Whether you think the United Kingdom exiting the European Union is cause for alarm or celebration, you have to concede this: Britons engaged in an open, lively and mostly peaceful debate, they turned out in droves, they cast their votes freely and fairly and, by so doing, expressed their will and determined their future. That’s called democracy. Is there a preferable alternative?
Despite pollsters’ predictions, the referendum on Brexit — for British exit — was a clear victory for Leave over Remain. Those wanting out of the EU did not vote their pocketbooks. On the contrary, they were repeatedly warned by establishment figures — President Obama among them — that they would pay a steep economic price for going their own way.
To say I saw this coming would be an exaggeration but I do think I caught a glimmer — almost a quarter-century ago. I was among a group of journalists hosted by a European foundation eager that Americans form a positive view of a changing Europe.
In particular, in February 1992, in Maastricht, a small city in the Netherlands, the Treaty on European Union was signed by members of what had been the European Economic Community, a tariff-free trading bloc. Before long, the Brussels-based EU would become the ocean into which 28 nations would pour their sovereignty. It would establish its own policies on a widening spectrum of issues, its own flag, its own anthem and its own currency — though Britain declined to trade the pound for the euro, a decision sharply criticized at the time but which seems wise in retrospect.
In Maastricht, I learned a new word: subsidiarity. Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union defines it as aiming “to ensure that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen,” in other words, at the national, regional or local level — not, unless absolutely necessary, by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats in a foreign capital.
I was skeptical. And, it turns out, I was right. As the eminent British historian Andrew Roberts recently noted, under the EU today “60 percent of British laws are made in Brussels and foreign judges decide whether those laws are legitimate or not.” Brexit, he added, is a matter of British “independence and the right to make all of our own laws and have our own British judges decide upon them.”
Along these lines, former London Mayor Boris Johnson recently wrote: “We are seeing a slow and invisible process of legal colonization, as the EU infiltrates just about every area of public policy … . Sometimes these EU rules sound simply ludicrous, like the rule that you can’t recycle a teabag, or that children under eight cannot blow up balloons, or the limits on the power of vacuum cleaners. Sometimes they can be truly infuriating — like the time I discovered, in 2013, that there was nothing we could do to bring in better-designed cab windows for trucks, to stop cyclists being crushed. It had to be done at a European level, and the French were opposed.”
Something else troubled me back then. The framers of the EU were acutely aware of the damage caused in the past by hypernationalism. But that led them to disdain patriotism. They insisted that everyone think of himself primarily as a European. It seemed to me that denied powerful forces of history, tradition and culture. It should not be seen as unnatural to love one’s country.
Europe’s elites also embraced multiculturalism, which evolved from pluralism — a decent respect for other cultures — to what it is now: scorn for Western cultures and deference toward those of the Third World.
Here’s where that has led: In Germany recently, Green Party politician Stefanie von Berg addressed fellow city councilmen in Hamburg, predicting that within a generation, “there will no longer be German majorities in our cities.” She added emphatically: “And I want to make it very clear, especially to those right-wingers, this is a good thing.”
Such historic change is being driven by waves of mostly male Muslim migrants from the Middle East and North Africa. This mass migration — and the EU’s handling of it — was likely the proximate cause of the referendum results. A majority of Britons wants to decide whom they welcome as new citizens and how many. To charge that that makes them anti-immigrant or racist strikes me as grossly unfair.
Most migrants will become productive citizens. But a small minority will become jihadists. And that’s not the only cause for concern. Between 1997 and 2013, in Rotherham, a town east of Manchester, as many as 1,400 girls as young as 11 were sexually abused — abducted, raped, tortured and trafficked. The well-organized perpetrators were British-Pakistani Muslims. Home Secretary Theresa May later blamed the failure of the authorities to act — one individual who tried was ordered to take a two-day course on diversity — on “institutionalized political correctness.”
The European Commission’s (unelected) president, Jean-Claude Juncker, now wants Britain punished as a warning to other EU members dissatisfied with Brussels. Would it not be more productive for him to address that spreading dissatisfaction through serious reforms? The fact is the EU has become post-democratic — that’s what it means when voters can’t kick out powerful elites who control their lives.
De facto, Germany leads — some might say rules — the EU. Germany also, obviously, bears the stain of Nazism. So for Germany there has long been a special benefit in the EU’s forceful attempt to meld national identities. On that continental sojourn all those years ago, one prominent German official asked me: “If I can’t be a proud German, can I at least be a proud European?” I know now what I should have answered then: “No. It’s not that simple.”
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.