As the market dived and the pound sterling plummeted to a thirty-year lows following Brexit, deep despair and outrage reigned. Economists sung “I told you so” in chorus. Markets hate uncertainty, and given the circumstances, the economic shockwaves are likely to ripple for a few years (at least).
But this referendum was not just about economics, it was about sovereignty and democracy. The Leave result highlighted that a healthy state needs deeper foundations than financial prosperity.
The EU was designed to promote prosperity and peace across traditionally volatile borders, an ethos to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible.” The past half-century has indeed been relatively peaceful, but in recent times, it hasn’t been so prosperous. As Boris Johnson pointed out, “the EU is a graveyard of low growth; the only continent with lower growth is currently Antarctica.”
Harvard Professor Dani Rodrik raised the inevitability of this situation decades ago, theorising a “trilemma” of the world economy, that we can have only two of the following at once: global economic integration, democracy and/or national sovereignty—never all three. If we want global economic integration, we need to give up some democracy or sovereignty. The EU grew too big too fast and in its leaders’ hubris neglected this trade-off. It is now paying the price.
Writing in The Week, commentator Damon Linker outlined the progressive vision underpinning the EU project as “a world beyond particular attachments, beyond ethnic or linguistic or racial or religious or national forms of solidarity.”
This vision is a mirage. It leads to, as Linker claims, the demise of politics traditionally understood as “this particular community in this place with this history and heritage, determining its own character for itself, deciding who is and who is not a citizen, who will rule, and in the name of which vision of the good life.”
By nature, people long to belong—to family, communities, and country. People were sick of their taxes being funneled off to Brussels. People were sick of having little say as to who crossed their borders. People were sick of decisions being made for them by distant, seemingly unaccountable bureaucrats.
On sovereignty, freedom of movement provisions led to a sense that Britain had lost control of its borders. More extreme views aside, many were wanting a points-based immigration regime similar to that of Australia or New Zealand. If this vote was a vote for xenophobia, then we ought to be tarred with that same brush.
On democracy, we should also take note. As EU MEP Daniel Hannan articulated in a recent speech, “nowhere else in the world do countries apologise for wanting to live under their own laws. New Zealand is not about to join Australia, and we don’t go round saying ‘oh those dreadful Australo-sceptics, when are they going to understand that they’re a small offshore island clinging to outdated notions of sovereignty…’”
Prosperity needs to be balanced with democracy and sovereignty. These notions are not outdated. No Bregrets.