We’re hearing a great deal from people who feel that someone or other is ‘betraying’ people about Brexit. There are around 750,000 references on Google to the phrase ‘Brexit betrayal’, including extensive coverage in the right-wing press, and nearly all of them seem to come from one side of the argument – the same side whose preferences or ‘Will’ have been slavishly, and impractically, followed by the UK government.
I, too, feel a sense of betrayal. It is a betrayal both by the UK government and by the European Union. The European Union made a solemn declaration that all citizens of the European Union had fundamental rights. The UK, and every other member state, pledged to protect those rights; the primary mechanisms for that protection was to be the action of the member state. Both parties have reneged on that commitment, and as part of the same process: they have treated the negotiation just as if it was about a member giving notice to a club, rather than secession from a union.
Article 50 may have been new, but there was a precedent for secession. When Greenland left the European Union, its citizens were given individually the option of deciding whether or not they wanted to continue as European citizens. Before the referendum, I had vaguely supposed that something of the kind would be arranged for citizens of the UK – it was only as the arguments developed that I could see it wasn’t going to happen, and tried to raise the issue. Departing the EU stands to create devastating problems for families, for workers and for people resident abroad in either bloc. That is why hundreds of thousands of UK citizens have taken up citizenship of other EU countries to avoid the consequences.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Rights that are conditional on governments paying a membership subscription are not ‘fundamental’ rights. But it has become clear that states, not citizens, are the units that the EU is made up of. Despite the fine words and the formal declarations, the people who live in those states are not the EU’s citizenry. Brexit stands to strip every European – both those who are citizens of the United Kingdom, and those who are citizens of other member states – of the protections they were faithfully promised. There is a clear message in the negotiations, one that goes to every citizen of every member state: the only citizenship you have that matters is the citizenship of your home country. European citizenship has been degraded to the status of a junk bond: a promise that will never be kept.
Throughout the process, too, both the EU and the UK have treated the negotiations as if they were a matter of international relations, a negotiation between the British Government and the Commission. That is why the EU made no direct appeal to its British citizens during the referendum, and did nothing to safeguard their interests.
Compounding the problems, the process followed in the UK has been profoundly undemocratic. Democracy is not the rule of the majority. Majority voting is only a convention for resolving disputes. The referendum itself had some claim to democratic legitimacy, even if this was questionable; it excluded millions of people directly affected by the decision, including Britons living in the EU and citizens from other EU countries living in Britain. But voting is not everything. One of the tests is that people should have been engaged in a discursive deliberation; that has not happened, because the government was determined to keep its stance a secret (ostensibly, in case the people they were negotiating with found out about it; more probably because they didn’t know what their stance was). More basically, democracy is supposed to be a system that defends the rights of minorities. That is something that this process has signally failed to do.
Additional note: A petition to parliament to revoke Article 50 has picked up nearly 900,000 signatures in less than a day – 10,000 of them just while I was adding this note. Find it here.