Brexit vs. Frexit: same but different

Opinion
By Charlotte Kude

The French presidential election has turned into the next test for the European Union: as the presenter of the TV debate featuring all 11 candidates observed, most of them are Eurosceptic. Interestingly, that includes those who describe themselves as “Gaullist”; General de Gaulle was the one who vetoed British membership of the EU twice because he felt that Britain didn’t subscribe to the vision of the founding members. Those in Britain who voted to leave the European Union last year did so for a variety of reasons which came down to precisely that conclusion.

It’s important to understand that because it means the forces behind Brexit and the ones behind a potential Frexit have different roots.

The clue lies in the origins of the European Union. How did it ever come about? It was founded by a group of countries that had been torn by war for decades, with two of them prominently at the heart of the project: France and Germany. So France is a founding member of this peace union, a fundamental difference with the United Kingdom which only joined in the early 70s. That’s more than 15 years after the treaty of Rome, 15 years of initial shaping that we didn’t take part in.

Still, we didn’t join for peace, or social harmonization, or in fact any of what it has become today. It was sold to the British people as the Common Market, as an economic union. Back then, the United Kingdom was the sick man of Europe: high unemployment, high taxes, low wages, and frequent power cuts. We saw the rest of Europe prospering while we were staying behind and hoped that we would benefit from the economic boost. So we joined. Skepticism towards the EU, or back then the EEC, began almost immediately after becoming members. In 1975 came the first referendum, in which over 67% voted to stay in the Common Market. Here is the issue: it was not designed to stay as such. It was destined to be more than a trade partnership; trade was only a means to an end to prevent future conflicts.

Long term, this did not suit British economic priorities. Her imperial past means that Britain retains strong ties with former colonies and other English-speaking parts of the world, in Asia or Africa for example, and there are also large communities from India, Bangladesh, Nigeria etc. living in the UK. One of the arguments in favor of leaving the EU – and this was certainly a top one for me – was that we as long as we remained part of it we couldn’t sign trade deals with any of these countries around the world. Not with Australia, not with India, not with the US. We couldn’t go and get the growth where it had shifted to. Not unless all 28 members agreed, which made trade agreements either highly unlikely due to every member’s individual protectionist interest, or the negotiations would take years and years. Trade talks have been going on between the EU and India for the past 8 years and we all know what happened to TTIP, it was a complete failure.

Some in Europe may argue that a trade agreement with the USA would be a bad thing, and that would be completely fine, except that Britain disagrees and we would have seen that decision and others imposed on us against our will for decades, had we voted to remain a member of the European Union. While the UK thinks the EU is too protectionist, France thinks it’s not enough!

Now of course, it would be completely unfair to claim that those who voted to leave the EU did so purely on free market principles or to avoid over the top health and safety regulations. Immigration certainly was a prominent argument in the campaign. Not only in terms of the pressure on public services due to the high numbers coming into the country – and of course that’s going to happen if you have a completely unbalanced economic area with open borders. Not only in terms of commonwealth citizens being treated as second class in comparison to EU citizens who can come and go as they please, but also with regards to security issues. After the Paris attacks, it became clear that Europe’s open borders posed a direct threat to our safety and terrorism across the continent combined with the refugee crisis fuelled public anxiety in the same way in Britain, France or anywhere else in the EU. However, and this may come as a surprise to some, immigration was not the argument that came out on top when voters were asked why they voted Leave, just after the referendum results came in. It was about democracy.

Our Parliament is referred to as the Mother of Parliaments for a reason. Britain has a great and very old democratic tradition. Scrutiny and accountability are at the heart of our system, where the press is ruthless and incredibly powerful. The British people couldn’t simply accept that the laws made by those they have elected to do so can be overruled by a set of institutions based abroad with governing representatives who they cannot replace, let alone elect in the first place in the case of the European Commission. And at what cost? Already in 1988 Margaret Thatcher was asking for her money back in the famous Bruges speech because she felt that her country was contributing disproportionately to the EU budget, while France has been a major beneficiary of the EU’s agricultural policy all along. Money is a further concern when it comes to bailouts – one of the demands made by David Cameron prior to the referendum was that the UK be excluded from Eurozone bailouts. Perhaps the most crucial difference is that France is part of the common currency while Britain still enjoys her own. The consequences of an exit are potentially a lot more dramatic.

Let’s turn the question around: how do we prevent Frexit? It probably would be a shock, at least in the short term and in the current context. However, things cannot go on as they are. So here’s a suggestion: why not apply some of the UK’s demands for reform to all remaining member states? Stop further integration, stop further enlargement, repatriate powers and sovereignty to the Member States and let the economies breathe. Lift regulations on small businesses and open up for trade around the world. Sounds unlikely? Then at the very least, France needs to reclaim its place at the heart of the organization, be a true leading European nation alongside Germany and not let Merkel run the show on her own.

That will define the next French presidency, who is able to bring back Europe at the heart of ordinary citizens’ concerns, if at all? Who can make taxpayers feel like their money is being well spent? The referendum campaign here in Britain taught us that sadly, the system and the people at the top are very, very resistant to any change. And what are the other options? Will it be Madame LePen who will give French people a referendum and threaten to exit altogether?

And what happens next, if the vote is out? I certainly don’t believe it will be all doom and gloom, we were told so many times during the campaign and I am yet to witness the apocalypse. Unfortunately, in contrast to Britain, France is unlikely to open up. It is already very averse to globalization, you just need to look at the choice of candidates for the presidency. Half of them are communists or sympathize with some form of socialism or protectionism. A brutal exit from the Single Market risks choking the economy completely. That said, part of me was hoping that Brexit would be a wake-up call for the EU – I must say, I am disappointed.

But Frexit or no Frexit, ultimately our best bet as young people in uncertain times is to respect democratic choices to show confidence in the future.

Charlotte Kude
Secretary-General
International Young Democrat Union