What Brexit Teaches Us

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The British referendum on June 23, 2016 on whether or not to stay in the European Union revealed first and foremost a citizenship problem. We will never know who stormed the British site of Google during the night of June 23 with the questions “What is Brexit?” and “What is the European Union?” Yet we can safely assume that anyone with an understanding of history and a knowledge of current events would not have needed enlightenment ex post facto from Google. They would have known how their European Union membership was affecting their lives and what they were opting to leave: free movement of persons, the Euro-economic zone, and the protection of the European Court of Justice.

More troubling than an under-informed citizenry is the fact that British Prime Minister David Cameron allowed the referendum to happen without a blueprint for the future. Confident that the vote to stay would receive a 70 percent approval, he saw the referendum as a way to put to rest internal dissensions within the ruling Conservative Party that he led. But a campaign of misinformation about Britain’s responsibilities within the European Union (most notably the fear campaign about the Schengen Accord and the 350-million-pound weekly contribution from the UK to the European Union budget, and pro-Brexit former London Mayor Boris Johnson’s likening of the European Union to Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s), changed the outcome, although the vote was close. With a 72 percent voter turnout, 51.9 percent voted to leave, and 48.1 percent voted to stay – not even an absolute majority.

The Consequences of the Referendum in Britain

The referendum split open British politics and revealed much about other unresolved domestic policy issues. Overwhelmingly, older voters decided to leave. Rural England and working people who suffered economic hardships aggravated by recent austerity measures (Wales, Northeast England) voted out. Two-thirds of younger and urban voters voted to stay, along with Scotland, London, and Parliament.

The referendum did more than reveal a wealth, generational, and geographical gap over European Union membership. It has started reshaping the political parties. The Liberal-Democrats, who advocate a progressive, moderate, and anti-Brexit agenda, could emerge as the big winners, while the Conservative and Labour Parties have been thrown into disarray with the political exit of Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Members of Parliament 's attacks against their leader Jeremy Corbyn for his lukewarm support of the "remain" campaign. To stop the political damage, Theresa May took office as Prime Minister on July 13 after David Cameron tendered his resignation to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. With May’s appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and David Davis as Brexit Secretary, the British government has just taken one more step to the right. 

Although the referendum expressed popular will, it is not binding. European Union leaders have called in a non-binding resolution for an exit as fast as possible. Wanting to slow its exit, Britain is reluctant to activate Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which allows member states to leave the European Union. The Conservative Party would like to hold preliminary negotiations prior to initiating Article 50 to get more favorable terms, since there is a two-year time limit for negotiations once the article is triggered.

The "brisk but measured approach to Brexit" promised by David Davis with an exit date of December 2018 also indicates that Britain is readying itself to play a strong hand. This won’t cushion Britain from the economic consequences of its choice, however. Forcing the European Union into the unknown has created a wave of anti-British sentiments in Europe. The international business community is not going to wait to see under what conditions the present British obligations are terminated, and neither will international investors. With such weighty world issues as climate control, alter-globalization, the reshaping of the world’s trade routes, the failure of many regions -- including the Middle East and Africa -- to secure welfare and peace in their own realm, and the challenges of global migration, the current British political squabble may be reduced to a footnote in history.

The Broader Impact of the Referendum in Europe

The British action, however, has lit a powerful fuse in Europe. The issue there is not so much the technicalities of European Union membership and rules; it is an identity malaise that has been hanging over Europe for a century and which has only come to a head with the arrival of one million Syrian refugees in Germany in 2015. There is poetic poignancy in the timing of the London protests in favor of staying in the European Union, one day after the official commemoration of the Battle of the Somme, in which Britain suffered its heaviest single-day loss of life in history on July 1, 1916.

World War I was fought to open Europe to a brighter future and to bring its eastern half closer to the west. After many attempts to unite Europe in the interwar years, World War II brought a terrifying vision of Europe under Nazi domination. The years 1945-1989 saw Europe again divided between East and West. If the hope was that the new Europe after 1992 would usher in a reconciliation between the two halves of Europe, the acts of violence currently taking place in Britain against Polish and Eastern European immigrants might prove otherwise. Since the accession of several Eastern European countries to the European Union in 2004, millions of Poles, Romanians, and Bulgarians have entered Britain. In 2015 alone, Britain welcomed 330,000 immigrants, half of whom were European Union members.

The values uniting Europe are challenged by a current atmosphere of disintegration that seems to affect much of the world.

The xenophobic violence against immigrants, however, is also about external immigration. Although the number of its Syrian refugees is small, Britain today has a 4.5 percent Muslim minority. London just elected its first Muslim mayor. Acts of terrorism performed in the past two years in Europe by extremist Islamic groups have heightened racial resentment and fears across Europe. Which culture, which law, which religion will prevail tomorrow? The British people are not alone in facing these uncertainties. A retreat into particularism is sweeping many European Union countries.

In granting asylum in 2015 to refugees regardless of race or religion, Chancellor Merkel may well have played the third and final act of German post-World War II guilt – first, expiation and denazification (1945-1989), second, healing and recovery of German identity (1990-2015), and third, carrying the banner of tolerance as the sacred, unifying sign of European identity. Her decision highlighted the divide between idealism and reality and the extent to which host fatigue is weighing down Europe’s sacred mission as champion of human rights.

This mission is based on long-standing ideals of freedom and democracy rooted in ancient Greek thought, in Renaissance humanism, and in the values of the European Enlightenment. However, supporting the notion that numbers speak louder than anything else, and given the demographic growth of Muslim immigrant communities, French writer Michel Houllebecque envisaged a future cultural and political Muslim takeover in his 2015 novel Submission. The values uniting Europe are challenged by a current atmosphere of disintegration that seems to affect much of the world. The Brexit vote is forcing Europeans to face an ethical dilemma and to recreate the bonds that unite them.

What Next?

Will other European countries follow the British example? Some politicians have jumped on the opportunity to cash in, from Donald Trump who congratulated Scotland on voting to leave, to French ultra-right party leader Marine Le Pen, a 2017 presidential candidate who has called for a French referendum. Proponents of a loose confederation of free states have lost their champion, as Britain was the most powerful opponent of an "ever closer union." Other politicians have offered outdated models such as a massive free trade zone with no other obligations. After these initial reactions, however, Europeans in general have expressed an increased confidence in and desire to stay within the European Union.

In the months to come, we are likely to see conflicted dialogue about Europe's viability. Some will predict the demise of Europe. Others, with the French newspaper Le Monde, will deplore its “anthropological drama,” its lack of identity, its loss of a project in the abundance of the post-Maastricht years. These people are of the same mind as the ones who predicted the demise of the European Economic Community in the mid-1980s for want of a visible project. They see Europe defined by the 1943 project of Jean Monnet, and united by their rejection of war and their ideological struggle against the Soviet Union. These persons have a partial view of the dynamics of European unity during the twentieth century.

The European Union’s fabric rests on a wise balance between federalism (“a closer union”) and functionalism (sector by sector integration, in widening circles starting with the most modest economic project and ending with the full political construction). Functionalism in the past has allowed flexibility on issues such as the Euro, the Schengen Accords, labor legislation, and now, external immigration, while keeping the core strong. These incremental adjustments are the sign of the vitality of European democracy. The power struggle between its states and its central power will remain healthy as long as everyone is willing to absorb the inevitable bumps on the road and reach a compromise. After the dust settles, the European Union will once again have a chance to move forward towards a closer union.

-- Alice-Catherine Carls is the Tom Elam Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Tennessee Martin.