Brexit and the Fundamental Trilemma of the European Union

The explanations are coming thick and fast. Writing in the New York Times, Tony Blair blamed Brexit on hostility to globalization. There can be little doubt that the dire straits of provincial England can be blamed on finance-led neoliberal globalization. The addition of Asian labor pools to the effective global labor market has suppressed wages in rich countries, but it does not follow that Brexiters were motivated by hostility to globalization.  Globalization cannot be blamed for either the bankers getting away with murder or the counterproductive self-imposed austerity. Globalization also did not discredit the elites. It was the financial crisis that delegitimized the City as thoroughly as the Iraq debacle delegitimized Tony Blair’s leadership. And the seemingly neverending stagnation since the recession—exacerbated by neoliberal austerity—undermined whatever prestige and authority still accrued to policy elites. As Michael Gove quipped, “people in this country have had enough of experts.”

In poll after poll, Brexiters instead cited immigration as their principal concern. England is, of course, famous for its hostility to its South Asian immigrants.[1] What is novel is the hostility to immigrants from Eastern Europe; mainly Poland and Romania; whence the decision to leave the European Union. Migration from the accession countries started in earnest in 2003, and then really took off in 2013. In 2014, half of all migrants into the UK came from countries that joined the EU after 2003. These healthy, young migrants were quite obviously net contributors to the UK economy and welfare system. But facts don’t vote; people do. And the English people beg to disagree with the facts.

Provincial England is quite possibly the most xenophobic region in Western Europe. Any lingering doubts about this matter have now been put to rest. For what the distribution of the vote in the British plebiscite revealed first and foremost is the chasm between cosmopolitan and provincial England. That Scotland and Northern Ireland would vote Remain was never in doubt. In England, the only region to vote Remain was London. Beyond London, outward-looking counties voted overwhelmingly to stay (e.g., Oxford and Cambridge), while the rest of England voted to go. A second important cleavage was between the young and the old. Actuarially speaking, those who have to live with the consequences the longest got screwed over by those with one foot in the grave.


In the aftermath of the Second World War, the impetus for the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) came from a confluence of interests in key Western European states. Back then, coal accounted for 90 percent of Western Europe’s primary energy consumption and steel was the backbone of industry. France imported most of its coal from Germany but was wary of a bilateral commitment with a state that had attacked it thrice in living memory. The Germans were desperate for economic and political rehabilitation—which meant forging close ties with the French. The Dutch on their part needed the German market to recover.

At first, the French sought British participation to balance the weight of Germany, but Britain was not interested. However, as the Cold War started in earnest and it became clear that the Americans were not going to retreat from Europe, British security guarantees and participation in the trade agreement became unnecessary. A Continental solution thus emerged with six founding states (West Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg) coming together to form the ECSC in 1951. British engagement with the community was thus, from the get go, conditional and uncertain.

And when in 1963 Britain applied to join the EEC, de Gaulle vetoed it as part of his general resistance to Anglo-American hegemony. But when the great postwar Western European economic miracle ran out of steam ten years later, and with de Gaulle out of the way, France dropped its opposition to Britain’s entry into the community. Despite the onset of the stagflation crisis, the decision to include Britain, Denmark, Norway and Ireland in 1973 made sense. They were Western European states at roughly the same level of economic development as the member states. The enlargement to the Mediterranean countries (Greece, Spain and Portugal) during the 1980s may have been ill-advised—and indeed, Mitterrand thought they weren’t ready—but they could be digested without much pain given their minor weight in the union.

By the end of the Cold War then, almost all of Western Europe had been absorbed into the union. With the sudden capitulation of the Soviet Union, the post-Communist states of Eastern Europe demanded inclusion, while the United States sought to expand Nato and the EU almost all the way to the border of their former superpower adversary. Faced with these external pressures and blinded by post-Cold War triumphalism, Western European elites failed to see the fundamental trilemma of the European Union: You could have at most two of democracy, enlargement, and ever-closer union.

More precisely, national sovereignty over membership, inclusion of Eastern European countries, and unrestricted migration between members of the union were fundamentally incompatible. What Tony Judt called the ‘grand illusion’ was the idea that you could have all three simultaneously. He predicted that labor market disruption due to unrestricted migration from the East would sooner or later prompt an exit by the most xenophobic rich member of the union. This is indeed what has obtained.

The Brexit debacle is far from being the only Western crisis that owes its origins to the hubris of the early post-Cold War era. The humiliation in Ukraine, the Never-Ending Greek Debt-Slavery Saga, and now Brexit, all stem from hubristic decisions taken at the peak of Western triumphalism in the 1990s. Perhaps it is time for Western elites to take some responsibility for what they have wrought.


[1] Here’s a sample racist English joke.

Q. What do you do if you have a gun with two bullets, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and a Paki in a room?

Ans: Shoot the Paki twice. Make sure he is dead.


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