Today is exactly one month from the day that Brits go to the polls for one of the most important decisions in their modern history: the referendum on membership in the European Union. The question is a dagger looming over the heart of the European Union, as it currently exists, and those paying attention realize that perhaps the best thing for this lumbering Frankenstein is euthanasia, a process that British exit from the EU may very well initiate.
In 1975, Margaret Thatcher was part of the Tory “Yes to Europe” brigade that supported Harold Wilson’s then Labour government’s push to remain part of what was then called the European Economic Community. But the clue is in the name, of course, and the British in the 1970s quite reasonably saw value in remaining part of a trading block that represented the Continent: a natural and easy partner in commerce. They were not signing up for “ever closer union” via a political project meant to rival the United States in power, prestige, and influence. Indeed, the most Eurosceptic part of the current British populace are the voters 50 years old and above, the same voters who ostensibly voted Yes in 1975. It’s the youngsters who are worried about their Erasmus (study abroad) programs and work opportunities being scrapped who are pro-Europe. (Interestingly, this is the exact opposite of what happened in 2014 in Scotland, in which the youth, fired by a very high turnout among enthusiastic 16 year olds, were decidedly Aye, but the elderly who feared for their pensions and futures won the day with their Naes.)
If previous referendums have taught us anything, it’s that the EU can indeed be criticized via individual national referendums. The Norwegians have twice voted to stay out of the EU (1972 and 1994), and in 2005, in response to a treaty change, we witnessed the famous French “non” and the Dutch “ney” just two days after. Unsurprisingly, there were no real consequences from these referenda, and the European project lurched on.
The official apparatus of “Out” in Britain is the Vote Leave group, run by Tory cabinet minister (and David Cameron chum) Michael Gove. It seems content to parade out a bunch of Tory intellectuals to make economic arguments about getting out of the EU in the line of, “Europe is a dying market,” “let’s ditch the regulations,” and most famously, “German car manufacturers will not permit tariffs to be raised against one of their largest markets.”
Grassroots Out features the barnstorming Nigel Farage, who runs the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose historic 2014 European Parliament Election victory led to the Tories embedding an in/out EU referendum pledge in their 2015 General Election Manifesto. You might have to ask two or three times, but even the most Farage-hating Tory will admit that the only reason that an EU referendum is on is because of UKIP and Farage’s supporters. Nigel ends many of his speeches for Grassroots Out with an audience chant of, “We want our country back,” and if the British do indeed get their country back on June 23, far from being a bleak and dark day, it will be the dawn of a new one—the beginning of the end of the EU.
The “European Union” only came into existence as a concept in 1992 because of the Maastricht Treaty. This document paved the way for the creation of the Euro and was followed by the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty, which enshrined free movement of persons within the EU as a fundamental right of its citizens. These two issues, currency and immigration, are big parts of the quagmire Europe now finds itself in.
The Eurozone promised prosperity for all and a strong currency to compete against dollar hegemony. And it has delivered that prosperity . . . for the Germans. The single largest beneficiary of the Eurozone, and the (logical) home of the European Central Bank, Germany has benefitted greatly by being part of the single currency even as it leads, both figuratively and financially, the endless bailout processes most visibly seen in Greece, and less visibly so in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. The idea that effective fiscal policy can be implemented when there is no governmental union has always been an odd one—and yet it seems that the artificiality of money in our age of zeros and ones residing “in the cloud” can give ongoing life support to a currency and fiscal system that promises only darker days ahead for its poorest members.
Immigration is a two-headed monster. The first problem lies in the aforementioned “free movement of persons.” This is, by and large, a novelty as a condition of trade agreements, especially one that covers an area as large as 28 countries. With no checks this naturally and logically leads the impoverished of the poorest countries to move to obtain the opportunities and benefits of the richest countries, which do not have the actual or cultural infrastructure in place for mass unchecked immigration.
And now, with the ongoing Syrian war continuing to send a flood of refugees into Europe, the huddled masses walking, boating, and swimming to Europe are a murky collection of genuine refugees, economic migrants, and ISIS radicals, the third group only too happy to pose as one of the other two, as Paris and Belgium recently proved. (By the way, why isn’t the EU using its “collective clout” to demand that some of these refugees be taken in by the United States, which is chiefly to blame for the destabilization of the Middle East that has led to this crisis?)
The fathers of the EU always believed that as long as they moved slowly, they could reduce sovereign governments of nation-states to puppets that have even less power than state governments in the United States. The years since the “rebrand” have seen the former ECSC, then EEC, now EU take credit for peace (when everyone knows NATO guarantees that peace) and prosperity (when its monetary policy has simply trapped its poorest members in a prison in which they cannot exercise even the most rudimentary governmental powers to remedy economic imbalance).
Should one of its most prosperous members vote to leave this Union, many other members will ask what a French friend recently asked me when I posed the possibility of Brexit: “Pourquoi pas nous?” Even more interesting, again, for those paying attention, is that visa-free travel is being extended to Turkey on June 1, just one week from now. Surely the significance of legally opening the doors to the descendants of those who besieged Europe for centuries is lost on a populace that seems not to know that Britain existed (and even prospered) before the drafting of the constitution of the European Union.
Brexit would allow the EU to take a hard look at their emulate-the-USA project. They could ward off the rise of right-wing parties everywhere in Europe (gasp!), which saw its most recent surge in yesterday’s near-election of Norbert Hofer in Austria. It might allow the EU to realize that the road to peace and prosperity doesn’t run through Brussels (as if Brussels can even keep itself safe), and doesn’t operate in a secularist vacuum that pretends that history, money, and religion have no previous lessons to teach us. In restoring subsidiarity to Europe by allowing free and uncoerced cooperation in areas like currency and immigration, free from ideologically-driven treaties, the EU could regain safety for the long term, a safety which is currently only preserved in the most fragile and temporary way.
And yet most cannot help but think that the epiphany of Brexit might cause a Macbethian reaction among the EU elites, who have not been above removing democratically elected leaders in Greece: already halfway through a river of misery, it would be just as far to the other side of “ever closer union” as to turn back to the original point of departure, the 1951 “European Coal and Steel Community.” Furthermore, that further bank would now be more easily reached without Britain on its back, the Britain that Churchill always claimed was “with Europe, but not of it, linked, but not combined . . . interested and associated but not absorbed.”
Churchill ended that House of Commons speech in 1953 by saying, “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.” As Project Fear goes into overdrive over the next month the question put to the British people, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” is ultimately a question that will define what the EU is and will be.
Let us hope that this proud and ancient nation has the right answer.