The United Kingdom’s elections are often a leading indicator for our own, as is evidenced with the emergence of conservatism, centrist liberalism and fiscal austerity. Last week’s emphatic decision to leave the European Community could be the next one.
In some ways, it was predictable. Think about the psychological underpinnings of the European Union: In the 1950s, a consensus formed in Germany and France that to prevent further wars, Germany had to be closely tied to its neighbors. At the same time, Germans feared inflation was the incipient cause of its decline.
These two factors have driven behavior in Europe since then. France and Germany enjoyed closer economic integration, and that alleviated Germans’ fear of inflation. That bonding trend spread across the continent, explaining the desire for open borders between EU member nations. The union produced regulations promoting uniformity of labor markets and the austerity movement designed to help Europe recover from the 2008 recession. However, the EU, while offering solutions for its members has also created fundamental problems.
Immigration and government indebtedness have created fault lines in the EU’s strength. It couldn’t enjoy economic integration without free movement of citizens among member states — but immigration is now a divisive concept. It couldn’t have nations such as Greece incurring growing amounts of debt without running risks of higher inflation — but that means that richer countries were called in to help out because of the actions of poorer countries.
The United Kingdom gained much from being part of the EU: London is the financial center of Europe and many international companies locate their manufacturing plants or operating branches in the UK to reach the broader EU market. Parts of the UK are big beneficiaries of EU subsidies. By leaving the EU, it has placed these economic benefits at risk.
The United Kingdom is a nation with a strong sense of national identity and pride. But there has always been within that an underlying tinge of nativism and xenophobia. I lived in the UK for many years, and was often struck when the closed-minded view would peek its head through the externally polite and reserved tone of general discourse: During the Falklands War, after another World Cup loss, or in a friend’s casual description of the local convenience store as the “Paki shop” because the owner was of Asian descent.
Do you see echoes of this in our political discourse?
The UK’s decision to leave the EU is important for us to understand. Not because of the crisis that this will create for the EU and the UK, which is more their problem than ours, but because it demonstrates the concerning ascendancy of nativism, nationalism and a distrust of elites resulting in profoundly short-sighted decisions.
Now that the British have decided to leave the EU, the challenges for the UK and Europe may border on the existential.
To survive, the EU will have to make things as unpleasant for the UK as possible or risk encouraging other nations to back out, too or even the dissolution of the EU. Germany and France will not allow that to occur. Because of their historical attitudes, they need the EU much more than they need the UK.
The UK will lose access to markets and capital. It may itself atomize; Scotland benefits from being part of the EU in the form of subsidies, and has already been asserting its desire for independence. Northern Ireland may look to integrate with Ireland. London, the driver of the UK economy, will most likely lose its status as the financial center of Europe.
What the English will lose will unfold slowly over time, and will echo long after the joy of “sticking it to the man” fades and fear of the other dissipates. At that point, it will become clear that appealing to base instincts can win elections, but be very costly in the long run.
It remains to be seen whether our own political discourse can reach that point.