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»Brexit« was a step towards liberty


In Swedish media, the British referendum on the EU-membership has mostly been portrayed as an act of populism and protectionism, conducted by an ill-informed public. It is of course much more complicated than that. Some even claim that leaving the union in fact was »the liberal thing to do«. Anthony Bruder is one of them.

The decision of the British electorate to leave the European Union was not a mistake. It was perhaps quite a lucky result however, when we consider that many voters on both sides of the referendum were almost certainly mistaken in their understanding of the issues at hand: what the EU is, what it signifies, and what leaving it would mean. Yet out of the maelstrom of misinformation, fearmongering and blackmail created when two opposing campaigns met to sway the heart and mind of a nation, a firm voice made itself heard above the roaring.

The ‘Leave’ vote exhibits none of the rashness of a landslide, none of the fervour of a choice driven by emotion and the fever of wild dreams. Indeed, its four per cent margin suggests not the expression of a choice, but the realisation of the profound absence of choice. To peddle the now hackneyed ‘failed marriage’ analogy a little further, the decision to leave one’s partner is not the product of a cost/benefit analysis; it is the expression of a deep-seated truth that has finally surfaced from the depths of the heart to the forefront of the mind. We are often torn between what is right and what is easy, and when we find that we must take the good with the bad, it is never with enthusiasm that we do so. But when it becomes undeniably clear that the good will outweigh the bad it is this realisation which gives us the necessary push, the courage even, to do what we must.

The European Project has gone awry. It cannot at this late stage be controversial to state that the reign of the Lisbon Treaty has been characterised above all by crises: that of the Eurozone economies, the migrant crisis, and of the security risks born of the free movement of peoples across the Schengen Zone. A rushed eastward expansion, driven more by a desire for political points than anything else, has compounded the effects of these crises, each ascension adding to rather than mitigating the pressures placed on Brussels, while further increasing tensions between existing member-blocs. One might of course ascribe such failures in the face of crises to a lack of cooperation, indeed to the very spirit which has led Britain to secede from the Union. In this light, ‘Brexit’ has been seen as a mighty, if not mortal, blow to the valiant but struggling efforts of the EU. Nothing however could be further from the truth.

The EU has not simply failed to manage exogenous crises. Rather, as a direct result of its push towards centralisation, it has created them. The currency union for example might have succeeded had it been confined to the similar and well-integrated economies of the north-west. Instead, its reckless expansion to include the debt-ridden and underdeveloped economies of the European south and east overburdened a system which at best would have required decades of incremental integration before expanding. This has caused terrible hardships for countries such as Spain and Greece.

As for the ‘migrant crisis’, the existence of millions of refugees from our war-torn neighbours across the Mediterranean is certainly not per se the fault of mismanagement at the Union level. But the disastrous handling of the influx of refugees is most assuredly in no small degree to be blamed on various short-sighted centralising measures from Brussels. The imprudent abolition of internal borders to create ‘Schengenland’ left the Union for the most part with a single external border, which falls along the national borders of some of the Union’s most ill-equipped member states; Greece, Spain, and Italy.

The reasoning behind Schengenland was that the removal of customs duties between member states as well as other cumbersome border controls would greatly improve economic efficiency and therefore prosperity within the Union.

One cannot deny that the free movement of peoples and goods has greatly improved intra-European trade and labour mobility, as well as tourism and educational opportunities, such as those offered by the Erasmus programme. Yet how long did Brussels think this Utopia would be sustainable? The trouble with ‘ever closer union’ is not any inherent utopian and therefore unrealistic element; it is that, as practised by Brussels, it is simply a legal veneer, a thin layer of legislation rolled out wholesale across a superficially similar but profoundly diverse geographic region. The European Union never gave itself the time to put down the deep roots required for any of its great ambitions. The history of the European Economic Communities, stretching back to 1952, was a good start; but the gear change from the early nineties, and the 2006/7 introduction of the Lisbon Treaty, took Europe into uncharted territory at breakneck speed.

Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944), a political and economic tract on the dangers of centralisation, in many ways presages not only the development of the European Communities and Union, but also the fundamental reasons for its near-inevitable failure. Federation, Hayek claims, remains our best hope for peaceful and prosperous co-existence. It is in essence the application of democracy to international affairs, which is the only method of peaceful change humanity has managed to come up with. Throughout his work however, Hayek never ceases to stress the importance of the gradual nature of beneficial integration. He is not interested in scoring political points, but in meaningful change:

Wisely used, the federal principle of organisation may indeed prove the best solution to some of the world’s most difficult problems. But its application is a task of extreme difficulty and we are not likely to succeed if in an over-ambitious attempt we strain it beyond its capacity.

And what is the cost of failure? It is a mark of the seriousness of the risk that Hayek does not mince his words; the cost of failure is at best stagnation and at worst totalitarianism. The Road to Serfdom demonstrates that this is the inevitable outcome of any project of centralisation and collectivisation. The transfer of powers that we have not yet learned to use intelligently at the national level to an international body can only be a recipe for disaster. A successful federation must reverse centralisation. To many in Britain, this is precisely what the EU has not done. Many of us are angry enough at the contempt with which those in Whitehall seem to hold that part of the UK not confined to the City of London. The reality therefore of yet another government, this one a behemoth of impenetrable bureaucracy, even less democratically accountable, and presiding in another country altogether over the fate of the continent at large, is understandably one too hostile to the simple tenets of individual liberty to countenance. The reason for voting to leave was never the flawed result of a complex cost/benefit analysis; it was a conscientious reaction against unfair dealing and an increasing disregard of the individual. Some final prophetic words of wisdom from Hayek shall perhaps serve as a thought-provoking conclusion. We have, it would appear:

‘reached a stage where it is more important to clear away the obstacles with which human folly has encumbered our path and to release the creative energy of individuals than to devise further machinery for »guiding« and »directing« them… If we are to build a better world, we must have the courage to make a new start.’

The founding goal which over sixty years ago gave birth to the European Project, peace and prosperity in Europe, is a worthy and crucial one. But the institutional approach, favouring centralisation and legislation, is not the way to get there. Britain is now free to try a new road.

Anthony Bruder studied Modern and Medieval Languages at King’s College, Cambridge, philosophy at the Sorbonne, and International Relations at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna.