Growing up in the Netherlands, my history teachers made very sure that I understood the meaning and the history of the expression “La Perfide Albion”. Albion, of course, being the archaic name for Great Britain. After all, the Dutch had fought three wars against the British, all in the seventeenth century when the Netherlands was a power at par with England and even felt compelled to sail its Dutch fleet up the river Thames to scare the daylight out of Londoners and teach the British a lesson. And we were not alone in our mistrust in the British. The French coined the phrase “La Perfide Albion” after the French revolution when England turned its back on the French Republic and aligned itself with the other great European powers who all had preserved their monarchies.
Seen in this context, there seems to be nothing new in England’s decision to turn its back on the European Union. You can never rely on the Brits to be predictable. Days after the fateful vote in the BREXIT referendum most observers and even most actors in the event are still in disbelief with the outcome. Europe went to sleep on June 24 thinking that the British voters, when it came to brass tacks, would not have the audacity to leave the EU. After all, virtually all the pundits, the markets and even the bookies had told them so. That explains the depth of the shock experienced when people and markets were waking up the next morning to the reality that more Brits had chosen to leave the EU than to remain, be it only by a small margin. To bet against the prevailing wisdom must have paid off handsomely!
But here we are, the British voters have spoken and now the real question is “what’s next”. Judging by the developments of the last few days, that question will not be easily nor quickly answered. Both in Brussels and in London officials are struggling to make sense out of the chaos created by the referendum. One thing has become abundantly clear: Much like after the Pyrrhus victory of the USA over Sadam Hussein’s Iraq, the Pyrrhus victory of “Leave” over “Remain” exposes the ugly reality that the politicians who were actively promoting BREXIT have failed to have even a rudimentary plan in place for how to proceed now that they have won. They may have won the battle, but can they win the war?
David Cameron made a crucial mistake when he decided to appease the anti-EU faction in his party by offering to put the BREXIT question to a referendum. As much as he believed (and was told) that he could not possibly lose that vote and had, therefore, offered an empty pacifier in an attempt to once and for all end the Conservative party rift on the issue of the EU, he failed to unequivocally stand up and make the argument that leaving the EU would be like turning the clock back forty-three years. It looked like preserving party unity was more important to him than preserving EU strength in solidarity. The other mistake he made is that he allowed the referendum to be decided by a simple majority. If he felt that a referendum was the appropriate tool by which to resolve the dispute, he should have required a qualified majority for an exit decision. The decision to break up 43 years of European integration is so momentous and consequential that it should not have been decided against the will of a large minority, which included almost all business and opinion leaders in the UK.
It seems though that, in the end, Cameron’s principal opponent, Boris Johnson, who ostensibly came out as the winner in this contest, may have made even bigger mistakes and managed to put himself in a no win situation. He has little choice but to run for the leadership of his party now that David Cameron is resigning. If he fails to get the party behind him, he is finished. But if he does, he will have to follow through on the promises he made in the BREXIT campaign, when it is already clear that delivering on these promises is unwise, impractical and virtually undoable. If he fails to give his supporters what they voted for he will also be jettisoned. Finally, if he becomes the Conservative leader and British prime minister and he pulls the UK out of the EU, the UK itself will break up, the EU will play hardball and the British economy and people will be suffering the consequences. There seems to be no way to win for Boris. (He apparently realizes his conundrum and announces just now that he does not want to stand for the leadership of the Conservative party.) Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is in no better position. He failed his party and his people and yet resists stepping down after convincingly losing a no-confidence vote.
There is a real question mark if the politicians who drove the “Leave” vote have the quality, the capacity, to now do the hard work of negotiating the exit conditions with the EU and the bilateral trade agreements they will need, now that they will be excluded from the EU trade umbrella.
The fundamental and serious problem with all of this stumbling is that when politicians fail, the people are paying the price.
I grew up in an era of admiration for the Brits who, at their own peril, stood up against the Nazis and fought a long hard and bitter war against the Axis. Without the Brits (Churchill’s leadership), America would have stayed out of the war in Europe and the Allies would have lost. European unity would have been imposed and enforced by Nazi Germany in a much different way from how the European Union was put together. On the other hand, the perfidiousness of Albion showed up immediately after the war when Churchill, who had engineered the victory, was unceremoniously dismissed by the British voters.
Britain, after the war, has been a faithful and reliable partner for the US in the Cold War and a dependable force in building global institutions, like the UN, NATO, the IMF and the World Bank, that could take the sharp edge off nationalist tendencies that had disturbed the peace for centuries. And it still is. With the continuing globalization, the threat of radical Islam, the resulting refugee problem and the emergence of China as a formidable undemocratic world power, the western alliance, of which the USA, Great Britain and the EU are the linchpins, should be strengthened rather than weakened.And the rift, caused by the British BREXIT vote, can only be detrimental to the strength of that alliance. It should, and easily could, have been avoided.
There is plenty of room for constructive criticism of what the EU has morphed into. It is a valid question if it has been too ambitious in growing its membership, in taking away more authority from the member states than it had to in order to be effective. And the growth of its faceless bureaucracy and stifling regulation is cause for legitimate concern as is the cost of supporting this super national apparatus. But all of these issues could have been addressed inside the union. If there is any good to come out of BREXIT it is that it will compel the leadership of the EU and the member nations to seriously address the merit of significant and structural changes to the system of European super national governance. That discussion should have been had, with British participation, a long time ago.
BREXIT is a case study in miscalculation, political arrogance and unintended consequences. It was brought about by the Brits, voting to give up on the European Union. Which will give the history teachers of my grandchildren good reason to teach them about the Perfide Albion.