What was the narrow British vote to leave the European Union really about?
In recent days, you have read commentaries with variations on the following themes, ad nauseam. All of them contain pieces of the truth, but all miss the basic point:
Irrational Racism. This vote was a mostly racist reaction on the part of Brits who resented dark skinned foreigners in their midst, and mistakenly blamed the EU.
Britain actually has more control over its borders than most EU members, since London never signed the 1985 Schengen Agreement, which got rid of border controls for travelers throughout most of the Union. Before entering Britain, Europeans must still go through passport control, just like Syrians or Americans.
Scapegoating the EU for Economic Frustrations. Britain actually has a better deal than most EU nations. For starters, it retained its own currency, and controls its own monetary and fiscal policy. But as a member of the EU, Britain does get to send tariff-free exports to the continent and London operates as a major European financial center. All of this now at risk.
The EU Had It Coming. Brussels is a remote, unaccountable bureaucracy, imposing regulations beyond democratic control. The vote, rightly or wrongly, was a yearning for lost national sovereignty.
Rejecting Liberal Internationalism. Britain has grown at a good clip since joining the EU in 1973. Globalization is here to stay. The people who voted for Brexit, are badly informed flat-earth types, failed to understand that they were shooting themselves in the foot.
What’s wrong with these commentaries? All fail to grasp that there is more than one brand of liberalism internationalism. The kind represented by the EU since the 1990s (and Thatcherism since the late 1970s) has been operated largely by and for financial elites.
When the original institutions that later became the EU were created in the 1940s and 1950s, the international system was designed on the ashes of depression and war to rebuild an economy of full employment and broad based prosperity. The system worked remarkably well.
In the 1980s, as a backlash against the dislocations of the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain (and Ronald Reagan in the U.S.). Their policies returned to a dog-eat-dog brand of capitalism that benefited elites and hurt ordinary people. By the 1990s, when the European Economic Community became a more tightly knit European Union, it too became an agent of neo-liberalism.
Policies of deregulation ended in the financial collapse of 2008. The austerity cure, enforced the gnomes of Brussels and Frankfurt and Berlin, is in many ways worse than the disease.
Rising mass discontent has failed to dethrone the elites responsible for these policies, but it has resulted in loss of faith in institutions. The one percent won the policies but lost the people.
So, yes, the Brits who voted for Brexit got a lot of facts and details wrong. And Britain will probably be worse off as a result. But they did grasp that the larger economic system is serving elites and is not serving them.
The tragedy is that we are further away from a reformed EU than ever. A progressive EU, more in the spirit of 1944, is not on the menu. The exit of Britain will give even more power to Angela Merkel’s Germany, architect and enforcer of austerity.
The rest of Europe will become more like Greece economically and more like the British rightwing politically. There will be more far-right populist movements for other nations to quit the EU. This has already begun in France and the Netherlands, two of the founding nations of the European Community — and ones that also benefit, on balance, from the EU.
What about race? Didn’t race play a big role in this vote?
Is surely did — and not just a backlash against just recent influx of refugees and economic migrants. Since the 1950s, when Britain rebranded its empire as the Commonwealth, Britain has had a relatively liberal immigration policy for its former colonies—one part carrot to promote allegiance, one part guilty conscience.
In the 1960s, the rightwing Tory Enoch Powell was already campaigning against immigrants and slogans appeared, “If you want a ni**er for a neighbour, vote Labour.”
By 2001, 15 years ago, Britain was already 8 percent nonwhite. As traditional industry declined and living standards crashed, non-white populations increased, creating resentments against both economic misfortune and racial change.
But the history of rightwing populism is invariably a mix of economic factors and nativist ones. In the 1960s, when Europe had full employment, there was little backlash against foreign “guest-workers.” Anti-Semitism was never far below the surface in Europe, but it took the German economic collapse of the 1920s and early 1930s to produce Hitler.
Rightwing revolts are always substantially irrational, as was the vote for Brexit. But when downwardly mobile Brits grasp that the EU and the larger model of neo-liberalism aren’t exactly on their side, they are grasping a truth.
What makes this vote so tragic is the absence of enlightened leadership, either in Britain or on the continent, to propose something better. Prime Minister David Cameron, who proposed the reckless gamble of a referendum as a tactical feint to paper over an intra-party schism, may now be responsible for the dissolution of two unions — not just the EU, but the U.K., as Scotland secedes. He will be remembered as the worst British prime minister ever, a near-tie with Neville Chamberlain. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who said he opposed Brexit but refused to actively campaign against it, was not much better.
Britain’s two major parties are now both in disarray. I can think of one possible silver lining. The referendum was not legally binding, and Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty — withdrawal — still needs to be voted by the House of Commons. And a majority of British M.P.’s oppose Brexit.
Now that the implications of Brexit are clearer, including the likely breakup of the United Kingdom itself, it’s possible that the Commons could refuse to approve Article 50. Rather, Britain could have an early election, and maybe even a partisan realignment, with one party pledged to keep Britain in the EU but to modernize the EU to better serve regular Brits, and the other party standing for narrow nationalism. My bet is that the modernizers would win.
Absent this sort of recasting of politics and political choices, we are in for a grim era in which ultra nationalists and neo-fascists keep gaining ground.
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