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20th Century European Lessons for a 21st Century Brexit

It seems that June 23rd 2016 has become a new “zero hour” moment in European history, though I doubt it will go down in history as one next to November 9th 1989 or May 8th 1945. Those were system changing dates that eventually rippled around the world and signaled the coming of new eras in international relations history: from the multipolar world, to the bipolar cold war, and to the unipolar moment/era of U.S. supremacy. No, Brexit’s date will most likely join the other not so remembered — but still greatly important — days of European pitfall, which triggered constitutional and foreign relations turning points.

Three dates/events come to mind: first February 21st 1947, when Great Britain relinquished its Mediterranean and European balance of power role by no longer guaranteeing Greece’s and Turkey’s security. Second, November 7th 1956, the last day of the Suez Crisis which prompted the United Kingdom and France to adopt very different foreign policies: one more Atlantic and closer to the U.S., and the other more Continental and closer to West Germany. Finally, April 8th 1962, the day of the French referendum on Algerian Independence.

These events can rightly be interpreted as the downfall of two great powers they symbolize the inability of European countries to carry on successful foreign adventures without the support of the United States. The latter has been a constant since Dien Bien Phu until Kosovo, and still resonates with the current uneasiness towards Russia after Crimea. Yet, the three aforementioned events were not just downfalls, but were also pivotal turning-points in European history. They set the foundations for the so-called “European 20th century renaissance,” that started with Treaty of Rome of 1957 and culminated with the French and Dutch rejections by referendums of the EU Constitution in 2005. My goal, in this brief intervention, is twofold: first, to put Brexit in a historical context and to showcase what it has in common with 1947, 1956, and 1962; and second, to try to imagine what possible paths June 23rd 2016 could unveil for the future.

I want to set aside, for the time being, the nativist dimension of Brexit, which is important and will be addressed later. However, xenophobic and romanticist impulses about a bucolic past are not, in my opinion, the only way to frame the United Kingdom’s surprise decision to leave the EU. I say surprise because it’s an outcome that almost no one was expecting and the political establishments in both London and Brussels were not in favor of. Therefore, Brexit should be understood as a setback for European international relations and as a tremendous blow for British foreign policy.

Clement Attlee’s 1947 foreign affairs revolution is seen as a bold decision today but was deemed a total disaster at the time. Just like Brexit today, the British establishment and allied countries did not welcome the initiatives and considered them executed in a rushed way without accounting for the possible consequences. In January, Great Britain announced that it was transferring the mandate over Palestine to the United Nations; in February Attlee communicated to the United States that the United Kingdom could no longer militarily and financially assist Greece and Turkey; and finally, in June with the implementation of the Mountbatten Plan and the Indian Independence Act, the British Raj ceased to exist. The Labour government suffered backlash from conservatives, even from the cadres at Whitehall and the Foreign Office. While there was more or less some consensus on India and Palestine, forsaking Greece and Turkey was a betrayal to British commitment to a balance of power in Europe and, therefore, continental stability. It was not what Churchill had agreed with Stalin in Yalta in February 1945.

However, Labour wanted to focus on domestic concerns and clearly understood that in order to carry on its nationalization and social welfare policies, the country needed to spend fewer resources on foreign commitments. Additionally, the Attlee Ministry interpreted their immense electoral victory in 1945 as a legitimation for cutting off foreign entanglements in favor of developing strong public infrastructure and a solid welfare state. It’s this issue that February 21st 1947 can be compared to June 23rd 2016, on the electorate prioritizing domestic policy over foreign policy.

By now we know that the Leave Campaign promise — to fund the National Health Service with the capital that the UK sends to the EU — was an empty one, the fact that it resonated so much within the electorate can be compared to Labour’s foundation of the NHS in 1948. With many differences, the premise holds some similarity: a citizenship decided to solve domestic concerns instead of wasting resources on, what they considered, no longer worthy endeavors. We now know that Attlee was right and that Britain’s withdrawal triggered the Truman Doctrine and the subsequent Marshall Plan and NATO, which brought London back into Europe. In the same way the electorate of 1947 considered that its own security and well-being resided at home and not in the Eastern Mediterranean, the European Union should interpret Brexit as one community deciding that being a member was no longer crucial for the development of its welfare and that remaining to maintain influence in the continent was pointless compared to what the community perceived they were gaining.

The Suez Crisis was an outright debacle. In 1956, following Nasser’s nationalization of the Canal, Great Britain, France and Israel colluded to create an international crisis that would legitimate their intervention in the region. However, it totally backfired; by the end of the conflict Britain’s and France’s days as world and imperial powers were gone. It is the aftermath that I am interested in recalling to put Brexit into context. While in the short-run intervening protected its national strategic interests, the British people decried the military operation. The Conservative government almost collapsed and Anthony Eden resigned as Prime Minister.  November 7th 1956 is crucial in European history, though, because it signaled the beginning of two distinct approaches to world politics: an Atlantic one and, a European one. Since the Suez Crisis, Great Britain would never again use their military to intervene without the support and involvement of the United States which would further cement their special relationship. France, on the other hand, focused on building a up an European economic and security bloc that, led by Paris, could counter-balance against the United States and the Soviet Union. The Treaty of Rome, giving birth to the ECC, was signed the following year.

