Thursday, June 23, 2016

 

What #Brexit means for the future of Europe

What Brexit means for the future of Europe.

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation — or at least so they say.

Now, in the United Kingdom's case, if it really does decide to declare independence from the European Union in Thursday's referendum, it won't be because of the kind of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness we're used to hearing about. Instead, it will be because the U.K. wants life without Eastern Europeans, liberty from Brussels bureaucrats and the pursuit of a particularly British type of happiness.

In other words, Britain might leave Europe because it doesn't want to be the United States. At least not when it comes to being quite so diverse.

It's important to know there isn't any compelling economic reason for Britain to leave. Even in the best case, Brexit — get it, as in British exit? — would make the Brits no better off tomorrow, while it would make them worse off today. It would be not so much a trade-off as a trade-down. And remember, that's if everything goes well. It probably wouldn't go well, though, because Britain's "Leave" campaign doesn't want to do what would be necessary for that to happen. What's that? Well, replacing its E.U. membership with the type of more limited relationship that Norway already has, which still offers preferential access to Europe's single market. That would mean continuing to pay into the union's budget, albeit not as much; continuing to follow its rules, albeit not as many, and continuing to allow the free movement of people within the E.U. But that last part in particular is too much for Brexiters who have been exhorting their compatriots to "take back control" of their borders. So voting to leave the E.U. would really be voting to rip up Britain's free trade agreement with its biggest trading partner — with potentially serious reactions from financial markets, let alone a collapse in trade, and a recession — without having a plan for getting it back.

At least not a realistic plan. The "Leave" campaign says not to worry about since only 6 percent of British firms export to the E.U., and so many E.U. exports go to Britain that Brussels would supposedly have to come to terms on a new free trade pact. Never mind that those 6 percent of British companies actually account for 45 percent of the country's exports. Or that the E.U. has said it won't offer Britain a different deal than it's offered everyone else. No, in the fantasy world of the Brexiters, you can quit your job and get it back — minus all the parts you don't like, even when your boss says you can't. Which is to say that a Britain that left the E.U. is a Britain that wouldn't be really ready to negotiate a new deal anytime soon. Until it did, though, uncertainty would impede investment, hold up hiring, and push the pound lower. Indeed, the International Monetary Fund estimates that by 2019 this could make Britain's economy anywhere from 1.4 percent to 5.6 percent smaller than it would otherwise be. And unless Britain was able to agree to a deal close to the one it has now, that would turn into it being permanently poorer.

Maybe that's a price worth paying for sovereignty. The E.U., after all, is the reason the word "sclerotic" exists. Its only solution to the refugee crisis has been to say it wants one, and its only solution to the euro financial crisis has been to force countries into one round of self-defeating austerity after another. So you don't have to hate Europe to want to, yes, take back control from people who have demonstrated they don't deserve any. Although, interestingly enough, this might be a good reason for the rest of Europe to want out of the E.U., but it isn't as much for Britain. It was smart enough to keep its own currency, so it can't be coerced into cutting its budget like, say, Greece can. And it's remote enough that it doesn't have worry about being overwhelmed by migrants like, well, Greece again. Is getting rid of the E.U.'s golden straitjacket worth it when it isn't quite as tight around you?

About half the country seems to think so. Although that has more to do with a Trumpian idea than Burkean principles. Brexit, you see, is really about four words: Make Britain British Again. It's a backlash against immigration being at an all-time high — not because Britain decided it should be, but because the E.U. rules insist it must be. In fact, net migration has more than doubled the past 15 years, as Poles and Lithuanians and Romanians and other people from the E.U.'s poor eastern periphery have come in search of work. But, as you might have guessed, the equal and opposite reaction to this rising tide of immigration has been a rising tide of nativism as working-class Brits have clamored that they "want their country back." Especially from immigrants who don't look, sound, or worship like they do. Brexiters, for their part, have been all too happy to play to this prejudice, not-so-subtly warning that Turkey and its 76 million people are about to join the E.U. even though they're nowhere near doing so.

What we're saying, then, is that Britain isn't sure it wants to be America. A modicum of diversity is one thing, but a multiethnic democracy, well, that's another. Not that this should be too surprising. Sometimes America isn't sure it wants to be America either. Whether it was the Chinese Exclusion Act, immigration quotas for eastern Europeans, or Donald Trump today, there have always been children and grandchildren of immigrants who want to keep new immigrants out. But even with those setbacks, America is still a place where someone who was born in, say, Syria can still be just as American as someone who can trace their ancestry all the way back to the Mayflower as long as they work hard, play by the rules, and believe in our democratic creed — or at least it aspires to be. The question is whether Britain feels the same: whether being British is something a Polish person can learn to be, just like they can learn to be American. It's been ugly, but a referendum is the only way to settle this. Something as fundamental as who you are, isn't something you can smuggle in through the E.U.'s rulebook. It needs democratic legitimacy.

So does the rest of Europe. For 60 years now, it's hoped that economic integration would lead to political integration. That sharing steel and coal, like France and Germany did in 1951, would force them to share markets. And that sharing markets, like they then did in 1957, would force them to share rules. And that sharing rules would force them to share rule-makers. And that sharing rule-makers would force them to share institutions — until, voilà, they had surreptitiously created a United States of Europe. It was the If-You-Give-A-Mouse-A-Coal-Community principle of state-building. But there was a flaw: People didn't want it, don't want it and might never want it. Eurocrats, though, will dream a dream that never dies — unless, of course, Britain kills it by deciding that even a watered-down version of all this is too much. Who knows who would follow. The irony, then, is that the only way there might be a United States of Europe is if Britain decides to become more like the United States of America.

That might not be self-evident, but it is a truth.

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