THURSDAY’s referendum on whether Britain should leave or stay in the European Union (EU) is a turning point for the global power balance—and for regionalism replacing the idea of the nation-state.
A negative vote could set off the fragmentation of the European continent, and blot the political vision the EU represents—of the outmoded nation-state being replaced by a transnational agency with a higher order of “sovereignty”; and consequently better-equipped to deal with the problems of globalization.
Surveys show British opinion to be divided evenly; but last-minute polls suggest the “leave” votes will shade the “stay” votes. Already, the UK pound has fallen appreciably—reflecting investor nervousness.
Opposition centers in the far-right UK Independence Party, but the BBC reports half the ruling Conservative Party’s parliamentarians also favor leaving. (So does the influential Sun, Britain’s most vociferous right-wing tabloid.)
The Independence Party is the British variety of the populist parties that dominate the European Parliament in Strasbourg. On the continent, fascist and neo-Nazi parties—anti-EU, anti-migration, anti-free trade—embody the confusion, turbulence and anxieties of European politics today.
After World War II, the visionary French statesman Jean Monnet (1888 – 1979) had foreseen only another cycle of conflict in the European cockpit, if its warring states rebuilt themselves on the basis of national sovereignty, with its implication of economic protectionism.
To prevent European conflict from recurring, Monnet persuaded the perennial rivals, France and Germany, to put together their war-making industries. From that European Coal and Steel Community (1952) has grown today’s European Union of 28 member-states covering much of the continent—the world’s largest single market, with internal free trade and common external tariffs.
Too many club dues
But why do so many British citizens want to leave? Too many club dues for too meager returns, British oppositionists say; the EU imposes too many business restrictions that are holding their economy back.
The naysayers, bracing against the great wave of migration from the Middle East, also want Britain to take back full control of its borders. Free movement to travel, live and work anywhere in the Union is a founding principle of EU membership.
The British, historically secure in their island isolation, oppose the EU goal of “ever closer union” and any move toward a “United States of Europe.”
Prime Minister David Cameron wants Britain to stay, now that he has negotiated some national powers back from the EU’s Brussels bureaucrats. US President Barack Obama also wants Britain to remain in the union. So do the principal EU member-states, France and Germany.
Cameron has already won Brussels’ assurances allowing Britain to limit migration to Britain from its poorer EU partner-states; and to set limits on work benefits and welfare payments for migratory workpeople.
Cameron has also extracted assurances the EU will not discriminate against Britain for its go-it-alone financial policies. Apparently, Britain intends to stay away permanently from the common-currency eurozone, as part of its strategy of maintaining London’s primacy as Europe’s financial center.
Unavoidably the very idea of a unified Europe has weakened since the heady days of the supranational ideal in the 1950s, in the aftermath of yet another cycle of the European civil wars (1939 – 1945)—this time costing between 50 million and 85 million dead.
In the process of being carried out, Jean Monnet’s soaring vision of community has become bureaucratized—and has lost its transcendental appeal to everyday Europeans.
It has not helped that what The New York Times describes as the EU’s “byzantine” governance system makes its officials seem unaccountable to everyday people—a common complaint almost everywhere in our time.
Even before the current crisis, there has been a surge of right-wing sentiment in Western Europe—reacting to increasing migration from North Africa and West Asia, and to the economic austerities governments have had to impose—most severely in Greece, Italy and Spain.
Meanwhile, the revolution in communication and information technology (ICT) and the tidal wave of “globalization” it helped set off have subverted the foundation of Western Europe’s middle-class prosperity.
The low-to-middle-skill but high-wage jobs once enjoyed by Europe’s workpeople are migrating to lower-wage countries in East Asia and Latin America—whether physically or through business-process outsourcing (BPO) and the import of overseas contract workers.
Limits of the state
Consequently, global inequalities of income and status are rising. Labor’s share in total income from global production has been shrinking while that of profit-income has risen substantially.
Ironically, globalization so far has dimmed the prospect of “One World” that idealists dream of.
Indeed, some analysts—among them the management thinker, Peter F. Drucker—argue that the nation-state can no longer deal with every problem raised by the progress—and unintended consequences—of invention.
Obama, at Hiroshima, warned that “technological progress without accompanying moral transformation can doom the whole of humankind.”
The intrusive international culture has disrupted traditional societies everywhere—but without creating any stable institutions in their place. Yet never before has humankind had greater need of transnational agencies to deal with urgent tasks—climate change, nuclear-arms control, the enforcement of human rights—beyond the competence of the nation-state. It will be a global tragedy if this first venture in transnationalism—the model for our own more timid Asean—is to fail.