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The vote will have consequences far beyond the UK's borders.
Photograph: Little England
Brexit is bad news for world peace.
Four years ago the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee said that the EU has “contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” The award was justified. Because of the EU, a generation of Europeans has been able to take peace in their continent for granted. Indeed, the surprise with which younger Europeans greeted the Nobel decision testified to the extent to which the idea of war among western European nations has become unthinkable. With a few exceptions—notably Former Yugoslavia and its fragments, and more recently the Ukraine, which are outside the EU—Europeans have abandoned settling their differences by force of arms in favor of talk and cooperation on a range of economic, social, and political issues.
The British, many of whom have been persistently skeptical about the value of the EU, in no small measure owe peace in Northern Ireland to it. Irish nationalists laid down their arms in part because the common membership of the UK and the Republic of Ireland in the EU entailed free movement across the border, and the right of citizens of each to live and work in the other. The European Convention of Human Rights was also incorporated into Northern Ireland’s law.
The collapse of the Communist Bloc after 1989 and the peaceful incorporation of the Warsaw Pact countries into a democratic political and economic order was, to a significant degree, due to the EU. The painful economic reforms those countries undertook to adjust to a free-market economy were politically possible because of the rewards of EU membership and the immense and tangible gains that it brought in its wake, notably the continental labor market. In contrast to NATO advancing its frontiers to the east, the EU’s growth was fundamentally unthreatening—a rare case of a political expansion that spelled only peace.
Tory leaders fatally misjudged what would happen when they legitimized the central plank of Britain’s neo-fascist movement.
Within the EU and the European Economic Area (which includes Norway and unofficially sweeps in Switzerland), the free movement of peoples—most notably the vast numbers of young people who traveled the length and breadth of the continent for education—has proved an exceptionally strong means of breaking down the bigotries that disfigured Europe’s age of nationalism. We might have hoped that unprecedented prosperity brought by the combination of peace and economic integration would also have checked retrograde tribalism—but evidently, it did not.
Like any large governmental bureaucracy, the EU has often been cumbersome, opaque, and remote. The translation services alone at its Brussels headquarters are vast. The regular trek of the European Parliament between Brussels and Strasbourg is farcical and costly. The EU has protected special interests, notably farmers, at the cost of subsidies and market distortions that have disadvantaged developing countries. Its regulations have sometimes been stifling. Its political leaders have often blundered—perhaps most seriously when they spurned Turkey’s advances, and with that the chance of creating a European-Mediterranean bloc that could have responded to the Arab Spring with farsighted measures, as the EU did twenty years earlier by embracing the former-Soviet countries. The monetary union was a troubled project, roping together economies with disparate capabilities. But the EU cannot be measured by the metrics of conventional governance: it is the world’s biggest and most transformative multilateral project. Above all, it is a project for peace.
Now the shortsighted petty politicking of a handful of English politicians—most especially David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage, with a dishonorable mention for Jeremy Corbyn—has endangered their own country, the EU, and world peace.
• • •
The European Union was founded by men and women for whom the conflagration of the 1930s and ’40s was a recent and searing memory. They fiercely held to a pact to dampen the fires of intolerance and xenophobia wherever they flickered into life.
Britain was only half-heartedly part of this consensus, its leaders complacently and erroneously believing that fascism was anathema to their political culture. Not so: it was rather that the constituency-based electoral system made it hard for any third party to gain seats in Westminster. As a result the reactionary right was contained within the ranks of the Conservative Party, while the Labour Party and its associated trade unions contained the tendencies toward introverted nativism among municipal socialists.
