Re-framing Brexit in Terms of Discrimination

The debate about whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union has taken place within a number of different rhetorical frames. Of these, ‘taking back control’ has been the most powerful. Anyone could understand what was at stake and take a position in the debate. As the debate about membership became a process of leaving, however, ‘taking back control’ became more confusing as a frame for the conversation. Over the past two years it has been hard to determine who is taking back control, how much control can be repatriated, and how much – under any circumstances – the British people will remain constrained and perhaps even powerless to shape their own destiny.

Meanwhile many other factors have come into play that warrant attention. The most important is the growing sense of unfairness within the British people and the British government. The Europeans are not being accommodating, the government is not being responsive, the political parties are not leaving all options on the table, and there seems to be a real risk that Britain could leave the European Union to face a number of glaring inequities in terms of market access, diplomatic consideration, and even very basic forms of interaction with the rest of Europe. These aspects are not captured by control. The best way to frame the growing sense of British frustration is ‘discrimination’ – because discrimination lies at the heart of Brexit as a political project.

No one is going to embrace discrimination as a framing devise without complaint (and I can almost hear the clicks as suddenly offended and disgruntled readers look for more comforting analysis). The word has too many negative connotations that come from the treatment of disadvantaged minorities in even the most advanced industrial democracies. But if you look the word ‘discriminate’ up in the Oxford English dictionary, you will find that it means only ‘to make or constitute a difference in or between; to distinguish, differentiate.’ The British who voted to leave the rest of Europe did so because they believe Britain is different from the rest of Europe in meaningful ways. They also did so because they wanted to create a difference between the way the British government does things like manage cross-border migration or negotiate trade deals and the way the European Union does those things. And they did so because they wanted to privilege some forms of migration while disadvantaging others or to privilege some economic partnerships even if at the expense of the rest. In other words, the British who voted to leave the European Union wanted to discriminate – to constitute a difference – not because they wanted to be unfair to anyone, but in the ‘discriminating consumer’ sort of way.

The problem is that any attempt to exercise discrimination also invites discrimination. When the British people voted to constitute a difference between their country and the rest of the European Union, they necessarily implicated the rest of Europe in a similar activity. The issue here is not some feature of the diplomatic language in Article 50; rather, it is that difference always cuts both ways. Distinctiveness in characteristics terms lies in distinction as a kind of perception or cognitive process. Going back to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is important to underscore that discrimination is a mental activity. Moreover, what is mental for an individual is political for a group. So now the rest of Europe is busy sorting out how to privilege some forms of migration between Britain and the European Union while disadvantaging others and to privilege some forms of economic partnership at the expense of the rest. They are doing this not to be unfair, but out of respect for the British desire to constitute a difference.  Critically, the British government is not part of that process of European discrimination any more than the rest of Europe plays a role in Britain’s discrimination toward the European Union. The two sides can negotiate but for a difference or distinction to exist, the negotiating parties cannot agree to keep everything the same.

The situation is only going to get more complicated over time. We know this from hard experience at the domestic level. The longer discrimination takes place between groups, the more it gives rise to double standards that create lasting forms of inequality. This is true particularly where the relative power of the different groups is unbalanced. That is why discrimination has such negative connotations in the context of disadvantaged minorities. It is also why minorities require special protection from the rest of society – particularly if they prefer to keep their distinctiveness intact and to avoid assimilating with the larger group. What is ‘fair’ is not what is ‘equal’ in a formalistic sense, but rather whatever is necessary to help the minority group offset the unfavourable balance of power and so push back against the tendency of the majority to discriminate against them. That is why minorities need – and benefit from – both protection and affirmative action in most advanced industrial democracies. Without such safeguards, minorities feel (and tend to be) unfairly treated – much like many British feel in their relationship with Europe today.

So, the question the British might want to ask themselves is whether they really want to discriminate against the rest of Europe at the cost of Europe doing the same to Britain. When posing the question, it is important to underscore that such discrimination does not need to be malicious in order to be perceived as unfair by either party. It would also be useful to highlight that perceptions of unfairness are likely to be much greater on the side that is weaker – and not without reason. The constitution of difference always creates inequalities. That is a lesson we have learned time and again in domestic politics. Those inequalities tend to be greater for groups with less access to political power or economic resources. Moreover, no European country and no European society can pretend to be innocent of these sorts of inequities. That is why the state is so important for the maintenance of solidarity across groups.

The difference between Britain as a country and minority groups in advanced industrial democracies is that there is no overarching political authority at the European level to offset the disadvantages of weakness – apart from the European Union. Moreover, ‘taking back control’ is the cause of this dilemma and not the solution. By voting to leave the European Union, the British people choose to enter a world more clearly defined in terms of power politics. Now the British people need some way to offset the country’s weakness relative to the outside world both in a protective sense and as a vehicle for the active promotion of British interests abroad. Framed this way, the choice is between discrimination and European Union membership – or some functional alternative that can be equally effective in offsetting the inequalities and double-standards that will accumulate over time and to Great Britain’s disadvantage.

That choice does not have to be made immediately. On the contrary, new minorities often need time to understand the true scale of the inequities and double-standards they have to face in a wider society which regards them as different. The point is simply that the new debate will not end with the completion of Article 50 or even the negotiation of some new relationship between Britain and the European Union. Discrimination and double-standards are an enduring problem and so some kind of choice either to accept the unfairness that comes alongside relative weakness or to seek some kind of protective arrangement like the European Union cannot be avoided. We can change the framing of Brexit, but there is no end to the debate in sight.

This piece was originally published on E!Sharp. For the edited version, go here.  The cartoon is by Peter Shrank and is borrowed from the E!Sharp website.