BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. On Thursday, we witnessed another act of violence fraught with associations, the murder of British Labour MP Jo Cox. Cox was an advocate for human rights and a staunch defender of refugees, her attacker, a reportedly unstable right-wing nationalist sympathizer, her murder, the first killing of a sitting member of Parliament in 26 years. It happened exactly one week before a controversial referendum on what is known as Brexit, the question of whether Britain will leave or remain in the European Union. The murder prompted a brief halt to the campaigns for and against Brexit. The pro-Brexit side seems to have a slight lead, leaving those opposed scrambling to make the case for remaining in the EU. The International Monetary Fund, the Bank of England and the UK Treasury have all come out warning of the economic dangers of a potential Brexit. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, says that –
CHRISTINE LAGARDE: Depending on what hypotheticals you take, it’s going to be pretty bad to – very, very bad.
BOB GARFIELD: Indeed, fear of another recession is what the remain camp is campaigning on. But Mark Blyth, professor of political economy at Brown University and co-editor of The Future of the Euro, says that it is the British psyche, not economics, that is at the heart of Brexit
MARK BLYTH: The arguments for Brexit is that the bureaucracy of Europe has grown into this behemoth which is overriding national parliaments and eroding national democracy. Let's regain control and then we’ll be able to settle our own destiny. But the arguments against it focus on the cost of exit. They tend to sing one song, and that one song is it's going to go from very bad to very, very bad. The positive argument is fear and the negative argument is hope. And once you get into that position, it’s a bit like Trump saying, let’s make America great again.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the most, I would say, demagogic arguments for leaving the EU is the accusation that because the EU is dominated by Germany, this is really just an extension of Nazism and the German desire to control Europe. That argument was made by former mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Out on the campaign trail, Boris Johnson makes the most of every photo opportunity to press his case for leaving the European Union. The classical scholar said the last 2,000 years of European history had seen doomed attempts to recreate the Roman Empire by trying to unify it: “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.”
MARK BLYTH: Think about how this whole referenda came up. David Cameron takes over the Conservative Party in Britain at a time when it has this Euro-skeptic wing, and he wants to silence it once and for all. So he says, let's have a vote; nobody's going to vote to get out. This is in 2010. Then Europe goes into an economic nosedive that it makes worse with austerity policies, and suddenly the EU looks awful and it looks German dominated. So this whole thing actually has a lot more to do with domestic politics in Britain than it has to do with any real debate about costs and benefits.
BOB GARFIELD: And, in addition to the economic nosedive, there has been this immigration crisis.
MARK BLYTH: Oh, that’s absolutely the case. So the whole conjuncture of economic disaster in the euro zone itself and then the migration crisis coming from countries as diverse as Syria and Afghanistan, that’s what’s brought this to the top of the agenda.
BOB GARFIELD: The fear of loss of sovereignty, the fear of loss of national character to a bunch of pushy bureaucrats in Brussels.
MARK BLYTH: And I would go even farther than that. Let’s think about a couple of examples. So we’ve got Trump just now. So Trump is basically the fact-free politician and he’s locked up the Republican nomination. What we’re seeing in election after election – we saw it in Austria just a couple of weeks ago, the far right nearly winning – is a general revolt against elites. And they’re using the ballot box to express their displeasure. The political parties of the left and the right in Europe and in the US have basically said, hey, globalization is good for you, don't worry about those jobs moving abroad because there’ll be other ones and you’ll be more highly skilled, and it’s turned out that a large number of people have figured out that that was kind of phony. Whether you see it in Occupy Wall Street, whether you see it in Corbyn and you see it in Syriza in Greece, you see it in the support for the National Front in France on the right, they want to withdraw from the euro, there’s a general rejection here of elites telling people what to do.
BOB GARFIELD: The question is, and let's just say it is not an insane reaction to believe we’ve been sold a bill of goods - is withdrawing from the EU a rational reaction to that? Doesn’t this fall very much squarely into the category of cutting off your own nose to spite your face?
MARK BLYTH: I think that's the case but, you know, I'm a member of the elite so why would anybody want to listen to me on this one? Let’s put this in a deeper historical context. Whenever markets have really let rip in societies or across the world, when we’ve had periods when states have been in retreat and markets have been at the front, the people who are most affected by this end up basically trying to take over the state in order to protect themselves. Now, whether we call this nationalism, whether we call this socialism, whether we call this protectionism, it's all an attempt to basically wall out the outside to protect the community at home.
BOB GARFIELD: If the anti-Brexit forces are facing a fear of immigration, you know, there's a pretty strong argument, both historically and in the moment, for immigration. Have they not even bothered trying to make that?
MARK BLYTH: It’s kind of interesting that most of the migrants are still stuck in Greece. Hardly anyone's met them. If you took all 2 million refugees from the Syrian and Iraq crises and put them in Europe, if you spread them around easily, they’d be hard to find. So the politics of this are really weird.
Take a country like Germany. Germany has very high pensions. People are living longer, so the replacement rate on the German population is 1.4. That means they’re having 1.4 kids for every couple that's there. So if they don't have immigration, they shrink, they die and they blow up their pension system. Yet, there seems to be one of those things where even if the economic logic is impeccable for immigration simply because somebody needs to pay the taxes to pay your pensions, nobody wants to deal with it because it seems to be this awful flooding of the country with difference.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about the coverage. Historically, especially the heavily politically inflected British tabloids, have not been shy about pandering to its constituencies, to pour gasoline on the flames of discontent, and yet, the coverage of Brexit does seem to be couched almost entirely in economic data and estimates of GDP and, and so forth, oddly circumspect from a Fleet Street, anyway, that's used two riling up the hoi polloi.
MARK BLYTH: That's really interesting and really true, and I think it's because everyone's kind of conflicted. It’s as if some of the rational part of Fleet Street has said, well, hang on a minute, if at the end of the day this is going to really hurt and we’re just going to renegotiate to get back in what we’ve already lost at a time when everyone's annoyed with us, why do it? But then the political side is very much, yeah it's about Britain and it's about standing up to Brussels. And this is the story they’ve been telling their publics for 10 years. So they’re kind of prisoners of what they’ve built themselves.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark, thank you.
MARK BLYTH: Always a pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Blyth is a professor of political economy at Brown University and co-editor of The Future of the Euro.
[THE CLASH PARODY - “SHOULD WE STAY OR SHOULD WE GO”]:
David Cameron’s buggin' me (patronizing the electorate)
Corbyn sits there and agrees (celebrating mass migration)
Well Tony Blair thinks it’s funny (he’s the master of deceit)
We don't know how they spend our money (an unaccountable elite)
So we got to start agreein’ (by June the 23rd)
Are we Brits or European? (let’s take back control!)
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Dasha Lisitsina. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Emma Stelter and Isabel Cristo. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC's vice president for news. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.