Months of procrastination on the part of the British political class finally came to an end on March 29th with the triggering of Article 50. It may seem redundant, if not outright pompous, to say Brexit could have been prevented nearly a year after the referendum was held. Much of the analysis making such claims is hampered by an ahistorical perspective that overlooks how much a long tradition of criticism of Brussels coming from both left and right has coloured British politics since the 1970s.
However, Brexit demonstrated in drastic fashion how badly Brussels and the British political establishment had failed to learn from referenda and policy failures in the past. Had they studied the experience of both the first referendums on the Nice and Lisbon treaties in Ireland, the first tremors of a distrust of politicians, misinformation as to why the EU matters and concern with national identity which are widely accredited as having led to Brexit, could have been felt. Instead, both the European Union and Britain’s political class are left with a diplomatic and logistic problem for which they can only blame themselves for having ignored or dismissed whatever democratic rejections of their mandate did occur for so long.
The Irish public voted against the Treaty of Nice in 2001 by 53.87% on a 34.7% turnout. It was a campaign notable for the singular lack of enthusiasm it inspired amongst Ireland’s political class or electorate. Unusually, no major political party canvassed on its behalf with any great vigour, and not even the 50.3% who’d felt strongly enough about Europe to vote in the 1999 European Parliament elections saw fit to vote in the referendum despite the drastic changes which the admission of the former Eastern Bloc countries would go on to have across Irish life in the years to come (for example, Polish was effectively the second most spoken language in Ireland by 2008).
Undaunted by their initial failure, the Irish government reran the referendum to a 62.89% win on a 49.47% turnout. Ireland was the sole EU country to place the Treaty before the public. This was, and remains, a constitutional obligation which the political class clearly disdained and were willing to ignore, but it nevertheless provided a unique set of circumstances which could have given Brussels a perspective on how electorates were responding to their agenda.
The Nice experience was repeated come the Lisbon Treaty referendum in 2008. 53.4% of the Irish general public voted against Lisbon in June 2008 on a 53.13% turnout. Again, this verdict was met with an invitation to reconsider that culminated in a rerun in which it was accepted by 67.13% of the electorate on a 59% turnout. However, an Irish Times poll of those who had voted against it in its first incarnation listed three key factors which anticipated those most commonly cited as having led to Brexit. The most commonly cited factor was that 40% of “No” voters polled claimed it was because they didn’t know what they were voting for, a further 20% did so to preserve Irish identity. 17% did so from a general distrust of politicians.
Whilst none of these issues sufficiently worried the Irish government enough for it to question the nature of their relationship or participation in the European Union, they should have given the EU pause for thought. Had the factors cited in this poll been considered alongside the result of the first referendum (and a wave of disengagement and distrust in the EU), perhaps Brussels could have reconsidered just how engaged vast swathes of the European electorate truly were, and whether a change in direction was needed to better make the integration of Europe succeed in the long-term rather than continue the headlong rush towards greater integration and a legally enshrined neo-liberalism.
None of this was to occur. Instead, the EU proceeded through deeply controversial bailout programmes and a number of major policy disasters leading to the direct imposition of austerity and privatisation upon the public of several European countries. That these frequently unpopular actions were enabled by powers granted to the European Union by the Maastricht, the Nice and Lisbon treaties only consolidated the appeal of Eurosceptics and populists both left and right who had opposed Brussels throughout.
Regardless of the merits of their frequently vague arguments or nonsensical claims about the powers which Brussels actually had, or the best means of reforming them, a lack of public engagement with Europe was indisputably seen from the often staggeringly low turnouts for EU Parliament elections. That Ireland had been unique in requiring a public barometer for the EU treaties which conferred such power upon it should have made it an object of intense scrutiny as to what public feeling on the EU was. But the “No” votes were quickly forgotten.
The Brexit vote can thus be read as the biggest test the EU has ever faced of its own popularity – with the binary nature of the choice on offer far more severe than the simple rejection of a treaty or policy offered to the public in Ireland prior. Whilst it would be overly simplistic, inaccurate and misleading to overemphasise parallels between Brexit and the Irish case, there existed decades of anger at both the British political class and Brussels, alongside a feeling amongst Leave supporters that there was a lack of democratic participation in European affairs – crudely but succinctly put in the Leave slogans “Take Our Country Back” and “Our Independence Day.”
The Irish solution of simply repeating the experiment in the hope of getting a different result was never going to happen in the absence of any real change of heart amongst the electorate afterwards, with recent polls consistently showing little real change in the margins supporting Leave since the vote took place.
It’s tempting to look for easy explanations, and the above is but a small part of why Brexit happened. However, Brussels was relieved of the duty of having to consider the full significance of what the unique circumstances of the Irish “No” votes said about public feeling towards the EU and its project by the Irish government’s willingness to ignore public feeling. Perhaps had they considered them more closely European integration could have been handled with greater consideration and more concern for winning public support.
What the last decade of European policy towards integration has instead led to is the year of Brexit, a career peak for the likes of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and the deplorable rise of Marine Le Pen. Brussels has only itself to blame for enabling such types through negligence for too long.