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In his review of Niall Ferguson’s Kissinger, Graham Allison quotes from the book: “in researching the life and times of Henry Kissinger, I have come to realize that my approach was unsubtle. In particular, I had missed the crucial importance in American foreign policy of the history deficit: The fact that key decision-makers know almost nothing not just of other countries’ pasts but also of their own. Worse, they often do not see what is wrong with their ignorance”. Allison continues: “Ferguson’s observation reminded me of an occasion three years ago when, after an absence of four decades, Kissinger returned to Harvard. Asked by a student what someone hoping for a career like his should study, Kissinger answered: ‘history and philosophy’ – two subjects notable for their absence in most American schools of public policy”.
There is a very similar deficit in the Brexit debate. It has come to be dominated by economic and immigration questions. Moreover, it is not easy to find clear answers in the flood of simplistically and often erroneously argued debates. The only thing we know for sure is that most economists argue against Brexit while most Brexiters argue against immigrants. So, what wisdom is to be found away from economics (where the majority of practitioners argue against Brexit) and the emotionally draining albeit facts-deprived immigration debates? Is there any “Brexit wisdom” to be gained from peeking into history and philosophy?
Where history meets philosophy
At an intersection of philosophy and history one can hunt for some useful clues. Among the most promising are those that lead toward the concept of solidarity. I have no doubt that Brexit constitutes a powerful threat to continental solidarity. I do not have space here to explicate a full argument about the value of such solidarity. It is sufficient to realise that Brexit will send all the wrong signals to the enemies of the liberal democratic order that is the foundation of the peaceful, prosperous, and increasingly solidary post-WWII Europe.
Brexit may mean the beginning of the end of the most successful transnational organisation ever attempted by human beings without conquest.
It will embolden those who work to restore strong nation states built around excessively overblown, exclusivist nationalist identities. After Brexit, the next Austrian election will go the other way, most likely. I wish the Brits would pause their increasingly myopic, inward-directed debates on the narrow economic or political benefits of leaving the EU and consider the fate of Europe, a continent that for a while has been on the track of healing old wounds and consolidating itself. A continent they helped to save so valiantly in world war two and in whose post-war reconstruction they participated so ably.
What is the cost of this solidarity? We know that British insistence on special treatment has already been acknowledged and amply rewarded. Consider the rebate, the exclusion from Schengen, and the retention of pound sterling. Consider that the Brits are contributing less to the common European pot of funds than almost every other country, if you measure contributions as percentages of Gross National Income. This is not to say that membership is costless, but to ask whether a relatively modest cost of remaining is worth it, particularly if you are able to think beyond the important though somewhat narrow concern of access to the common market.
It is worth it if you believe – as I do – that Brexit may mean the beginning of the end of the most successful transnational organisation ever attempted by human beings without conquest. A voluntary union forged to diminish the chances of conflicts, lower the level of antagonism, facilitate exchanges, build mutual understand and friendship, and improve security by providing a solid social and cultural platform for a military alliance (NATO). The EU has never been only or predominantly about trade and economic efficiency. Its overarching goal has always been to serve as a platform for building piece and stability. Indeed, even as severe a critic of EU’s economic policy as Yanis Varoufakis understands this and warns against Brexit.
The Pyrrhic victory of a Brexit
As much as I can see, the proponents of Brexit see five types of benefits from leaving the EU, beyond the putative economic gains: (1) recovered sovereignty, (2) improved security, (3) better democracy, (4) less bureaucracy, and (5) fewer immigrants.
I understand the argument about ‘recovered sovereignty’ in as much as it is emotionally satisfying to quite a few people. But, upon a moment of reflection, it should strike everybody as a folly to opt for ‘isolated’ sovereignty in the world of pooled sovereignties, designed to increase the security of partners at the cost of relatively trivial diminishment of sovereignty (Britain has a veto power over many EU decisions). Why would a reasonable public favor an infinitesimal gain in sovereignty (Britain intends to remain in NATO) over better security? There is no doubt that the EU suffers from democratic deficit, but listening to Boris Johnson one could think that the bloc is an authoritarian madhouse run exclusively by unaccountable bureaucrats. How on earth did Britain manage to win all those special privileges in such a hostile and unresponsive environment?
I also do not buy the argument that Brexit will help to reduce bureaucracy. The Brits are more than capable of producing their own bureaucratic shackles. Complaining about bureaucratic excesses has become my favorite pastime since I have moved to London from the US. And I have yet to meet a Euro-bureaucrat. And finally immigration. It has been shown time and time again that immigrants, by and large, are beneficial for the British economy. The arguments against them are based on observing difficult situations in some “overcrowded” communities. It is not wise to deny that such problems exist, but it is imperative to warn against hysterical exaggerations of the scale of such problems. Excessively emotional and factually erroneous presentations of the immigration dilemma help to solve few real problems, but for sure fuel anti-foreigner sentiments underpinning more extreme forms of nationalism.
You can’t roll back the clock
The arguments Brexiters often repeat, that Britain will be able to return to a better, pre-EU position or situation is based on a complete misunderstanding of the nature of historical time. “You cannot step twice into the same river”, Heraclitus wrote famously. Each period or moment in history has its own constellation of political power, interdependencies of economic interests, and specific cultural dynamics. Human societies are products of accumulations of habits, rules, and predilections that are difficult to reverse. Social scientists talk about path dependence and sunken costs. There are no reversals and abrupt changes of direction that are without costs, as whole societies need to retool themselves.
Self-determination is not the same as democracy.
Since most economists do not see any economic gains in leaving the EU and other arguments do not seem to be convincing why would you leave? Why would you risk taking what will most likely amount to the first step in the unraveling of European solidarity, which was so costly to create in terms of time and treasure?
People argue that Brits will be able to rule themselves and thus have more democracy. Perhaps. But self-determination is not the same as democracy. Since Brexit will almost certainly destabilise the situation in Europe and beyond for quite a while, more self-rule may not turn out to mean stronger, safer, and more stable democracy. Democracy is a delicate institutional system that thrives in stable, predictable environments, both internal and external. If Brexit emboldens radical populist and largely anti-liberal forces, as it almost certainly will, the liberal foundation of the rule of law and tolerance, so indispensable for modern democracy to thrive, will come under attack. Moderation, the chief virtue of democracy – as we know since Aristotle – will be hard to obtain and practice.
British democracy will survive but it will take political energy to defend it. Another cost. So, why? I still do not understand. I am writing these words horrified by Jo Cox’s murder by a madman screaming “Britain First”. Of course Nigel Farage and bellicose Brexiters are not directly responsible for this tragedy. He is, however, responsible for helping to create a cultural climate in which sick minds go beyond their 'breaking points'.