A few lessons from the Brexit vote

The architects of the European Union clearly viewed it as a political Hotel California, where once you joined there was no checking out. Before the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009 there wasn’t even a formal mechanism for leaving, and even though a procedure was then introduced (the now much talked about Article 50), it was always meant as a formality and only envisioned to be used when territories broke away from a member state, as when Algeria won independence from France in 1962 or Greenland got home rule from Denmark in 1985. Now the EU has to deal with what it never imagined: a real member deciding to move on and leave the dysfunctional union. It is a problem of their own making. EU leaders have let themselves get carried away with building an ever more integrated union, and now the whole thing could unravel at the seams; several other member states have their own problems with a pesky population who are not on board with the elite’s project, and Brexit will further embolden them.

The referendum was on the cards ever since it was included in the British Conservative’s manifesto before last year’s general election, but the EU had in its power to improve the odds of avoiding what they now face. The UK tried to negotiate a deal which was palatable to the British electorate, and if David Cameron had gotten something on the key issue of immigration – a result to take back to the British people which reflected that Brussels was listening to their concerns – then in all likelihood Brexit would not have happened. Instead, they arrogantly thought they would get away with it as usual; that surely they could rely on a small majority being too scared to follow their hearts and leave. They miscalculated.

But it is not just European politicians and bureaucrats who are appalled at the result: the British people is split right down the middle. The big cities and university towns voted to stay, so did Scotland. The rest of the country voted to leave. But even the 51.9% who voted “leave” are a motley crew to put it mildly: right-wing conservatives, xenophobes, socialist who confusingly see the EU as a free-market experiment. The majority are simply uninformed, driven to the Leave camp by a desire to limit immigration and a feeling that the EU is for the rich and powerful elite and that ordinary people were left behind. Some have already changed their minds: it seems many voted to leave in the belief that it would never happen, a symbolic protest vote which was always supposed to be ultimately meaningless. A petition to introduce retrospective legislation (!) which would rule the result void and trigger a second referendum has gained more than three million signatures, and must be debated by parliament.

People under 25, some ¾ of whom voted to stay, are angry with the result. Some argue that young people’s votes should have had a higher proportional weight because they have to live with the consequences of the decision for longer, or even that older people should not have had a say at all. So these youngster, who on the 22nd of June would probably have sworn undying allegiance to the democratic principle of one-man-one-vote, suddenly don’t approve of it when they are on the losing side. General elections normally don’t change very much – maybe a few % on the marginal income tax, or a small change in a transfer payment – so if you are generally in favour of the system, losing is not that bad. Now they got a real taste of how it feels to be tyrannised by a majority decision, and they don’t like it one bit.

But ultimately Brexit is a symptom, not the actual disease. Populations are not aligned with their political overlords, who have set out on a road to ever closer European integration. At the same time the economic problems across the EU – and especially the Eurozone – are mounting. The modern welfare state is unaffordable, and all are indebted to their eyeballs. With broke governments unable to continue to use the public coffers to bribe unhappy populations to be quiet, discontent has risen to the surface. The UK now has two years to negotiate their exit, but it is likely that another crisis will cripple the EU long before that.

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