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History Returns to Europe

History Returns to Europe

The British decision to leave the European Union is the most momentous event across the Atlantic since NATO bombed Belgrade.

If I lived in the United Kingdom, I would have voted to Remain in the EU, but it’s not hard to see why the majority voted to Leave. I wouldn’t want the United States to join the EU for the same reasons the Brexiters want out of it.

The EU is a brilliant idea. Unite splendidly diverse yet like-minded nations into a powerful bloc that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Provide minimum standards and guidelines for countries that aren’t as advanced (such as Greece and Romania). Pull down trade barriers and do business in a common market. Open up job opportunities and leg-stretching room for all. (I wouldn’t want to be confined to a place as cramped as Belgium for the rest of my life, but I’m one of those cosmopolitan “elites” everyone likes to complain about nowadays.)

The actually existing EU, though, isn’t so brilliant. It includes all the good stuff, yet it’s crushed by a staggering amount of centralized regulatory bureaucracy and a disregard for the wishes of its individual member states. It’s hardly a gulag empire, but it’s autocratic enough that Europe’s democracy deficit has its own Wikipedia page. And its internally borderless nature is bringing more immigrants than can be absorbed all at once without shocks to the system.

Here’s how my Canadian pal Terry Glavin put it, who also would have voted Remain if he lived in Britain. “You can’t tell the British people, as Tony Blair’s Labour government did a decade ago, that there will only be 13,000 new immigrants arriving in Britain every year in the absence of EU transitional controls and expect them to shrug it off when they discover, as they did last month, that last year’s arrivals numbered roughly 330,000. Racism doesn’t explain everything.”

No, it doesn’t. Every racist jackhole in Europe is whooping it up over the Brexit results and pining for more, but even the most welcoming people and nations can only take in so many strangers at any one time, and Europe has never been as good at assimilating immigrants as the US and Canada anyway. (We have a lot more experience on this side of the Atlantic.)

I’ve always been skeptical that the EU would survive beyond the medium-term. Uniting nations as diverse as Britain and Greece isn’t as daft as merging the United States and Mexico into a single polity, but it’s a lot less likely to work than marrying Maine and Texas—or even British Columbia and Quebec. It’s more like combining British Columbia and Argentina. That kind of arrangement can only work if the federation is incredibly flexible.

The EU is not incredibly flexible, and English people don’t appreciate having decisions made for them in Belgium any more than Canadians would enjoy decisions being made for them by Americans, and vice versa.

Britain would have been better off without joining the EU in the first place if it wasn’t going to stay. That would have been fine. Switzerland is flourishing outside the EU, and so is Norway.

It may be a bit premature to say the EU is dead just because Britain left. The British were always the most likely to leave. They never joined with the same enthusiasm as other people. Many have always felt that “Europe” is somewhere else, that it’s the Continent, not the islands, and they refused to scrap the Pound for the Euro.

That said, this could well mark the beginning of the end of the EU. Leaving is no longer unthinkable now that the UK actually did it. If one country can leave, any country can leave, and Euroskepticism has been on the rise all over the place for a while. The EU can get along just fine without Britain, and it would probably get along even better sans Greece, but it won’t survive if France and Germany head for the exits.

The United Kingdom itself may come apart. England and Wales voted to Leave, but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain. Scotland held its own independence referendum two years ago and narrowly voted to stay in the UK, but only because leaving the country would have meant leaving Europe, and Scotland doesn’t want to leave Europe. Within hours of the Brexit vote, officials in Scotland mulled a second referendum on independence. It’s far more likely to pass next time than last time.

People in Scotland don’t enjoy having decisions made for them in England any more than the English like having decisions made for them in Belgium. Nationalism in Britain cut both ways. English nationalists voted to Leave while Scottish nationalists voted Remain.

Cosmopolitan “citizens of the world” need to understand something: Nationalism isn’t necessarily bad. It can be—that’s for damn sure—but a lack of it can be just as destructive. Nationalism is exclusive, yes, but it’s also inclusive. It draws a line between those on in the inside and those on the outside, but it also binds those on the inside together.

Look at Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Precious little glue binds them. Huge numbers of people in all three identify more with their sect—Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Christian—than with their own country. They’ve formed military alliances with belligerent foreign states against people who live down the street. More than a million have been slaughtered because of it. “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation,” Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran wrote about his homeland a century ago.

The two Baath Party regimes in Syria and Iraq attempted to gloss over their sectarian differences with a patina of pan-Arab Nationalism, yet they still butchered hundreds of thousands of people from enemy sects inside their own countries. Fractious Northern Ireland is as homogenous and pacifist as Japan by comparison.

But Northern Ireland is not homogenous, and it is not pacifist. Belfast is the most car-bombed city in the history of Europe. There is no “Northern Irish” identity that binds everybody together. The Catholic half of the population identifies with the Republic of Ireland while the Protestant half identifies with the United Kingdom. If the UK breaks apart after Brexit, what will become of Northern Ireland? It can’t be neatly partitioned any more than Baghdad can be neatly partitioned.

The European Union may have helped calm nationalistic furies in Belfast. It makes less of a difference if the region belongs to Ireland or the UK if it’s part of a larger transnational entity either way—if Brussels is its ultimate capital either way—but that pressure release valve is now closed.

I would have chosen to Remain if I were British. Better to reform and liberalize the EU than to scrap it. The uncertainty following Brexit is nothing compared to what could happen if the whole thing collapses. Those economic shockwaves will hammer us here in the US. I guarantee it.

And what would become of Eastern Europe? Romania is no longer a Third World country thanks in part to the European Union, while Hungary—which likewise hasn’t fully recovered from Soviet-style totalitarian government—is lurching in an increasingly disturbing direction even from within the EU. “The era of liberal democracies is over,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared in Romania recently. “Copying Western models is a kind of provincialism that will kill us.” There’s only so much Brussels can do to prevent a nation like Hungary from descending into a Putin-esque hell of its own making, but it will have even less ability if the EU doesn’t exist.

This could be the beginning of a slow-motion and potentially ugly collapse, but who knows? The future isn’t yet written.

I can say this, though, with confidence: history is not over. The next quarter-century in Europe will not be the same as the last quarter-century. History never stands still for long, nor does it move in a straight line for long. It’s always turning corners, and it’s always surprising.

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