The Brexit Revolt

Demonstrators opposing Britain's exit from the European Union in Parliament Square following the EU referendum result protest Saturday in London. Photo: Tim Ireland / Associated Press

LONDON — With its vote to leave the European Union, the United Kingdom has staged a revolt so forceful that it will shake – and potentially even destroy – the European project. Indeed, as the UK pursues its extraordinary experiment in applied democracy, there will undoubtedly be calls elsewhere in Europe – mostly in northern countries like Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden – to follow the British example. But what are those who would leave revolting against?

The EU was built in the aftermath of World War II as a way, finally, to escape Europe’s centuries-long legacy of violent conflict. Following two brutal wars in which the creation and competing ambitions of nation-states played a central role, Europeans embraced internationalism as the foundation of a new political order, one that had to be protected at all costs.

To that end, it was crucial to construct supranational bodies that tied Europeans to one another and, in the name of integration, imposed limits on individual countries. European courts became responsible for protecting the rule of law, and new institutions such as the European Central Bank asserted increasing control over the economy.

As a result, Europe quickly came to resemble a nagging nanny, constantly telling countries what they couldn’t do, from trying to spend their way out of economic crisis to paying their pensioners the benefits they deserve. Feeling constrained in their capacity to manage the massive economic challenges they faced, countries began to turn on Europe, with anti-EU campaigners, particularly in smaller countries like Greece, claiming that they had faced unfair, even cruel, treatment. The dream of easy prosperity through integration seemed to be dead.


Then came the worries about migration and mobility, with dynamic economies like the UK concerned about being inundated by workers from struggling countries. In requiring all members to remain open to migration from other member states, the EU looked like a maniacal party host, demanding that all the guests mingle, whether they want to or not. Many Europeans simply had no interest in meeting new people.

Of course, unlike the value of new friendships, the importance of economic migration is not a personal judgment. But pro-EU campaigners in Britain never managed to address the migration issue clearly and convincingly. Prime Minister David Cameron declared passionately that Europe was important for Britain’s security, but lacked the courage to say that migration is good for Britain, and that venerated institutions like the National Health Service depend on foreigners, from doctors to cleaners, to function.

In any case, the most detested feature of European integration lay elsewhere. National political establishments became so immersed in the EU that they seemed out of touch with their own people. Finance ministers talked to other finance ministers more than to their own colleagues, let alone the voters.

With virtually all of the mainstream parties having formed the same habit, the electorate’s only means of expressing its discontent was to vote for anti-establishment forces, many of which made opposition to the EU a central tenet of their platform. Most recently, in May 2015, large numbers of traditional Labour voters deserted their party in order to vote for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which was at the forefront of the Brexit campaign.

To be sure, establishment leaders have long been trying to save their own skins by ramping up criticism of the EU, blaming it for demanding that national governments pursue unpopular or failed policies. But that merely put ideas for alternate policies out of reach, while causing the voters to direct their opposition against the EU itself.

Though the establishment parties criticized the EU, for the most part they did not lose sight of the benefits of membership. Indeed, in the UK referendum, both major parties backed the “Remain” campaign, though they were split internally. While most of the Labour Party actively campaigned for Europe, its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was less than enthusiastic. The split in the Conservative Party ran much deeper.

So British voters entered the voting booth feeling that the EU had failed them, and that their national leaders could not protect their interests unless the UK left. But there was one more group against which Brexit voters were protesting: the “experts.”

Almost every economist warned that Brexit would have serious consequences, from the immediate shock – and, indeed, the pound has already dropped to a 31-year low – to longer-term trade challenges. George Soros anticipates financial meltdown. Political scientists have highlighted the security and other risks. Even British football bosses have argued that UK clubs are better off in Europe.


The problem is that citing expert views seemed patronizing to many voters. Given that the EU was already viewed as a project that benefited elites disproportionately, maybe even exclusively, this is not surprising. Like a frustrated child being scolded by an overweening schoolmaster, many Britons decided that they would show them.

The vote for Brexit was driven by the sense that political and economic the “elites” were both corrupt and wrong about the likely consequences. That hypothesis is about to be tested – and against a background of mistrust and division, no less. The time of subsisting on criticism is over. Brexit’s supporters must now prove that they made the right choice, by reaching a workable solution that upholds British economic and political stability. Unfortunately, they may well find that there is no better alternative to Europe.
Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016