Given their arrogance, pomposity and habitual absurdities, it is hard not to feel a certain satisfaction with the comeuppance that Brexit has delivered to the unaccountable European Union bureaucrats in Brussels.
Nonetheless, we would do well to refrain from smug condescension. Unity is not easy. What began in 1951 as a six-member European Coal and Steel Community was grounded in a larger conception of a united Europe born from the ashes of World War II. Seven decades into the postwar era, Britain wants out and the EU is facing an existential crisis.
Yet where were we Americans seven decades into our “more perfect union?”At Fort Sumter.
The failure of our federal idea gave us civil war and 600,000 dead. We had the advantage of a common language, heritage and memory of a heroic struggle against a common (British) foe. The European project tries to forge the union of dozens of disparate peoples, ethnicities, languages and cultures, amid memories of the two most destructive wars in history fought among and against each other.
The result is the EU, a great idea badly executed. The founding motive was obvious and noble: to reconcile the combatants of World War II, most especially France and Germany, and create conditions that would ensure there could be no repetition. Onto that was appended the more utopian vision of a continental superstate that would transcend parochial nationalism.
That vision blew up with Brexit on June 23. But we mustn’t underestimate the significance, and improbability, of the project’s more narrow, but still singular, achievement – peace. It has given Europe the longest period of internal tranquility since the Roman Empire. (In conjunction, of course, with NATO, which provided Europe with its American umbrella against external threat.)
But the EU was disdainful, often dismissive, of residual nationalisms and their democratic expressions. Despite numerous objections by referendum and parliament, it continued its relentless drive for more centralization, more regulation and thus more power for its unelected self.
Such high-handed overriding of popular sentiment could go on only so long.
To be sure, popular sentiment was narrowly divided. The most prominent disparity was generational. The young have come to expect open borders, open commerce and open movement of people. They voted overwhelmingly to Remain. Leave was mainly the position of an older generation no longer willing to tolerate European assaults on British autonomy and sovereignty.
Understandably so. Widely mentioned, and resented, was the immigration directive to admit other EU citizens near automatically. But what pushed the Leave side over the top was less policy than primacy. Amazingly, about half of the laws and regulations that govern British life come not from Westminster but from Brussels.
Brexit was an assertion of national sovereignty and an attempt, in one fell swoop, to recover it.
There is much to admire in that impulse. But at what cost? Among its casualties may be not just the European project (other exit referendums are being proposed) but the United Kingdom itself. The Scots are already talking about another independence vote. And Northern Ireland, which voted to remain in the EU, might seek to unite with the Republic.
Talk about a great idea executed badly. In seeking a newly sovereign United Kingdom, the Brits might well find themselves having produced a little England.