To leave, or not to leave? That´s not the question

Policy Network, 07/01/2016


Derived from a monistic vision of political space, the language used to debate Britain’s potential EU ‘exit’ overstates the degrees of separation possible in an incontrovertibly interdependent world.


When it seems like everyone wants to leave some place, I can safely say that being inside or out is no longer terribly relevant since we are all essentially in an intermediate zone where we are continuously renegotiating our belonging. Furthermore, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are relative notions, although there are times when someone might be able to force the relativity toward the ridiculous, such as that famous headline from a British newspaper that announced dense fog in the English Channel and concluded that the continent had been cut off.


We have a monistic vision of political space, elaborated from rigid dichotomies and assumptions that are far from self-evident. We are accustomed to thinking, for example, that our interests are more clearly seen from the inside or that threats always come from the outside. Our political categories imagine us as hermetic compartments, and it is very hard for us to understand the aspects of reality that do not follow a binary pattern, such as our responsibility toward the common good, intertwined realities or transitory spaces.


All our political concepts are developed from Euclidian geometry and for as long as we fail to think about them in a less deterministic fashion, it will be difficult for us to understand the new logic of political spaces. I propose that we reflect upon what it means to stay or to go and whether those are the only two possibilities, about how little is explained by the inside/outside dichotomy and the benefits of thinking with categories that are more subtle.


There are many who want to leave, from different places and for different reasons: whether it is the British, French and Greeks from the European Union or from the euro, or Catalans and Scots from their state. However, what does it mean to leave? Are the ones who leave the ones who leave or do those who remain also, paradoxically, leave? Leaving is not possible, if we understand that operation as a clean cut in which one fully recovers one’s identity and sovereignty, while that which one leaves behind continues being what it was. Both groups suffer certain transformations that should be kept in mind and pondered with strategic criteria. In the age of universal connections, a new political topography is being built out of what we call interdependence with approaches we must understand and manage. No one remains completely outside or, at least, the separation does not return sovereignty nor does it afford immunity in the face of any contact. Those who share spaces, projects and resources, who are in a manner of speaking inside, are not truly part of us – unless we have completely renounced the ideal of democratic self-government – without continually renegotiating the advantages and responsibilities that such a belonging implies.


Let us say it in a less abstract manner. What happens, on the one hand, with those who leave? Let us begin with Greece. In spite of the typical rhetoric, those who leave do not recover their sovereignty, except formally and at a time that is both very intense and of limited consequence (in terms of sovereignty). The referendum in Greece did not give the people their voice back but transferred the responsibility to them. It was not an exercise in sustainable sovereignty but a gesture that dramatised it and, in the aftermath, the Greek people are going to have even less power than they had beforehand. The Greeks voted no but they wanted to remain inside the eurozone and, of course, inside the European Union. They suspect correctly that outside the EU there may be more sovereignty but less protection from the multiple restrictions of globalisation. It is possible that the no vote has placed them even further on the periphery, but it does not necessarily mean no to the euro, much less to Europe, even though that is what those in favour of the yes vote, with Jean-Claude Juncker in the lead, attempted to conclude.


Let us move on to the UK. I remember asking a British politician what he thought about the referendum about remaining in the European Union and his ironic response: but are we in it? Looking at those who defend the referendum, a few do so in order to leave, a few more to remain and the majority to gain more advantages when it comes to renegotiating their continuation. Some people use this rather cynical argument in order to advise the UK against leaving: it is better to be inside the union and have some influence than to be outside and nevertheless continue under its influence. Not being a member has certain advantages, but there are also a not insignificant number of disadvantages that stem from not being able to intervene in the decision-making processes.


Mutual dependence in Europe reaches such heights that some have been able to propose the following mental experiment. Even if a state were to leave the union, most of the European norms and regulations would continue to affect it (as is the case for many other countries that have signed commercial agreements and legislation that come from Europe), and they would not be released from the obligation to continue collaborating with the rest of the members. Iceland, Norway and Switzerland have seen the extent to which they are affected by EU pressures and the opportunities it represents for them. They have had – and will continue to have –  to adopt many of the measures decided by a club to which they do not belong.


