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Brexit and the Failure of Leadership

The Brexit referendum result demonstrates a collective failure of understanding, vision and statesmanship on the part of the leaders of Britain and Europe.

As someone who has understood the goals, nature and meaning of the grand European project which since the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty has been known as the European Union, I am a Eurosceptic, not in the interests of one country or one people but in the interest of all those affected directly and indirectly by the project. For this reason I was filled with optimism with British voters decided to leave the EU, but this has changed from an unabated optimism to one tempered through the presence of unimaginative, insincere and incompetent political leadership.

Of the countless mistakes made by all sides during the campaign, the most crucial was a total misunderstanding of the larger issues at hand and how the world has changed since the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.

The political classes in Britain and the EU, cast the terms of the argument as Internationalism versus Jingoism.

In reality, today it is simply impossible to argue from isolationism and be taken seriously.  Even the once autarkic state of Albania is now an open state, lured into NATO with promises of bread and circuses and currently being lured into the EU with more promises of the same. In the 21st century, the argument about internationalism versus isolationism has become obsolete. People on both the left and right are increasingly internationalist both by temperament and behaviour.

The idea of being both an internationalist and in favour of the sovereignty of states is not incompatible, but rather is increasingly the reality for people throughout the world. The fact that most political leaders in Britain and beyond are either too stupid or too wicked to say this has however left many people confused and concerned.

The modern EU first took shape in 1952 as the European Coal and Steel Community, a body which sought to turn states whose industrial competition could lead to war into states whose industrial cooperation might lead to mutual prosperity. That was a noble goal. However the overarching goal of the new European community was based on the inherent notion that the mere existence of different cultures protected by sovereign states was undesirable.  These ideas morphed into a secretive political programme for European political integration launched under the leadership of Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman.

The US was also involved.  As early as the 1940s the US government showed a great interest in political unity in Europe. The Pentagon and CIA were both involved as is masterfully explained by Dr. Radomir Tylecote and William Cash MP in their book From Brussels With Love.

The reasons for this project were very simple.  After the Second World War, Europe was broadly divided into two spheres of influence: the US and the Soviet.  For any superpower, the greatest possible degree of internal cohesion within its sphere of influence would make exercising its dominance easier and more efficient.

However in the age of the internet, it is not so easy to subjugate populations as it was in the 1940s and 50s. The line that somehow all pro EU voters in Britain were firm believers in a benign and fraternal European project is false. So too is the line that slurs leave voters as xenophobic obscurantists. 

The truth of the matter is that most people who voted to remain did so because they shared the typically British attitude that an uneasy status quo is better than the unknown and because David Cameron’s government irresponsibly had no contingency plan and the Remain side had no plan at all, a great number of people voted for the status quo.  Even the most cosmopolitan Britons never really understood or cared to understand the complicated lexicon, pageantry and intricacies of the EU.

On the other side, there is also an anarchic thread buried deep within the body of British social conformity:  the bulldog spirit which sees Englishmen dancing with mad dogs in the midnight rain.  That side of the British character was only too happy to take ‘a leap in the dark’.

Behind all this however, there are the true underlying reasons for the Leave vote, which are much more interesting.

The EU’s true colours had begun to show ever since the European Single Act was ratified in 1986. The EU does want political union, the EU does fear the sovereignty of nation-states – their habits, customs and culture – the EU does believe that humourless bureaucrats are superior to political leaders who represent the ethos of a nation, and worst of all, the EU formulated a foreign policy whereby a new Cold (and sometimes not so Cold) War was being fought in its name. Even those who didn’t research the specifics of these phenomena could sense this.

Most people are neither insular nor xenophobic. Most people realise that governments playing a smaller role in people’s lives will allow internationalism to flourish.  Most people living in a small geographical area with increasingly little to offer the wider world, who have for better or worse a very great deal of shared history, want to be able to trade and live with each other free from bureaucratic obstacles.  Most people agree that for this to happen, industrial and agricultural products need to meet certain basic standards of safety and functionality.  However that is all they want.  Instead they got the EU, an organisation where a man called Jean-Claude Junker acts like a gatekeeper, deciding whether and when people can go, and what they should do.  

In an ideal world, the referendum should not have happened at all. It was the product of a man – David Cameron – who took a personal gamble he was ill equipped to take. Instead, like-minded people throughout Europe should have agreed a programme to wind the EU up, replacing it with new simple treaties of cooperation agreed between sovereign states.  However since that didn’t happen, the best that can now happen is for Britain to enter into a Swiss style agreement with Europe, retaining its political sovereignty and independence in foreign policy, but ensuring continued access to the European single market and insuring that people do not have to pass through a kind of Checkpoint Charlie to spend a weekend in Paris or take a business trip to Berlin. 

Now is the time for pragmatic political leadership to bring that about.  British and EU leaders need to admit to themselves that they missed their chance to change Europe cooperatively, by consensus.  They have to embrace change, and it is Britain which has voted for Brexit which must take the lead in bringing it about. 

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