Why has Brexit happened and what happens next?
I am writing a few hours after the result was declared and before all the detailed analysis that will surely follow. But in some respects that does not matter – indeed, one of the themes of the referendum campaign was that “facts” from “experts” were not to be trusted! The decision has been taken, and we need to grasp the points that are obvious, before being mired again in the detail. I will list some of them.
The sidelining of territorial cohesion is at the heart of this result
I doubt that the phrase “territorial cohesion” was ever uttered in the thousands of speeches and pamphlets. Yet it is has decided the outcome in the UK, and will have ongoing repercussions in the EU. It is a concept that researchers in ESPON and a few policy makers in DG Regio have fretted about, but nobody else seems to have really grasped. There was a Green Paper back in 2008, that basically said it was a good thing (though wasn’t very sure what it was). Yet it is of fundamental importance: if nobody knew what territorial cohesion meant before, they should know now.
The point is simple, but far reaching. If differerences between “territories” become too wide, the “cohesion” of the territory is at risk. “Territories” are political units – at any scale from supra-national to municipality. They are places to which those who reside there owe some loyalty, and in turn where they have expectations and rights. When the gap widens within the territory, the legitimacy of the territory itself in under threat.
The pre-Eurozone EU of 15 member states during the long period of economic growth had cohesion. There were regional differences, of course, but regional policy sought to address them. The concept of territorial cohesion developed in anticipation of the 2004 enlargement of the Union. It was a recognition of the significant widening of the economic gap that would exist with the accession of the central and eastern European countries. What was less recognised – or not discussed – was the way that the creation of the Eurozone would reduce the capacity of member states within it to manage widening differences between them. I say “not discussed” because it was no secret within the UK from the 1980s that the value of the Pound Sterling was held up by oil and London’s financial sector, making competitiveness difficult for other regions traditionally dependent on manufacturing.
The banking crisis, which then became a financial crisis, then an economic crisis – and now a political crisis – effectively ended concern for territorial cohesion. “Competitiveness”, equated with “jobs and growth”, trumped concerns for territorial cohesion. To secure the financial hubs – largely the capital cities – austerity policies took resources from the declining rural and deindustrialised region. Migration, to the cities and to better off member states, became the “solution”, with an unsubstantiated belief that wealth would “trickle down”.
The UK in particular sought an EU Cohesion Policy that would simply be a safety net for the poorest regions, disregarding the impact of the free movement of labour on the cohesion of national and sub-national territories. Meanwhile, austerity policies withdrew public services in member states and beggared Greece, to secure the banks. The idea of a “peoples’ Europe” was left to enthusiasts, the ERASMUS students, the Horizon 2020 itinerant researchers, the Ryanair-transported stag and hen parties, those who could afford to dream of a bright future.
International migration and territorial cohesion
The movement of people from the Middle East and North Africa (and for Poland from Ukraine) into Europe is again a predictable consequence of the economic differences between places that are nearby in a globalised world. The Arab Spring and its unravelling, the Dublin Agreement and then its suspension in 2015, saw the EU floundering, and losing cohesion. Further strains were put on destitute Greece by the international movement of refugees, though the cities of the richer north of Europe were the migrants’ desired destinations.
The EU has a Neighbourhood Policy, an attempt to build a good relation with the countries across its borders. However, several of these are not easy partners to deal with, in part because of the too often forgotten leagacies of pre-EU imperialist sovereign states. The Neighbourhood was also changed by the post-2004 accessions and by the conflicts in the Balkans.
Coping with shocks
In short, the EU has had to cope with a very turbulent policy environment over the past 15 years – enlargement that took in much poorer regions, an economic crash, a refugee crisis, along with the chronic pressures exerted by globalisation, a truculent Russia (an acute source of anxiety in the Baltic states), the rise of China and its undervalued currency, energy insecurity and a need to address climate change mitigation and adaptation. Some poor decisions have been taken, but it is a taxing list.
Now EU has to cope with another shock – Brexit. If the response is a stronger assertion of centralisation and a closer embrace of austerity policies, it will not be possible to rebuild the cohesion of the diminished EU territory. The narrative needs to shift towards a peoples’ Europe, and that means a Europe of the regions, in which solidarity sustains diversity. One immediate litmus test could be how the EU deals with Scotland.
The geography of the UK’s referendum
The voting patterns within the UK highlight the significance of differences between places. Most notably there was not just a 62-38% vote for Remain in Scotland, but all 32 Scottish council areas had a Remain majority. In Northern Ireland, the Nationalist areas voted for Remain, the Unionist strongholds were for Leave, but the province as a whole was roughly 56-44% for Remain. Two of four territories within the UK face being taken out of the EU against the wishes of a majority of their voters.
Within England there is an urban-rural divide, or perhaps more accurately a divide between the places that have a toehold or more in the financialised global knowledge economy, and the places where primary or manufacturing activity, or low grade and insecure services dominate. London and Manchester were 60% for Remain, Edinburgh 75%, Bristol 62%, yet nearby places further down the urban hierarchy were for Leave, e.g. around Manchester there is Rochdale and Oldham were both 60% for leave, Tameside 61%, and Salford 57%.
English nationalism is the winner. It has been stoked by the perception that England has been ill-served both by the dominance of London AND by the success of Scotland in extracting its own devolved parliament while also retaining a favourable financial allocation from the UK exchequer and flirting with independence. A weakening of territorial cohesion within the UK is thus a key driver of the referendum outcome, and will be a consequence of that outcome.
In this, David Cameron has been hoist on his own petard. Immediately after the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 he played the English nationalist card with a call for “English Votes for English Laws”. Then in the 2015 General Election he made successful play of the prospect of a minority Labour government being put in power by Scottish Nationalist MPs.
The EU needs to rediscover the social dimension of its project, or risk the pressures that drove the UK to Brexit creating a rupture in other parts. It is ironic that some of the areas of the UK that benefited most directly from EU investment voted Leave – South Wales is a classic example. The idea of “strength in diversity” needs to be revived, and the punitive austerity programme needs to be reassessed.
The Scottish First Minister has already indicated that in her view the result from a Scottish perspective is “democratically unacceptable” and makes a second independence referendum likely. How will the UK and the EU respond to propositions from Scotland during the UK exit negotiations? Could “Strength in diversity” and a Europe of the Regions encompass some variation in the terms of new relationship to the EU for Scotland and Northern Ireland, compared to the rest of the UK? Will a UK government inspired by and beholden to English nationalism be able to address legitimate concerns of non-metropolitan England whlle also grasping the fragility of territorial cohesion at UK level? Sadly, there is little to suggest that this is likely to intrude into the thinking of politicians thirsting for more deregulation and a shrinking of the state.
Finally, might the success of this insurrection against the perceived elites, the experts, the professionals and the distant politicians ripple through to the civic and local level? Will people come to feel that they should, and can, have more say over what happens in their neighbourhood and town? Will there now be demands to revise downwards projections for housing land as a consequence of the promised scaling down of immigration? Calls for the restoration of a more local system of local governent?
Brexit shows that territorial cohesion matters. It’s a concept that deserves more attention by planners and urbanists, but also by politicians.