Interview: Timothy Garton Ash On Brexit, European Elections and Italy

Timothy Garton Ash

Professor Timothy Garton Ash spoke to Italics Magazine about Brexit, the European Elections and Italy

In the last few weeks, the Brexit drama has become much more complicated between meanginful votes and draining negotiations. When I optimistically asked Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and Guardian Columnist, about the possible developments, his answer — with a perfectly British sense of humor — was that at this point there’s so much confusion that even God doesn’t know, let alone him. However, according to Mr. Garton Ash, there’s a silver lining in all this: Brexit has made other exits, including a possible Italexit, less likely. And now, a second referendum is the only way out of this situation for both the United Kingdom and Europe.

We are a few days away from March 29, cut-off date of Brexit. Anything is possible but nothing is certain. We still have to ask: what’s the most likely scenario as things stand?

I have absolutely no idea. I used to say God knows what’s gonna happen with Brexit, but I now think that’s wrong, because he has no idea either!

In any case, the most visible effect of the Brexit vote has been to put serious cracks in the British society, something that could potentially happen in any other European country. Are this kind of one-off referendums politically legitimate, considering the inter-generational and the identity-determining implications at stake?

Many people in Britain now think referendums are the work of the devil and we are a representative democracy, so we should stay that way. I can understand that position, but my view is that referendums have become part of Britain’s unwritten constitution. We have quite a lot of them on the voting system, but also on Devolution or Scottish independence. Therefore, the proper lesson from the key battle of the Brexit referendum is not that we shouldn’t have a referendum, but that if we have a referendum, it has to be very carefully prepared: the question has to be absolutely clear, you have to carry out a national debate beforehand, and you need more than a simple majority to pass it. In other words, we need something like the Canadian Clarity Act, which regulates how to hold referendums in Canada. Thus, in principle, a referendum is a legitimate way to make this kind of decision, but not the way we have done this Brexit referendum.

The proper lesson from the key battle of the Brexit referendum is not that we shouldn’t have a referendum, but that if we have a referendum, it has to be very carefully prepared.

Do you think a second referendum would be different in this respect?

Yes, I do. I think that we all learned lessons from the first referendum. We would have a longer period for it, we now certainly have a much better informed debate, we’d be on the lookout for Russian or other disinformation, and so on. It would be a very angry and divisive debate, for sure. However, for me personally, the only good Brexit is No Brexit. And the only legitimate way to reach No Brexit is a second referendum.

Some people think that Brexit represents an opportunity for the EU, but you said that this is a short-sighted approach and that Europe must resist impatience with Britain for its own sake. In what ways can Brexit undermine the process of European integration?

Of course I hope that the EU would emerge even stronger after Brexit but, analytically, I doubt it very much that is the case. First of all, losing a major member state is something that has never happened before in the history of European integration. And that member state has played a rather large role in foreign and security policy, which is a very important area for the future of the European Union. So, the cost there would be significant. If Brexit goes badly for Britain, then you’re going to have a very angry and divided Britain, with the Scots maybe wanting to become an independent member of the European Union and Northern Ireland increasingly becoming part of the island of Ireland. Therefore, an unhappy, divided, angry, weak Britain is a very difficult partner for the rest of the European Union. If by any chance it goes well for Britain, then with time there will be other European countries that might want to have a bit more of what Britain is having, like Hungary or Poland. In addition, all political communities flourish when people have a sense that they are the future, and until now Europe, the European project, is that what I call the “nimbus of irreversibility”. So there are a few reasons why I fear that Brexit would actually catalyze processes of disintegration that are already happening inside the EU.

The Europeans Elections are approaching, and Eurosceptic and anti-liberal parties are expected to achieve all-time record results in different member states. Do you think that in Brussels and in the chancelleries of other European capitals, politicians and officials are fully aware of the danger the European project is in?

I think they see the danger. The question is: do they have the remedy for that danger? I think populists from Orbán to Salvini are making the running in European politics at the moment. They have new arguments that make people angry and excited. Having said that, I actually believe it’s unlikely that the populists will do really, really well, because they’re so divided. I think that chances are that the EPP and the Socialists will still be the two largest groupings in the European Parliament. If I’m looking for a silver lining, the silver lining is that these things bring politics back into the European Parliament. And it needs real politics.

Leaders of the so-called populist parties hold a huge competitive advantage: they can use an unfiltered rhetoric with which they identify actual problems, referring to the day-to-day sensations indicated by citizens. How can these positions be successfully challenged?

