Brexit: a matter of identity politics?

Brexit: a matter of identity politics?

Although European leaders plan to relaunch European integration in the post-Brexit era, the European discourse over the Irish border shows that economic rhetoric prevails over political discourse. This brings us back to the ever-existing contradiction between the EU’s rhetorical objectives and its material interests.

Since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union over a year ago, the future of the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland has been on top of Brexit negotiators’ agenda. The current setup of the Irish border has come in the form of an Agreement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the aftermath of prolonged tensions and violence over the last fifty years. Ever since, the border has been key in striking the delicate balance between the necessity to keep economic cooperation in place and draw a boundary between different identities and political sensitivities across the Celtic island.

Brexit put this delicate order in question. Whereas, in fact, the current border is the invisible result of a political agreement between two member states, Brexit has given it EU-wide relevance, since the Irish border will become a border for the EU as a whole. As the specific setup of the new border is yet to be determined, some interesting observations can be made about how this issue is being looked at across the Old Continent by European elites.

In the eyes of the EU bubble, the Irish border is problematic from two main points of view, as the Commission’s position paper on the Irish border negotiation points out. Firstly, the Irish border is mainly framed as a new trade barrier with the United Kingdom. As the latter may even decide to leave the EU internal market, the Irish border will be key in ensuring that products entering from an external border comply with EU rules. Hence, to EU negotiators, the Irish border is relevant to the extent that it will inevitably determine the future of EU-UK economic relations. Secondly, as the Brexit opposition parties have stressed throughout the Referendum campaign, Brexit is seen as endangering the peace process achieved after the Good Friday Agreement, since it entails a change in the type of cooperation established between the Republic of Ireland and the UK. Consequently, the Irish border is also seen as relevant to Ireland’s internal peace and indirectly to the EU’s one.

European personalities thus look at the Irish issue as one concerning trade and economic relations with the UK and internal peace for Ireland. These are obviously fundamental to the dissolving of the many questions risen after the Brexit vote. It is, however, striking to see that, among what has been written and said, little or no emphasis whatsoever has been given to its political relevance for the Union as a whole. Such political significance is in fact great, for the simple reason that the whole Brexit campaign was won over the questioning of the EU’s core values, such as openness and mutual cooperation. “When people stand up and talk about the great success that the EU has been, I’m not sure anybody saying it really believes it themselves anymore”, Farage stated vigorously days before the Referendum.

On citizens’ side, a survey by the British National Centre for Social Research has shown that those who considered immigration as a problem overwhelmingly voted in favor of Leaving the European Union. More generally speaking, the same survey has identified a strong correlation between nationalistic sentiments and voting choice on the occasion on June 26th 2016. In other words, the choice for Brexit was also the result of a fundamental unhappiness concerning the very basics of the EU Project. In this context, the EU should have kept this in mind while negotiating key agenda points as the Irish border itself.

Regrettably, however, current negotiations are almost solely focusing on the economic consequences of Brexit. While different proposals are put forward as to what the Irish border will look like, the EU negotiating team seems to have failed to take political ownership over the issue.  And this has become significant to the extent that borders are per definition elements that define identities and values.

Yet, such deficiency did not prevent EU leaders from enthusiastically framing Brexit as an opportunity “to prevent internal conflict among its member states from spreading to Europe”, as MEP David Sassoli puts it. Seemingly, after the first two static negotiation rounds, Juncker’s State of the Union speech was an occasion to re-state that integration is ready to kick start again between the remaining European Member States. Even more vigorously, Guy Verhofstadt hoped, along the same lines, that “in no bloody way” German elections would lead to similar results to Brexit. While such speeches were held, the future of EU-UK relations was being addressed from an exclusively economic standpoint.

Any strong restatement of the European identity should, however, also shape the current negotiations over the Irish border. But this has not been the case so far.

Ultimately, the contradiction between the will to relaunch integration and the prominently economic discourse around the Irish border brings us back to the core question about the European project. Is Europe a Political or an Economic entity? What objectives will integration pursue for the next fifty years? Although the main rhetoric may suggest that political integration is on the way to being achieved, the more specific discourse over the Irish border, one with great political potential, seems to suggest the contrary.

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