Thursday, June 23, 2016

a too-little-too-late meditation on Brexit

We'll start with a piece of trivia: I submitted a definition for "Grexit" to Urban Dictionary, and that definition has since risen to the top (see here; some of the competing definitions are hilarious). I was and am pro-Grexit, and for related reasons, I'm also pro-Brexit.*

Keep in mind that this is only a blog post written by a non-expert, that my own field of expertise is religious studies, that my weakest subject has always been history, and that I've long hated politics. With all that in mind, my decidedly unrefined opinion is that not only should Great Britain leave the EU, but that the very ideas of the EU and the eurozone need to be dismantled if Europe is to retain any robustness at all in future.

After World War II, the Marshall Plan aided much of western Europe over four years—primarily the UK, France, and West Germany (no doubt the Germans were surprised to receive help from a declared enemy, but the psychology of aid has paid off in terms of German penitence for past wrongs). Having just gone through a second major war before even having reached the half-century mark, Europe had been shaken to its roots. Post-WW2 French existentialism looked at the cratered cities, saw that churches hadn't been spared, and openly questioned whether the universe was founded on any sort of benevolent metaphysical order. God certainly hadn't made an appearance, which left existentialism free to make one of its central claims: the universe is absurd, and we make our own meaning and find our own fulfillment through the brute exercise of choice. Existence precedes essence: humans, by making choices, build themselves into who they eventually become. There is no other divine help coming from anywhere. We're on our own.

With organized religion all but uprooted in Europe, then, other forces took over, including well-intended political forces that looked over the vast ruin of European history—a history mired in long, bloody conflicts—and decided that the fighting must end. From this followed the immediate corollary that Europeans should identify as Europeans first, not as French or Italian or English. This thinking dovetailed nicely with the leftist ideology of transnational progressivism: the idea of governance by a body of authority that transcends the sovereignty of any one particular nation. Instances of this progressivism are seen everywhere; the United Nations is perhaps the biggest and best example of it, especially as some see the UN as the harbinger of an eventual global government.

So Europe, especially western Europe, experienced a massive, collective urge to unify, arguably as a way of purging itself of its bloody past and moving forward in unitary harmony. This melding-together didn't happen overnight, however, nor did it happen fluidly. Before people spoke of the EU or the eurozone, there was the European Economic Community. Eventually, entities like the EU, the eurozone, the Schengen Area, etc., came into being. Keeping track of which countries participate in which entities is a dizzying task. Britain, for example, is part of the EU, but not part of either the eurozone (Brits still use the pound) or the Schengen Agreement. Switzerland accepts euros inside its borders (albeit with a penalty, a commission, or a skewed exchange rate), but retains use of the Swiss Franc; it is not part of the EU, but is within the Schengen Area. My point is that Europe is a weird mix of unevenly overlapping unities. Sometimes, this produces static; sometimes, it works smoothly.

But in the case of the eurozone, I'm not convinced that things are working smoothly at all. Sure, admittedly, it's better for business when neighboring countries all use the same means of exchange. Constantly converting money from lire to marks to francs can take a toll—almost literally, given the not-so-hidden costs of exchanges. The eurozone (and Schengen) has made cargo shipping a much easier prospect than it used to be, and this has doubtless encouraged the internationalization of business: put your admin office in Paris and your manufacturing plant in Hamburg. All of this is to the good, and there's no denying the benign political intentions that brought so many countries together to form a single economic zone. That said, Greece, with its recent Grexit flap, has revealed one of the major flaws of this arrangement: the eurozone may be predicated on the notion that "a rising tide lifts all boats," but the converse is also true: a heavy cannonball severely dimples the trampoline and takes everything down with it. What's more, Greece hasn't been the only country to experience problems rooted in financial mismanagement, corruption, socialism, and culturally sanctioned indolence: other warm-weather, sun-worshiping, wine-sipping, joie-de-vivre-loving countries with little real work ethic have seen their economies tank, too: Portugal comes immediately to mind; Spain and Italy aren't in great shape, either.

