Brexit: British Isolationism or Heading for the Exit Early to Avoid the Queue?

29.08.2016
A collapse of the EU in its existing form would not lead to the apocalyptic scenarios of economic catastrophe and a return to European wars that the «Remain» camp and its European backers liked to paint.

It may turn out in future that the most important argument concerning the question of Britain’s leaving the European Union was an argument that neither side in the debate could make. This is that the referendum on “Brexit” was premature and perhaps completely unnecessary, because the European Union in its existing form is doomed to fail, and in the process to be transformed into a much weaker and looser organization. 
This is what British critics of the EU always wanted anyway; and in such a transformation and partial break-up of the EU, Britain would have been in a position to play the role of leader of a group of like-minded states. Instead, it is bound to suffer serious short-term damage from EU leaders determined to make an awful example of Britain in order to discourage other countries from leaving.

The “leave” camp could not make this argument because it would have meant abandoning their referendum and taking the chance of staying in the EU. The “remain” camp could not make it because it would have involved them in criticizing the EU as it exists, and in many cases, going against their own deep commitment to an “ever closer union”.

Yet the threat to the EU is entirely obvious, and stems from nationalist reactions across much of Europe to two processes, both of which are virtually certain to intensify in the years to come. The first is the way in which the Euro and its defence have stripped European states of much of their remaining economic sovereignty, and transferred power to unelected officials in Brussels and even more controversially to the German government.

It is difficult to see how the Euro can be preserved and growth promoted even in the medium term without the creation of even stronger central economic institutions, tasked with responsibility with economic policy for the Eurozone as a whole. Unless this development led to very early, spectacular economic growth with widely distributed benefits – a highly unlikely scenario - such a further loss of national sovereignty would be almost certain to create a new wave of support for anti-EU nationalism.

The second factor driving the revival of nationalism with an anti-EU cast is of course fear of Muslim migration, intensified still further by the new waves of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere. This crisis is not in itself the responsibility of the EU; but it is true that the really severe measures to block legal and illegal migration that European nationalist movements are demanding would require the abandonment of core EU principles and rules, including the Schengen Treaty, free movement of labour within the EU, joint responsibility for receiving refugees, maintenance of the right of political asylum, and the power of the European Court to override national legislation. 

If the nationalist reaction in Europe were only a matter of more-or-less peripheral countries (which is what the UK has always in effect been, spiritually at least), then the EU might shed them and survive or even emerge strengthened. The existential threat to the EU comes from the fact that it is now threatened from within its very core, original members. 

Given the way things are going in France, there would seem to be a strong likelihood that within a decade or so that country will have a National Front government, dedicated both to harsh limits on migration and to greatly reducing the powers of the EU. Holland is on the same trajectory. Austria is almost there already. Clearly, on the day on which Marine Le Pen becomes President of France, the EU in anything like its existing form will be doomed, and Britain will be completely irrelevant to this outcome.

In Germany, the rise of the radical right has been slower (in part because of the stronger inhibitions created by the Nazi past), but the steep electoral rise of Alternative fur Deutschland (founded only in 2012) suggest that it is moving in the same direction. Angela Merkel’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis may have been ethically correct, but it may also prove fatal for her own leadership and in the long term for German and European pluralist democracy.

In much of Western Europe, democracy is already threatened by a version of the Weimar syndrome. That is to say that in order to keep the extremes from coming to power, the mainstream democratic parties have had to form coalitions, which show every sign of becoming permanent. The problem is however that by eliminating any moderate opposition, this arrangement means that those who are discontented with the government and its policies – or simply want to register unhappiness with economic conditions – have nowhere left to go but the extremes. And in France and most of Western Europe, there seems no prospect of a return to the rates of economic growth registered before 2008, let alone in the 1950s when non-European mass migration to Western Europe began.

It is easy to say that the Brexit vote should have been a wake-up call to the European elites, but a wake-up call to do what? The need to do something to limit immigration and the growth of Muslim populations is obvious, but how this can be done without tearing up liberal democracy and producing even more embittered Muslim minorities is not obvious at all. As to radical attempts to regenerate the European economy, the centralized European measures necessary are precisely what the anti-European right is protesting against – and in any case, given international economic realities, it is not clear that they would work – certainly not when it comes to generating the large numbers of stable well-paid jobs for less-skilled workers that the old white working classes are dreaming of.

A collapse of the EU in its existing form would not lead to the apocalyptic scenarios of economic catastrophe and a return to European wars that the «Remain» camp and its European backers liked to paint. Europe did just as well economically with a much weaker and looser EU, and as for the Euro, more and more leading economists are coming to see the creation of a single currency as a disastrous mistake, economically as well as politically.

The chauvinism of the European populist right is directed against Muslim migrants, not against other European countries. I have not seen a single word from Alternative fur Deutschland or Pegida about recovering lost German territories or turning Germany once again into a great military power. Le Pen and other rightists leaders are much less anti-Russian than the European establishment as a whole, in part because they are strongly opposed to further EU and NATO expansion. While bitterly hostile to Islamist extremism, most of the new Right has also been opposed to military interventions in the Muslim world.

The failure of the EU in its existing form would be a serious blow to the prestige of liberal democracy in the world. But then again, to judge by the experience of recent years, the preservation of the EU in its existing forms will require measures of bureaucratic centralization which will themselves greatly undermine democracy, and which European democratic electorates will not tolerate. Rather than damning the majority of British voters for chauvinism and irrationality, it would be wise to recognize that they reflect growing sentiment across Western Europe, and to start thinking about ways in which something at least of the EU mission can survive in the long term even if the EU in its existing form does not. 
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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