In a way Brexit symbolized Britain’s choice for the Anglo-Saxon world. Just like with Harold Macmillan after Suez, the next Conservative Prime Minister will be one that will prioritize the United Kingdom’s relationship with Washington and that will pursue an Atlantic or Commonwealth distinctiveness instead of an European or Continental one. In fact, the Leave Campaign emphasized its desire to emulate Australian or Canadian immigration models, as well as a strong nativist appeal to protect Anglophone culture. Brexit will also allow London to carry her own relationship with her two closest EU members in the continent: Netherlands and Denmark. Certainly, Amsterdam and Copenhagen have more to lose than any other communitarian members and they will be interested in having a special relationship with Britain considering the amount of Anglo-Dutch and Anglo-Danish companies. Therefore, like in 1956, Brexit can be taken as a defeat for the pro-European establishment and as juncture point for a British foreign policy less anchored in Brussels (or Berlin, or Paris) and highlights relations with the Philo-Anglo powers of the North Sea, and the Anglo-Saxon powers of the Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans.

Finally, on April 8th 1962 Metropolitan France held the Évian Accords Referendum on the issue of Algerian self-determination. More than 90% of the French electorate accepted granting independence to the, until then, regional department. With a gruesome civil war, the outcome of the referendum seemed a foregone conclusion though; French mentality vis-à-vis Algeria was not the same at the beginning of the conflict in 1954. In 1961 a previous referendum was held on Algerian self-determination with 75% in favor of independence. Todd Sheppard shows us that French society experienced a decolonizing process; Algeria went from being regarded as an integral part of French territory to being seen as an expendable colonial possession. However, the main effect of the referendum was not about a territory seceding or a transfer of sovereignty over land, but about citizenship status for subjects both in the metropole and in Algeria. The hardest task was the juridical creation, and regeneration, of two peoples.

The French Constitution of 1958, which founded the Fifth Republic, declared that all subjects of Algeria were French nationals and citizens with equal political rights, regardless if their civil status was anchored on common law (European origin) or local law (Mosaic, Muslim, and Berber among others). Yet, after both referendums, De Gaulle’s Ordinance of July 21st basically deprived eight million people — residing in both France and Algeria — of French citizenship. While pied noirs and Mozabite Jews remained French citizens, Muslim French citizens from Algeria became Harkis. Some were able to retain French nationality — as long as they completed some requirements and did not acquire another nationhood subsequently — while most of them were downgraded to foreigners with a privileged status in France.

I bring  up the Algerian referendum because the event can be useful to historically frame Brexit in at least three ways. To begin with, April 8th 1962 was just the culmination of a re-foundation moment for the French Republic. France was going through a constitutional crisis, with a civil war spreading into the metropole, which ended with a civic coup d’état and a new semi-presidentialist constitution. The EU referendum, instead, will trigger Britain’s constitutional crisis. One that has already provoked a leadership emergency in both Tories and Labour, and that will at least set in motion a dispute of juridical — and political — power over which institution is legitimated to activate Article 5 of the Lisbon Treaty. We will certainly witness a struggle between the next Tory government and Parliament, which will not be resolved without a call for general elections, where parties will be campaigning for or against EU withdrawal initiation. Then, assuming that Westminster goes forward with Brexit, the Scottish Parliament could withhold legislative consent; though, London could later override Holyrood’s blockade. Worst-case scenario, Scotland secedes from Great Britain, after another independence referendum before 2019, and Northern Ireland becomes one with Dublin. Like France between 1958 and 1962, the United Kingdom is doomed to go through a constitutional crisis and re-foundational period until at least 2020, alongside a GDP contraction of up to 7%. In order to survive as an Union, Britain might have to fully devolve government to all members of the UK; a federal or federation framework giving them full sovereignty over their own affairs.  

Secondly, Brexit, like Algerian independence, is bound to produce an exodus of people from and to Great Britain, in addition to a new juridical status for British and EU citizens alike. Following Andrew Arato’s two previous posts (here and here) if we understand Brexit as a type of secession, then one of the main effects will be on British citizens and the juridical status of EU citizens in the UK. All citizens of the EU’s 28 members have, besides their national citizenship, a subsidiary European citizenship. Besides freedom of movement, residence, and work in all member countries, EU citizenship guarantees political rights for municipal and local elections and the European Parliament. Additionally, it grants access to EU institutions and to consular protection from any EU member in any non-EU state. The British electorate has, then, voted to relinquish such rights and privileges, which affect all Britons regardless of where they reside in the world. Only EU nationals that live in Great Britain — or that were thinking of going there — will have their juridical status compromised. By 2019, the freedom of movement, residence, and work of around 3 million EU citizens will no longer exist; the same for 1.5 million British residing in EU countries. We are looking at probably a preferential juridical status for Britons in the EU and EU nationals in the UK; yet many voted Leave to abolish any type of socio-economic rights equality between British and EU nationals. It is here where nativism played its dreadful role. English voters do not think EU nationals are deemed equal socio-economic rights. Poles, Italians, and Romanians are not from “here” and do not deserve, nor have they  gained, the same English privileges. The equality and citizenship of 5 million people will cease leading to an exodus of many millions between the Continent and the UK.

