The real Brexit battle was democracy v realpolitik

Letters
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA</span>
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Vernon Bogdanor (Brexit was no aberration. The European Union needs to learn from it, 25 October) argues that the EU risks arousing resistance if it seems to challenge national identity. As examples of this risk, he cites EU policies for debt sharing, budgetary restrictions and migrant quotas. So where does he stand on basic democratic principles, such as the independence of the judiciary and a free and diverse media? Should the EU start enforcing its rules on these matters, or would that endanger its cohesion by seeming to challenge national identity?

Any discussion of the limits of the EU’s role surely has to address the single most urgent threat to the EU’s cohesion – the rise of rightwing populism and its capture of some governments. So far, the EU has shrunk from responding. Is that a prudent respect for its members’ sovereignty, or a lamentable failure of nerve? In saying nothing about that crucial dilemma, isn’t Prof Bogdanor ignoring the elephant in the room?
Godfrey Stadlen
London

• Vernon Bogdanor raises important points. Another way in which Brexit wasn’t just a British problem revolves around how it highlights the realpolitik v democracy dilemma. What to do (other than hand-wringing) to reconcile the realpolitik interests of individual EU members with the perceived interests of those members as expressed by their electorates through the democratic process?

If we could for a moment posit the idea that Brexit could damage – perhaps fatally – Britain’s long-term interests, and if at the same time we confront the reality that Brexit was decided through an entirely proper democratic process, how do we resolve the resulting dilemma? Do we respect a democratic outcome in the full knowledge (or belief) that Britain will sustain long-term economic, political and international damage? Or do we pursue all legal means possible to disrupt and subvert the Brexit process in the full knowledge that Britain’s long-cherished democratic traditions and culture would then be fatally undermined? This is a dilemma that many other EU members may face in the future.
Iradj Bagherzade
London

• I was surprised by Vernon Bogdanor’s article. Pots and kettles come to mind. Is it really appropriate for us Brits to be telling the EU how to manage its affairs now, just as we leave the EU? We should instead consider our own pressing issues of governance: the prospects for a more federal or devolved post-Brexit Britain; mayors and national politics; regulation and the rule of law; spads in Whitehall … our national repair list goes on and on.
Prof Anne Deighton
University of Oxford

• Vernon Bogdanor’s article misses the point. Brexit was, and is, about British exceptionalism, not the need for EU reform. He might note that no other EU state has tried to leave the union or shown any sign of doing so. By contrast, Croatia has joined, and others are interested in doing so.

British exceptionalism resulted in a refusal to join the then European Economic Community in the 1950s, and then in an abrupt volte-face in 1961 (after the setting up of European Free Trade Association failed to sabotage the EEC). Britain was a turbulent and unsatisfactory partner, because it never came to terms with the derogation of sovereignty needed. Yet the Brexit suggestion that somehow Britain had lost its independence is patently absurd. Have ancient nation states like France, Holland, Spain and Italy lost their independence?

Angela Merkel was merely stating the obvious about the healthy tension between governments and the supranational institutions in Brussels. Referendums in France and Ireland reflected dissatisfaction with governments rather than the EU. And even in the UK, the polls showed the EU to be way down the list of priorities. The electorate was deceived by lies about Turkey and the NHS. Prof Bogdanor should turn his learned searchlight on the many problems Brexit has created for us.
Dr Peter Neville
Cambridge

• I normally find much to agree with in Vernon Bogdanor’s contributions to the UK’s never-ending debate about the European project. But his latest contribution disappoints. His suggestion that “Brexit poses questions for the EU as well as for Britain” is incontestable. The chill blast from across the Atlantic has swept across the continent too. “The ideology of Europe”, which he tells us is under challenge, is set out at the beginning of the EU treaty: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities ... a society in which pluralism, non discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between men and women prevail.” These values are indeed challenged in Europe today, and not only in the UK.

I cannot, however, share Bogdanor’s conclusion that “supranationalism is now a threat to the fulfilment of the European ideal”. It is this very supranationalism, in the spirit of Walter Hallstein, Roy Jenkins, Jacques Delors and others, knitting the peoples of Europe ever closer together, which is defending the ideals set out in the treaty. It is a recognition that unless we strive constantly as citizens of everywhere to defend universal human values then, in Robert Kagan’s words, “the jungle grows back”.

I had the honour of serving in the European parliament during 15 years of hope, expectation and progress, and then five years of trying to weather the latest storm. In Brexit it washed away one clod of the main. It may be survived without further loss if its proponents follow John Donne’s advice to remain “involved in mankind”.
Graham Watson
Liberal Democrat MEP, 1994-2014

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