Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Important Brexit lessons for an anxious, fraying world

For many people in Britain, Europe, and the United States, things are changing too fast – life is unfamiliar, and far from what it used to be. They no longer feel at home. While some may be doing well, others are not keeping up. These feelings of discontent and inequality underlie much of the political turmoil in these countries today and lead to three key questions: Is there a way for Britain and Europe to turn the shocking Brexit referendum result around? How long do they have? And will the U.S. avoid its own Brexit moment?

A dangerous time

Dangerous moments require higher-than-usual levels of leadership and followership. In his recent story in The Atlantic, How American Politics Went Insane, Jonathan Rauch argues that the current world (never more connected, yet dangerously disconnected) has left U.S. leaders without the tools to bond with their followers. Britain, Europe and the United States all have great strengths. They would do well to re-establish the model of the U.S.-led postwar approach: Broaden the inclusive order in the world at home and abroad; contain what is not includable at any one moment; and act collectively, not unilaterally.

Story continues below advertisement

This model produced more peace and prosperity for more people than ever before in history. Trump and Brexit seek to undo that model.

The outer challenges in this global world are big, but the biggest come from within. The forces that created today's overreach have been at work for some 35 years. The counterforces they provoked have produced a populist politics with nothing better to offer – and likely very much worse.

Striking at the postwar foundations

Brexit may not happen, should not happen, but could – maybe in some form is even likely to – happen. If it did, it would strike at the twin foundations of the post-1945 era – globalization and its inclusive world order, as well as a stable and prosperous Europe. It's imperative now to confront the rising centrifugal forces within the Western world.

Brexit must not become our generation's Munich. At Munich, France and Britain failed to confront the rising authoritarianism, racism, and expansionism of Germany. Now, the West must not fail to confront a different centrifugal political turmoil in Europe, the U.K. and the U.S. Brexit is the biggest wake-up call since Munich, but, unlike Munich, the danger comes from ourselves, not from outsiders. Europe was saved from suicide by the U.S., and Europe's inclusive postwar journey is the foundation for 70 years of relative European peace and prosperity. The world cannot afford to have the U.S., Britain or Europe falter now.

Two bullets to dodge

The world needs to dodge two bullets in 2016 – Brexit and Donald Trump. Both can be dodged if Mr. Trump does not win the U.S. presidency, or perhaps even if he does. If the leaders of Europe and Britain can delay Brexit, time could favour the Remain side even though 58.1 per cent of the ruling Conservatives voted to leave. Immigration is the touchy issue. A majority of the older and more numerous Britishers are bothered by increasing numbers of newcomers. The young generally hold the opposite view, but they failed to vote in sufficient numbers (36 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 voted, versus 80 per cent of those over 65).

Story continues below advertisement

Like separatism in Quebec, Brexit is largely a family quarrel in the U.K. Quebec separatism was primarily about different visions of Quebec – one inside Canada, one outside – not about Quebec and the rest of Canada. Brexit is primarily about different visions of Britain – not Britain and Europe.

'He knew me'

On the night U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt died, a man on a subway platform began to cry. "Did you know him?" a bystander asked. "No," the man replied, "but he knew me."

The elites know a lot about how to deal with world complexities, but they failed in Britain, Europe, and the U.S. to understand how today's world affects people less able to cope with it. Losing our sense of identity, our jobs and our money are powerful forces. Austerity in both Europe and the U.K. has reinforced the sense of loss. In the U.S., the biggest challenge has been the increasing winners/losers, zero-sum, no-compromise approach of its politics.

The best mutual-accommodation techniques are objectivity and empathy – or, to use former Canadian prime minister John Turner's phrase, "free enterprise with a heart." That empathy was missing in the post-Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher dominance of markets and globalization.

Where does Brexit stop?

Story continues below advertisement

The biggest question now is whether Brexit stops with Brexit or goes on to reinforce the centrifugal forces in the world. The first task is to contain the forces of Brexit and Trump. The second is to move beyond the creation of credit by central banks to real economic advance. The third is to abandon fiscal austerity in a world that is short on demand compared with supply. Three people are needed to meet the challenge: Theresa May, the new grownup U.K. prime minister; Hillary Clinton, internationally experienced and a good listener, and soon to be on the ballot for U.S. president; and Germany's broad-based Angela Merkel at her political best.

