Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

Brexit:  A tale of two ‘publics’

DSC_7705 copyBy Joleen Steyn Kotze.  The story of Brexit and its shock victory brings the possibility of using African conceptual tools to analyze complex European cosmopolitanism and citizenship.

Peter Ekeh, a renowned African thinker on African civic citizenship, conceptualized his notion of ‘two publics’ to explain Africa’s socio-political division. For Ekeh, post-colonial states were not one civic public like in Western nation- states. Rather, African polities comprised two publics with different rights and citizenship obligations.

The primordial public is built on ethnicity and traditional values, ethics, and morals. Within this public good citizenship is constructed around a moral obligation to advance security of the ethnic group. Cohesion of the ethnic whole results in individual security through belonging.

The civic public, an imported colonial structure based on the Western state structure, is regarded as amoral.  For Ekeh, it lacks sufficient legitimacy to shape societal morality and cosmopolitan citizenship.

The civic public is used for gain to benefit the primordial public.  Thus, as Ekeh noted, “a good citizen of the primordial public gives out and asks for nothing in return;  a lucky citizen of the civic public gains from the civic public but enjoys escaping giving anything in return whenever he can.”

These two publics collectively shape socio-political African citizenship. This also creates a contested sense of what is a good citizen. It also shapes contested ethics and morality around politicizing ethnicity to capture state power, as seen in Kenya and other African states.

Reimagining the cosmopolitan ‘civic public’

The story of the European Union is perhaps one of reimagining citizenship and belonging. Initially created to establish a common market for stability and mutual prosperity, the EU soon evolved into a supranational ‘civic public’.   It created the possibility of reimagining citizenship to a broader political entity with the Treaty of Establishing the European Community; thus being European in addition to being Dutch, German, or British.  It laid the foundation for cosmopolitan citizenship with expanded rights for the European citizen.   This included freedom of movement and residence, and removing trade barriers for common economic prosperity.

Yet, as some have pointed out, is also created a ‘democracy without people’.  The European Parliament embodies an impressive bouquet of rights that Europeans enjoy as citizens of the broader ‘civic public’.   Yet, as the custodian of those rights, the European Parliament stands of accused of not being able to guarantee ‘equal citizenship’.  More glaring, of course, is the view that the European Parliament lacked sufficient democratic legitimacy.  Brussels was too far removed from the ordinary European citizen, thus, constructing Brussels as the imperial parliament ‘governing by press release’ to use Prempeh’s terminology. Like Africa’s ‘imposed civic publics’ key to the narrative  that secured a Brexit victory was Brussels, the imperial parliament that undermined British tradition and state sovereignty.

A return to the primordial public?

The Brexit narrative was built on othering the European migrant coming in to steal British jobs, reclaiming sovereignty, and returning to British greatness. Similarities are found in the narratives politicizing ethnicity in African polities that appeal to the primordial public for the security of one group at the exclusion of the other.

Ekeh rightly noted that “the political problems of the age as well as the historical context of politics determine to a large extent the aspects and issues of citizenship that are sorted out for emphasis in a given society.”   In the context of the European migration crisis, the global terrorist threat, austerity politics, and economic hardship, Brexit campaigners created a narrative that emphasized returning to a former glorious empire.  Only this, the narrative stressed, can secure the future of British citizens. They accused those against renouncing their European citizenship of fear politics.

Appealing to a primordial cognition of citizenship through the narrative that Brussels, the imperial Parliament, undermines British greatness, notably influenced an older generation towards a primordial public.   This generation may not necessarily see themselves as part to the European civic public, but rather as members of the once glorious British Empire.   For them, the decision to leave may have been premised on securing the future of their children in the primordial space as opposed to the civic public of the European Union.   For Brexit campaigners, there may be a sense that the EU needs Britain more.   As such, they may believe that they may still gain the most benefit without any obligation to the greater civic public.

The age divide:  Primordialism versus the civic public?

Concomitantly, the younger generation seems to mourn the loss of their status as Europeans.  There seems to be a sense of betrayal that their futures have been sacrificed. They are no longer citizens of the Europe and have to live with an enforced primordialism to secure their prosperity.  This betrayal seemingly comes from a view that the as the lucky citizens, the older generation capitalized on the opportunities the civic public of the EU provided. Most notably free movement, international job opportunities, and a sense of belonging based on cosmopolitan citizenship of being European.   This, even tough the Eurobarometer (2015) reported that around 64 % of British citizens sampled identify themselves by their national identity as opposed to European.  Among the younger generation, the Eurobaromer also found that younger Europeans tend to see themselves as citizens of the EU.  Class and education are also influencing factors that shape political cognition of cosmopolitan citizenship.

Brexit brings to the fore a contested and generational divide in the political cognition of citizenship.  Questions on whether one belongs to a primordial nation-state or a broader civic public found in the EU may demonstrate the development of cosmopolitan citizenship to a broader civic public.  It may also signal the weakening of primordial political allegiance to a nation-state in a younger generation.  However, one cannot ignore the increase in right-wing narratives of exclusive spaces found in the nation-state that are mushrooming across Europe.  With the unity of the EU now under the spotlight following Brexit, it could potentially ignite more involvement from younger citizens as they try to safeguard their future interests as part of a greater civic union.  It may also, of course, see increased appeals being made to a primordial sense of nationhood and exclusive publics.

Joleen Steyn Kotze is an Associate Professor of Political Studies at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.  She is also a member of the editorial board of Governance.

Written by Governance

July 5, 2016 at 2:39 pm

Posted in Blog comments, Brexit


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