Christopher Bickerton is a Reader in European Politics at POLIS and a fellow of Queens' CollegeEddy Wax

On a sunny day at Queens’ College, EU expert Chris Bickerton has welcomed me into his spacious office which looks out over the River Cam.

“From somewhere like here, we often don’t see it, but if you travel just an hour outside of Cambridge people see things differently. They feel that this is a country that’s stagnating, where all they’ve seen is job losses and declining wages. It’s a different world.”

“It’s no coincidence that the people who support Remain are accustomed to getting their way.”

Chris Bickerton

He is telling me this to argue that a second referendum on the UK remaining an EU member could be disastrous. Bickerton, a left-wing politics lecturer who voted Leave, warns that a referendum which led to the UK staying in the European Union would only reinforce the sense among many people that politics is run by self-interested politicians. The result, he says, would be generations of simmering anger across British society.

“It’s no coincidence that the people who support Remain, not all of them, but many of the 48%, are accustomed to getting their way. They are the ones who pull the strings in British society at all the different levels.”

And if the vote went ‘No’ again, he says, it would just be a farce.

Bickerton is the author of The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide, which was published before the referendum. The book’s rigorous impartiality concealed his own stance, but here the soft-spoken academic seems keen to set out his stall. 

“I consider myself very European: my mother’s French, my mother tongue is French. But it’s wrong to think the EU has a monopoly on what it means to be European. They claim to embody European values, but to confuse the two, I think, is a real mistake.”

He even claims that Brexit can be seen as a deeply European decision. “In my view, Brexit is an expression of popular sovereignty and that is a deeply European ideal, most associated with the Genevan born Jean-Jacques Rousseau and enacted by the French Revolution in 1789.”

Bickerton’s prizing of popular sovereignty clashes, he says, with the ‘pooled sovereignty’ that EU membership requires. “There is a sense that participation matters more than equality of rights of self-governance.”

But this is not the only reason he voted Leave. “One of my criticisms of the EU has always been that on the one hand it talks all this language of European values, but it is incredibly, incredibly nasty when it deals with the outside world.”

I point out that Angela Merkel allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees into the country when she opened the borders in 2015.

“But this was a dramatic departure”, counters Bickerton. “She broke all the European rules in doing it and basically destroyed the Schengen agreement by making that speech.”

A smaller member state would never have got away with it, he says.

In a talk in Cambridge a year ago, Bickerton mooted the possibility of other Brexit-inspired referenda on EU membership taking place in France and Italy in the near future. Brexit, he said then, was only “the tip of the iceberg” for the EU. But this domino effect has clearly not come to pass. Why not?

“The costs of exiting are much higher for countries in the Eurozone. But Brexit also represents something more fundamental that shapes European politics and society.”

All over Europe for the past 30 to 40 years, Bickerton argues, there has been a growing separation between governments and citizens, creating a void where people increasingly think of politics as distant and self-serving. Brexit was a dramatic expression of that.

“Article 50 was always a trap and the UK government walked straight into it.”

Chris Bickerton

“Politicians who used to be directly embedded in societies have become increasingly estranged from their own societies”, he says. “Brexit is not an anomaly. It would be misleading to think that this void was a uniquely British affair and I think it’s actually more powerful in other places.”

This void, Bickerton says, will express itself in different ways, but he seems unconvinced that the sight of frustrating Brexit talks is the main reason other referenda have not been called across Europe.

Nevertheless, he still believes the negotiations have gone “pretty badly”. In fact, for Bickerton, it was doomed from the outset: “Article 50 was always a trap and the UK government walked straight into it. This two-year window for negotiations is far too short to talk about everything.”

But what should the UK do now?

On the Irish border issues, Bickerton claims the problem lies in the Good Friday Agreement, which needs to be amended to remove the assumption that both sides are EU member states.

As for citizens’ rights, Theresa May should offer the three million EU nationals in the UK the right to full citizenship, a “historically unprecedented” move which Bickerton claims is not only the fair thing to do, but would be “a real boost to the UK economy”.

And he says that the UK’s refusal to agree to a figure on the financial settlement, in an attempt to hold out for a better deal from the EU, is bound to fail. The UK negotiators “think that they are holding this as their trump card, as if it’s holding the EU to ransom, which it’s not really.”

Bickerton says the UK negotiators need to accept that the UK is going to be fully out of the EU and realise that their best option is a free trade agreement with the EU as a third country.

“I think there’s still some sort of pure head-in-the-sand non-wanting-to-accept reality from Theresa May. The EU is a rule-bound set of institutions, and the main countries, France and Germany, are not disposed to doing a special deal with the UK.”

A ‘Canada Plus’ style deal is the most realistic option for the UK, says Bickerton. “That’s the only thing that I think the EU would be really willing to negotiate as a future long term relationship.”

And if that is the case, he says, the government has a massive challenge on its hands to plan for it, as it would require huge changes to the way the UK economy works.


Mountain View

Huppert announces he will not stand for re-election

Last month, after writing an opinion piece in The New York Times which criticised Emmanuel Macron, Bickerton was falsely accused of being a supporter of Marine Le Pen by one of Macron’s main spokesmen.

By this it is clear the French government is listening to what the academic has to say. But is Theresa May?

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