Let us consider an idea which has been called ‘internal enlargements’, the possibility that nations without states abandon the state of which they are a part but remain within the European Union: Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders, etc. In this article, I am not going to address the question of whether this operation of ‘leaving in order to stay’ is legally possible. I will simply point out some paradoxes by looking at the Scottish process. Those in favor of independence did not question their belonging to the British monarchy, the pound as the common currency, or belonging to the EU; in other words, they expected a situation that is not substantially different from the current one. Additionally, if the yes vote had won, a long process of negotiation would have been set in motion that would have led to accommodations between the respective goals. But the largest paradox is that without the participation of the Scots, the British would end up leaving the European Union. To remain in Europe, Great Britain needs the Scots, a large percentage of whom do not want to be British, but are overwhelmingly in favour of continuing to be European.


And what happens with those who stay, with the remainder, after a process of self-determination on the European or infra-state level? Fundamentally, they are no longer exactly what they were nor are they where they were. The British example shows the extent to which one could sustain that the ones who have left are everyone else, just like the anecdote of the fog on the British Channel: England would run more of a risk of being left outside the European Union than Scotland. An exit does not leave the abandoned remainder intact. Good proof of that is the series of efforts by the euro countries to shield themselves from the consequences that would arise from a Grexit, establishing firewalls and protecting themselves from contagion. That strategy stems from the fact that the eventual exit of Greece would lead the rest of the eurozone to modify its situation, and it would become more vulnerable. There would be a weakening of the euro because from that moment the euro would be a currency that it is possible to leave. It is curious to see the effect that the behavior of a country that only represents two per cent of the eurozone economy can have on the rest of the member states. And while the mechanisms for euro protection have improved in comparison with the possible exit that was considered at the beginning of the crisis, the geopolitical risks that Greece’s exit would imply for the rest of the European Union reveal that the protection is very limited. The logic of new political spaces implies a connectivity from which it is very difficult to remove oneself, as much for those who leave as for those who remain.


Instead of thinking that the operations of entering and exiting are exceptional events, we would better understand what is happening if we thought of them as operations that we all perform continuously to the extent that we redefine the conditions of common life and co-belonging. There are those who would like to fossilise the current circumstances (continuing with the irrevocable logic of furtive integration in the European space or calling upon constitutional frameworks that are supposedly unchangeable in the domestic sphere) and those who openly and without many nuances support disintegration or secession, but we would understand what is going on better if we accepted the fact that what the great majority wants is to improve their situation. The entire succession of political actions that are associated with the exit – carrying out a referendum, preventing it, protecting oneself in order to exit or to reassure those who remain, etc – all of that is nothing but a part of a process through which all of us aspire to redefine and renegotiate our conditions of belonging. It is not the exit that is in play as much as the conditions of remaining.


The territorial pluralism that currently exists in Europe is a crystallisation of that struggle: we have the Schengen area, the eurozone, all the rest of the union, the European Economic Area that allows certain states that are not part of the union to participate in its internal market, as well as a multiplicity of bilateral treaties. In addition to growing diversification because of differentiated integration, there is the ambiguous space of the European Neighbourhood Policy and reinforced cooperation. We maintain a special relationship with Switzerland and Norway, with whom there is flexible, timely and informal integration. There are, additionally, ‘small exits’ or ‘opt-outs’, such as for example, the Schengen agreement, which was unilaterally broken by Denmark to reintroduce border controls.


If the distinction between inside/outside, even if real, is not as conclusive or as useful as claimed by those who understand it best, then we will have to give more sophisticated solutions to the problems with which political co-existence presents us. Of course, there will always be people who insist on demanding answers that are clearer than the social reality to which they refer, you must say yes or no, you must stay or leave, but if you stay, you accept conditions over which you have no decision-making ability. This is not a good time for nuances, the widely reviled ambiguity, the middle ground or gray areas, in spite of the fact that we all comprehend that political life always flows along these paths, in the imprecise zone between the inside and the outside.

Instituto de Gobernanza Democrática
Instituto de Gobernanza Democrática
RSS a Opinión
RSS a Opinión