Brexit could be a model for what nations should do if the political leadership was there. But it isn’t.
I imagine when British Prime Minister David Cameron secured an agreement with European political leaders last winter on immigration and other issues relating to continued UK membership in the European Union, he thought he had dealt with this. He seemed pretty confident at the time that this would persuade British voters with concerns about immigration and EU membership in general that their concerns had been addressed. Now, even though I dislike Cameron and his politics, I used to think that he had pretty good political instincts—he has led the Conservatives to two election victories, after all, the past one giving him a majority in Parliament. I was wrong—Cameron’s political instincts appear to be as muddled as the Republican leadership in the US who thought that Trump would fold after every outlandish statement. It turns out that this is the year of outlandish. This is not Mr. Gumpy’s Outing.
Because it also turns out that Britain may vote to leave the European Union on 23 June, the date of the referendum, the consequences of which are pretty unclear at the moment. This is not a legally binding referendum, but I suspect Parliament will not be inclined to ignore it either. The consequences are likely to be economically negative, at least in the short term—in fact, quite negative, depending on whom you believe. The Financial Times and The Guardian have both had good coverage of the economic and political implications of Brexit. The problem of course, is that people will tend to believe what they want to believe. As Larison and others have pointed out, people have an emotional attachment to their country that they do not have to the European Union.
This is not to necessarily defend the EU. It’s had a rough couple of years, and legitimate questions have been raised about how well it can function given its crappy track record. It mishandled Greece under pressure from German bankers (although this is a two edged sword), and completely mishandled a refugee crisis you could see coming miles away. But there have been undoubted economic, cultural and even political benefits, plus it’s helped create the world’s largest economic bloc. The idea of the European Community initially was that if you make countries economically intertwined, the prospect for a war between those countries declines. Forged in post-World War Two trauma, this has proved a pretty effective tactic. And benefits are clearly there, even if they’re not appreciated. There is a certain irony in the fact that the EU has supported localism on any number of levels, but has not gained much in return. Cornwall, the poorest region of Britain, has been a huge recipient of EU aid for cultural and economic projects—but apparently is going to strongly vote in support of Brexit anyway. It’s not the first time people have chosen to vote against their economic self-interest—we’ve been watching this happen in the US for a couple of decades now.
But there’s more here, as there often is. Is there an anti-elitist, anti-politician trope at work here? Larison, among many others, think so, and I’m not sure he’s wrong. It may not be the whole story—unitary explanations seldom are—but it probably captures much of the same sentiment that has been used to describe Trump supporters. It comes with the territory these days. It was inevitable that segment of the population that has not benefited economically over the past several decades would eventually manifest itself on some issue or other. In the case of Brexit, like the US, that has turned out to be immigration. Is this a problem? Well, that depends on who you ask. Is this a crisis? No. But has it become a political football? Absolutely.
Part of the difficulty in coming up with an elegant hypothesis for why the Brexit vote looks pretty likely at this point is that there are multiple constituencies at work. This is not just the push by a sizeable bunch of Tories who never wanted to be in the union in the first place (although that is certainly part of it). There is, as it turns out, considerable support for leaving in the Labour party as well. Much has been made of the fact that while Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, is out there tepidly telling people to vote to remain, he has been a long time sceptic of EU membership. And if that isn’t left enough for you, even Tariq Ali supports leaving, having called the EU “a machine for neoliberal capitalism.” The far left is as split as the far right. But it is true that the EU, after all, is negotiating a very bad trade deal with the US, and while we like to slag off Obama and the US for this, the EU has been a willing dance partner by and large.
I can actually think of a scenario where Brexit could lead to a positive outcome, by which I mean a sort of Wendell Berry outcome. I have long thought (and even tried to practice) localism, especially in my food consumption. We signed up for a box scheme here because we know where our vegetables come from—in this case, Devon. We’ve been to the farm, in fact. And I enjoy living in a country where I know what farms my meat comes from. Localism is the future, but it will be either voluntary or involuntary. This is a future where people rely on local economies for products and goods, and for services, and therefore for employment. Now, there’s lots that can’t be local, and the globalization of goods was probably a good thing for, say, some agricultural products. But since the advent of the standardized shipping container, globalization has become the dominant economic paradigm of our time, and its wave of destruction of resources and habitats is clear to see. This is clearly unsustainable over the longer term without significant adaptation to impending resource scarcity (and its effect on the prices of what’s in everything) and the impacts of global warming.
We could do these things. A number of thinkers and writers—Lester Brown and Jeffrey Sachs come immediately to mind, for example—have laid out the steps we would need to take to provide healthy livelihoods for everyone on the planet (I have some disagreements with Sachs, but that’s beside the point). The problem is that we show no signs of doing any of these things. So Britain could actually be a lot more self-sufficient than it currently is, in food, and manufactured products, if it chose to be. But I see no evidence that the leaders of the Brexit campaign have anything like this in mind. If anything, it’s to align Britain even more closely with America—John Bolton, who has been wrong about so much, thinks so, and he’s hardly alone. I think this is a very bad idea, and this, more than anything else, is what makes me dubious. Brexit could be a good idea, and could lead to a model for what nations should do, if their political leadership was there. Sadly, I see no evidence of this sort of leadership.
However this turns out, it will be messy, although clearly messier if the Leave camp prevails. The political fall-out will be significant, of course. Cameron is probably doomed as PM, and instead we’ll possibly get either Andrew Gove or Boris Johnson, either of which I believe is a horrifying prospect (although Gove has ruled himself out, for the time being). This is not “bad” on the level of Trump—but it is bad on the level of pure corporatism as a philosophy of governing. The potential upside would be getting rid of George Osborne. The potential downside is getting someone worse. The implications for Corbyn are less clear—his leadership is constantly under threat, but it’s not clear that this will make much difference one way or the other. The more interesting question for some is the Scotland issue—while Scotland voted in a referendum last year to remain in the UK, the leaders of the Scottish independence movement, who want to remain in the EU, would call for another referendum—one that would have a good likelihood of passing this time. And then what about Wales? Northern Ireland? Jeez, what a mess this might be—especially since the Good Friday agreement upon which the current peace relies is based on the EU laws on Human rights, which is one of the first things that Brexit leaders want to abandon. Moreover, suddenly there would be a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland that does not exist now. The potential for mischief here is quite high.
And, as the leaders of the Remain camp keep emphasizing, every single trade or political deal that the UK currently is involved in through its EU membership will need to be renegotiated, and at uncertain terms at that. The Brexit leadership has minimized the importance of this issue, but it’s actually a good point, and an issue that has quite a few observers worried. Consider airlines—the UK currently benefits from its EU membership in the treaties that allow aircraft to pass through airspace, or to land in one country or another, especially on trans-Atlantic routes. Instead, UK airlines or the UK government would need to renegotiate those agreements as bilateral agreements with every country currently covered by broader agreements that the EU has, and there are quite a few of these. Expand this for any number of trade agreements, not to mention lord knows what else, you can see how a number of observers think this becomes an enormous nightmare. The German finance minister just the other day said that Britain would not retain access to the EU single market if Brexit occurs—so this means renegotiation with every country individually if this comes to pass. The Brexit leadership has dismissed this as political posturing. Well, maybe. But if it isn’t? Grab the popcorn.
The stamp above is one of a series of “Europa” stamps issued annually by EU countries. This one, from Germany in 2002, seems strangely relevant.