Column: The end of the European Experiment

Rick Marschall

The United Kingdom has sued for divorce from the European Union. In fact the U.K. was not fully united, because England and Wales voted ‘Go’; Scotland and Northern Ireland voted ‘Stay.’ Whether this will be a trial separation or an ugly split cannot be forecast.

The proponents of every shade of Brexit’s arguments failed to anticipate consequences and adjustments attendant upon any result.

Trade will continue and probably thrive. Germany’s Deutsche Bank forecast explosive economic growth for a “free” Britain. Regulations — one of the onerous justifications for the revolt — might, or might not continue as Whitehall so chooses. And the same for the challenges posed by immigration, the other major irritant. But the shape of Slavic rutabagas and the size of Greenland’s fish will recede as expensive obsessions.

The European Experiment always has been an uneasy arrangement. The countries that flocked to join, as they did to NATO, often were motivated by fear of the Russian bear that lingered outside their territories. Just as often, many countries flocked toward an EU trough of subsidies and debt forgiveness, a continent-wide and endless (they hoped) free lunch.

The confusion about a thousand things, and the inevitable scheduling of similar referenda in France, Italy, Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, the Czech Republic and elsewhere — all suggest that this Brexit vote was an effect, not a cause. A symptom, not (as some allege) a disease. An electoral tantrum of deep-seated legitimacy, no less valid for its flailing and dramatic aspects.

Brexit thrived not in a vacuum. Last week, the populist, anti-statist Five Star Movement in Italy elected 37-year-old Virginia Raggi as mayor of Rome; also a mayor of Turin; and it strengthened the separatist Northern League. Marine Le Pen and her niece Marion of France’s Front National have knocked on the door of power. Holland’s nationalist Geert Wilders is poised to become leader of the Netherlands. The candidate of Austria’s anti-EU Freedom Party, Norbert Hofer, recently missed the presidency by less than one per cent of the vote.

Formerly “fringe” political leaders now are charting the courses of nations. The establishment is losing its power of imprimatur. If Lech Walesa was a credible leader after a life spent as a shipyard worker, or Václav Havel could turn from writing plays to writing policies, so does Beppe Grillo, a former comedian, lead a popular movement in Italy; or can a lifelong history teacher, the anti-establishment Gudni Johannesson, be elected president of Iceland (this week); or businessman and media celebrity Donald Trump contend for the presidency of the United States.

Similar impulses are at work across the West. Immigration tensions and fear of terrorism are merely the most prominent grievances. The middle classes largely are fueling the revolt in most of the aforementioned nations, their patience spent over centralization, shrinking paychecks, political corruption, changing values, social breakdowns and the decline in patriotism.

Our media savants treat Brexit as a seismic crisis, as they will describe the dominoes that soon will fall across Europe. But there is a much larger picture.

As Communist states fell 25 years ago and Germany reunited, so might the two Irelands, especially in the wake of Brexit’s anomalies like a newly opened border that is now is the U.K.’s frontier with the EU. Scotland finally might (re)-achieve independence. An independent Northern Italy? A Basque state? Borders possess diminished sanctity in this changing world. Switzerland this week withdrew its moribund but formal application to join the EU.

A multitude of speculation. If democracy of this sort had seized the world earlier than it did, the Declaration of Independence we are about to commemorate on July Fourth might have been the text of a Referendum, instead of a call-to-arms manifesto. Imagine.

Rick Marschall is the author of “Bully!: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt.”