This is a sad morning for Britain and unfathomable for Europe. The morning after Brexit, the headlines make grim reading: “Pound sterling crashes to 1985 low”, “World stocks in free fall,” “The rage of the working class,” “Cameron resigns,” “Scotland must hold a new referendum.” And Donald Trump touched down on his Scottish golf course to announce “It’s a great thing”
Well, it’s over. The whole process has been a disaster. What began as a piece of political theater by PM David Cameron, cynically stage-managed to shore up his control of the Tory party, has exploded like a suicide bomber’s vest. A severe jolt for Europe, this is a looming catastrophe for Britain. It’s the day after the hurricane, as we begin to shift through the rubble and struggle to get things working again.
What is certain is that the European power-brokers are in no mood to treat Britain gently. The VOTE LEAVE movement’s comfortable conviction that they can get the same sweetheart deal as Norway and Switzerland – all the advantages without formal membership – is an illusion. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was blunt: “There will be no re-negotiation. Out is out.” Italy’s Matteo Renzi in the language of Machiavelli: “It’s not the end of the world for the UK, it’s worse: It’s the wrong choice.”
A sad day
Yes, Britain will no longer have make net annual payments of about €6 billion but the missing subsidies will be a body blow to British farmers and poorer regions. Britain’s exports to the EU will face higher tariffs and imports the same – a double whammy for jobs and the family budget. The huge finance industry will largely decamp to Frankfurt and in-bound investment will crash. Britain is still a major auto manufacturer, but ownership is almost entirely Japanese, American or German – guess where they won’t be investing in next generation production? This sad day may well be the beginning of a new dark age of isolation for Britain, of shrinking expectations in a smaller world.
The British misunderstood the EU from the start. The merchant island saw the (then) Common Market as a trading opportunity with tedious political ties that could be ignored, while the founding fathers saw a political opportunity to harness a trading union to reconcile Europe’s arch enemies, Germany and France. It was the Continent’s great good fortune that two men of generous vision, Adenauer and De Gaulle, were leading their countries out of the destruction of the WWII. The goal was clear – no more war.
Britain’s relationship with this continental power bloc was difficult from the start. Rejected twice by De Gaulle, Britain joined formally in 1973, confirmed two years later with a comfortable 67%. But De Gaulle’s reasoning that the British harbored a “deep seated hostility to the European construction” has proved ominously prophetic.
There is little dispute that Britain has benefited enormously from EU membership: bilateral trade – cheaper French wine and German autos, easy travel and Mediterranean retirement for sun-starved Brits, the magnificent Erasmus student exchange program and much more. But advantages become the norm and are quickly forgotten, the irritations remain.
Absurd Brussels directives – the all time favorite: mandating non-curvy cucumbers – have steadily eroded respect for the EU. Of course British bureaucrats are equally capable of such nonsense, but when it comes from Johnny Foreigner, it irks. David Cameron’s pitch to his countrymen was that a savvy Britain on the inside could make the Brussels monster perform. Well, he failed to convince them – except in Scotland, which will almost certainly call a second referendum to secede from the U.K.
So the die is cast. What now? No one knows: Battalions of economic gurus have traded unfriendly statistics and although the business consensus was firmly for staying in, in a fog of disinformation, that case went unheard.
The British are proud of their ability to “muddle through”, so perhaps Europe’s stern taskmasters Juncker and Merkel will relent and soften the blow. Almost certainly nothing will happen quickly, the LEAVE vote only expects the government to set the LEAVE procedure in motion – a moral obligation, not a legal one. Plenty of time for prevarication and confusion. Meanwhile, the heaviest burdens will be born by those who can least afford it – ironically, for the most part, those who voted to leave.
This essay was broadcast June 24 on WAMC/National Public Radio in New York.