Brexit Isn't a Catastrophe. It's an Opportunity.

'Always look on the bright side of life!'
June 27, 2016

The hysterical tone dominating American coverage of the U.K.'s vote to leave the European Union is drowning out a necessary debate about how the results of the referendum can be turned to global advantage. The results of this rupture in the EU will not be universally good, and some, as in the case of short- or middle-term economic disruption and (likely) Scottish secession, will be very regrettable indeed.

But come on. Brexit does not mark the unraveling of the post-war world order imposed by the United States, as the New York Times claimed over the weekend. The current form of the European community only came into being in 1993, a few years after said world order handily defeated the Soviet Union, with NATO, not the EU, playing the lead role. NATO still exists. Brexit is not likely to be "the greatest catastrophe of the 21st century," an option that Brookings clickbaitily floats—indeed, would that it were so! Brexit was not chosen by a decisive margin of voters as an ignorant, emotional mistake, despite facile efforts to portray the decision as such. And a vote for Brexit was not in essence the same thing as a vote for Trump, despite the fact that both political phenomena are aided by right-wing populism, a very general common factor after which most similarities end. Even in purely economic terms, once the trauma of a transition is complete, Britain is extraordinarily well positioned to continue as a major global player, including in its trade with Europe, which is hardly going to cease. The U.K. has the world's fifth largest economy. (Friendly, fraternal reminder to Scotland: not much of that is because of you.) Norway and Switzerland, neither a member of the EU, are hardly hellscapes, and Britain is substantially wealthier, more populous, and more influential than either of them.

It is hard to avoid the impression that the negative coverage of Brexit in the American press itself represents the triumph of emotion over analysis. Many, if not most, writers on this subject are disappointed by the decisive rejection of the EU by the citizens of one of its leading members, because the true object of such a rejection is actually the dream of an inevitable transnational future. Elites in every western country have calmly explained to the rubes, over and over and over again, that patriotic pride and human association on the principle of the nation-state are irrational, self-harming behaviors. Turns out the people are not persuaded. The dream may not be dead, but it is certainly on hold. (And who knows? Maybe a positive outcome of all this will be a reorientation on the part of the EU, a scaling back of its intrusions into the sovereignty of its members such that other populist movements are robbed of their best arguments. Nah: even I'm not that optimistic.)

For these elites, history moves in only the one, post-national direction, and so there is a real need for the consequences of Brexit to be catastrophic, for it to fail badly, one way or the other. There are even suggestions in Britain that, actually, the results of the referendum don't have to be honored after all. You want to talk catastrophe? Let the last veil drop to reveal to the British people that they don't really rule themselves at all: then you will have the ingredients for true political unrest.

Better to conclude that what is done is done, and to plot calmly the best course ahead. There are real opportunities for cooperation with a reinvigorated nation-state with Britain's wealth and healthy political traditions. Contrary to President Obama's peevish assertion that Britain would go to "the back of the queue" in future trade negotiations (see 'Transnational world, disappointment over rejection of' to understand why he threatened such a policy) there is much to be said for the U.K. jumping to the head of the line. Because of the advanced nature of the British economy, such a deal promises all the benefits of economic cooperation, with none of the labor market race-to-the-bottom involved in deals with poorer nations. More trade with a close ally, but with little threat to working- and middle-class American jobs? Not seeing the downside, there.

The next president would be wise to keep such opportunities in mind, and to consider the role the U.S. can again play as architect in a shifting global order. Not only can ties between America and Britain become closer, but closer economic and diplomatic cooperation between like-minded democracies around the world—generally, members of the British commonwealth, or like the U.S., former territories of the British empire—deserves a renewed look. Ignorant blood-and-soil populism need only be strengthened by this referendum if pouting elites self-destructively force that result. A very attractive alternative exists: a future in which friendly democracies draw closer, trade with fewer obstructions, and allow their citizens to enjoy wealth, security, and the self-respect that comes with sovereignty. It is a fundamentally different vision than the transnational dream: and a far more realistic, far more sustainable future.

Published under: European Union