Anyone who has eyes to read or ears to hear will know by now that the United Kingdom has voted, by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent in a nationwide referendum, to leave the European Union. It is difficult to write for sustained 10-minute periods without another burst of news articles coming across the wires and layering the complexity on still thicker. Their cumulative message to the public thus far, however, seems clear: The outcome of this vote was a bad thing for the United Kingdom and its neighbors and allies. If that is true, then it begs certain questions about the role and scope of democracy in the 21st century, and the relationship between élite experts and average, workaday voters — and either way, the whole experience should prove instructive to the American voting public.
Put another way, this vote is almost certainly the most momentous nonviolent development in foreign affairs in a very long time. Other countries in Europe are not members of the EU, but none of those countries were members in the first place. If this referendum is acted upon and Britain actually does formally trigger exit proceedings from the bloc of European nations — not necessarily a guarantee quite yet, it seems, as there are any number of prominent people frantically trying to come up with ways to avoid it — it will be the first time any EU member state will have left the bloc, much to the consternation of the continent’s heavy-hitters, and particularly France and Germany.
Representatives of those countries’ governments are loudly calling for a speedy resolution of the situation, as there are deep fears among the European political class that this could set off a “contagion,” inspiring breakaway factions like those in Catalonia (in Spain) and potentially encouraging copycat action from countries like Greece — and even France. On Tuesday, June 28, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front party that has lately made advances in popularity that are unsettling to many across the political spectrum, published an op-ed in The New York Times saying, “The decision…was an act of courage — the courage of a people who embrace their freedom.” The article’s title: “The People’s Spring.” It sounds as if those worries about contagion are far from unjustified, and Le Pen is but one voice. Nationalistic, right-wing populism in Europe has what could euphemistically be called a checkered history — which history is, in fact, part of the reason the EU exists in the first place.
Many tortuous permutations had to play out in order to get to the European Union as it now exists. The beginnings of the current body date back to the signature of the Treaty of Paris on April 18, 1951, which joined together Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, France, Italy and West Germany to create the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), an idea both pragmatic and idealistic. Its aim was to create a single market for coal and steel between the six countries in order to prevent further hostilities between France and Germany. In the vision of its original proponent, French foreign minister Robert Schuman, the ECSC would “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible.”
Six years later, in 1957, the same countries signed the Treaty of Rome, creating the European Economic Community (EEC). This was, effectively, a customs union with common policies on things like agriculture and a common external tariff, meant to lead to economic integration of member countries for various practical and ideological reasons.
The modern European Union, however, is much more ambitious. It is in very large part a political project, much of it the brainchild of a Frenchman named Jacques Delors, former head of the Socialist Party of France and perhaps the most-hated man among British “Eurosceptics” (those against Britain’s membership in the EU). The commission bearing his name created the Maastricht Treaty, the origin document of the modern EU, calling for ever-closer integration of member states and envisioning common judiciary, military, and other functions, as well as setting up the euro currency (of which Britain is not a member). Maastricht also brought about the advent of the concept of “European citizenship,” expanding the free movement of people from and to any EU member state to all residents of the EU. This has been at the heart of the debate in Britain, where more and more workers from places like Poland, where wages are comparatively low, have been moving into Britain, and often into smaller towns, where the impact is visible.
If all of this sounds terribly confusing and bureaucratic and slightly backroom-dealing, that is because it is — and the version given above is a vastly simplified one at that. The origin story is a stand-in for many of the things people hate about the EU in general. Still, all of the high-minded ideals that fed into its creation, about staving off further European wars and so on, are difficult for even the most hardened “Eurosceptics” to simply dismiss out of hand.
So, if the EU was such a tranquilizing force on the continent, why this paroxysm of revolt from the British people late last week? Why walk away now?
One reason — and one that may be familiar to American readers — is that much of modern political campaigning appears to have entered a post-facts, post-seriousness era, as Edward Luce of the Financial Times of London put it recently. Politicians appeal much more consciously and powerfully to people’s emotions than to their reason, leading to volatile political conditions. (Referendum politics are particularly susceptible to this, as they are simply a yes-or-no vote on a question that often sounds very simple — essentially, should we stay or should we go? — but whose results can be seismic.)
Furthermore, the resentments of these voters are not entirely simple prejudice; a lot of those who voted to leave are those who have been left behind by the extremely rapid changes in the new global economy. They have not been extended a safety net — or many cultural or social comforts to speak of — as the economic ground has shifted out from under their feet.
Take, for instance, the city of Boston, on the east coast of England in Lincolnshire. Boston had the highest percentage of “leave” voters of any district: 75.6 percent voted to leave the EU. Boston has an average hourly wage of £9.13; the national average is £13.33. Furthermore, about 13 percent of residents are from outside the UK, largely Eastern Europeans who have come since 2004, when more countries were admitted to the bloc. Boston was always a farming town that would bring in itinerant workers, but the scale and speed of the changes in the past 10-12 years have been dizzying.
One of the truly striking aspects of this vote was the way the demographics split on the vote. For instance, just to name a few: In districts with large percentages of highly educated voters (Wandsworth and Cambridge, for instance, where about half the population has a higher education qualification), the vote was roughly two-thirds for remain; in Great Yarmouth, on the Norfolk coast, where 14.2% have an equivalent educational background, a whopping 71.5% voted to leave.
In fact, Scotland and Northern Ireland (with the exception of North Antrim in the latter) voted strongly for remaining in the EU, while England and Wales led the charge to jump ship. Since England has nearly 85% of the EU’s population, this will tend to skew results.
Many of the “leave” campaign spokesmen have been rather quiet since the results came in, and a number of voters and campaigners have admittedly openly that they didn’t expect to win and don’t know exactly what they’ll do next.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation promptly after the vote came in, and Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn lost a vote of no confidence on Tuesday, June 28, at the hands of his own MPs by a vote of 172-40; that constitutes 80 percent of Labour’s MPs in Westminster. The vote of no confidence is non-binding, however, and as of now Corbyn has said he is refusing to step down, saying that the vote has “no constitutional legitimacy.”
The pound has taken an enormous hit, as have British stocks, and the UK government’s credit rating has been downgraded by Standard & Poor’s. One question raised by this is whether voters in democratic countries can really govern themselves if they are essentially at the mercy of large institutions like credit ratings agencies and supranational bodies. It has a whiff of bullying to it. What would become of the United States in the event of a Trump presidency? That, surely, would get the markets a bit churned up.
A now-infamous line from this campaign came from Conservative MP Michael Gove, campaigning for “leave,” when he said that “people in this country have had enough of experts” telling them what to do. To the extent that this result is of a piece with populist campaigns from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump and across the Western world, it will be very important to dampen such anti-intellectualism if voters want effective policies to address these very real issues. Feelings are a good start, but those feelings have to be channeled into something useful — like the formulation of smart, effective policy — in order to pour water on the embers of these revolts and stop them from becoming general conflagrations with potentially devastating consequences.