The European Union, like the United States, was founded on an idea — for the United States, freedom, liberty and respect for individual rights, in the EU’s case, the idea that countries that work together are less likely to go to war against each other.
Hard to argue with that, or with the promise of enhanced economic prosperity, which together have drawn 28 member states to join.
But as the EU’s vision has grown in ambition, moving toward ever greater integration, more governing power for Brussels, less control over immigration and a growing list of other concerns for member states.
But not everyone who voted for Brexit is an undereducated, xenophobic resident of Britain’s rustbelt.
“I wanted people in this country to take more responsibility for the country’s future,” says John Booth, a journalist and former Labor Party spokesman, who lives in London and voted to leave the EU. “For years, many people have scapegoated Brussels for everything they don’t like. So in the end, it came down to ideas to do with democracy, and also to do with sovereignty, to a fair degree.”
Mary Kay Magistad
European cohesion may have made sense during the Cold War, Booth says, but times have changed, and the British should use more imagination in thinking about what kind of global power their country can be. Already, most of Britain’s exports go beyond the EU, and that could grow.
“Because the European Union isn’t a place with growing economic opportunity, for Britain or anyone else,” Booth says. “The emerging markets around the world are ones that offer much more opportunity to Britain. And there are entrepreneurs here who say, ‘we’d like to engage much more fully with other parts of the world, and not have to negotiate those things through an EU structure.'"
“So there’s lots of possibilities there, and the younger generation who didn’t grow up with the Cold War terrors that my generation did — I was born in ’46 — that my generation was brought up on. Young people are doing a lot more traveling, using the internet, opening themselves up to new possibilities. ... And I think that’s quite an exciting prospect for people.”
Of course, there is also the cost to Britain of Brexit, yet to be determined. But it’s already looking like many companies may relocate into the EU, Scotland may hold a second independence referendum so it can stay in the EU, and even Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein leaders are calling for a referendum there, for Ireland to unite and stay in the EU as an entire island. That’s been dismissed thus far, but the proof will be in how Northern Irish farmers feel once their EU agricultural subsidies end, and Britain, already squeezed by Brexit, can’t pick up the slack.
“Let me put it this way,” says journalist and author Conor O’Clery, a native of Northern Ireland now, after decades as a foreign correspondent for The Irish Times, living in Dublin. “When Ireland and the UK joined the European Union in 1973, I personally saw it as a huge psychological vote of independence for Ireland. Because, for the first time, we got out from under the shadow of Britain, and became one of a number of European nations, sitting at the same table, making decisions that affected all of Europe. It also meant that, on the island of Ireland itself, the differences between Northern Ireland and southern Ireland were minimized.
“I can remember, growing up, with Customs Posts on the border on the roads between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland,” he says. “But when the two jurisdictions became part of the EU, and up until now, you can drive from Belfast in the north of Ireland to Dublin in the south of Ireland, and the only way you know you’re crossing the border is when the speed signs change from miles to kilometers.”
Will the border controls go back into place, if the European Union and the United Kingdom impose duties and immigration controls on each other’s citizens, and the Republic of Ireland, as an EU member, is on the other side of that divide from Northern Ireland?
Another concern of O’Clery’s is that the Brexit victory “is unleashing some dark [racist] forces.” Already, shortly after the Brexit vote, a sign went up calling Polish migrants "vermin," and some South Asian professionals have been asked why they haven’t gone home yet. Ireland takes its share of immigrants too, without having yet seen the same scale of nativist backlash.
“We have maybe 200,000 Polish people living here, and this is in a republic with a population of 4.5 million people. There have been no problems,” he says. “There’s a Little Africa in the middle of Dublin. There have been no major racial incidents. Obviously, there’s some racism in every country. But there seems to be a greater welcoming of people coming from abroad to live here. Because, don’t forget, the Irish have been one of the greatest exporters of people themselves, over the centuries. Something like 30 million to 40 million people in the United States can claim Irish descent. So the Irish have a very strong awareness that other countries have taken them in. So the idea of us now somehow repaying the debt is quite strong in the Irish psyche.
“Never in all our past, I think, have we had such a long time of peace in this part of the world,” says Jutta Lietsch, a journalist with now Die Tageszeitung in Berlin, after 12 years as China correspondent in Beijing. “And we really do connect it with Europe, personally. We visited France after the war, we were taken there, and we studied in London. And all of these possibilities are something that the older generation thinks is very valuable. But the younger generation thinks, ‘well, it’s normal. Why should you have to use passports?’"
“Now, this result of the Brexit referendum in England now worries many people, because they have the feeling this will give rise to happiness within the new populist right, which is growing up in Germany. You see it in Holland. You see it in France, many places. You see it in Hungary. And you in America have Mr. Trump. So now, my goodness, does this mean, really, that Europe will break up? Does this really mean that people like Marine LaPen or that these people who love to be racist and intolerant, that they will have more voice? So that’s also part of the sadness.”
It’s not that Germans haven’t, themselves, grown bored or frustrated at times with the EU’s unwieldy bureaucracy. Lietsch says there have been times when editors at her paper try to find ways not to mention the EU on the front page, lest people be turned off from buying the paper.
But she, like John Booth, thinks a little more imagination is needed, both from the public and from those who govern. If much is asked of communities, she says, like, finding homes and jobs for new immigrants and refugees — more should be given, in terms of resources for homes and schools and to provide jobs for those already in those communities — and then, at least on the economic front, everyone wins. Xenophobia is a different challenge, but as the world changes, travel gets easier and cheaper, and people are ever more closely connected online, she believes xenophobes will find it ever harder to defend what they consider "theirs."
“We have always seen Europe as protecting us from ourselves, in a way,” Lietsch says. “And if there’s no idea coming up now of how we want to live in the future together, I don’t think we should blame our governments so much. We should blame ourselves, for not forcing our media, ourselves, and also our politicians, to think about it and discuss about it.
“Actually, I’m a pessimist who’s trying to be optimistic. My mother who came from the war, she said always, ‘watch out. The layer of civilization is very thin. And you have to fight to keep it. You have to be clear-minded. You have to work together with other people who are clear-minded, and who are doing something so that wars cannot start again. And it is so easy. We have so many problems coming at us that I think we just have to do our best.”