Every couple of decades there has been an effort to build a neo-fascist constituency in Britain, usually on an anti-immigration platform. The latest of these is the UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage, a former commodity broker who was elected, on the proportional representation system, as a UK member of the European Parliament. Founded in 1991 to campaign against the Maastricht Treaty—which created the modern European Union and later the euro—UKIP later expanded its platform into a right-wing populist and anti-European movement. The party has feasted on the bitterness of the aggrieved working class. Many of the party’s supporters are drawn from historic Labour constituencies, fallen into disaffection from de-industrialization, left behind in the country’s economic upturn, and once again bearing the brunt of the austerity measures imposed by the Conservatives after 2010. Fishermen, shipbuilders, and steelworkers, as well as farmers who benefited from the EU’s agricultural subsidies but fell on hard times when they were slashed, have sympathized with Farage’s message of blaming Brussels for their woes. Many were also receptive to his tactics of scapegoating immigrants. The last six years of ultra-austerity, with massive cutbacks in public spending, further deepened the sense of isolation and betrayal.
When he called the referendum on membership in the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron disregarded the dangers of rewriting the political rulebook and seriously misgauged the depth of resentment toward the elite. He need never have called the referendum at all: while it had long been a demand of a small but persistent Eurosceptic minority within his own party, he mistakenly believed that he could enhance his own political capital by simply calling their bluff. Along with almost the entire political establishment, the PM had imagined that the result—to remain with the EU—was a foregone conclusion. But he fatally misjudged what would happen when he unintendedly legitimized the central plank of Britain’s neo-fascist movement. The result was to place Farage and UKIP center stage.
There are civil and progressive arguments for drastically reforming the EU or even leaving it, and people who would have articulated those arguments given the platform to do so. A former chairperson of the Conservative Party, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, repudiated her Brexit position in the days before the vote for precisely those reasons. Leading Leave campaigners said they had never known she was part of their coalition—a fact that reveals the extent to which they were deaf to progressive arguments. No doubt, millions of decent British voters ticked the “Leave” box without a hint of chauvinism: they were the bewildered, taking refuge in the hope that a democratic nationalism could restore a sense of control in a frightening world. They were misled, by the leaders of both campaigns.
Cameron’s second blunder was to regard the campaign as a re-run of the last general election, an appeal to the electorate’s baser instincts and short-term calculations. Notably, he orchestrated a chorus that stressed the economic damage that would follow a “Leave” vote. Their forecast of the economic downside of leaving appears to have been correct. But the politics of fear and negativism generated their own backlash, feeding the resentment of a distrustful electorate. Failing to find potential in a politics of hope and Euro-optimism, at no time during the referendum campaign did Cameron express any enthusiasm for the EU and all the promise it holds for Britain’s youth: the future of peace; freedom to travel, work, and live wherever one likes in Europe; its model for a world of wider horizons.
Cameron’s cabinet colleagues and close friends, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove—also members of a privileged junior aristocracy, for whom the House of Commons is a seamless extension of the Oxford Union and the pages of theSpectator—equally misjudged. It appears that they thought a “Remain” outcome was certain too, but that they could gain the upper hand in internal party squabbles by siding with “Leave” and thereby rattling the prime minister.
For Johnson, the fate of Britain was no more than a platform for him to make a pitch for leading the Tories. A former mayor of London—which voted 60 percent in favor of staying in the EU—Johnson is himself the scion of a pan-European family. Throughout the campaign he looked like an opportunist with scant regard for the truth. A likely candidate to become prime minister when Cameron steps down, Johnson is now looking grim—burdened, it seems, by knowing that he has sold the electorate a false bill of goods. He will forever be branded as the man who gambled his country on his personal ambition, and threw his lot in with a horde he can neither control nor satisfy.
In early June, Gove, the beneficiary of an Oxford education, infamously dismissed the unanimous opinion of every financial institution on the adverse economic impacts of Brexit, saying that the British public had had “enough of experts.” Columnists across the political spectrum were appalled at the Lord Chancellor’s celebration of ignorance. But the fact that Gove’s populist message resonated with the public is one of the most compelling lessons of Brexit: voters smelled a rat in the unanimity of the financial institutions’ doom-laden message. The Leave campaign insinuated that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the London Stock Exchange, and even President Barack Obama were in league with a Brussels-run conspiracy. There was indeed a rat, but it wasn’t that. The real scandal is that Western corporate capitalism has engineered globalization so that the benefits of growth accrue to only a tiny minority, while the incomes of the great majority stagnate and job security evaporates. Johnson and Gove had not the slightest intention of reversing this economic dispensation, let along the extreme economic inequality from which they benefit. Instead they found scapegoats in European social-democratic bureaucracy, and in immigrants.
