This Guest Blog is contributed by David Evers from the Netherlands Environmental Protection Agency. The views expressed are his own, and not those of the Agency or of ESPON, for which he is the Dutch National Contact Point.
As it’s only a few days in after the Brexit, I have barely arrived at the ‘denial’ stage of coping. It will take years for the shock waves of Brexit to fully arrive: we have only witnessed the flash on the horizon.
A planner ashamed
As a planner, I admit feeling ashamed at being taken so off-guard. The very core of our profession is aimed at anticipating the future. In our day-to-day work we draw up forecasts, prognoses and scenarios to enable prudent policy decisions on expensive, long-term and usually irreversible land-use matters. And yet most European planners, including myself, did not see this coming.
Perhaps this blindness stems from a professional bias: we go to great lengths to explore developments in the environment, economy or demography, again to inform policy decisions, but rarely look at political developments in the same manner: that’s the role of political scientists, not planners. Perhaps the blindness is partly ideological: most European planners are closet technocrats that believe that policy should be ‘evidence-based’, and that their primary role is to supply this evidence. This ideology may suit the rather depoliticized environment of expert meetings with bureaucrats at the European Commission, but is completely out-of-touch with a reality where ‘fact-free politics’ is increasingly the norm.
The failure on our part to anticipate this vastly important shift in the territorial composition of Europe may also be imprinted in the way scientists and policymakers interact. Applied research programmes like ESPON seek to produce knowledge that will be used by policymakers. As a consequence, research that is not deemed ‘useful’ is not pursued or left unpublished. An example of the latter is a short piece that I wrote about ten years ago for the massive ESPON 3.2 scenario project.
A Dystiopian Scenario
At the onset, our team was asked to write two extreme ‘scenario sketches’ of Europe in 2030, resulting from distinct policy decisions. My colleague wrote the utopian sketch ‘La Dolce Vita’ while I seized upon the opportunity to write a doom scenario where a series of avoidable policy decisions led to a grim, bleak future for Europe. This literary gem entitled ‘Dark Age Ahead’ (the title was shamelessly pilfered from Jane Jacobs) proved too much for ESPON to stomach.
In the piece, written in 2004, Brexit also occurred around 2016, but was triggered by additional eastward enlargement. Austria also seceded, but other member states were placated by tax rebates to remain. The piece predicted, “By 2020 the European Union was a laughable shadow of its former self, its ideals all but extinguished and ambitions forgotten.” Not only was this scenario sketch deemed politically objectionable (admittedly it was rather insensitive in places), but it was also considered so preposterous as to be completely unusable.
The plug was pulled on this part of the project, and the two sketches shelved. In the end, the ESPON scenario project drew up two rather bland policy scenarios: one slightly liberal and one slightly social-democratic. It also included a milquetoast ‘vision’ which attempted to find an optimal middle ground between these soporific pathways. Evidently this was considered useful by policymakers.
At the time Dark Age Ahead was written, continued EU expansion and integration seemed inevitable: the EU was about to ratify a Constitution and was undergoing a major enlargement. Around the time the sketch was discarded, two ardent Europhile nations, France and the Netherlands, voted down the Constitution in referenda. This was the first major blow to EU integration. Now, with Brexit, we are witnessing (excepting Greenland in 1985) the first reversal of EU expansion. Dark Age Ahead doesn’t seem quite as ludicrous as it once did.
So far the Dutch media coverage of Brexit has centred on breaking events, but also on the wider ramifications for the UK and the Netherlands. Last night, a newscaster recounted the warning of some US financial institutions that they may be moving operations out of London “to Paris, Frankfurt or… [after a slight pause and glint in her eye] even Amsterdam”. In addition, the media speculated on whether the Brexit will drag the Dutch economy down with the British, whether studying or working in the UK will become more difficult, whether holidays in the UK will become cheaper and whether the entire EU project will collapse.
More importantly, Brexit has unleashed discussions of a Nexit. In little more than a decade, the Netherlands has moved from being one of the most Europhile to one of the most Eurosceptic of member states. Even though the economic and social upheaval for this small trading nation at the core of Europe would be far greater than for the UK, a recent poll showed 48% of Dutch now support a Nexit. All political parties save the Dutch populist-right PVV (now the largest party in the polls) oppose a Nexit however. This is expected to become a central issue in the upcoming elections.
In the wake of Brexit, Geert Wilders (PVV) has already called for a speedy referendum in Holland and conservative MP Mark Rutte has already flatly refused. For legal-technical reasons, a Nexit referendum cannot be called in the near future, so the battle over Europe will be played out in the political campaigns. From the street interviews in the Dutch media, it appears that Nexit supporters are cut from the same cloth as their British counterparts: older, uneducated and disgruntled with an indefinable elite. Asked why she favoured leaving the EU last night on TV, an elderly woman exclaimed, “we want the guilder back, everybody wants the guilder back”. It is likely that Nexit proponents will resort to similar tactics as Brexit. Earlier this year a referendum on a free trade agreement with the Ukraine was won in part by fanning xenophobic and anti-establishment sentiments. Many ‘no’ voters neither understood nor cared about the issue at hand, but just wanted to ‘send a message’ to The Hague and Brussels. Fact-free politics has firmly arrived on Dutch soil to wage war against the traditional Calvinist levelheadedness and prudence. Unlike Brexit, the Dutch ‘remain’ camp – including most planners – will not be caught off guard this time.