Exit and Voice in Europe

As a result of the narrow victory, 51.8 per cent to 48.11 per cent, at the referendum on June 23, 2016 for the UK to leave membership of the European Union the British system is in internal political turmoil and uncertain about future relationships with the EU. Unexpectedly complicated political and constitutional questions have arisen, while problems of the nature of relations with the EU and the possibility of the dissolution of the UK by Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving is troubling.    

Britain has to resolve a host of political and legal problems. Who is supposed to trigger Article 50 of Lisbon Treaty that allows a country to withdraw from the EU “in accordance with constitutional arrangements?” Does it need approval by a vote of Parliament or by decision, “prerogative power,” of the prime minister? Does the UK have to amend or repeal the 1972 European Communities Act by which it joined the European institutions? Does EU law have priority over British law? Finally, is the Brexit vote, expressing the will of the British people, only advisory in character?

Whatever the answer to these complicate issues, the Brexit vote has already had a political as well as economic impact on the EU. Indeed, the very existence of the EU is now threatened as a result of developments as Brexit may have a domino effect.

The EU may not be the only symbol of public alienation in Europe, but it is certainly not admired by large numbers of European citizens. According to a recent survey, nearly half of the voters in eight EU countries, including France, Germany, and Italy, want a referendum on whether their country should remain a member of the EU.

Critics, ideologically diverse and present in all political parties, are vocal on five main issues: the lack of democratic input and of accountability in the working of the EU with its bureaucratic institutions that reduce its legitimacy for citizens; the fear of or imagined loss of national sovereignty with the increasing transfer of decision making to the EU and its laws and rules that take prominence over national laws (in this respect the EU has gone far beyond its original operative of a single open marker and the maintenance of peace); the results of the economic free market and liberalization that has handicapped some countries; the cost of financial transfers from some countries to those in economic crisis; and above all the issue of migration and the increase in the EU countries in the number of members of ethnic and religious groups, especially followers of Islam.  

In his well-known book, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Albert O. Hirschman posited two possible responses to the dissatisfaction with an organization: exit or withdrawal from it: or attempt to reform it or propose changes.

Exit is displayed by political groups in a number of European countries opposed to the very existence of EU, or to the Eurozone, or to the free movement within EU. Others, in milder fashion, voice changes in specific policies, or call for reform of policies and institutions, and do not accept the ideas of an ever-closer union, the creation of a federal Europe or a United States of Europe. French President Charles de Gaulle had once expressed this view as “Europe des patries,” a grouping of individual sovereign states cooperating in various ways.

Prominent in the first group, those who want exit, are the UKIP in Britain, the Netherland Party for Freedom under Geert Wilders, the French National Front under Marine Le Pen, the Northern League led by Mateo Salvini in Italy, the Danish People’s Party under Kristian Dahl, the Freedom Party in Austria led by Norbert Hofer who got 49.7 per cent in the runoff election of May 22, 2016 and may become president of the country in a repeat of the runoff because of irregularities in voting districts.

Those who express voice for change are usually in far left and moderate right-wing groups. Among them are the divided British Conservative Party, the Alternative for Germany, Podemos in Spain, and the Law and Justice party in Poland.

Although there are other issues, immigration is the key factor. In 2015 there were 34.3 million people born outside the EU living in a EU state while there were 18.5 million who had been born in a different EU state from which they were presently residing. In the EU 19.8 million were citizens of non-EU countries, 4 per cent of the EU population. 

The largest number of non-nationals are in Germany, 7.5 million, in the UK, 5.4 million, in Italy, 5 million, and in France 4.4 million. In 2014, 1.9 million entered EU from non-member countries, while 1.8 million previously residing in one EU state migrated to another state. The average of those who entered, 53 % of who were men, was more than 14 years younger than the average of the population into which they entered.

The dominant impact of Brexit is shown by the immediate announcement of the Hungarian government led by Viktor Orban that the country will hold a referendum on October 2, 2016 on the EU plan to deal with the migrant crisis, opposed by a number of countries. This particular Hungarian vote may be followed by another vote, one on membership of EU.   

Hungary, as well as Slovakia, has legally challenged the EU plan of a quota system to relocate immigrants, some 160,000 among the 28 EU states, a plan intended to ease pressure on Greece and Italy, the main points of entry into Europe. To this, the EU adds a proposal to take refugees directly from the Middle East and Africa.

Hungary makes arguments that other countries are likely to follow. The EU has no right to change the cultural and religious identity of Europe. Nor should it prescribe settlement of non-Hungarians in the country without the consent of the Hungarian parliament. Hungary objects to the relocation plan for two reasons: it violates the national sovereignty of the country, and it may well allow terrorists to enter the country disguised as migrants.

Free movement of people within the EU has broken down. Hungary has taken no migrants in 2016, though it was allotted 1,294 by the EU plan. More than 400,000 passed through the country on their way to the more prosperous northern parts of Europe before in September 2015 Hungary sealed its southern border with Serbia and Croatia using razor wire fences. Its police arrest those who entered the country illegally. It has already doubled the number of its troops patrolling the southern border. In all this it has been successful. Before the fence was built daily migrants averaged 275, now they have dropped to a very small number.  

The American political system is presently understandingly preoccupied with the issue of whether the use by Hillary Clinton of a private email service for official U.S. Government business violated official policy and put the security of the country in jeopardy. Important as is this issue of mishandling of information, the issue of immigration remains a crucial one for the American public.