Ultimately, Johnson’s and Gove’s miscalculations were more momentous than Cameron’s: their ambitions and maneuvering were swept aside in the firestorm of xenophobia whose flames they cynically fanned. This also exposed the deepest challenge at the heart of global corporate capitalism: its managers have no strategy for dealing with the popular anger in the wastelands they have created.
Whatever government is formed in the wake of Brexit will be entirely introverted and have little influence in the world—especially Europe.
As the Conservative Party has torn itself to shreds, Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, was hardly to be found. Half-hearted on the best of days in his defense of the EU, Corbyn refused to suspend political rivalries long enough to even be photographed alongside Cameron, all but absenting himself from the public debate about one of the most important decisions in modern British history. Like his Tory counterpart, he seemed to see the referendum as just another exercise in party politics, not an existential question for the nation. Corbyn looked more and more like a small-town socialist whose concerns didn’t stretch further than nationalizing the railways: at no time did he represent the vanguard of cosmopolitanism, nor even the project of a centrist transnational social democracy.
This is not the first time in Europe’s history that establishment politicians have danced with incendiary demagogues, complacently expecting they can control the outcome. Unfortunately it is unlikely to be the last. And English bigotry will encourage those who build their political fortunes on celebrating ignorance and xenophobia. Already in the days following the vote, there has been a 57 percent increase in racist and anti-immigrant incidents reported to the police. A vocal number of those who voted to leave the EU will not be satisfied to stop there: they appear to want England to be rid of all immigrants and will cheer on politicians who tell them they can have their way.
• • •
Brexit will likely spell the end of the United Kingdom—and it may be an ugly breakup. While England and Wales voted in favor of leaving the EU, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelming to remain. As a result, one or both are likely to quit the UK, leaving the Tories or UKIP as the ruling party of Little Independent England.
There is a deep irony in the fact that the Union Jack brandished by Brexit supporters on Friday morning is likely to become a historical relic. If Scotland and Northern Ireland leave, the Former UK will be reduced to flying England’s flag—the St. George’s Cross waved by supporters of the hapless English soccer team.
Two years ago when the Scottish electorate voted narrowly to remain as part of the UK, one of the most compelling arguments made by Cameron for staying was that an independent Scotland would need to negotiate a separate accession to the EU, which would be long and difficult and without a foregone conclusion. Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, reminded the English politicians of this when she announced, in her first statement following the Brexit vote, that she was already making preparations for a new referendum on Scottish independence.
A Scottish separation will be bitter but peaceful. The situation in Northern Ireland is more combustible. The 1998 Belfast Agreement and the 1999 Good Friday agreement that ended decades of violent conflict in Ulster is predicated on the common EU membership of both Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland has benefited from EU membership in numerous tangible ways, from the open border with the Republic to generous payments from the EU’s European Regional Development Fund. (An example in the public eye is EU subsidies for filming HBO’s Game of Thrones there.) The Northern Irish vote favored remaining, but was divided along sectarian lines. London needs to skillfully handle the polarized communities there, but that would require a confident and capable leadership, which is unlikely to emerge anytime soon. A resurgence of the Troubles is not in immediate prospect, but cannot be ruled out.
Just eight days before the vote, Labour MP and humanitarian activist Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death in the street in her constituency. Her assassin was a neo-Nazi and supporter of Britain First, an ultra-nationalist far-right political party. When brought to court, he announced his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Crazy no doubt, but his murderous leanings were legitimized by the toxic political climate cranked up by Farage, with the complicity of the other Leave leaders. Farage’s post-referendum crowing that he won “without a single bullet being fired” is shameful, ominous, and false.
