Tsvi Bisk – BREXIT – Some Historical Perspective
In 1861 – 72 years after the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 – the southern states of the United States exited the American Union. In 2016 – 70 years after Winston Churchill first called for the establishment of a United States of Europe in 1946 – Great Britain exited the European Union.
Both events signified the greatest crises of both amalgamations, threatening the very existence of both. The American crisis triggered humanity’s first industrial war and consequent slaughter never equaled by any of America’s subsequent wars. This industrialized civil war presaged the greater industrial slaughter and mass means of murder of the 20th century – the two world wars and the Holocaust.
The United States emerged from its carnage a much more powerful union – if not yet a more perfect union. From “these united states” (the lower case form customary before the Civil War) it became “The United States” (definite article, upper case).
The United States experienced a “big bang” of industrial, constitutionalist, democratic and cultural progress that transformed it from what had been a relatively backward country before the Civil War into the greatest material and military power in history, as well as the greatest cultural and economic influence on global civilization in the 20th century.
The horrific industrialized slaughter of the 20th century prompted Churchill, in 1946, to call for a United States of Europe in order to prevent another European Civil War, which is what WWI and WWII essentially were (even the Asian theater was characterized, to no small extent, by competing European imperialisms).
The horror of recent history, reinforced by the catastrophic economic conditions of Europe following the war, led to the beginning of a historical process that began in 1949 and evolved into the present day EU. What has been the record of the EU and its antecedents? For the most part, I would claim that it has been overwhelmingly positive.
The most important achievement is that over the past 70 years there have been no wars between France and Germany and thus no European civil wars and consequently no world wars. In the 70 years preceding WWII there were three wars featuring France and Germany: The Franco-Prussian, WWI and WWII. These wars were all related and from a deep historical perspective might be seen as one continuous war with various intermissions, much as the Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Clemenceau had not forgotten the contempt with which the French were treated by Bismarck after the defeat of the Franco-Prussian war. His bitter resentment led to the vengeful terms of the Versailles Treaty. The German resentment of these vengeful terms was skillfully exploited by Hitler and led directly to WWII.
This vicious cycle was broken after WWII by the formation of the antecedents to the EU reinforced by the Marshall Plan – the greatest example of altruistic enlightened self-interest in history. The formation of this relatively unified western European entity living in peace with itself became the most important grand strategic component of American security policy well into the 21st century.
As such, it became the vital economic complement to NATO in holding the line against Soviet expansion. There may not have been a formal institutional or constitutional link between the two, but it is difficult to deny that these two amalgamations worked hand in hand in countless economic, security and intelligence ways.
In fulfilling this role of economic complement to NATO, the EU raised the economic standard of living of Western Europe to levels rivaling that of North America and the social level of its citizens – in terms of health, welfare and education – to levels unprecedented in human history.
This soft economic and social power successfully undermined the fundamental communist narrative and thus, eventually, made a major contribution to the dissolution of the Soviet empire and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. So while NATO held the line against the Soviets, the very success of the EU eroded its moral and intellectual pretensions until its ultimate collapse.
As it was eroding Soviet power the EU absorbed three former fascist countries (Greece, Portugal and Spain). The demands of EU membership put them on the road to constitutionalist democracy. After the fall of the Soviet Empire, it absorbed eleven former communist countries, also putting them on the path to constitutionalist democracy.
The present crisis of the EU is in large part a consequence of absorbing these 14 formerly totalitarian countries while their economies, standards of living and political cultures lagged so far behind the 13 very developed countries. The internal migrations towards a better standard of living from the 14 to the 13 were a major contributor to Brexit as well as other populist movements amongst the developed member states.
Yet can anyone seriously deny that the EU fulfilled a monumental historical duty in absorbing these countries. This has been one of the great achievements of recent history – one that only the EU could have accomplished. Because the USA could not have performed this historical task, the EU has shown itself to be not a counterbalance to the USA, but rather a complement to the USA in the spread of constitutionalist democracy.
