First, members of the Council should not take the public forgranted. In the UK, remainers called the Brexit referendum because they thought that the public was on their side. Leavers are now making the same mistake, assuming that the public will still follow them when Brexit starts to squeeze their pockets and complicate personal lives and professional careers. The public on both sides of the English Channel has little trust in its leaders and it is helplessly divided on major issues. When temperatures rise, few European politicians will be able to count on overwhelming public support. Radicalism will be in vogue.
Second, members of the Council should be aware of the fragility of our democracy. In the UK, the Brexit referendum has not settled political divisions, and the parliament’s effort to spell out the “people’s will” ended in disarray. Decisions taken in the European Council have dubious democratic legitimacy, and many members of the Council will struggle to sell the costs of Brexit to their firms and citizens.
Third, the notion of national and European interests are fuzzy at present. In the UK we have witnessed totally opposing interpretations of national interest, leading to a deadlock. On the other side of the Channel, politicians are trying to fuse national and European interests with mixed public responses. Liberals and illiberal contenders have not only different visions of these interests, but also different visions of self.
Fourth, if Brexit is indeed a manifestation of an ideological conflict, signing the withdrawal agreement in the coming days will settle little in the ongoing struggle about the notion of a good society. Those making the decision on April 10 should keep in mind that we are only at the beginning of the long and painful process of redesigning Europe in institutional, economic and cultural terms. The conservative idea or hope that Brexit will allow Europe to keep things as they are is a dangerous illusion.
Two dubious visions
The problem with the liberal vision of Europe is not so much related to its values. There is nothing wrong with a Europe of open borders, cultural tolerance and individual freedoms. However, these values have been pursued in an opaque way in recent years. Openness, tolerance and freedom benefited those with money and informal access, while leaving large strata of society ignored and disadvantaged. Illegal military interventions and the inhuman treatment of migrants made a mockery of the proclaimed liberal values. Politicians associated with such policies over the past decades can hardly claim to be the guardians of decency, civility and justice.