Can Europe Make It?

Brexit: all bad options

From its inception, the referendum has suffered from a fundamental misalignment: it is not asking the right questions. "Leave" and "Remain" are stark contrasts in a world that never presents binary choices.

Fernando Betancor
23 June 2016
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The two Brexiteers: Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. PAimages/Stefan Rousseau. All rights reserved.

Great Britain votes on its political future tomorrow. It is the most momentous popular movement since the 1990's, when ordinary citizens tore down the Iron Curtain on their own initiative, brick by brick and link by link. Like that earlier spontaneous revolution, the forces that led to it have been silently building for years; but there the comparison ends.

Both the "Leave" and "Remain" campaigns have been well-financed, highly orchestrated and filled with distortions by different groups of special interests from the very beginning, whereas no one had to tell the Czechs, Hungarians and East Germans that it was time for the Soviets to go home.

The Brexit Referendum is a rum go, however you look at it. From its inception, the referendum has suffered from a fundamental misalignment: it is not asking the right questions. "Leave" and "Remain" are stark contrasts in a world that never presents binary choices. There are many Britons who will vote "Leave" though they'd rather remain if the European Union could be reformed.

There are others who will vote "Remain" out of fear, but still despise what the European Union has become. The two choices also provide little guidance to British leaders beyond the immediate question of membership: is "Remain" a mandate for further integration, for the Euro, a vindication of the status quo?

It is hardly credible to believe that almost half of all Britons think the current state of the EU is the best of all possible worlds, or even tolerable. What if "Leave" wins? How do the British people wish their future relationship with Europe to look like? The referendum fails to address these questions, opting for a Third Grade simplicity that both deprecates the capacity of the British electorate to decide complex issues and imposes an unnecessary conformity on the public's options.

Neither side has made a terribly compelling case, both have opted for fear as the easiest tactic to motivate voters. The "Remain" campaign has forecast economic doom should Britain vote to exit the common market. The "Leave" campaign has also forecast doom, from a legion of wave job-stealing, benefit-welching, pro-jihadist immigrants who are coming for your wives and daughters, all one million of them.

Recent polling indicates that each side has been relatively successful in promoting their stories, with British voters seemingly convinced that their only choices are between economic suicide or unceasing gang rape. This race to the bottom is the unfortunate product of our times; the technological revolution in digital media and social networks has ensured that the level of public discourse has plumbed new depths of banality.

Politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are not the cause of this phenomenon, they are its product: the spawn of internet trolls, hyperfocused targeting of news, and the cesspool of uninformed opinion that occupies the public space on the internet.

Neither side has made a compelling case for "what comes next" either. The "Remain" campaign has made no effort to address the future of the European Union, which the pro-Remain government was lambasting as autocratic, statist and dysfunctional just a few months ago. Apparently, simply avoiding an economic recession from Brexit is good enough, afterwards "we'll just muddle on."

Some less than generous "Remainers" have even argued that a departure is unnecessary, the EU is crumbling on its own without any need of British assistance. But the "Leave" campaign, though at least directly addressing the future, does no better a job. Just vote leave and on Friday morning, it'll be a chicken in every pot, a new car in every garage, and beer and skittles after 3 p.m. every day of the week. The trade deals will sign themselves.

It is ironic how the same people who continuously assert that Brussels is an anti-democratic monster ready to impose its will on the great and the small alike, say in the next breath that these same institutions will fall over themselves to accommodate Britain's demands for a new relationship. The "Leave" camp argues that Brussels suffers from a terrible democracy deficit, and this is unarguably true: but exit supporters never say how their departure is supposed to improve Europe's respect for the democratic process.

In the aftermath of a "Leave" victory, there will certainly be economic consequences. Britain and Europe will have two year to negotiate a divorce and it is inconceivable that foreign capital will treat this interval as "business as usual". Investment in Britain will surely fall until its relationship with Europe is clarified and some companies will surely relocate to the continent to be closer to their customers and avoid new import-export duties.

