If you’ve read my editors’ blog posts over the years, you likely know that I am at heart a small-c conservative and instinctive institutionalist. There are up and down sides to that way of approaching the world. But it’s a posture that colors my reactions to most things. On that front, last night’s events in the UK fill me with no little foreboding. Sure, the pound was in free fall over night. The British equities market is getting hammered. Those are likely transitory events – at least the instability, if not the absolute values. But look a bit further down the road.
Look at the map.
Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU – overwhelmingly in absolute terms and evenly spread across Scotland. The roots of that are a deeper European identity, reflexive contrariness to England, a deeper attachment to social democracy and many other things. Just two years ago Scotland came just short of voting to leave the UK. One of the lesser ‘no’ arguments was whether the EU would allow the Scots, at least any time soon, to enter as an independent country. Probably not since the UK and various other EU states have national minorities they don’t want following Scotland’s lead. I have zero expertise on Scottish nationalism, but looking at the big picture – the span not of months but of years – it’s hard to see how Scotland doesn’t leave the UK, if exit goes through.
Then look at Ireland. Sinn Fein has already called for a referendum on Irish unification. In a sense, this is no surprise since unification has always been Sinn Fein’s raison d’etre. While there is a unionist majority in Northern Ireland, it is not a huge one. A UK departure from the EU will means a customs border along the border with Ireland. Just from the outside it does not seem inconceivable to me that such a reality could over time push enough of the business community toward unification to shift the political balance. At a minimum, this outcome seems likely to re-inflame the perennial confessional antagonism in the North. Perhaps I’m totally misreading the strength of Northern Irish Unionism. I claim no expertise on it at all. But, at a minimum, it seems to complicate the cultivation of the still delicate flower of peace in the North. Will anything sudden happen? I doubt it. But again, over time.
These centripetal forces raise another question. With the safety blanket of the EU, there are many national minorities in Europe that at least toy with the idea of leaving their nation states – in France, in Spain and a bunch of other countries. This doesn’t even get into the ethnic patchwork of Eastern European member states, whose ‘national questions’ have already thrown the world into war in the last century.
More worrisome is Europe itself.
The UK always had one foot in and one foot out of the EU. (This is the main reason departure seemed such folly; the UK had already opted out of the worst parts of EU membership.) But it is Europe’s second largest economy – one of the big three constituent nation states of the EU. With countries on the economic and geographical margins of the EU already wanting out (often for good reason), it is hard to see that this doesn’t put the whole EU project under immense and perhaps unendurable strain.
The entire EU project was fundamentally flawed from the start in as much as it created monetary union without political union – a workable enough scheme until you hit any crisis worth its name and the whole edifice starts hemorrhaging on every front. That crisis came in 2008 and the EU has limped from crisis to crisis ever since. It’s a side point but this is an example of just how amazing an edifice the framers of the US constitution created when they set in place what amounted to a massive and expanding free trade and unified legal/regulatory zone that became the United States. In any case, I say all this to make clear that I am no great EU enthusiast. In many ways, it’s not simply a broken edifice but one that was built with the breakage as one of its constitutive parts.
But whatever you think of the EU, rapid, disintegrative change is seldom smooth and usually leaves a lot of broken glass in its wake. This vote, clearly the product of deep fissures in British society which are paralleled in other western countries, yet held for the rather petty reasons of the Tory PM shoring up his right flank and working to expand his House Majority, seems to kick multiple disintegrative forces into play.
One possible contrary note: the UK referendum is not binding in any way. It is purely advisory. That is as a constitutional matter. As a political matter, British politics watchers appear to believe there’s no viable way for Parliament to ignore it. Yet Cameron says his resignation will become effective in October – months off – and he will leave to his successor – inevitably a pro-Brexit Tory PM – to invoke the actual mechanism of departure. That’s called Article 50. As I said, there’s no legal requirement to leave the EU created by this referendum. There’s a democratic legitimacy requirement. If the road gets sufficiently bumpy and public opinion shifts, perhaps shifts dramatically, things could change. But don’t bet on it.
Maybe it’ll be awesome. Maybe it’ll be fun. I think there’s some argument that in a very brutal, cynical way it will be good for the US, in as much as the EU was always in part an effort to achieve the scale of the US. But as I said, rapid, disintegrative change seldom goes smoothly. Wars destroy wealth and well-being on a scale no recession or economic collapse can hold a candle to. It leads to strife and dislocation, low-trust rather than high-trust international relations which bedevil the economic and physical welcome being of ordinary people. To paraphrase the curse, you don’t want to live in interesting times. This sets the stage for interesting times.