About a million people took to the streets of London last Saturday to demand a second Brexit referendum and nearly 6 million people have now signed a petition asking the government to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU. Others are demanding that effect be given to the wishes of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU. Parliament is at an impasse, unable to agree a way forward.
Faced with such opposed and seemingly irreconcilable positions, what would a mediator do?
One thing which is helpful in any conflict is to take a step back and look at the underlying causes. In his ‘Circle of Conflict’ Christopher Moore grouped causes of conflict into 5 categories: Data (e.g. misinformation), Values (e.g. different world-views), Relationships (e.g. stereotyping of the other party), Structural factors (e.g. perceived power imbalances) and Interests (e.g. parties having competing demands).
It is clear that some (if not all) of these causes are underlying the current conflict over the EU. Identifying them can take some of the heat out of the situation as well as increase understanding of what is going on.
It also helps to recognise that many of the concerns about the EU which ultimately led to the Brexit vote are shared by numerous people across Europe, not just in the UK. These include issues of immigration, freedom and identity. Whatever the eventual outcome of Brexit, many of these issues will remain.
The UK will remain divided. The very expression Brexit demonstrates one aspect of that division; although it refers to British exit it actually involves the whole UK (which includes Northern Ireland), not just Britain (which doesn’t). The fact that the UK is itself a union of 4 countries with their own languages, cultures and institutions is often overlooked. What keeps this union together? Will Northern Ireland eventually depart? And Scotland? Wales has its own language, legislature (the Welsh Assembly) and there are discussions about moving to a separate legal system. There are yet further divisions within these 4 countries. Cornwall has its own language and a Cornish nationalist party (Mebyon Kernow).
Such divisions are not unique to the UK. Catalonian independence has recently hit the headlines but there are separatist / independence movements in Italy, Germany, France, Holland and many other countries across Europe.
The treaty of Maastricht established “subsidiarity” as a general principle of EU law. This means that decisions should be taken at the appropriate level. Some need to be taken at a European level, some are more appropriately dealt with by individual states. Global warming is an issue requiring international cooperation; maintaining a particular footpath may be a matter for our parish council. Am I Herefordian, English (with 25% Welsh), British or European? Maybe I am all of these. Does subsidiarity apply to my identity as well?
As a mediator I suggest there needs to be a fundamental debate about identity and devolution. At the European level, what led to such dissatisfaction in the UK? To what extent are those concerns shared by others across Europe? Is the ‘European Project’ moving too fast (or too far) for the citizens of the EU? What does it mean to be ‘British’?