Monday, July 18, 2016

Brexit - Why it's important and what it means

Written By: Perrin Brown
Program Intern, World Affairs Council of Atlanta
Student, Georgia Washington University
Published: 7/18/2016

It seems Trump-like sentiments aren't unique to America.

Winston Churchill’s own contradictions on the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe reflect the divisions felt by the kingdom’s subjects. Churchill spoke highly of a “United States of Europe,” and said that “if Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.”

On June 23rd, the United Kingdom chose the open sea, embarking on a voyage that will be tempestuous and uncertain. Much attention has been given to the immediate effects: the pound’s decline, the market turmoil, the limbo in free-trade partnerships. More important, however, are two broad takeaways that say much about the state of Western politics:
  • The populist, nationalist, isolationist trends of Old Europe are back and here to stay
  • The sentiments that led to Brexit reflect a broader, darker trend in Western politics

The European Union, for all its flaws and dysfunction, enjoys one of the most strategic and sentimental victories in modern political history: after of a millennium of war, the EU has helped generate decades of prosperous peace in Europe. After the continent sleep-walked into World War I and collapsed into World War II, the EU fundamentally challenged the tendencies and tensions that had kept Europe at war for so long.

The EU integrated countries economically, maintained common, democratic political structures, and curbed the zero-sum nationalism responsible for so much previous violence. In this process, the EU created a single free-trade market, established central governance in Brussels, and drifted toward and away from an “ever closer union,” a goal stipulated in the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

Today, though, virtually every country in Europe, along with the United States, faces a rise in the political and economic sentiments the post-war movement fought to suppress. Authoritarianism, nationalism, populism, and isolationism are on the rise. In looking at the sentiments behind Brexit, one can easily substitute a comparison in the sentiments supporting Donald Trump in the U.S.:
  • Deep mistrust in Brussels’ (Washington) ability to govern and deliver results
  • Deep skepticism in the necessity of open markets and trade deals (TPP)
  • A belief that foreign refugees (Mexican Immigrants) threaten the country economically and culturally
  • Firm distrust in established political and economic elites
  • A belief that retreating from the world stage is “taking your country back” (Making America Great Again!)

In the U.K., it didn’t matter that the vast majority of financial experts and leaders warned against Brexit. It didn’t matter that a bipartisan majority of elected members of parliament warned against Brexit. What mattered was a fundamental sentiment that international organizations were no longer necessary and that the political establishment was no longer in touch with the people.

The Guardian aptly noted that “Brexit is about more than the EU: it’s about class, inequality, and voters feeling excluded from politics.” The vote to leave the European Union was not merely a vote for increased independence and limited government. Brexit was a vote against globalization, establishment politics, and elitism.

The Washington Post put it more bluntly, saying that “the world’s losers are revolting.” In this context, Brexit put those who have benefitted from the new world order of globalization against those who have been left behind. Many of the leave voters had legitimate concerns against free-trade, open borders, and the smothering wrath of Brussels. While their grievances were understandable, they were lied to and deceived by hypocritical, fear-mongering politicians hoping to pursue their own nationalist agendas. The true crisis, then, is how easily these voters’ legitimate concerns were exploited to further nativist and isolationist ends.

The solution to curbing the rough edges of globalization is not to restrict free trade. That, as Barack Obama has said, is the last decade’s argument. The solution to Europe’s troubles is not to close borders and channel fear towards Muslim refugees, as Nigel Farage took such pleasure in doing.

Instead, leaders need to better take care of those who are naturally disenfranchised by the rough edges of globalization, and solve the collective refugee disaster by focusing on the roots of the problem. The U.S. presidential election features the same political divide, capitalized on by Donald Trump. His supporters have some legitimate concerns, but, once again, their chosen champion offers little beyond isolation and fear-mongering. Donald Trump’s trade and immigration policies would “make America recession-bound again,” according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Brexit reflects a dark inflection point in Western politics, showing that the true political divide is shifting away from liberal vs. conservative. As nationalism and populism take root, demagogic politicians will thrive. Hopefully, Brexit and Donald Trump will not lead Europe and the United States down the road of isolationism. As Thomas Friedman wrote, “then, like now, walls only make you poorer, dumber, and more insecure.” The U.K. has chosen the open sea, and it’s anyone’s guess what the rest of the West will decide.