Short-term stakes matter. But the big stakes are containing the centrifugal forces. China needs – and knows it needs – a stable U.S. and Europe. Russia may not want to know it, but it needs that same stability, too. The whole world must see the high-stakes risk Brexit is as the first big postwar centrifugal force out of the gate in the West.

A divided country and weak politics

The U.K. is a divided country: London, Scotland and Northern Ireland against the rest; and the old versus the young. Both major political parties are weak, but this could change under Ms. May: Labour is divided between Tony Blair's New Labour and its current hard-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The Conservatives are divided between the Leave and Remain factions.

Once Theresa May settles into her job, there will be new opinion polls and new financial markets and economic developments. Then, there will be a new U.S. president. Calm, common sense and patience will be the best approach until more Brexit political and economic fallout emerges.

Former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa privately told me and two senior Toronto business leaders, following the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, that even if Quebec voted to separate, it would not be able to do so. Quebec and Canada were too intertwined. The same may apply to Brexit. A more precise referendum defining the realistic choices may at some point become essential.

One thing is for sure: Brussels has been too intrusive. Two decades ago, for instance, an apple grown for centuries in the U.K. was banned; and teenagers who had paper routes were prevented from working weekends at supermarkets. At times, too, there may be small surges of too many migrants from Europe.

Brexit, if it happens, will further unbalance an already beset European Union. Right now, the EU needs less austerity and more flexibility; less bureaucracy and more control over internal migration. It also has to find a way to manage the unending flood of refugees.

These problems have to be worked out – collaboratively. The idea of a new European identity and the institutions of a new European superstate would benefit from rethinking – not just to avoid Brexit, but to better accommodate many of its other European members. Brexit is a British, an EU, and a global challenge.

For Canada: risk and opportunity

Are we looking at the breakdown of the postwar era of peace and prosperity? There are threats from outside – austerity, terrorism, and millions of refugees – but the threat comes primarily from the elites and winners within Britain, Europe, and the U.S. who are not addressing what globalization has cost too many people inside their own countries. The threats call for a Franklin Roosevelt rather than a Winston Churchill.

Brexit sends many messages to the world – mostly of risk and danger, but also of opportunity for the EU to get onto a more sustainable structural and economic path. It also sends a message of risk and opportunity for Canada – to become the place where those with big aspirations can set up lives and businesses. Brexit could foreclose much of the anticipated future for Britain's younger people. If Canada adopted a lifetime capital-pool approach for ventures and investments that succeed, it would brand this country as the world capital of hardheaded economics and mutual accommodation.

Canada knows something about the power of centrifugal forces and the interaction of identity with the economy. In just 55 years, francophone Quebec emerged from premodern to postmodern status. Canada knows that a firm competitive stance tempered by flexibility is the ideal. It knows that strong identities can be made stronger if they make room for other identities. It knows that mutual accommodation can take a long time to achieve. The world would be wise to look closely at how Canada got to where it is today.

No more status quo

Brexit is an extreme response to legitimate concerns. The Leave campaign was based on the false promise that Britain can have its cake and eat it too. The EU needs to use the Brexit vote to respond to the reality that large numbers of ordinary Europeans do not share the enthusiasm of the successful elites for "a utopia of Europe without nation states" – as a former Polish prime minister recently expressed it. The EU will remain in existential crisis until that problem is faced and until the austerity-based, slow-growth structural economics of the Eurozone is replaced by a more strongly and evenly balanced, growing Europe.

The status quo is not an option – that is the message of today's disconnecting populism in the U.S., Britain, and Europe. Some big rethinking is crucial before any potentially fateful action is initiated. Following three decades of disintegration, integration may have overreached in the European Union. But acceding to the forces that would pull nations apart is the wrong way forward.

William A. Macdonald is a Toronto writer who, to spark discussion of the nation's future, has created, with associate William R.K. Innes, The Canadian Narrative Project at http://www.canadiandifference.ca.

Report an error
About the Author
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