• • •
Brexit has opened a sudden void in British leadership. Johnson and Gove were visibly shaken by Cameron’s resignation the morning after, and if either of them make a bid for leadership of the Conservative Party—and hence the office of prime minister—they will face a country more bitterly divided than at any time in modern history. Whatever government is formed in the wake of the collapse of Britain’s political order will be entirely introverted and have little influence in the world—especially Europe. Britain has been a force for stability in a turbulent world. Today it is essentially without credible political leadership, both at home and on the world stage.
Such government as there may be over the next five years will be wholly consumed with the wreckage inflicted by this act. There will be the massive complications of negotiating the divorce with Europe. There will also be challenging negotiations with Scotland, Northern Ireland (and the Republic of Ireland)—and possibly London, too, as many Londoners are demanding that their strong vote to remain in the EU is taken into account. There are 125 trade agreements to be renegotiated. Britain’s civil servants will have no other agenda for as much as a decade. For two years at least, Britain will continue its regular payments to Europe—but its diplomats and civil servants will have lost any clout over EU policy.
This has practical implications on matters of peace and security. As many commentators have noted, Russian President Vladimir Putin is salivating. Britain has been a particular ally of the Eastern European members of the EU, and has been a strong advocate for EU external policies in the Middle East, especially Syria. The EU is taking the lead in developing policies to contain distress migration within the Middle East and Africa. The sudden absence of a British voice in this policymaking will weaken Europe and Britain alike. Ironically given the anti-immigrant sentiment that propelled the “Leave” vote, Britain will likely face an increase in refugees.
International policy toward Somalia was, until June 24, another fine example of Britain using its power in the EU and the United Nations to achieve an outcome that was far beyond what the UK could have achieved on its own. The 2012 conference that established the Somali Federal Government was held in London. Under British leadership, the EU provides the largest part of the money to the African Union to pay for 22,000 African peacekeepers in the country, and the EU is the biggest funder by far of the core institutions of the Somali government. For Somalia, it is a long, tough road back from statelessness. Britain leveraged the EU—and through the EU, the African Union—to achieve substantial progress toward that goal. Now a political void has opened at the heart of this effort.
Britain contributes about 14 percent of the European Development Fund, the EU’s development assistance mechanism to assist Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. But by a general rule of thumb, political influence over how that money is spent is divided three ways: one third Britain, one third France, one third the rest of the EU combined. There may be long-term efficiencies to be gained from redirecting those funds through Britain’s own Department for International Development, but at the cost of a massive loss of leverage, both within the EU and globally. This is not to mention the diminishing monetary value of an aid budget denominated in pounds, which some market analysts now predict may fall to parity with the U.S. dollar by the end of the year, a loss of value without precedent.
Britain is now a source of global instability, economic turmoil, and political uncertainty. This may not last more than a few years, but London’s reputation is damaged forever. When UN Security Council reform belatedly arrives, it is unlikely that Little England will keep the permanent seat that has been reserved for Great Britain over the last seven decades.
But whatever self-harm Britain has inflicted on its own body politic, of even greater import is the wound done to Europe and the foundational principles of the EU, namely collective security, international partnership and the rule of law, the containment of extremism, and cosmopolitanism. The Brexit campaign was, on both sides, a narrow appeal to self-interest, and the outcome is worse: a vote for bigotry and narrow nationalism and an insult to the principles that have advanced the cause of peace around the world. Brexit sends a frightening message that cosmopolitanism is reversible, and that chauvinist, ignorant nationalism smolders on, waiting only for blinkered politicians to fan it into a blaze. It reminds us that there is a bewildered and angry electorate, for whom the ideals and achievements of international peace and cooperation are not meaningful, either because they are taken for granted or because they are simply too remote from their daily lives.
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