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'EU can no longer cope with its crises'

Interview: Volker Wagener / db
June 25, 2016

Europe must reorganize after the Brexit, Ulrike Guerot tells DW. The political scientist argues the understandably angry British people made their choice.

EU, British flags, Big Ben Copyright: Reuters/N. Hall
Image: Reuters/N. Hall

DW: It's a fact: Britain is out. How could that happen? Whose fault is it?

Ulrike Guerot: It's a bit like in the James Dean film "Rebel Without a Cause." A referendum was promised - a bit frivolously, perhaps for very emotional reasons - to satisfy certain moods in Britain. Nigel Farage and UKIP were delighted to pick up on the issue. And, in the end, this is what happened.

Of course, one has to admit we're dealing with a special country. Somehow Britain was always just a little bit pregnant with Europe: It wasn't a part of Schengen and doesn't share the common currency. In the midst of such indecisiveness, politicians can easily lose control of the political situation - and I believe that's what happened. One also has to say that certain groups, say British industry and the City of London, didn't really put up a fight to stay in the EU.

So was it a gut decision rather than a rational one? Could the Brexit be down to a current mood, a momentary whim?

No, I don't think so. It's more than a whim. It's important to note - and that's often neglected - that basically, the Brexit supporters really are pointing out a weak spot. When Nigel Farage says he wants out of the EU because he has nothing to say there, he's unfortunately right. The problem is that people aren't looking closely enough.

Ulrike Guerot Copyright: Dominik Butzmann
We must reorganize Europe, says Ulrike GuerotImage: Dominik Butzmann

There's this anger in Britain. People are angry that they're being ruled by the EU without being able to do anything about it. It's wrong to portray these citizens as crazy or emotional people who've not understood a thing. It's also wrong of the EU to keep saying "carry on," for instance concerning more integration. That's a cause for tension, and we should really listen closely to what the people have to say. They're not wrong when they say that European democracy, as practiced in the EU, is deficient.

Mainly older people were pro-Brexit, while younger people wanted to stay in the EU. What does that tell us about British society?

British society is split, but it's not alone. Just look at France, Poland, Austria and Germany: these countries are deeply split, too. No one can say that all Polish people are pro-Kaczynski or all Austrians are pro-Hofer. The outcome of the recent Austrian election, in particular, was very close.

The split actually divides the generations. The dynamics are quite similar in other countries, too: older people want to leave, younger people want to stay. But there are also other dynamics if you look at the election result: a division between the city and the countryside. That's very important.

We see that major cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow and, in particular, London voted against the trend - for the most part "Remain" - while rural areas tended to be in the Brexit camp. All of this shows that people who are on the losing side of globalization, who haven't participated in the prosperity of the domestic market, now say: We want to leave.

The EU must reinvent itself, get reorganized - but how?

It's not the EU that must reinvent itself: We must reorganize Europe. Actually, the question is whether it's even possible to reinvent the EU from within. If it were, the EU certainly could and should have done so over the past years.

This crisis is just one of many: the refugee crisis, the Grexit crisis, etc. We've seen for quite some time that the EU as a system is no longer able to cope with these crises, so the question isn't whether there's anything the EU can do but whether we are really prepared to fundamentally rethink the political and democratic reorganization of this continent. I believe that's the task at hand and that's the signal or warning shot the Brexit just gave us.

What country will be next to hold a referendum and leave the EU?

It's a toss-up. The candidates are clear. No one would rule out that similar questions might emerge in Hungary and Poland; that they might hold a referendum, or might even exit. The Czech Republic is certainly a candidate, too.

I just got back from Paris. Currently, politics in France are a great malaise - not just on Le Pen's side but also on the side of a totally split left wing. France also suffers from domestic and euro policies. Of course the proposed solutions have a nationalist bent; unfortunately, that's the trend in France, too. So you never know what kind of a domino effect the Brexit can have.

Ulrike Guerot took over as chair of European Politics and Democracy Research at Donau University in Krems, Austria, in April.

Interview: Volker Wagener / db

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