Britain will certainly go into a recession for a  period of time. How long that period of time lasts will depend on the wisdom of her new leaders - since it is inconceivable that David Cameron could stay as Prime Minister fro very long - as well as the deal that is negotiated with the European Union. British turmoil might be prolonged, however; if "Leave" wins, Scotland may demand a new referendum on independence. That could lead to yet further and more disastrous fragmentation.

Some pundits fear that Brexit could lead to a collapse of the European Union itself, as anti-EU parties in the French, German and Italian core would gain prestige and popular support for their own membership referendums. Perhaps. But the greater fear is that it would lead to the final transmutation of European institutions into anti-democratic clique run exclusively by the unelected European Commission and European Central Bank.

It is highly disconcerting to read representatives of these institutions warning the Britain will be punished for leaving and whose first response to Brexit may be the creation of a European Army ...as a sign of the robust health of the European project, no doubt. The next stage of peaceful, democratic integration would be the centralization of the armed forces as a response to a peaceful, democratic referendum.

This is not encouraging, but hardly surprising given the recent history of bullying, threatening, diktat and outright support of coups in member states like Italy and Greece when they questioned orthodoxy.

The next obvious step would be to force all remaining full members to join the Euro club, whether they want to or not. I would not be decided by popular referendum, of course. Why force membership? Because a nation that gives up its sovereign control over its currency has de facto given up its sovereignty altogether.

The only reason states like Britain and Denmark can even contemplate holding votes on EU issues is because they retained the pound and the krone. Otherwise, as the salutary example of Greece and Syriza proves, democracy is not allowed to interfere in the operation of EU policy.

Brexit would likely lead to towards greater centralization and less democracy in the European Union, not its dissolution; but it could also hand Russia a strategic victory of great importance and lasting consequences. Britain has been a staunch supporter of continued sanctions while Russia is occupying Crimea and supporting separatists in Ukraine's eastern provinces.

France and the Mediterranean countries have been much less supportive, preferring to reopen economic ties to Russia. Germany has been torn: the economy has lost a lot of business with the Russians, but the Germans feel an obligation to follow a "responsible" foreign policy.

After Brexit, there will be increased pressure to replace the lost trade with Britain by any means possible, and Russia's Putin will not be slow in breaking open the champagne bottles to wine-and-dine his former business associates. Without British influence and political heft, it is almost certain that Polish, Baltic and Romanian opposition to accommodating Moscow will be brushed aside.

A British departure would throw US foreign policy into disarray. Having our principle European allies at loggerheads would prove a major headache at best. It has the potential throwing NATO into disarray in a way not seen since de Gaulle pulled the French out in 1963, and at a terrible time. The possibility of Europe fragmenting or of the United Kingdom fragmenting - or both - is a nightmare scenario for Washington. Other alternatives are not much more appetizing.

British policy would be upset just as thoroughly as American. Great Britain has spent the past 300 years fighting and maneuvering to ensure that no single power dominates Europe. Since 1700, the British fought 8 "world wars" to achieve this aim. 40 years ago, the British decided that there best option was to influence from the inside the new European Community, to insure Great Britain's interests were protected. Turning their backs on Europe now, losing all influence over its development: what would appear to be an unprecedented reversal of the UK's longest standing national security goals.

"Leave" has some potentially disastrous consequences; but "Remain" is not noticeably better. It spares Britain the short-term economic pain of separation while leaving it a member of a union which is lurching from crisis to crisis and seems intent on perpetuating the maximum amount of pain and stagnation on its disadvantaged southern members.

The "Remain and Reform" segment wants to bring about a democratic renaissance from inside the European Union, but they are no more able to enunciate a clear policy with a believable chance of success than either of the other groups.

As Joe Guinan and Thomas Hanna write in a recent Open Democracy article: "The EU is a doomsday machine generating deflation, low growth, and high unemployment – and a rising tide of far right nationalism." The hopes of reforming from within, given the institutional hurdles inherent in the structure of the Union, requires an unprecedented and wholly unlikely alignment of the stars.

What remains for Britons tomorrow? Disaster seems to beckon whether they stay or whether they go. Sometimes there are no good options and life deals nations, just like people, a pair of fives.

God grant the British His wisdom tomorrow.

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