By Pia Riggirozzi (University of Southampton) and Diana Tussie (FLACSO/Argentina).
Pia Riggirozzi is Associate Professor in Global Politics at the University of Southampton (, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.
On 23rd June, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union through a non-binding yet politically compelling referendum. The result was a close 48% remain and 52% leave, demonstrating a very divided society. This division is largely due to a combination of citizen frustration with an insulated and arrogant ruling elite and insensitive political leadership leading to apparently widespread support for anti-politics parties such as UKIP and insensitive political leadership and, more profoundly, a political-economic project that seems to be cutting away, wilfully and needlessly, at the welfare system and social contract that have hitherto guaranteed social peace in Britain. As we have indicated somewhere else, this is also part of the unravelling of neoliberalism in the UK where the Right is failing to impose an economic model based on rising inequality and the Left unable or unwilling to refashion a social contract of ‘caring capitalism’ or ‘capitalism with a human face’. As a society it manifested some deeply disturbing moral, emotional and human issues of ‘national’ identity preceding any responsibility towards ‘others’, being those immigrants that legally contribute to the UK economic activity and social life, or those ill-fated, dispossessed, immigrants and asylum seekers who are simply trying to survive. Equally disturbing is, as Grugel claimed, how all this ignores both the complexity of identity in Britain and a history of internationalism of the UK in global affairs.
As the British elite spins with the implications of the vote, there is much to reflect on the current crisis in the UK and indeed in Europe more widely. Brexit is about class, inequality, voters feeling excluded from politics, as much as a loss of purpose of what regional integration is for.
What regionalism is and is for
Crucially, Brexit revitalised a conventional argument that regional integration is associated with a reduction of state power, especially in terms of the ‘loss of sovereignty’ to markets and normative regulating flows of people, in this case workers and immigrants, to regional institutions. Taking control back of the country was the political platform of supporters who consider that integration in larger multilateral schemes means diminution of state power as a result of the ‘pooling’ of sovereignty or surrender to the regional level. Effectively, once policy measures such as tariff liberalisation are established at the regional level, national governments’ direct control over policy is sharply diminished. Authority is thus removed not only from the state but also from societal influence. But this is not necessarily incompatible with a revitalisation of state power. Aldo Ferrer, former Minister of Economy in Argentina, defended the thesis that a successful integration rests on coordinated ‘construction of sovereignty’. This construction does not rest upon the delegation of sovereignty to supranational communitarian institutions, which in a conglomerate of unequally resourced members could lead to the subordination of the weaker states to the hegemonic power of the stronger states, as the experience of the European Union demonstrates for cases such as Greece, Portugal and Spain, nor does it rest on the transfer of sovereignty to supranational institutions, but rather on inter-governmental institutions and agreements that adequately address regional economic and social disparities within the bloc. Regionalism, from this perspective, enhances governance through cross-border intergovernmental forms of cooperation, and identified instances of regionally coordinated programmes of resource redistribution, social regulation, regional provision of welfare goods and services, social rights (including regional mechanisms that give populations the means of claiming and challenging governments).
As such, the key question is less what regionalism is (in terms of its philosophical, legal, or institutional bases) and more one of how regionalism acts, the roles and purposes to which the practice of regionalism gives expression to political actors and policies. In other words, what practices and political imaginaries specific regional governance enable or obstruct, what issues are made visible as central problems, and what modes of action are supported as a consequence.
The Brexit outcome indicates that the Leave platform in the UK successfully created a false sense that Britain would be better off on its own. By capitalizing on anti-immigration sentiments, economic inequality, and lack of understanding of the EU, the Leave campaign won the support of voters that have been in many ways the disaffected – older, less educated, low working class or non working class, and whose concerns focused on the loss of jobs, rising inequality, the supposed misallocation of government funds to the EU instead of British systems, and the increase in immigration. Brexit created a sense of identity and self-image amongst those actors who reacted to a regional integration model perceived as failing to adequately address regional disparities within the economic bloc, and across and within societies.
Likewise, Brexit shows that citizens’ information about and engagement with regional politics and institutions is vital for legitimacy and demands for accountability. A key problem faced by the Remain campaign was the lack of accurate knowledge about the EU, its normative beyond movement of goods and people, and its relationship with Great Britain and the ordinary people, including frameworks for rights, including the right to health. A 2013 EU Survey found that nearly half of EU citizens said that they didn’t understand how the EU worked, or how monetary contributions may support cross national arrangements for free health coverage and tax rebates.
Opportunities for reclaiming and rebuilding sovereignty through regionalism
The Brexit vote has led many in Latin American commentators to wonder about the benefits and disadvantages of regional integration. From an economic point of view, there are concerns about the prospects of economic vulnerability led by financial volatility and a halt in ongoing bilateral trade agreements with the EU. Politically, sceptics claims that compared to Europe, Latin America did not develop any ‘integration initiatives meaningful enough for people to even consider leaving’, taking this as a sign of failure. In fact, claims that Latin American regionalism has failed have been common for more than a decade despite the fact that that regional initiatives have proliferated since at least the 1960s and despite its long tradition in a diversity of regional associations.
This conclusion is certainly persuasive given the recurrent politico-institutional and economic instabilities in Latin America and holds up well if regionalism is merely understood as an economic project. However, over the last two decades regional demands for – and supply of – regional initiatives in Latin America increasingly focused not on economic deepening but on regionally-anchored projects addressing social development. These recent developments are significantly different, in content and in institutional architecture, from the experiments of the 1990s or even in the early years of the new millennium. For this reason, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) for instance are seen as a manifestation of post-commercial or what we have identified as post-hegemonic regionalism with distinctive calls for reclaiming sovereignty collectively through, for instance, health and defense. From this perspective, we must pay new attention to the ways southern regional organisations are re-engineering normative frames and debates as to what the purpose of regional integration should be, what kinds of social policies are needed, and what roles regional institutions should play in helping members to achieve those policies. This is significant because regional normative frameworks articulate political forms of thinking that configure political agency; make central or even visible particular issues; and privilege particular forms of political practice. This is also key to rethink how regionalism can serve the purpose of strengthening sovereignty through regional diplomacy.
The case of regional health policy in South America helps to illustrate this point. In the field of health policy there are multiple tensions between the interests of international pharmaceutical industry, developing countries, their national health systems and citizens. UNASUR and Mercosur have taken action on access to medicines, coordinating active resistance to the dominance of pharmaceutical companies under a motto that links regional health diplomacy with sovereignty. As a consequence a new regional ‘Database on Medicine Prices’ was set up revealing the prices paid by South American countries for their drug purchases. By making the information public and comparative, UNASUR and Mercosur are seeking to provide policymakers and health authorities information to strengthen the position of member states in purchases of medicines vis-à-vis pharmaceutical companies. Likewise, UNASUR’s Health Council has recently launched a project for mapping regional pharmaceutical capacities, to coordinate regional policies for production of medicines. Within the WHO, UNASUR as a bloc has pressed to change international norms regarding the combat of counterfeit medical products. The harmonisation of policies on medicines means that MERCOSUR/UNASUR negotiated the price for public sector purchases of the anti-retroviral Darunavir to US$ 1.27 per tablet from up to US$ 2.98 paid by some South American governments; an agreement with the pharmaceutical Gilead for the lowest possible price for essential medicines to treat Hepatitis C. These are the ways in which South America has been constructing the coordinated construction of (health) sovereignty, ways that skew hegemonic heavy riding, do not hit the headlines, careful to keep policy discretion to cope with disparities but important enough to increase bargaining power in asymmetric situations. These features lie at the core of our understanding of post-hegemonic regionalism.