We should not be astonished that England and Wales have decided that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union! In the final analysis Brexit is just a last convulsion of a dying empire. That the United Kingdom joined in the first place is more surprising than the United Kingdom leaving.
Many empires have dissolved with more extended pain than the one inflicted by the end of the British one. It took the Roman Empire (East and West) more than a thousand years of decline to die, much more time than its birth and zenith. Endless wars and much mayhem was the accompaniment, and in Western Europe centuries of the Dark Ages followed the demise of the Western Roman Empire. In comparison, the crumbling of the British Empire started in earnest only after WWII and was substantially completed at the end of the sixties (sans Zimbabwe and Hong Kong). The Partition of India brought hundred of thousands, if not millions, of deaths and decolonisation in general was ugly and violent, so the pain caused by the end of the British Empire should not be underplayed, yet in terms of time the process was compressed. Brexit is the imperial equivalent of the chicken continuing to run even after its head has been chopped off. Joining the EU in 1973 was the attempt to keep the head despite the loss of empire. Brexit is the consequence of a nostalgia that was not possible in the troubled seventies, and that can be argued to have been enabled by the EU’s contribution to the subsequent wealth of the United Kingdom. Dreams are much facilitated by a comfortable pillow of prosperity – a pillow that is now being removed.
Despite consternation in Europe the Brexit provides opportunity for the rest of the European Union to overcome some of the structural impediments experienced in the recent past with the refugee crisis following hard at the heels of the Euro crisis. The remedy is obviously ‘an ever closer union’, and with the United Kingdom leaving a major brake on that ambition has been removed. The euroscepticism of the United Kingdom has made the perfectly solvable refugee crisis so much harder to resolve, and the British euroscepticism has poisoned the well of European solidarity significantly even if the Euro-crisis was not of United Kingdom making. Still, Brexit and the Euro and refugee crises are mere birth pangs of a European empire being crafted at the traditionally measured pace of empire creation. What is unique about the European empire is, however, that it is based on confederation principles rather than domination by one nation. The European Union is above all a peace project!
Although largely unrecognised, the forerunner of the European Union can said to be the Habsburg empire of Austria-Hungary that came to a terrifying end with WWI. The Habsburg Empire was never about national domination, never about Austria above all. The Habsburg Empire was all about the ambition of the Habsburg family, and nations came and went as part of the multinational and multi-ethnic empire, not without pain but for centuries without endangering the health of the overall family entreprise. The European idea is all about the wellbeing, not of a family, but of a family of peoples. But just as for Habsburg and most other empires, nations may come and go, and that should not endanger the health of the entreprise. Since the inception almost 60 years ago the European Union and its earlier incarnations have been all about new nations coming into the empire, now the first one is leaving. This is painful, but a disaster only for the United Kingdom. More nations will certainly join the European Union, and although not desirable some more may leave. All the normal order of business, and if those leaving are those standing in the way of the ‘ever closer union’, so be it. Better that than EFTAisation!
Many have lamented Brexit because the staunchest voice of liberal economics will fall silent. This is true, but there are other similar voices, currently that of the Netherlands, for instance. Still, not having the United Kingdom as a member is a loss, even if the attendant of the liberal economics perspective has been the classical Anglo-Saxon inequality syndrome that has gained increased prominence on the Continent as well. What the United Kingdom will be missing is the societally inclusive models of the Nordic countries and Germany. With inequality being a significant and well-defined threat to societies the United Kingdom will lose more than the EU also in this sense.
What we should hope for is that the EU will be able to conquer its stifling bureaucracy (memento Habsburg) and will continue to develop strong societal models with social inclusion and dynamism as leading characteristics. For this to succeed we will need strong advocates of competition, transparency and efficiency and in this respect the United Kingdom will be missed. But Brexit is far from fatal for Europe and it opens new avenues for the European project as long as we understand that building empire is never linear, particularly given the scale of the ambition! It is high time for a toast to the European idea, the European reality, and the European promise!!