Out means out

by Lorenzo Piccoli

Previously on this blog I have advocated dialogue with our political opponents as opposed to talking contemptuously about them. The outburst following the Brexit referendum has shown that this is not happening. Sure, I too was frustrated, shocked, and disgusted. But let us try to refrain from casting those who voted Leave as a whole bunch of idiot, ignorant, out-of-tune voters. In fact, if you are feeling upset by the situation imposed by people whose values you don’t share, you might now understand how UKIP, Lega Nord, Front national voters have felt in the past. Reading the tweets and messages shared by many of my friends, I cannot help but fully endorsing these lines from the Spectator: ‘there is now a lot of hatred directed towards the millions of people who voted Leave. Yet clearly not everyone who voted Leave is a racist thicko, just like not every immigrant is a jihadi. There are legitimate concerns on both sides of the debate, but I do not see how it is helpful to characterise millions of people in this way. At its worst, it can seem like a language that the privileged use to sneer at the poor: a kind of moral snobbery‘. This pretty much summarizes what I wrote (in Italian) shortly after the results were known, quoting my friend Old Tom: ‘believing in democracy doesn’t require you to agree with the people, trust the people, or even like the people; It only requires you to respect everyone’s right to choose – including the one to choose the bad over the good. Democracy is not perfect, nor indeed pretends to be so. And yet there is much to praise about a system under which everyone, for better or worse, has a say on common matters, and whose legitimacy rests upon the possibility of exercising that right. Even if it occasionally breaks your heart‘. Or, as it was brilliantly put by the defeated contender for the Democratic Party candidate in the 1966 election to the California State Senate Dick Tuck, ‘The people have spoken, the bastards!‘.

Now – I am equally depressed to see repeated calls to somehow reverse the result of the referendum. This is plainly wrong – for two reasons. First, imagine if Leave were saying that: you would be horrified, wouldn’t you? Second, there is a terrible twist with this result that must now be acknowledged: it is in the most rational interest of many political leaders in Europe to give the United Kingdom a very rough ride. Put it more bluntly, the political elites on the southern side of the English channel will have to consider that the perfidious Albion must feel the pain for this decision. And it is not about hard feelings: it is about rational political choices. In fact, British political leaders who say they will keep the London in the single market are missing a crucial point: it is just like as if I stop paying the fees for my tennis club, but keep getting in and out for free. Out means out. This is the terrible responsibility of European leaders who have an interest in containing populist movements in their countries: they are obliged to make sure that for the British the process of leaving is painful. Because if it is not, it will make it even the more tempting for populist movements in Italy, France, Hungary, and the rest of Europe to loosen their ties with the European Union. If leaving costs you nothing, then why not to try? Or, as a French diplomat explained last week, ‘If we say you are outside the EU but can keep all of the advantages, access to the single market without any solidarity, it’s a terrible message for the rest of the EU‘. This is the cruel reason why the Brexit vote forces the rest of Europe to close ranks and hit the British as hard as possible. The alternative is disintegration. After all, no tennis would could survive if members could stop paying the fees but continued to benefit from all the advantages coming with it.