If I were British on Thursday, June 23rd, 2016, I might have voted “leave.”
I, like the small majority of Britons who voted to become a fully sovereign state in a countrywide referendum, may have cast my ballot to “end the supremacy of the EU.”
I may have voted for the British exit—“Brexit.”
No one summed up the pro-Brexit sentiments toward the EU referendum debate than more wonderfully than Daily Telegraph journalist Tim Stanley, a left-leaning, pro-leave referendum voter himself. Upon learning of the Brexit victory, he tweeted:
Just. Wow. People actually chose freedom and risk over the promise of stability. That’s beautiful.
— Tim Stanley (@timothy_stanley) June 24, 2016
He’s right—there is something uniquely inspiring and beautiful about watching a nation regain its independence from an intrusive bureaucracy that has grown increasingly undemocratic over the course of four decades. If there is anyone I would expect to understand this form of idealism, it would be Americans, whom, 240 years later, still take a rather large amount of pride over gaining their hard fought independence from a certain European state (*ahem*).
American sympathy has sparsely presented itself to the celebratory Brexiters, though. Instead of being at least marginally happy that our cousins across the pond just dealt a big blow to the so called “EUrocrats” who have diluted the democratic process in its member nations, many of our political pundits have mocked “Brexiters” by comparing them to the ugliest side of the Trump campaign, and memes have weaved their way into our Twitter timelines calling Brexiters “xenophobic” and imploring that the UK “just played itself.”
I digress. The UK did not play itself, but rather grew tired of being played by master puppeteers in Brussels.
How has the EU gone astray? Let me count the ways. Originally drawn up to be a trade organization intended to grow European unity and economics following World War II, the project has taken root of most aspects governing previously independent states. In the EU’s grips, the UK lost its ability to control trade, limit immigration, and enact laws on its own. Furthermore, as the fourth largest funder of the EU, the UK monetarily pays twice as much into the union as it gets back. Perhaps most horrendously, the heads on the powerful EU Commission are not elected nor held accountable by the people of the 28 EU member states.
At its core, the European Union is an entity that goes against the most basic principles of American Democracy. Yet rooting for Britain to leave the European Union after 43 years of membership is not the “rational” thing to do by the standards of the American public at large.
The American rationale makes sense, though. For the United States, the British exit from the European Union leaves us in a state of great uncertainty on a multitude of issues. For starters, when the tallying of more than 33 million handwritten ballots began reaching its conclusion at 3am in London, the British Pound had sunk in value by eleven percent, reaching its lowest trade value to the United States Dollar since 1985. That’s bad news for American investors with stock placed in the United Kingdom, and thus it comes as no surprise that markets followed the pound’s sharp downward trend. The Friday after Brexiters claimed their narrow victory, stocks on Wall Street traded down 3 percent, and the Dow Jones industrial average had its worst day since August. And this is just the beginning. Britain has not even officially left the EU yet. Conflict may rear its ugly head when trade deals have to be renegotiated between the US, UK, and EU after the completion of the exit. New security threats that may emerge as the US loses our reliable European mouthpiece, our historically close and culturally similar cousin of Britain, in the EU once the exit is finalized.
America is worried about the impact Brexit will have on us, and for good reason.
But I am not talking about how I personally feel as part of the American public. I am talking about what I may have felt and done if I were British on Thursday, June 23rd, 2016, in an EU Referendum voting booth.
Economically and security wise, the British had even more motivation than the US to keep themselves in the EU. The US may have to renegotiate trade deals with one partner, but the UK will have to renegotiate with more than fifteen. The potential plummet of the pound, loss of trade, and drop in GDP could pivot the UK, currently the 9th largest economy in the world, into a full blown recession in the coming years.
And while the US can hopefully build a stronger transatlantic ally in Britain as they re-engage with the commonwealth and outside world, Britain is not only losing friends, but is making enemies with the rest of continental Europe as it abandons its 43 year post as one of the leading investors into the Union. As early as Friday morning, the UK was receiving hostile messages from the EU, including European Commission President Martin Schulz, who threatened “consequences” for Britain so that other countries are not “encouraged to follow their path.”
For 52 percent of United Kingdom citizens, however, concrete issues such as short term monetary and security stability pale in comparison to more conceptual based concerns such as identity, re-democratization, and independence.
There is no absolute right or wrong answer in Britain’s EU referendum debate. There is no good or bad, no stupid or smart. To say that there is would be a gross oversimplification. Rather, Britain was asked to make a value judgement about what mattered most to them: stability or freedom. They chose the latter. Britain was given the choice between realism and idealism, and they elected to be quixotic in their quest to reclaim sovereignty. Britain was asked to choose between a united Europe and a United Kingdom, and they chose themselves, as is the right of an autonomous state.
I might have done the same if I walked into an referendum voting booth on Thursday.
I might have done the same because while fiscal stability and international security are important, freedom and self-governance are invaluable.
I might have done the same because the fear of suffocating under a chokehold of non-elected officials imposing regulation after regulation may outweigh the fear of what happens after you break free.
I might have done the same because stability itself is not stable–it can fall apart at any moment, and no one knows for sure how much longer the European Union project, unlike any before it, can traverse on in subjective success and survival anyway.
Though Britain inevitably has a long road ahead, the empire in which the sun once never set will live to see many more sunrises, and under its own flag rather than that of an increasingly corrupt union. Right now, the US is uncomfortable. It is a rare moment in the postmodern west when the US does not have luxury of being the main arbiter in a decision as globe altering as Brexit. Britain was asked to pass a difficult judgment with solo jurisdiction, and it did. Now, instead of passing our own judgement on that decision, we should honor and stand by our oldest ally, not simplify their decision to a mostly false case of xenophobia. Britain should not, as previously suggested, be sent to ‘the back of the queue’ pending its now imminent EU exit. The EU has been around for less than a century, and, citing new demands for EU referenda across Europe, it is dubious if it will survive until its centennial. But the special relationship between Britain and the US has been around for more than 200 years, and will continue on far past Brexit.
I’m not asking you to be comfortable or in agreement with the British exit—in truth, it’s not possible to be evaluating the Brexit situation in all seriousness without having some degree of worry. It’s a risky gambit with worldwide repercussions. I am, however, imploring that rather than measuring the rationality of the UK’s decision based on our own temporary physical losses, we consider the long term gains envisioned by Brexit voters who, like us, deserve autonomy over their own dominion.
Were it us Americans under the thumb of non-elected, anti-democratic officials, we may have made similar sacrifices. In the US, we feel an innate sense of weakness when something as comparatively arbitrary as superdelegates takes away fractional power from our ability to decide presidential nominees. We cannot fathom the frustration pent up in a people whose elected government is growingly lacking in self-power, much less its own citizens.
Brexit was more than a vote against the EU; Brexit was a vote of confidence in Britain itself. I share in that confidence. Unlike the EU, the British are resilient and the UK will recover from any momentary setbacks. Instead of chiding our good friends for making a resolution to release themselves from the unfair powers that be, we should be content, and not all that surprised, that the very people who pioneered western self-governance have returned to it once again.
— Sydney North is a junior studying journalism and political science