National Column: Brexit a bold, perilous stab at de-globalization

by Thomas Walkom

In voting to leave the European Union, Britons have embarked on a bold but perilous experiment.

They are turning their backs on expert opinion. They are ignoring the advice of the mainstream elites who argue further economic integration is both inevitable and necessary.

They are, in effect, trying to de-globalize themselves.

It will be interesting to see if they can do it.

The motives of those who voted to leave the EU in Thursday’s referendum were not always noble.

Racism played a role, as did plain old xenophobia. Those leading the Leave campaign were hardly Churchillian. They included Nigel Farage, the odious leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, as well as former London mayor Boris Johnson, a buffoonish toff who may well end up being the country’s next prime minister.

But the Leavers were also responding to a real weakness in both the EU and other arrangements like it.

Global integration may serve that abstraction known as the economy. But it doesn’t always help real, flesh-and-blood people.

In effect, the roughly 17 million Britons who voted to quit the EU were saying: We don’t like what’s going on.

How will the experiment work out? First, the United Kingdom – in some form – will survive. I say “in some form”because boundaries may change. Scottish separatists will demand, and this time might win, a referendum to splitoff from Great Britain.

But the loss of its EU status will not send what remains of Britain back to the Stone Age. When the dust clears and the markets relax, the U.K. will still be one of Europe’s biggest economies.

Still, the transition is not going to be easy. Britain has been part of the EU for 43 years. Its economy has been successfully integrated with that of the continent. Commodities and parts flow effortlessly across borders.

It’s in the economic interest of both Britain and the EU that at least the tariff-free aspect of this relationship continue. But divorces are notoriously messy. The EU may not wish to reward a country that has just spurned its love.

Some Canadians fret about whether Britain’s exit will undermine the tentative Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between this country and the EU. It may. Europe may turn inwards as it focuses on the British problem.

Or conversely, it may not. Britain’s leaving might encourage the Europeans to strengthen their trans-Atlantic ties.

In any case, it won’t much matter. We get along fine without a European trade-and-investment pact. So do the Europeans.

While the full story won’t be known for months, there are some immediate lessons that can be drawn from Britain’s decision to leave.

First, democracy and advanced capitalism aren’t always compatible. Britain’s voters were asked whether they wanted to stick with a globalized system designed to increase wealth in the aggregate. The majority looked at what they were getting out of the arrangement and said no.

Second, nationalism is alive. There was a time, not so long ago, when the nation-state was viewed as passe. It is not. When Britain’s Leavers said they didn’t want to be governed by bureaucrats in Brussels, they meant it.

Third, full labour mobility is, politically, a step too far. The conceit of the European Union was that it had erased borders – that EU citizens could travel, work and live anywhere.

Thursday’s referendum showed that a lot of Britons simply don’t agree. If the polls are right, a lot of other Europeans don’t agree either. They fear an unrestricted flood of newcomers will drive down wages. Sometimes, these fears are justified.

Fourth, the refusal of centre and left parties to deal with any of this has allowed the hard right to monopolize antiglobalization sentiment. In Britain, the right dominated the Leave campaign in part because there was no one else.

In the United States, would-be presidential nominee Bernie Sanders articulated a centre-left critique of globalization. But his Democratic party didn’t agree.

Now demagogue Republican Donald Trump has the field to himself.

It’s hard to imagine Trump winning on his platform of nativism and antiglobalization. But then it was hard to imagine Britain would quit the EU.

Thomas Walkom’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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