Brexit is a rejection of globalisation
Larry Elliott – Sunday 26 June 2016 – The Guardian
The EU has failed to protect its population from a global economic model that many believe is not working for them
Does UK’s exit from the European Union mark the resurgence of nation-state?
The age of globalisation began on the day the Berlin Wall came down. From that moment in 1989, the trends evident in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s accelerated: the free movement of capital, people and goods; trickle-down economics; a much diminished role for nation states; and a belief that market forces, now unleashed, were unstoppable.
There has been push back against globalisation over the years. The violent protests seen in Seattle during the World Trade Organisation meeting in December 1999 were the first sign that not everyone saw the move towards untrammelled freedom in a positive light.
One conclusion from the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001 was that it was not only trade and financial markets that had gone global. The collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers seven years later put paid to the idea that the best thing governments could do when confronted with the power of global capital was to get out of the way and let the banks supervise themselves.
Now we have Britain’s rejection of the EU. This was more than a protest against the career opportunities that never knock and the affordable homes that never get built. It was a protest against the economic model that has been in place for the past three decades.
To be sure, not all Britain’s problems are the result of its EU membership. It is not the European commission’s fault that productivity is so weak or that the trains don’t run on time. The deep-seated failings that were there when Britain voted in the referendum last Thursday were still there when the country woke up to the result on Friday.
Evidence of just how unbalanced the economy is will be provided when the latest figures for Britain’s current account are released later this week. These show whether the country’s trade and investment income are in the black or the red. At the last count, in the final three months of 2015, the UK was running a record peacetime deficit of 7% of GDP.
In another sense, however, the EU is culpable. In the shiny new world created when former communist countries were integrated into the global model, Europe was supposed to be big and powerful enough to protect its citizens against the worst excesses of the market. Nation states had previously been the guarantor of full employment and welfare. The controls they imposed on the free movement of capital and people ensured that trade unions could bargain for higher pay without the threat of work being off-shored, or cheaper labour being brought into the country.
In the age of globalisation, the idea was that a more integrated Europe would collectively serve as the bulwark that nation states could no longer provide. Britain, France, Germany or Italy could not individually resist the power of trans-national capital, but the EU potentially could. The way forward was clear. Move on from a single market to a single currency, a single banking system, a single budget and eventually a single political entity.
That dream is now over. As Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform think tank put it: “Brexit is a momentous event in the history of Europe and from now on the narrative will be one of disintegration not integration.”
The reason is obvious. Europe has failed to fulfil the historic role allocated to it. Jobs, living standards and welfare states were all better protected in the heyday of nation states in the 1950s and 1960s than they have been in the age of globalisation. Unemployment across the eurozone is more than 10%. Italy’s economy is barely any bigger now than it was when the euro was created. Greece’s economy has shrunk by almost a third. Austerity has eroded welfare provision. Labour market protections have been stripped away.
Inevitably, there has been a backlash, manifested in the rise of populist parties on the left and right. An increasing number of voters believe there is not much on offer from the current system. They think globalisation has benefited a small privileged elite, but not them. They think it is unfair that they should pay the price for bankers’ failings. They hanker after a return to the security that the nation state provided, even if that means curbs on the core freedoms that underpin globalisation, including the free movement of people.
This has caused great difficulties for Europe’s mainstream parties, but especially those of the centre left. They have been perfectly happy to countenance the idea of curbs on capital movements such as a financial transaction tax, and have no problems with imposing tariffs to prevent the dumping of Chinese steel. They feel uncomfortable, however, with the idea that there should be limits on the free movement of people.
The risk is that if the mainstream parties don’t respond to the demands of their traditional supporters, they will be replaced by populist parties who will. The French Socialist party has effectively lost most of its old blue-collar working class base to the hard left and the hard right, and in the UK there is a danger that the same thing will happen to the Labour party, where Jeremy Corbyn’s laissez-faire approach to immigration is at odds with the views of many voters in the north that supported Ed Miliband in the 2015 general election, but who plumped for Brexit last week.
There are those who argue that globalisation is now like the weather, something we can moan about but not alter. This is a false comparison. The global market economy was created by a set of political decisions in the past and it can be shaped by political decisions taken in the future.
Torsten Bell, the director of the Resolution Foundation thinktank, analysed the voting patterns in the referendum and found that those parts of Britain with the strongest support for Brexit were those that had been poor for a long time. The result was affected by “deeply entrenched national geographical inequality”, he said.
There has been much lazy thinking in the past quarter of a century about globalisation. As Bell notes, it is time to rethink the assumption that a “flexible globalised economy can generate prosperity that is widely shared”.
Self-evidently, large numbers of people across Europe do not believe a flexible, globalised economy is working for them. One response to the Brexit vote from the rest of Europe has been that a tough line should be taken with Britain to show other countries that dissent has consequences. This would only make matters worse. Voters have legitimate grievances about an economic system that has failed them. Punishing Britain will not safeguard the EU. It will hasten its dissolution.