Lastly, similar to the Suez debacle, Algerian independence provided France with the opportunity to carry on a foreign policy unshackled from colonial misadventures that limited Paris’ role in Europe’s future. Right after the referendum, De Gaulle started negotiations with Konrad Adenauer that resulted in the Élysée Treaty of January 1963. France aimed at distancing West Germany — and the rest of the EEC — from Washington’s vassalage; while Bonn expected to become the industrial core of Western Europe and considered Paris’ counterbalance instrumental for a possible German re-unification.  This cemented the German-French relationship that has steered the European Community since then. One expects Brexit to provide for a similar scenario. Since 1973, Great Britain has been seen — mostly by France — as the US Trojan horse in the European Union by mostly slowing down or preventing the “ever closer union.” London leaving might provide a great opportunity, and perhaps the last chance, for a federal Europe. Furthermore, with Britain out, the position of “Eurosceptic countries,” such as Denmark, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, will greatly weaken; avoiding the need for constant renegotiations, and restructuring voting procedures in the European Council, which needs 55% of member states representing 65% of population.

However, all the historical cases that we have seen required one factor that seems clearly lacking right now: strong political leadership. We have no Attlee, Macmillan, or De Gaulle. In Great Britain, David Cameron washed his hands with his resignation and failure to trigger Article 50 and Theresa May faces a divided Conservative and Unionist Party, while Labour goes into civil war. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are jokes, dangerous, but jokes nonetheless. In Europe, neither Angela Merkel nor Francois Hollande are willing to risk their chances for reelection next year for rescuing Brussels. Lastly, the European Commission a headed by a klepto-technocrat from a money-laundry Grand Duchy will not step up for big chances; the Delors’ years are way gone. Perhaps it is up to a coalition of “less central” countries to reform the European Union and steer it into a more solid, and socially equal, union. Portugal, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Greece, and Ireland — perhaps with one of the Baltic countries and Slovenia — could create such a block for change. Although, regrettably, they will need France to be successful, which freezes everything until the presidential elections in May 2017.

Lack of leadership aside, 1947, 1956 and 1962 tell us that crises that led to unprecedented changes in European relations — retreat of Britain from European security, the end of the UK as a great power, and Algerian independence — paved the way for unique domestic and international transformations — welfare state, the EEC, and the German-French alliance. Brexit is not the first time that the United Kingdom has abandoned a common European vision to look inwards or into an Atlantic or Anglophone world. Brexit as a secession clears the way to an “even closer union,” but one that has to learn from the mistakes in handling the refugee and the Greek crises.

The next four years will be a major turning point in European history. For Great Britain, 2015-2020 will be a period of constitutional renovation and perhaps re-foundation. Most likely, there will be general elections before the end of the year and perhaps a second, and this time legally binding, referendum in 2017. If, however, the next government decides to trigger article 50, then it will face a European Union that will offer the worst possible deal in order scare potential Leave referendum copycats. Then, a Norway type of association — four EU pillars, plus structural funds but no participation in EU institutions — seems the likely scenario. Though many English voted against those freedoms, particularly EU citizenship and freedom of residence and work, if future Prime Ministers want to be re-elected they will need the votes of Sheffield and Birmingham. It’s probably, then, that Scotland and Northern Ireland might be offered reverse Greenland options. Greenland, after obtaining home rule in 1979, voted to leave the EEC in 1982 without seceding from Denmark. Interestingly, Greenland still is subject to many EU treaties and its citizens are also EU citizens through an association with Brussels as an overseas country and territory, which was stipulated in the 1984 Greenland Treaty. A similar arrangement could be done for Edinburgh and Belfast. Or Westminster cold trigger article 50 but only for England and Wales without jeopardizing the integrity of Great Britain. It would be interesting, then, to see if cities like London, Manchester, and Liverpool decide to remain in the EU as overseas territories.   

Hopefully for the European Union, Brexit is just the culmination of a constitutional and political crisis that started with the failed referendums of 2005. Just like 1962, it will be up to Germany and France to buttress a stronger union. Yet, it will have to be  less technocratic and more democratic, prioritizing social equality and distribution of wealth among regions. For that, it will have to institutionalize first, second, and even third tiers of member countries. Eurozone countries will set up the core, followed by countries that want to join the Euro, and finally countries such as Sweden and Denmark that have, for now, decided not to join the common currency. This will only be successful if Paris is willing to sacrifice its political sovereignty and Berlin chooses to socialize its financial gains and pay for Athens losses.    

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Emmanuel Guerisoli

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