Overcoming the clash between moral sentiments and economic interests in Brexit talks

In this blog, Professor Slavo Radosevic argues that both camps of the Brexit debate should rebalance their arguments to include both moral sentiments and economics interests. A new compromise could only be built by recognising the need for complementarity between those two.

One of several puzzling things about Brexit is that it suggests that self-interest or economic incentives as an argument for staying in the EU do not work. Most external observers see Brexit as a self-harm case. This reasoning is based on the underlying assumption that people care only about their material gain. On the other hand, the more rational an argument Remainers put forward, the more they get dismissed by the supporters of Brexit, whose responses range from attempts to couch Brexit in rational terms, talking about ‘great opportunities out there‘, to the less rational (according to the maximising self-interest assumption) stating of their wish to ‘just get out’, irrespective of cost. With time, this has led to a situation where rational discourse is rejected with more anger and disgust.

So, how do we explain a situation where appeals to material self-interest does not seem to work?

The underlying assumption of the dominant discourse is the separation of economic incentives and moral sentiments. However, what if these two cannot be separated? Human decisions are usually motivated by both material interests and moral sentiments.  As Samuel Bowles argues in his book ‘The Moral economy’, incentives and moral arguments can substitute for each other, but they also can complement each other. When we separate them we often provoke irrational behaviour which de facto undermines self-interest. For example, an ardent Brexiteer will undermine his/her self-interest because he/she wants to be ‘respected’ and his/her voice ‘heard’ irrespective of costs.

In a nutshell, the Brexit debate looks slightly different once we recognise that economic incentives can be crowded out by explicit or implicit moral and political motives. So, the more we try to appeal to economic self-interest the more we undermine moral, political and social arguments for staying in the EU. This situation is not new; increasing evidence shows that only some people are self-interested and that the majority is cooperative and driven by some moral and value system.

The fact is that the entire public and media discourse about the EU in the UK in the last 30 years has been couched in political and moral terms (lazy bureaucrats, over-regulation, and emerging super-state). So, as long as Brexiters can paint Remain in these terms then the ‘they want to punish us’ logic becomes an acceptable explanation of the Brexit impasse, and the country will remain stuck in its current unenviable position. Likewise, Remain leaning voices that depict the debate in economic terms only will deepen rather than heal divisions.

In this context, Theresa May Brexit solution is an unfortunate compromise between moral sentiments and economic interests of the country but turned upside down. In political and moral terms it remains firmly within ‘taking back control’ realm especially as to migration, while at the same time recognising economic interest and trying to minimise damage.  Her solution has pushed to the limit substitution of economic self-interest for moral sentiments and pushing it further would lead to too hard economic damage to the country. The issue is whether the country is willing to pay the economic price for a fantasy land where it will ‘take back control’ of its ‘laws, money and borders’.

This internal inconsistency of Brexit is its design fault, which can be resolved only by recognising the need for complementarity between economic interests and moral sentiments and recognising limits in the extent to which these two can substitute for each other. This is possible only by changing public discourse on the EU by reconciling economic self-interest with moral and universal values surrounding the European integration idea. This seems a hard thing to swallow but equally the  political and economic price of going for a ‘morally pure solution’ (‘will of the people’) is too high. Likewise, Remain will unlikely shift the balance of forces by pleading only to economic self-interest without appealing to the moral values of the EU integration.

The basis for compromise could be built once both sides recognise that their arguments have to include both – moral sentiments and economic interests

Slavo Radosevic is Professor of Industry and Innovation Studies at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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