The recent decision by UK voters to leave the EU was greeted with alarm by some financial market analysts and those who had invested heavily in EU business arrangements. It also got on the nerves of those who enjoyed the privilege of holding EU passports for travel. There have also been some ugly incidents from those who read Brexit as a licence to unleash latent racist attitudes. Such incidents were rightly condemned. But despite the gloom-filled media prophecies there may be some good news amidst all of this.
First leaving the EU does not physically move Britain further away from the shores of Brittany or Scandanavia. If it made good economic sense to trade with the UK before Brexit then it is likely to still do so after the UK formally leaves the constraints of the EU.
Second, the Euro currency was rapidly becoming bogged down in unsustainable levels of debt. A report from 2013 (Mills, John 2013) showed remarkable prescience regarding the debt levels of the Eurozone. The UK was one of those debtor nations digging itself deeper into debt with each passing year.
Third, freedom is an important value in British culture. Being free of EU trade restrictions will allow the UK to negotiate new trading arrangements with the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region. India has recently expressed interest in making such arrangements. Some time out of the EU will also enable the UK to take stock of its own economic future and to plan ahead for the sort of society and economy it wants to build.
The divisions in British society were exposed by Brexit. The establishment classes did not get their way despite a well-funded Remain campaign. Those British cities and regions which missed out on the big promises of globalisation and free trade during the last 30 years used the Brexit referendum as a means of sending a signal to Westminster. The offshoring of British industry, unemployment, growing balance of payments difficulties and dissatisfaction with immigration were all contributing factors.
Fundamentally the EU experiment was based on a “top-down” model that relied on un-elected and largely unaccountable Brussels officials making decisions about what was best for ordinary citizens in the UK, France and other member states. This was a recipe for deep-seated problems which have now surfaced.
I’d like to see European relations strengthened. But this needs to be done in a way that builds genuine friendship and mutual support between European citizens. Foisting unpopular, centralised decisions on an unwilling populace was never going to work in the long run. The guiding principle needs to be one of subsidiarity – making decisions at the most appropriate level. That includes increased democratic participation in local, regional, national, European and international decision making. The Brexit decision has been made. The challenge now is to respect the wishes of the public and for political leaders to present a vision for Britain’s future and to chart a course towards that future over the next ten years.