Britons are less than a week away from a referendum about whether to exit the European Union (EU), or remain. British commentary on the debate has been unreasonable enough, American commentary is worse, but the American choice would be clear.
Some Americans have mischaracterized Brexiteers as opponents of a “liberal democratic capitalist project.” That’s not how either side is characterizing the EU: the EU admits its philosophical mission to “force people to be free,” while Brexiteers characterize the EU as an undemocratic, centralizing socialist enterprise, in opposition to Britain’s liberal democratic capitalist traditions.
A similar falsity is to mischaracterize Brexiteers as opposed to “free markets“: Brexiteers want to trade with the larger and better-managed markets of the world; the EU is a free market within its own borders, but also a protectionist area from the perspective of the rest of the world.
Americans have not chosen well from the British commentary, which is corrupted by fear-mongering and ignorance, within a generation that has not known any other arrangement. I am sick and tired of hearing Britons exclaim that they could never leave the EU because they like Belgian chocolate, as if trade was impossible before the EU.
I am also professionally frustrated with scares about another European war without the EU to hold us together, as if Europeans hadn’t learnt their lesson before the EU was created in the 1990s, when wars broke out in the former Yugoslavia, which the EU failed to control, until the North Atlantic Treaty Organization took over.
Hence the ironically prejudicial accusation that Britons who want to exit (Brexiteers) are nationalist fools who distrust their own government against their rational self-interests, as if the British government hadn’t burnt enough trust since its own lies about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, its campaign against terrorism, the collapse of Britain’s economy in 2008, and the true rate of immigration.
To characterize Brexiteers as simply prejudicial conveniently avoids real issues: Brexiteers are complaining about material issues such as uncontrolled immigrant pressure on housing, schools, free healthcare, labor wages, and social cohesion; Brexiteers also complain about political issues — the transfer of sovereignty to Brussels, over-regulation, and unaccountable and incompetent governance, as best illustrated by the collapse of the EU’s single currency (the Euro), the fraudulent over-valuation of Greece’s economy, slow reactions to foreign policy crises, and the shuttling of migrants from southern to northern European countries, in contravention of the international legal obligation to process refugees where they land.
What would Americans do?
I have no doubt what Americans would choose if they were in the British place, as suggested by this simple counter-factual analogy. Imagine that the U.S. is suddenly a member of a political union across the Americas — from Canada to Chile. Imagine that you were never given a choice to join. You were last asked to vote in 1975 on whether to join a free-trade area. Since then that free-trade area has become a political union, whose supranational government overrides your national government, without popular vote.
Imagine that this union is headquartered in your smallest and least stable neighbor — let’s say Havana in Cuba. Imagine that the union’s executive is not popularly elected; it is chosen by a bunch of other bureaucrats based in Havana, who pretend that national identity is old-fashioned but nonetheless perpetuate their own national prejudices at the bureaucracy.
Imagine that the union claims to be democratic because it has a parliament, but while a majority of your fellow citizens choose to vote for their national representatives, fewer than a third of the electorate ever bothers to vote for their supranational representatives, who are practically unreachable in Havana, and represent huge districts, with millions of constituents at a time.
Imagine that the political union makes laws that trump any national laws in the union, and makes laws to the benefit of its favored majority, even if your country objects.
Imagine that the supranational government allocates your national waters to fishermen from anywhere in the union, because while your country has extensive waters or well-managed fish stocks, other member countries of the union do not. Imagine that the supranational government receives complaints from those other fishermen that fish stocks are running out in your national waters too, so the supranational government imposes quotas on any fisherman, without closing your national waters to every nation in the union. Now each fisherman must not land more fish than the individual quota, but fishermen cannot easily prevent a good catch, so they end up dumping dead fish into the sea, rather than violate the supranationally imposed quota.
Imagine that this union claims to care about your environment, because its interests are continental while yours are only national, but while the union is happy to impose restrictive obligations on the wealthiest or most populous countries, which already tend to be most progressive on environmentalism, it makes exceptions for the poorer or smaller countries, in order to keep them in the union. Thus, while Britons are forbidden from harming their migrating birds by supranational law (even though they were already well protected under national laws and decades of norms and customs), the EU makes an exception for little Malta, which is a migratory stop for birds migrating from Africa to Britain.
Imagine that any of the hundreds of millions of people living across this union has the right to travel to the U.S., to take work, to take schooling, and to demand the same welfare and entitlements as any citizen, including to support their dependents in their home countries.
As anyone could foresee, most of these immigrants would be the poorest and least skilled, migrating from the poorest and least educated countries to the wealthiest and most developed countries. That supranational government in Havana would reassure you that you are benefiting from this arrangement, because under the principle of “reciprocity” any American can migrate to any other member of the union. But while hundreds of thousands of uncontrolled immigrants per year are coming from the poorest countries of the union, practically no Americans go to those countries to work, except to administer American aid.
Similarly, while thousands of uncontrolled immigrants arrive each year to study in your schools, at local expense, often just to improve their English, thence to seek work in your country, almost none of your citizens go to their countries to study.
That supranational government in Havana would reassure you that these uncontrolled migrants are moving to fill jobs that your own nationals don’t have the skills to fill, but while almost all these migrants offer unskilled labor, your country can’t fill its national shortages of healthcare professionals and information technology specialists, because that supranational government in Havana prohibits any national favoritism to the available professionals or specialists from outside the union.
The supranational government reassures you that these uncontrolled immigrants are contributing money to the economy, and taxes to the exchequer, but you commute past migrants begging and living on the streets, so that they can send as much money to support their families, to where they will return for the winter months, once they have built up the capital to support them, before returning for another season, without any engagement with your documented economic system or your heritage.
Worse, some of these uncontrolled migrants are camping in your public parks, on traffic islands, at national monuments; they’re making open fires where nominally none are allowed; they’re eating the swans from the lakes, and other protected species; but the unelected and unaccountable court in Havana rules that any national attempt to prevent them would violate their human rights, irrespective of the human rights of the people forced to host them.
The supranational government claims to be an alliance that guarantees peace and security across the continent. But it’s not an alliance, and it takes resources away from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, while its foreign policy remains uncertain because it is so slow to deliberate that international relations change quicker than it reacts, leaving Russia to hold on to the territories it has illegally annexed on the union’s borders.
What would Americans choose?