Thursday, July 14, 2016

Brexit and I


Early in June I placed two bets. On June 23rd, I lost the first one, as did David. I will have to wait until November 8th to know if my second bet is luckier. I lost my bet and David Cameron, Britain’s Prime Minister (PM) his reckless political gamble. Brexit, or the exit from the European Union (EU) was chosen by 52% of 33.6 million voters[1]. I had bet that the British people, in their wisdom would decide to stay within the EU family. My optimism was influenced by that of my many British friends, whose opinion was squarely in the “remain” camp.

For me, Brexit was much more than a shock, it was an emotional letdown, a betrayal. In the darkest hours of the 20th century, Britain had twice courageously stood by France, but in 2016, for trivial and inward-looking reasons, it decided to cut these old links. So to speak, the referendum was a dog’s breakfast, a mess to vent a zillion grievances, legitimate or not, but mostly unrelated to the EU. The “leave” camp used the referendum to protest against a political system it regards as culturally or socially destabilizing and that no longer represents its interests. Anger was the rallying cry of people who felt abandoned, left by the wayside.


Brexit was a boon to editorialists and politicians on both sides of the Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. They have scrutinized and cherry picked Brexit to prove the relevance of their respective opinions. Among pundits, conservative, nationalists, nativist and protectionists had a field day. Brexit was the triumph of their prediction, evidence that their goals could be achieved somewhere else. For Marine le Pen, the president of the Eurosceptic far right National Front party, Brexit was the first crack in the EU monster’s shield. Smelling the opportunity to pounce, she pledged to squash the face-less monster to free France from the evil of globalization, immigration, loss of sovereignty and liberal social policies.

Brexit carries a double paradox: It was a rebellion against the British elite, however led by prominent members of the same elite, the so called Notting Hill set. I guess that old school Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham of British series Downton Abbey, would have been a keen Brexiteer! Brexit was also the rejection of liberal economic policies, notably free trade and the freedom of movement for EU workers. Coincidentally these policies had been spearheaded by the British government and reluctantly adopted by other EU members. In the end, Britons were angry at the way their own government was taking care of them.

The EU is a convenient scapegoat for EU member governments who routinely blame the union for their own failures; not surprisingly, people get brainwashed. They casually enjoy EU benefits while rejecting its constraints. Think of the hordes of British on holiday in southern Spain! They may have to change the venue of their next cheap vacations. Apart from being ill-conceived, the referendum was hypocritical and cynical. Referenda are best left to the Swiss who have mastered the process. From now on, the British government will have to take full responsibility for its shortcomings and mistakes.


                                        Courtesy of ChappatteI

In my view France, as well as the majority of EU countries, greatly benefitted from being part of the EU. A member has to adhere to club rules for its own good and that of the community; as a member, France had to repeatedly discipline its finances which tend to be mismanaged by the profligate practices of party politics. Parties resent this scrutiny; they portray it as a loss of sovereignty. In addition, the stragglers blamed the good performers for their failings. Am I being sarcastic?

The EU bureaucrats may be carried away by their frenzy for rules and regulations. In our competitive world, systems have to be harmonized to achieve both critical mass and economy of scale. Sometimes the EU steps on cherished cultural traditions angering citizens. It is a trial and error process to move forward. Reassuring inward-looking policies may preserve the traditional way of life but they are hardy adequate to meet the challenges of our fast-moving global world.

Readers must wonder why I take Brexit so much to heart and why I pass such a harsh judgment on Brexit peddlers. I am a born believer in internationalism, with a first passport at age 14 and an overseas job at 26. I may qualify as an utopist for having worked 25 years in the much maligned United Nations. Being incremental in nature, UN’s achievements are rarely publicized, and successes rarely make headlines. Founded in 1945, the UN has been relentlessly criticized for irrelevance, waste, mismanagement and inefficiency (among other things) by its member states[2]. Had the UN been subjected to reckless national referenda, the organization would no longer exist! Cynically, the UN’s raison d’├ętre is probably its scapegoat and punching ball usefulness. If the UN did not exist, member states would have created it in order to have a bully pulpit; a talk fest; a forum where they can grandstand, bicker and vent their anger and frustration; and last but not least, a place to safely park their redundant or cast-off politicians. The UN is frequently blamed for being an instrument of the foreign policy of powerful members. This is true, and often UN troops are called to clean up the mess left by these same powers. The EU faces similar criticisms. The UN Secretariat was used as a blue print for the EU Commission.

Europe will see more bickering and hardships, but hopefully the Union will make its case to the citizens. I don’t see much alternative to a strong and united continent. To move forwards, its restless member states must come to consensus politics.

Home Secretary Theresa May has been appointed British PM with the task to clean the Brexit mess. The Guardian newspaper noted that “there is an increasingly widespread sense that strong female leaders are needed to clean the mess created by men”.

Hopefully on November 8, I will win my second bet, Hillary be elected president of the United States. The alternative to her election is too frightening to consider.


[1] The turnout was 71.8%, high by UK elections standards. Brexit was therefore backed by 36 % of the voting age population.

[2] 193 in 2016.