Results of the recent UK referendum on leaving the European Union will be playing out for many months to come. How it plays out, and the shape of the ultimate result, are still very much undecided. Already hypotheses about thwarting the apparent “will of the people” are gaining currency and, as an American with at best tangential understanding of the situation, I am nonetheless willing to offer some ideas.
In noble style David Cameron fell on his sword after the vote by announcing his resignation effective possibly by October. This is exactly the wrong course for a bunch of reasons. First, I was surprised to learn that the referendum was non-binding. True believers will no doubt say it’s the will of the people and must be obeyed. But I refer them to my mother who often told me, if everybody else was jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge would you jump too?
In truth, the referendum was the result of a self-seeking and narcissistic politician who threw the country under the bus to assure party unity and his own re-election. Much of politics today is cynical, and crass and aside Donald Trump’s pronouncements on any given day, Cameron’s Faustian bargain might become the poster child narcissism by a sitting elected official.
If Cameron was really so dead set against leaving the union then he should realize that at the moment he is playing, or at least could play, with house money. The result of the vote has encouraged factions in at least in France and the Netherlands to seek their own plebiscite. This can’t be good for Europe for if either of these countries were to also fall to the siren song of ditching the EU, it could start a stampede for the exit. At some no far off point all that might be left of the EU would be Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain plus their banker and not-so-benevolent overlord, Germany. Oh, and I almost forgot, the useless Euro which can be seen as a primary reason for the breakup.
Cameron’s duty in all this is simply to prevent it by sticking whatever body part is needed into the dyke while emergency repairs are made. With nothing to lose, Cameron should not resign but push as far as possible against implementing Article 50 (all 261 words of it) risking a vote of no confidence. Under the circumstances losing a confidence vote is the only acceptable reason for the Camerons to evacuate 10 Downing Street.
The electorate have every reason for being mad at the direction of life under the EU though some of the effects are more closely linked to secular economic fluctuations than bad politics. But the approach is all wrong, it smacks of hyper consumer culture in which fickle consumers ditch perfectly good and useful products in pursuit of the brilliant and coruscating. When did we become a global culture that couldn’t fix anything?
We became that culture when we stopped listening to the other side, when we began demonizing them in quasi-religious terms. Can an opponent be truly evil? Perhaps but such designations should be reserved for the few times in a century when a Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin emerges.
The current tiff over the EU more resembles A Swift essay on Lilliputians, Brobdignagians, Houyhnhnms, Big Endians and Little Endians. The Endians are a particularly interesting dichotomy. According to Swift they fought over whether boiled eggs should be broken from the pointed end or the more blunt end first. It was Swift’s way of showing distain for the polarized politics of his day.
I don’t know what to do about this dynamic other than to promote a culture of listening, to talk about the problem and to find common ground if in nothing else than in our universal exhaustion with the bickering.
History does indeed rhyme as Twain observed. Though it never repeats precisely, if you place a large number of humans in relatively similar circumstances you should expect similar results. Consider the American and French Revolutions with their different and for some dire consequences or even Berlin and all of Eastern Europe circa 1989.
A less bloody but instructive example for today comes from America’s first decade. The Articles of Confederation, America’s first governing document, like the Maastricht Treaty, failed to organize a central government that had the power to be, well, a government. There was no national currency, taxes were a hodgepodge in which states tried to gain revenue from outside through tariffs. This zero-sum game was a real drag on trade. There were other deficiencies too, enough to cause regular people to unite in making changes.
The articles were created in November 1777 and remained in effect throughout the Revolution until they were replaced by the federal constitution. In 1786 The Virginia Legislature suggested all states send delegates to a convention in Annapolis, MD to discuss ways to reduce interstate conflict and that was the beginning of the process that led to the constitution.
In the process the delegates determined that a completely new constitution was needed, one with the centralized power to be a government but which still devolved all but essential power back to the people and the states.
We know how the story ends. By 1789 a constitution was in place and a viable number of states had accepted its terms, albeit with ten of the best amendments one could ask for.
My point is simply that the various nations of Europe really do have more in common than not but they need a modus vivendi. Dissolution of the current over-built structure was only a matter of time once the European constitution unraveled in successive votes by the French and the Dutch in 2005. Without a constitution there is little more than a trading block with too much overhead so eliminate it.
Negotiating the UK’s departure (problematic in that Scotland for one is not having it) would look a lot like renegotiating Maastricht anyhow and not a lot different from ditching the Articles for something better.
While some have suggested that the divorce should be made to look as difficult and painful as possible to discourage others from doing the same, we should keep in mind that some and perhaps many on the EU side of the negotiations might have sympathies with the plaintiffs. That said, a negotiated split might begin to look a lot like a renegotiation of the terms of union anyhow.
In my last post I suggested that technology could play a role in smoothing some rough edges. I’d go further now to say that a trading union is all that was initially envisioned and all that’s really needed to help prevent another European war, which people in the middle of the twentieth century wanted desperately. There are trading blocks like NAFTA, and the WTO that reduce barriers to trade without entangling themselves in a new currency, a constitution, or an overbuilt bureaucracy. That seems to be enough. There hasn’t been even a battle between the U.S. and Canada since the Revolution, or with Mexico since 1848 (and there won’t be, Trump willing).
While we’re at it, note the differences between the American Constitution adopted to form “a more perfect union” and the bloated promise of Maastricht’s “ever closer union.” How can any sane person agree to that? Were they not aware of the hyperbole involved? The role of asymptotes in math? Ever closer is quantifiable and so gives free license to bureaucrats whereas more perfect is purely subjective.
If the original premise of a united Europe was that countries that traded together would be hard pressed to take up arms against one another, then let’s have some of that and forget about sitting around the campfire singing Kumbaya. That’s Cameron’s brief for now, not this ridiculous slinking off at the first sign of difficulty. David Cameron, you broke it, now you have a moral obligation to fix it. Get going.