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The result of the June 23rd referendum on British membership of the EU was as unexpected in Britain as in continental Europe. Within 48 hours, it became clear that the leaders of the Leave campaign had no idea how to navigate the vortex of uncertainties that their victory had produced.1 Within a week, one of their most strident standard bearers, Boris Johnson, abandoned his prime ministerial ambitions with a whimper.
Yet since her virtual coronation as Prime Minister on July 13th, Theresa May has turned the page with élan and authority. A subdued supporter of Remain in David Cameron’s government, Mrs. May has entrusted two died in the wool Eurosceptics with negotiating the parameters of a post-Brexit UK: David Davis (who now becomes Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union) and Liam Fox (the first Secretary of State for International Trade). Her appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, though with a much diminished remit, dazed and dumbfounded nearly all.
By these means, Britain’s new prime minister has given force to her pledge that “Brexit means Brexit.” But she has done so in a way that will oblige her Eurosceptic colleagues to share responsibility for terms of exit that are bound to disappoint a substantial block of their supporters in the country. By giving Boris Johnson a post that forces him to improve his act, she has effectively neutralized him. Those with a claim to “know better,” David Cameron’s “Notting Hill set,” have been put out of the way, and the most irreconcilable and treacherous of her former rivals, Michael Gove, has been banished. With a few bold strokes, she has secured party unity on her own terms.
The critic’s charge is that she, like David Cameron, has put party unity ahead of the national interest. But a more considered assessment might be that, unlike David Cameron, she bears little responsibility for the referendum result, and she is right in her view that a strong government is needed to limit the inevitable disruption and damage that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU will create.
But just how aware Prime Minister May is of the geopolitical implications of Brexit remains to be seen. Her predecessor, a onetime Eurosceptic, came to terms with these issues late in the day. He and his Chancellor, George Osborne, conducted a campaign that was both narrow and negative. In what became, in the words of Leave, “project fear,” the electorate was treated to a cascade of warnings about the economic costs of British withdrawal. The more lurid the suspiciously precise statistics became, the more sceptical the public grew about the government’s case and the more appealing became the leitmotifs of Brexit: “sovereignty” and “control.” These nostrums were poorly contested; about security, Remain offered little beyond cliché. By insisting that “we” could veto this and “we” could veto that, Cameron reinforced the belief that “we” stood on one side and “they” on another. In essence, both Leave and Remain campaigned against the EU.
Time is likely to show that the gain in sovereignty promised by Brexit proponents will exact a disproportionate cost in terms of European and global influence. The case for Brexit rests on the assumption that Britain on its own can define its terms of its engagement with the outside world. It is an assumption based on a dated caricature of the EU and a misunderstanding about the sources of British influence. No matter how wisely the negotiations are conducted, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU has the potential to damage the UK, Europe and the security of the West as a whole. In four respects, the perceptions of those who championed Brexit are out of kilter with reality.
First, the EU is not the mastodon widely portrayed by its opponents. In comparison to the period before its Eastern enlargements, it has become a different organism: diverse, irrepressibly pluralistic and on the cutting edge of elemental issues affecting Europe’s security and way of life. In all of these respects, but particularly the latter, the EU of today bears more comparison in its ideals and its challenges to the European project of Schuman, Monnet and Adenauer than to the ingrown, self-referential construction that fell into place following de Gaulle’s veto of Britain’s entry in 1963. The ethos of dirigisme — not to say the ostentatious elitism exemplified by Giscard d’Estaing and Edward Heath — has not disappeared. But it has lost its dominance and until the referendum was firmly counterbalanced by the UK and a majority of Scandinavian and Central European member states. The “six” can issue declaration after declaration about political union and even a European army. But the former is no longer possible, and the latter never was. Within a common framework of values, rules and institutions (whose powers are limited as well as shared), the EU has become variable in its geometry, a marketplace of ideas and a union of nations that remained nations. It cannot be otherwise if it is to exist at all.
Second, whatever the pretensions of some and the nightmares of others, a European superstate there never was and cannot be. What kind of superstate could have tolerated the inbred pathologies that drove the Greek economy to ruin? Far from being a lesson in the hubris of EU “micro-management,” the Greek crisis is, amongst other things, a commentary on the ineffectiveness and lack of authority of EU institutions. For everyone, there is food for thought here, but it will only take place if the UK and EU discard dogma, Eurosceptic as well as Europhile. A moment’s reflection will show that the real divide is not between “new” and “old” Europe, pace Donald Rumsfeld, but between the competitive, meritocratic and fiduciary culture of one Europe and the paternalistic, syndicalist, populist and profligate economic culture of the other. Loosely speaking, it is a North-South, rather than East-West divide, but a divide it is (which in France cuts right across the polity and in Britain right across the Labour Party). It distinguishes those who, when presented with a bill, pay it and those who ask ‘where is your vision?’ (N.B. There is no contradiction between a fiduciary culture and a welfare state. Denmark has a comprehensive welfare system, but it is paid for – by one of the highest tax rates in Europe).