So, whatever the complaints against the present EU – and they are numerous, substantive and justified – its contribution to human progress and wellbeing is unmatched in history. And even though it is now in deep crisis, this crisis is nowhere near as severe as that of the USA 70 some years after its inception.
The Special Case of England
So what motivated Great Britain towards Brexit? I suggest that Britain’s problem with the EU has more profound roots than just current annoyance with the petty tyrannies of a supercilious EU bureaucracy (as real and justified as those are). It is just as much a feeling that “their England” is no longer English but a “mixed multitude” – an aggregate of alien sub-cultures with no real center, or emotional anchor, or sense of place or meaningful connection to traditional English political, cultural and social traditions.
England and continental Europe have always had a difficult relationship. The English political tradition is different from the continental political tradition. This difference originates in the Magna Carta, which affirmed that the King did not have absolute power but must adhere to the Common Law of the land. No one was above the law, and the law certainly did not reside in the very person of the monarch as France’s Louise 14th indicated when he famously said “the State is Me”. This is the political/cultural/social genome that put England on the path to constitutionalism, just as all the continental states (with the exception of the Netherlands) were on the path to absolutism.
English political culture has evolved in such a way as to put the individual in the center while continental Europe’s political culture has evolved in such a way as to put the State in the center. Nothing characterizes this more than the parliamentary practice of “surgeries” in which MPs receive constituents one-on-one to hear their complaints. Amazingly, even in the midst of the Brexit campaign, PM Cameron took time out to hold periodic surgeries, meeting with individuals from his parliamentary constituency.
England’s paramount political philosopher was John Locke, who, in his Two Treatises on Government, managed to encapsulate the English political temperament that stemmed from the Magna Carta, the Three Summonses to Parliament, The Petition of Right and finally the English Bill of Rights (the precursor of the American Constitution). Indeed, American political culture could justifiably be described as ‘England 2.0’.
Continental political thinking, on the other hand, has been dominated by Hegel and Rousseau. The preeminence of the State and the state bureaucracy characterizes much of what Hegel wrote. Rousseau celebrated “the general will” – an open invitation to Majoritarian Democracy, the mother of Totalitarian Democracy, which is sometimes called Fascism.
The European states were, in effect, created top-down by the state bureaucracy. The English state, on the other hand, was created incrementally bottom-up – i.e. the development of the English ‘state’ and English constitutionality are entwined. This is what differentiates the American Revolution from the French Revolution. The American Revolution was but another iteration of English constitutional development (defending their “rights as Englishmen”), while the French Revolution was but another iteration of French absolutism. While the French celebrated the general will, the American founding fathers rejected the tyranny of the majority that is inherent in Majoritarian Democracy.
This distinction bears the essence of the disconnect between Britain and the EU. The institutions of the EU reflect the bureaucratic and majoritarian political tradition of Germany and France rather than the individualistic Anglo Saxon tradition.
Language has much to do with the different perspectives. In English it is much easier to love one’s country while hating the ‘state’ (Americans are very good at this). In Europe, especially Germany, it is almost impossible to do so. Patriotism is intrinsically involved with loyalty to the state that guarantees national and personal liberty. In the Anglo-Saxon world it is involved with loyalty to certain constitutionalist principles that limit the power of the state vis-à-vis the individual citizen.
The ‘centrality of the State’ mindset that characterizes European bureaucrats leads of necessity to an absolutist turn of mind: a one- size-fits-all mentality that has little tolerance for national idiosyncrasies. Ironically, that same European attitude that professes to celebrate multiculturalism, in fact practices monoculturalism in its bureaucratic traditions. They made absolutely no allowances for English exceptionalism, an exceptionalism that has almost 1,000 years of tradition.
This is why the English never felt comfortable with the EU and why the petty annoyances of an arrogant and condescending bureaucracy in Brussels drove them to distraction more than other European countries.
The Future of the EU (click to read more)
Tsvi Bisk is an Israeli/American Futurist, Social Researcher and Strategy Planning Consultant. His most recent book is The Suicide of the Jews (available on Amazon)