How We Got to Brexit

The United Kingdom has historically had the luxury of being semi-detached from Europe. Not anymore.

British parliament London
Westminster Palace in London, England (Unsplash/Matt Milton)

So they went ahead and did it.

They were warned; boy, were they warned. Economist after economist, leaders both near and far, even their own prime minister, all with the same line: to leave is to suffer. Upon the eve of the vote, even the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) did not fully believe Britons would do such a thing.

But they did and clearly so. 52 to 48 percent, a democratic majority if ever there was one, with high turnout and nary a voting irregularity.

I argued last week that Brexit or not, the world curves toward union: the costs of isolation, of high walls, of strict migrant controls far outweigh the supposed benefits. The markets seem to agree, as the pound slumps, the United Kingdom heads for recession and two of the three major political parties endure various levels of meltdown.

Even in geopolitics, punishment like that rarely comes so swiftly.

But how did we get to this? Let’s begin at a geographic beginning

Europe is divided between three broad geographic zones: the Mediterranean basin, the Northern European Plain and the disparate fringes. The Mediterranean basin once gave rise to Greek and Roman Empires: for much of European history, states with access to the warm weather and easy trade of the basin dominated much of the continent. These states, from ancient Rome to Hapsburg Spain, formed the backbone of Europe’s geopolitical system.

But that only lasted when the length of the growing season was the primary metric of power. When the New World was discovered, and with it access to its vast resource base, proximity to the Atlantic became the new yardstick of European geopolitics. Atlantic-facing, formerly backwater states like England, France and Portugal became great powers, competing with and eventually overwhelming ancient bastions in the Mediterranean.

Resources from the New World then fueled the next stage of European development: the Industrial Revolution. This shifted power permanently to the Northern European Plain away from the Mediterranean, whose states lacked the same mineral resources as Britain, France and Germany.

That meant that while Northern European states no longer worried about security threats coming from the south, they did worry very much about one another: as the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries wore on, repeated wars were fought over who controlled this great plain that stretches from Brittany in France to Mongolia, chewing up Poland and the Holy Roman Empire and giving rise to modern Germany and Russia.

But that leaves out the story of the fringe, with good reason. Throughout European history, the fringe — the British Isles and Scandinavia — have had the freedom to pick and choose when they involved themselves in the struggles of the continent. For those who live on the Northern Plain, the question must be addressed: for those who live on the fringe, it becomes more philosophical.

The fringe has never been strong enough to dominate or displace Northern Plain powers: England tried and failed to subdue France while Sweden once fancied itself master of the Baltic Sea even in Germany. These hard lessons are not lost today: Britain has never seen itself as the center of the EU as France and Germany do.

Yet for that matter, the states of the Northern European Plain have never managed to subdue the fringe either. Closest was Nazi Germany in 1940, whose domination of France and Poland and alliance with the Soviet Union had seemingly solve the security dilemma of the Northern European Plain, freeing the Nazis to bombard Britain at their leisure. (They hadn’t, of course: the Soviets were preparing for war just as much as the Nazis and beyond that America was preparing to enter European geopolitics permanently and solve the continent’s security situation itself.)

Thus we have the unique British position in Europe: a powerful fringe state that usually only involves itself when it has to

Britain’s position on the Atlantic meant it got easy access to the New World, fueling its Industrial Revolution; its natural resource base, unique among Europe’s fringe nation states, gave it the economic pull of Germany and France. But its isolation has always kept it apart from the rest of Europe while its Atlantic posture has always kept it connected to the rest of the world. Seeing Europe as an interminable mess of overlapping and intractable interests and rivalries, London has long preferred to seek balance.

This makes the British attitude toward the EU wholly unique as well. The EU began as the European Coal and Steel Community — an international pooling of industrial resources between those states that had lost the most in World War II. France, West Germany, Italy and the Lowland countries sought to make war materially impossible by creating a common market for each of the former combatants’ industrial bases.