I did write about Grexit (see here). Many of the issues I raised in that post apply to Brexit as well. Europe has been too hasty in trying to overcome its past; the fact remains that, even though many modern Europeans might claim to be "European first," they aren't—not when the rubber truly meets the road. Recent polls show, for example, that the Greeks want desperately to remain in the eurozone and not return to the drachma, but at the same time, they deeply resent the EU for all of its Brussels-prescribed austerity measures. How Greeks live with this cognitive dissonance is beyond me. There's also the fact, repeated online by strident voices like that of comedian-turned-firebrand Pat Condell (watch his Brexit rant here), that Britain has sacrificed too much of its sovereignty to unelected bureaucrats. This, to me, is an issue not just for Britain, but for all other EU countries as well. Transnational progressivism, like so much that is leftist, began with the best intentions but has ended up, ironically, incarnating the very opposite of its stated goals. Far from being freeing, the EU constitution has proven stifling in its over-regulation of commerce and its micromanagement of law. (As has been repeatedly pointed out, the EU constitution is the size of a dictionary while the US analogue is the size of a pamphlet, and we Yanks get along just fine with that.) My fervent wish is for Britons to vote "Leave," then for there to be a cascade of pro-Leave referendums all across the rest of the EU.

Most of the news and commentary that I've read regarding Brexit has been skewed leftward toward the Remain crowd. Dire warnings have been issued about the deleterious consequences of a Brexit—the UK will have to renegotiate trade arrangements, Brexit is mostly about English nationalism and not about Wales or Scotland, and so on. One of the funnier predictions has been how Brexit will be a blow to the British pound, but to make that claim, one has to ignore decades of economic history: over my lifetime, the pound has proven far more stable against the US dollar (it's always been roughly 1.4-1.6 USD per 1.0 GBP) than the euro has. Since about 2000, the euro has swung drunkenly from around 0.90 USD per euro to 1.80 to what it is now: almost at parity ($1.13 per euro). I'm not too worried about Britain's short-term and long-term economic future, if exchange rates are any indication.

In my office, my boss believes the British will lose their nerve at the last moment and vote "Remain."** I think he may be right, but I can't help hoping he's wrong. Leaving the EU is the healthier option: less centralization is always better than more centralization. Socialism's repeated failures stand as evidence of this, as one thickheaded professor finally discovered after traveling all over the world. Besides: a separation is only political and economic—Britain can't physically move away from its neighbors. (At least, not yet.) Europe will still be Europe, and if other countries follow Britain's lead, Europe will be healthier and happier, its true diversity having been restored. Poor performers like Greece and Portugal won't necessarily drag down their neighbors; Germany won't have to empty its coffers into the siesta-culture money pits down south; countries will once again be able to succeed and fail on their own merits—still interconnected, but more loosely. No more rising tides or trampolines.

Immigration, by the way, is a tangential issue for me. Brexit is mostly not about that: it's about returning sovereignty to where it belongs, i.e., in the hands of the people and their locally elected representatives. Some people on both the left and the right want to make immigration a Brexit issue, but because Britain is outside of the Schengen Area, the problem currently affecting so much of western Europe hasn't been nearly as pressing in the UK.

You are, of course, free to disagree in my comments section, as long as you follow my comments policy, which basically boils down to "don't be a trolling asshole." I concede that the above essay amounts to no more than a few scattered, disjointed thoughts and intuitions, many rooted in my love of late-1980s, early-90s Europe, which is when I lived there, before all the eurozone nonsense had taken hold. Leftists constantly claim to love diversity, but they consistently undermine that claim whenever they aim for massive unity. Europe's collective history is long, varied, and irredeemably complex; you can't simply shove all these countries together and expect a love-in. The result is what we see now: Germany mad at Greece; Greece mad at the EU; strong economies mad at weaker, lazier, siesta-culture economies; rule by unelected bureaucrats; and millions persisting in the fantasy that they're somehow "European first." Oh, they're European, all right, but they're really French first, English first, Spanish first, Italian first, German first... True diversity means allowing these various countries, with their unique histories, to breathe free and express their particular characters through their own organically created channels, not through the constricting funnel of Brussels.

ADDENDUM: the Washington Post has provided a (biased!) Brexit guide for the perplexed.

*The term Grexit refers primarily to the possibility of a Greek exit from the eurozone. Brexit, by contrast, refers to the potential British exit from the European Union (EU).

**The murder of British MP Jo Cox was, as Malcolm Pollack implied in a note to me on Twitter, some of the worst possible PR for the pro-Brexit camp. This event may very well be what tips the vote in favor of Remain.

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