The British vote to leave the European Union (EU) has introduced a new political dynamic in Europe. For lack of a better term, let’s call it ‘disintegration’. The problem is that we know very little about the many different motivations and other forces at work. Disintegration is not integration in reverse. We cannot simply take the many different models or interpretations of what brought European countries together and run them backward to understand events as they are unfolding. We cannot use past experience as much of a guide to anticipate future events or developments either. Lacking a coherent theory of disintegration, we are left to rely primarily on guesswork. Given how most commentators performed in forecasting Britain’s vote to leave the EU, my suspicion is that much of that guesswork will prove inaccurate. We are still sailing in uncharted waters.
The British referendum sent shockwaves across Europe. Contrary to expectations, the vote to Leave defeated the vote to Remain by 52 to 48 percent. The turnout was high and the outcome was uniformly distributed. The only major exceptions were the votes in favor of remaining in the European Union (EU) cast in London, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Without those areas of support, the vote to leave would have been even more decisive. The explanations are mostly negative. The English voted overwhelmingly against outside interference, elites, experts, and immigration. They also voted against ‘fear mongering’. What they voted for was a mixture of self-determination and something different. How they will use that autonomy remains to be seen. At the moment, the British ruling elite is too engaged in soul-searching and leadership contests to offer much in the way of vision.
The United Kingdom is going to leave the European Union (EU). The facts being created on the ground all point to that conclusion. Nevertheless, it is still worth pointing out that that a British exit from the EU (or ‘Brexit’) is a bad idea. There are many reasons Brexit is bad. The most important is that the campaign for leaving the EU rested on a fundamental misunderstanding of international trade.
The British vote to leave the European Union (EU) is the first step toward formal disintegration that the West has experienced. The closest parallel is France’s decision to step outside the integrated military command structure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1966. But France remained a member of NATO; that decision was more like Britain’s opt-out from the single currency or Schengen, even if the shift of NATO’s headquarters from Paris to Brussels made it seem more dramatic. By contrast, the British have now decided that they do not want to take part in the EU and that they want to renegotiate their relationships with the rest of the world on a case-by-case basis. The West has not gone through anything like this since the end of the Second World War.
There is a growing chorus of disenchantment with Europe and populist parties are preaching anti-European slogans across the member states. Today’s British referendum on European Union (EU) membership is only the most extreme manifestation of that disaffection. Whatever the outcome, the turmoil surrounding popular attitudes toward Europe is not going to end. The reason is a lack of vision.
The referendum campaign on whether Great Britain should remain a member state of the European Union (EU) or leave is in full swing. Campaigners for Britain to ‘remain’, including Prime Minister David Cameron, insist that the British government has successfully renegotiated its relationship with the EU. Those who want Britain to ‘leave’ insist that the opt-outs Cameron won are insignificant and untrustworthy; whatever the British government may say, the bureaucrats in Brussels are plotting a ‘super state’ that will usurp British sovereignty.
The British referendum is based on (at least) two bad ideas. The first is that the popular legitimacy of a referendum can restore the sovereignty of the British parliament. The Leave campaign believes they can take power from Brussels and give it back to Westminster. That is a fantasy. The British parliament will be more constrained and less effective if the UK leaves. The second bad idea is that referendums are more democratic than acts of parliament (which is the kind of decision that brought Great Britain this far in its relationship with Europe). By giving the people the chance to speak their mind on a yes-or-no (in-or-out, remain-or-leave) question, we can discover what they really want. That is not how people work. Real people prefer trial and error. Real people also like to delegate responsibility for making complicated decisions. This matters because the two bad ideas combine to make the worst of all possible worlds. Britons who vote to Leave will discover that they have made a terrible mistake only to learn that there is no easy way to fix it.