Bri­tain at the cross­roads

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ge­orge Will

— Sixty-five years ago, what has be­come the Euro­pean Union was an em­bryo con­ceived in fear. It has been stealth­ily ad­vanced from an eco­nomic to a po­lit­i­cal project, and it re­mains en­veloped in a wa­tery utopi­anism even as it be­comes more dystopian. The EU’s eco­nomic stag­na­tion — in some of the 28 mem­ber na­tions, youth un­em­ploy­ment ap­proaches 50 per­cent — is ex­ac­er­bated by its reg­u­la­tory itch and the self-in­flicted wound of the euro, a com­mon cur­rency for rad­i­cally dis­sim­i­lar na­tions. The EU is floun­der­ing amid mass mi­gra­tion, the great­est threat to Europe’s do­mes­tic tran­quil­ity since 1945.

The EU’s Bri­tish en­thu­si­asts, who ac­tu­ally are no­tably un­en­thu­si­as­tic, hope

LON­DON

fear will move vot­ers to af­firm Bri­tain’s mem­ber­ship in this in­creas­ingly ram­shackle and ac­ri­mo­nious as­so­ci­a­tion. A June 23 ref­er­en­dum will de­cide whether “Brexit” — Bri­tain’s exit — occurs. Amer­i­cans should pay close at­ten­tion be­cause this de­bate con­cerns mat­ters ger­mane to their present and fu­ture.

The EU is the lin­ear de­scen­dant of in­sti­tu­tion­build­ing be­gun by peo­ple for whom Euro­pean his­tory seemed to be less Chartres and Shake­speare than the Somme and the Holo­caust. Af­ter two world wars, or a 31-year war (1914-1945), Euro­pean states­men were ter­ri­fied of Euro­peans. Un­der the lead­er­ship of two French­men, Robert Schu­man and Jean Mon­net, they cre­ated, in 1951, the Euro­pean Coal and Steel Com­mu­nity to put es­sen­tial el­e­ments of in­dus­trial war un­der multi­na­tional con­trol.

This be­gat, in 1957, the Euro­pean Eco­nomic Commu- nity, aka the Com­mon Mar­ket. Money, said Emerson, is the prose of life. The EU is the cul­mi­na­tion of a grand at­tempt to drain Europe of grandeur, to make it per­ma­nently peace­ful by mak­ing it pro­saic — pre­oc­cu­pied and tran­quil­ized by com­merce. Euro­pean unity has al­ways been a sur­rep­ti­tious po­lit­i­cal project couched in eco­nomic cat­e­gories.

Bri­tain’s Re­main side is timid and ma­te­ri­al­is­tic, say­ing lit­tle that is in­spir­ing about re­main­ing but much that is sup­pos­edly scary about leav­ing. The Leave cam­paign is salted with the re­volt-again­stelites spirit now fer­ment­ing in na­tions on both sides of the At­lantic. The Re­main camp re­lies heav­ily on dire pre­dic­tions of eco­nomic wreck­age that would fol­low Brexit — fore­casts from the U.K. Trea­sury, the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund, the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment, etc. Al­though none of th­ese, in spring 2008, fore­saw the cri­sis of au­tumn 2008, they now pre­dict, with re­mark­able pre­ci­sion, eco­nomic dam­age to Bri­tain’s econ­omy, the world’s fifth largest, if it is de­tached from the stag­na­tion of the EU. For ex­am­ple, the U.K. Trea­sury projects that Brexit would cost Bri­tain 6.2 per­cent of GDP by 2030. This con­firms the ax­iom that econ­o­mists prove their sense of hu­mor by us­ing dec­i­mal points.

Pas­sion is dis­pro­por­tion­ately on the Leave side, which is why a low turnout will fa­vor Brexit: Leavers are most likely to vote. Cur­rent polls show Re­main slightly ahead, but Leave has a ma­jor­ity among per­sons over age 43, who also are most likely to vote.

The most con­spic­u­ous cam­paigner for Brexit is Boris John­son, the two-term Con­ser­va­tive for­mer mayor of Lon­don. He is an ac­quired taste, and some thought­ful peo­ple op­pose Brexit be­cause if it hap­pens, Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron, who leads the Re­main cam­paign, might be re­placed by John­son.

John­son is fre­quently com­pared to Donald Trump. John­son, how­ever, is ed­u­cated (Eton; an Ox­ford clas­sics de­gree), in­tel­li­gent, eru­dite (see his book on Ro­man Europe), ar­tic­u­late and witty. (John­son says the EU’s lat­est com­pro­mise with Bri­tain is “the big­gest stitch up since the Bayeux Tapestry.” The Bri­tish lo­cu­tion “stitch up” de­notes some­thing pre­ar­ranged clan­des­tinely.) So, John­son’s only real re­sem­blance to Trump, other than an odd mop of blond hair, is a pen­chant for flam­boy­ant pro­nounce­ments, as when he said that Barack Obama op­poses Brexit be­cause Obama’s Kenyan back­ground some­how dis­poses him against Bri­tain. Ac­tu­ally, Obama likes the Euro­pean Union’s ap­prox­i­ma­tion of Amer­i­can pro­gres­sives’ as­pi­ra­tions. Th­ese in­clude un- ac­count­able ad­min­is­tra­tors is­su­ing dik­tats, and what one EU critic calls “trickle-down post­mod­ernism” — the era­sure of na­tional tra­di­tions and other im­ped­i­ments to “har­mo­niz­ing” ho­mog­e­nized na­tions for the con­ve­nience of ad­min­is­tra­tors.

Obama said Bri­tain would go to “the back of the queue” re­gard­ing a U.S. trade agree­ment. Surely, how­ever, reach­ing an agree­ment with one na­tion is eas­ier than with 28. Per­haps Obama has for­got­ten U.S. diplo­mat Ge­orge Ken­nan’s ax­iom: The un­like­li­hood of a ne­go­ti­a­tion reach­ing agree­ment grows by the square of the num­ber of par­ties tak­ing part.

Brexit might spread a be­nign in­fec­tion, prompt­ing sim­i­lar re­asser­tions of na­tional sovereignty by other EU mem­bers. Hence June 23 is the most im­por­tant Euro­pean vote since 1945.

Ge­orge Will is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at georgewill@wash­post.com.

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