I think, in general, liberals and pro-Europeans like me, have a language which speaks very well to the head, but less well to the heart. What we have to find is a language that combines the emotion, the sense of identity and the sense of community, with the values of liberty, equality and solidarity. Something like liberal patriotism at its best, relating to the European Union. Actually, I have a big project at Oxford just at the moment, called “Europe’s Stories”, which is precisely trying to discover what these stories are that do speak to generations of Europeans. Indeed, I feel very strongly what I call the generation of the 89ers, those who are between 20 and 40 today, should actually tell us their stories, because they are the great beneficiaries of Europe, but also those who pay the heaviest price if Europe disintegrates.

Liberals and pro-Europeans like me, have a language which speaks very well to the head, but less well to the heart.

Let’s talk about Italy. Salvini, Interior Minister and real heavyweight of the Italian government, some weeks ago went to Warsaw to meet with Kaczynski and talked about a new “Italo-Polish axis”. Moreover, both Italian governing parties played the blame game with France and Germany for their migration and foreign policies. Given the transversal support for anti-establishment parties across the continent, could this new alliance between Rome and the Visegrad countries get to set the agenda within the EU after the European vote?

As I said, I think it is unlikely that the nationalist and populist parties will form the strongest grouping in the European Parliament. However, the danger is that the whole center-right, symbolized by the EPP, will move to the right in an attempt to gather in and suck up the voters of the populists. In that sense, they will shape the agenda, not directly, but indirectly. Therefore, for me, the choice to be made by the European People’s Party on the 20th of March whether to keep Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party, which has destroyed liberal democracy in Hungary, runs a campaign explicitly against the EU and a dog whistle anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros, is crucial. To keep that party in the EPP or to keep it out, that’s the key decision. Because that is a clear indication on whether the center-right is going to itself tack to the right, essentially deeply compromising the values it proclaims, or actually stand up for the core values of the European project.

Italy is the birthplace of fascism. Many years later, some western countries followed the examples of Berlusconi and Grillo. Also, Salvini is now the European politician with the highest number of followers on social media, overcoming Angela Merkel. In a certain way, Italy is a trend-setter of international politics. Do you agree? And, if so, why?

First of all, I have always been very cautious in the use of the word “fascism”, which has been devalued by its overuse. However, some of the rhetoric of the populists — including Salvini — about muslims, foreigners and immigration, certainly have echoes of fascist rhetoric. Secondly, I think there is a huge difference between nationalist populism with the kind of rhetoric we’ve heard in small countries in Central Europe like Hungary, and that we’ve heard in a large member state, which is also a founding member of the European community. So, in that sense, I think we have to take what’s happening in Italy very seriously. I have to say, however, that there’s a particular set of causes which has to do more with the suffering of Southern Europe in the context of the Eurozone. Therefore, for me, the particular message of Italy is that, if Europe is to flourish, we have to do more about the deep tension in a Eurozone in which only Northern Europe flourishes while Southern Europe is struggling.

Do you think an Italexit is possible in the near future?

No, I don’t. Brexit has made all other exits – Holexit, Hungexit, Danexit, Italexit – less likely in the short to medium term, because people have seen just how excruciating, painful and difficult it is to get out of the EU. So, I think it has made it overall less likely. However, if — and it’s unlikely — Britain does very well after Brexit, five, ten or fifteen years down the road, I think people would be tempted to try to have their cake and eat it like Britain.

Brexit has made all other exits, including Italexit, less likely in the short to medium term.

To conclude, you said that Europeans should tell Brits “We want you to stay!”. How can this appeal be translated into actions and what concrete effects it could have?

At this very moment and in the next few weeks, the EU is a crucial actor in the Brexit drama, because we almost certainly need an extension, and a great deal depends on what the extension is. I understand all the problems around the European Elections and the feeling that it might be illegitimate if Britain doesn’t hold the European Elections in the UK while staying in the EU, but my appeal to the EU 27 and to your readers is, if you really want Britain to stay, which is the only good solution in the long term, we need to find a way for Britain to have an extension of at least 9 months, without having to hold the European Elections in that period, because it would be a nightmare for British politics and a gift for Nigel Farage. This is the really one concrete thing that the EU 27 can do for those who are like me, who are still working for Britain to stay in the EU. You shouldn’t make great special concessions on the Irish backstop, because that’s incredibly important. I totally respect and admire the solidarity with Ireland. The point is to give Brits what I call the “democratic timeout” to really think seriously and carefully about this, ending up with a second referendum. This is what you can do for us. And by doing that for us you’ll be doing that also for Europe, because imagine the boost to Europe which would be given by Britain actually deciding to stay in the EU. That would be a great day for Europe.