Brexit was not the will of the people, but the will of the provinces

The true tribalists are not the nations considering secession.
The true tribalists are not the nations considering secession.
Image: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne
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Britain’s vote to exit the European Union (EU) did not represent the will of the people. It represented the will of the provinces. The United Kingdom is a federation, and the “Brexit” decision was driven by voters in Eastern England, the Midlands and Northern England who feel detached from the benefits of integration. Meanwhile, the UK’s most prosperous and urbanized regions, London and Scotland, overwhelmingly supported staying in the EU. The Brexit vote was the British version of America’s red state-blue state divide.  

It is no surprise that Scotland has immediately called for a new referendum on its own independence, since its majority favors remaining within the EU, something the Brexit would deprive it. This is a reminder that in many ways, today’s secessionist movements–whether Scotland or Catalunya–are not the tribal or parochial separatists they are often portrayed as being. Rather, as I argue in my new book Connectography, every statelet born today seeks not to be an island adrift but to be part of larger communities that offer scale and access, resources and leverage. The British Midlanders, not the Catalans, are the real tribalists.

While most commentators are focused on the potential chain reactions across Europe, spare a further thought for UK itself. The Brexit is the ultimate own goal, the self-inflicted completion of the once globe-spanning empire’s decline into the strategic netherworld behind superpowers and great powers, descending into the league of nations invited to global gatherings out of politeness alone. The UK is becoming what I call the “Devolved Kingdom,” fragmenting into ever more parts. Democracy doesn’t always lead to better governments, but it almost always leads to further devolution.

The EU is a assemblage not just of countries but also their provinces, who are represented directly in the European Parliament. The EU offers hundreds of them a voice beyond their national borders. This is why I am far less worried about the future of the EU than most outside observers. Indeed, the voices least heard during the run-up to Brexit where those from the Continent who eagerly sought to be rid of Britain, the power that has most restrained momentum towards meaningful European integration. Brits (and therefore Americans) like to believe that they have been Europe’s leaders. But to many on the Continent, the UK has been a strategic yoke and political nuisance.

No wonder, then, that EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has called for the UK-EU divorce to be accelerated as quickly as possible rather than wait for years of legal negotiations. Without the British clamoring for austerity, Europe can refocus on its social democratic agenda. Germany will surely have to concede to this more fiscally expansionist agenda, but in return perhaps it can achieve the banking union and capital markets union it has sought to further integrate the union.  

Boris Johnson and other pro-Brexit campaigners hailed the opportunity to become more like Switzerland. But remember that Switzerland ranks far higher than the UK in competitiveness, connectedness, and innovation, and it has deep treaty commitments and economic ties across Europe, even as it has stepped back from joining the EU over the same migration fears that fueled the Brexit. Seen in this way, the Brexit is certainly a setback for political integration, but the more important form of connectivity is functional, the transportation, energy and communications linkages, and the social and commercial transactions.

Perhaps paradoxically, once the dust has settled, perhaps not a whole lot will change. Britain is a trading nation. A weaker pound may strengthen exports, and Europeans may continue to pour in for cheaper holidays and buy up more South Kensington real estate even as bankers from the continent pack up from London City to Frankfurt. Traffic on the Eurostar train between Paris and London is sure to remain brisk. Indeed, the Chunnel is nothing if not a reminder that Britain is physically connected to Europe. In the end, it isn’t really an island after all.