Sunday, 1 October 2017

Answering for Verhofstadt

The European Parliament's Brexit lead, Guy Verhofstadt, gave a talk at the London School of Economics on 28 September, on the future of Europe after Brexit. In the Q&A afterwards I asked him a question that he said was an "excellent" one he would return to later. He never did.

The question I asked was whether there was not a contradiction in the talk he'd just given: he'd said that the 48% of people who voted Remain in the Brexit referendum were "too large a minority to ignore", and then set out his vision of a deeper, more united future EU. I asked him how he could back the views of the Remain 48% while his vision seemingly ignores the views of, say, the 46.2% of Austrians who voted for the euro-sceptic Norbert Hofer in that country's 2016 presidential election. I also asked whether a more flexible, multi-speed EU might not be more democratic, given the breadth of opinion, and more robust to the ebb and flow of nationalism.

I would have been very interested to hear Verhofstadt's thoughts on this. But in lieu of his, here are mine.

It's not necessarily hypocritical to want to back the views of one minority but not another. Or rather, one could seek to back the views of every minority, but reluctantly decide one can't in a given case if doing so would be more damaging overall.

In the case of the Remain 48%, there's good reason for thinking that taking their views into account would actually better represent the desires of the biggest chunk of voters. The Brexit referendum was poorly designed, and told us nothing about the type of Brexit that Leave voters wanted. But we have good evidence from surveys to think that a majority of voters would like to remain in the single market, for example - a closer future relationship with the EU than the government is set to deliver.

I don't know much about the Austrian presidential election, but for argument's sake let's imagine that every one of the pro-Hofer voters would have settled for nothing less than Austria leaving the EU. In that case, backing their views would be less representative overall, since a majority of people voted for the pro-EU van der Bellen.

The alternative explanation is that Verhofstadt backs the Remain 48% and not the Hofer 46% simply because he thinks he knows what's best for everyone, and that the Remain 48% are right while the Hofer 46% are wrong. That might not be a stance he would be keen to admit to taking. If asked about it, he might dodge the question.

(It's interesting to contrast that hypothetical with the known stance of Theresa May, who is backing the most extreme interpretation of the narrow Leave victory even though she wanted a Remain outcome. She's neither taking on board the views of the 48% minority nor sticking with the courage of her convictions. Instead, she's hoping that by pandering to the extremists in the 52% even though she expects it to damage the country, she'll see off any challenges from within her own party. Her game is short-term personal and party politics, as opposed to what's best for the long term.)

That brings us to my second question. Whether a more rigid, united EU would be more or less robust to nationalist challenge depends on whether it would be sufficiently more effective to generate more additional positive feeling than the additional negative feeling that would be generated by ignoring the views of euro-sceptics.

I don't claim to know the answer to that question (unless you count this piece I wrote). Verhofstadt, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Claude Juncker do. That's why they're politicians. And in fairness to them, they all won elections. But then, voters' views change: time will tell whether Verhofstadt et al are right, and whether those who voted for them last time around will stick with them and their federalist stablemates in future.

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