both sides by conservatives lacking any positive vision of the future. Project Fear reigns supreme. Will your shopping be £4.32 more expensive or £3.16 cheaper if we leave? Will leaving the EU make it more or less likely that your granny will be killed by a criminal immigrant? Will leaving the EU send Britain’s ‘booming’ (!) economy into recession, or plunge Europe back into war and chaos?

This is particularly lamentable because the referendum is the most significant political decision that most British citizens will face in their lifetimes. Given the EU’s enormous influence, the referendum’s consequences will vastly outweigh that of any recent general election.


 This Disorder of Things forum tries to raise the tone, offering a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of Brexit and ‘Bremain’. Importantly, on the ‘Brexit’ side, you will not find the usual patriotic bluster of spitfire nationalism, but rather a progressive case for leaving the EU. Indeed, all of our contributors engage with the truly significant political principles at stake: democracy, sovereignty, accountability, peace, security, and freedom.

Our posts will be published daily over the coming week. Links will be added when the posts go live.

Chris Bickerton kicks off the forum by arguing that today’s EU is not a powerful, supranational body but a network of states that have been transformed from ‘nation states’, deriving their authority domestically, into ‘member states’, deriving their authority from transnational, inter-elite relationships. He argues for Brexit to intensify Britain’s ‘crisis of authority’, forcing a change of political direction.

Building on Chris’s work, my own two cents follow. I suggest analysing the EU through the lens of the politics of scale and state transformation. The EU, I suggest, emerged through the rescaling of governance to inter-elite networks insulated – by design – from popular control. Restoring that control has to involve leaving the EU and revitalising national democracy in an internationalist direction.

Next, Toni Haastrup tackles the Brexiteers from a postcolonial perspective. Taking aim at the spitfire nationalism of the Brexit campaign, she argues their suggestion that UK power and influence would be revivsed by Brexit is based on wilful ignorance and delusions of imperial grandeur.

Next, Ana Juncos and Gilberto Algar-Faria argue that the UK’s security interests are best served by staying inside the EU. Brexit would only weaken the EU’s capacity to deal with the very problems that Britain is trying to escape, like irregular migration and the instability created by the Eurozone crisis.

This view is disputed by Philip Cunliffe. He offers a trenchant critique of the claim that the EU has created peace in Europe and weakening the EU will revive conflict. Nationalism and war have been elite-manufactured problems, he maintains, not the result of popular will. ‘Vote remain or return to war’ is simply blackmail from an elite that, even today, just loves warmongering.

Finally, Catherine Goetze responds to the pro-Brexit posts by warning of the dangers of restoring national democracy through a campaign led by right-wing forces. Drawing on historical parallels, she warns that Brexit might strengthen nationalism across Europe, with very negative consequences.