After the war, European elites of the continent believed it was imperative that they create systems, treaties and unions that were far stronger than the feckless League of Nations and made war considerably less likely. Having learned the hard way that idealism is quite literally for suckers, Europeans elite committed themselves to building a realist-based geopolitical system that future elites would find maddeningly difficulty to untangle. Should there be a second Hitler, they sought to make his rise so slowed by red tape, overlapping economic interests and unclear state authority that he might spend the rest of his life merely trying to cut through all the mess.

But Britain stood aloof from the ECSC. It had not been occupied, nor suffered vast land battles. British elites saw security in the arms of the United States and NATO rather than pan-Europeanism; to integrate with Europe simply didn’t have the deadly seriousness that it did for the people of the continent. This caused eternal British foot dragging: Britain could allow the continent to experiment and learn the hard way while Britain jumped on board with only the good ideas. This is exactly what it did in 1973, joining the European Economic Community only after it proved its value.

This is another key reason why it retained the pound rather than jumping on board with the euro, a wholly untested and unknown currency experiment. Had it proved to be a good idea, the United Kingdom would have happily joined up after avoiding all the risk; events in Greece, Italy and Spain, however, gave much succor to British Euroskeptics.

And this helps us understand why the British people now risk a leave

On some metrics, the EU has not done what it was meant to do: the euro is unstable, debt-ridden members could still undermine the system and, perhaps most damningly of all, it has failed to protect unique cultures within their member states, overlooking that globalization invariably changes lifestyles in ways not everyone wants.

British voters don’t fear German bombers, French emperors or Russian hordes: they have NATO should any of that ever come to pass. It is telling that the question of NATO is not on the table for Britons: while they may resent the wars the United States drags them into, life outside of NATO is far more immediately terrifying than life outside the EU.

The continentals do not see the world the same way: they see NATO as something that might well vanish should the United States once again lose interest, as it did in the 1920s and 30s. They need a system to bind them together; Britons do not feel the same way.

The United Kingdom is still the fifth largest economy on Earth, a commanding position that allows Britons to make decisions weaker, smaller states cannot. Were Britain poor like an Eastern European state, or unstable like a Balkan one, its people would never countenance life beyond the embrace of the EU.

The problem is, Britons did not fully understand what the EU offered them, nor how dependent they now are on it

The market reaction was a clear message: international investors, even from allied ones, won’t dump the same kind of money into an “independent” Britain when all that gains is access to the United Kingdom itself, rather than the whole EU.

Much of the leave campaign was focused on capturing a mythical version of a recently lost Britain — one free of migration, EU rulemaking and foreign competition.

Yet that belies Britain’s recent past: Britain’s position as a global empire hardly made it a better place for the common man. Migrants from the empire arrived in London just as readily; the key difference is that Britons are having smaller families than ever before, causing migration to both seem larger than the old days and become more necessary to fill the jobs caused by a flatlining population. Managing an empire also meant elaborate, elite-friendly webs of laws and rules that hardly enriched the common man: it’s not like the imperialists were busy trying to uplift the London rabble as they built their gilded palaces.

Even if the past were better, no Britons want to give up modernity to recapture said glory. That would require trading in technological and social gains they have grown used to: doubtless few leave women voters would like a return to empire-style social norms, nor would many older Britons like to give up the NHS’ modern medicine in exchange for the comforts of 50s-style hospitals. Yet neither can be sustained in autarky: to cut Britain off from the world means to rely upon what resources and people are within its borders, which will, at best, ensure a Soviet standard of living.

The elites have long known this and the ambition leavers are backpedaling on virtually all of their promises. Britain, it seems, will go without the EU as an equal and instead find itself on the back foot negotiating with a superior competitor as Article 50 is invoked. That will not make Britain great. Instead, it will make it little.

Should the new prime minister somehow manage to stave off Scottish and Irish secession and cobble together some kind of government from this mess, Britons will still feel the pinch of recession, stagnation and lost opportunity. They will still be safe: the nuclear umbrella of NATO ensures as much. But they may not feel so.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, June 29, 2016.