Inevitably, during times of momentous change and upheaval, I try to focus my sights less on speculative predictions of what the future might bring and more on the words and deeds that have shaped the trajectory of our past. With Britain voting yesterday, against the advice and soothsaying of pretty much every financial expert and major institution from the IMF and the OECD to President Obama and most of the world’s largest economies, to become the first nation to leave the European Union since its founding in 1957, my mind harkened back to a time my own country’s history where the thin seams that held our nation together threatened to unravel during a time of bitter division and epochal change.
When I first pulled up the transcript of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, I was searching for something that would serve as some sort of silver lining or rallying cry in response to this disastrous referendum vote. Perhaps a line about how the states of the union needed to avoid allowing our passion to strain the bonds of our affection or an exhortation to place faith in the patient confidence of the people’s justice. However, in looking through Lincoln’s words, I came across a different passage that I think more accurately represents the struggles of the present moment, which I will quote in full:
“Physically speaking, we can not separate”, Lincoln said outside the then-unfinished Capitol Building at a time when 7 southern states had already seceded from the union. “We can not remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other, but the different parts of our country can not do this. They can not but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them. Is it possible, then, to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory after separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among friends?”
These words, while in many ways unique to America in the days leading up to The Civil War, are also relevant not just to the debate over Britain’s exit—or Brexit—from the European Union, but to the pervading moods of isolationism and right wing populism that have been settling in amongst many other Western European nations and in the United States. While geographically separated from mainland Europe by the English Channel, the UK and the EU are still inextricably linked in the wake of yesterday’s “Leave” vote. British voters may have weakened the formal links between themselves and their former EU compatriots, but they have done so at a tremendous cost.
Almost immediately after the media declared that the Leave voters had prevailed, economic chaos had already begun to take hold across the globe. Within hours of the election results being made public, the British pound had sunk to its lowest level in more than 30 years, while Japan was forced suspend trading on the pound and UK stocks as the Nikkei dropped nearly 8%. When morning dawned in Britain, the FTSE 100—which comprises the top 100 companies on the London Stock Exchange—promptly plummeted, opening down about 8%, while the FTSE 250—an index of the next 250 largest companies on the London Stock Exchange—opened down an all-time low of 11.4%.
From a political perspective, it took only a brief bit of daylight for the Brexit referendum to see its first casualty in Prime Minister David Cameron, who announced on Friday morning that he will be leaving 10 Downing Street by this October, saying that doesn’t think that it would be right for him, “to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.” In all likelihood, Cameron will wind up being replaced by a more isolationist, pro-Leave Tory like former London Mayor Boris Johnson or Conservative MP Michael Gove, who will see their political stock rise mightily in the wake of the referendum.
And those are just some of the short term ramifications of Brexit vote. Over the long haul, Britain’s decision to leave the EU could see both of the nations who voted to keep Britain in the European Union—Scotland and Northern Ireland—hold referendums of their own to leave the United Kingdom and could have deleterious effects on Britain’s long term economic prospects due to uncertainty surrounding things like the potential drawbacks of future trade deals with the EU, differences between safety laws and regulations between the UK and the EU, and labor availability.
Why, given all of these negative outcomes, would a majority of Britons vote to leave the EU? Ultimately, the Leave campaign won yesterday because of one issue, and one issue alone: immigration.
10 years ago, a jingoistic, bigoted buffoon like the United Kingdom Independence Party’s Nigel Farage would still be on the sidelines of British discourse, a representative of a hyper-conservative fringe that wanted to shut Britain off from the rest of Europe if only so that undesirables like Eastern Europeans and Muslims would stay out of his country. Today, Farage is arguably the most important man in British Politics and his brand of isolationist nonsense has morphed into something approaching the conservative mainstream.
If this sounds oddly familiar to anyone reading this in the United States, it’s because this is essentially the turn of events that has gotten us to a point where an egomaniacal trust fund baby with a muskrat fused to his scalp is within striking distance of The White House. It is not a coincidence that the Brexit crowd’s battle cry of “take back our country” is interchangeable will Donald Trump’s “make America great again”. Nor is it happenstance that the group of foreign politicians queuing up to congratulate Britain on its decision to leave the EU are a who’s who of the Islamophobic, anti-immigrant far right. From Donald Trump in America to The National Front’s Marine Le Pen in France to Dutch Party for Freedom founder Geert Wilders in The Netherlands, the champions of largest far right movements in the Western world since the 1930s have thrown their weight behind the Brexit campaign if for no other reason than that it makes it all the easier for them to stage similar actions in their own countries.
What I am about to say may sound hyperbolic and absurd to many, especially those who live in America and rarely—if ever—think about the European Union, but the British exit from the EU is one the most critical moments that our young century has seen and one that may have an impact on the world equal to that of the secession of South Carolina from the union more than 150 years ago. At its heart, the European Union was an attempt to avoid the grim specter of another world war and to unite an entire continent’s worth of nations by a shared desire for economic and political coexistence.
While it is admittedly a very imperfect union, the EU is, at its best, a rejection of the toxic hyper-nationalism and geopolitical brinksmanship that mired Europe in bloodshed throughout much of the first half of the 20th century. Politicians like Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump and the movements that they lead guide us towards, at best, a return to callous isolationism that eschews the communal good for individual gain and, at worst, a new age of totalitarian governance that manipulates the xenophobic and Islamophobic fears of an angry and disillusioned public to consolidate power and oppress minority populations. They take us to places where the better angels or our nature are nowhere to be found.
Categories: International Affairs