Realism on Brexit

I don’t know whether I can add much to the discussion of the historic “Brexit” vote through which the British public opted to leave the European Union. I am most troubled not by the vote itself but by the discourse among my mostly liberal well-educated peers about how this disgraceful action was undertaken by xenophobic and short-sighted voters; perhaps most tone deaf was a Facebook post I saw bemoaning the lost opportunity for British young people to freely work and travel and study and marry abroad as a result of this vote. News flash: the children of the middle and upper classes will always be able to find a way to spend a semester in Florence. Somehow I doubt that the majority of the voting British public saw the issue this way.

Although I do follow British news media—partly for work and partly out of personal interest—and have spent time in the UK in the past couple of years conducting research and visiting family, I’m not qualified to judge whether British society is experiencing an upsurge in racism and anti-foreign sentiment or whether this vote was tied to more concrete economic concerns. I do worry that the commentary about the vote dismisses those who voted to leave the EU in the same way that much of the liberal media in the US dismisses presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as a racism-stoking buffoon. I think Trump is tapping into a deep vein of anger and frustration with a globalized economy that has left many Americans behind. (This is not to dismiss the very real problems of racism and sexism in the United States that Trump highlights. Undoubtedly some of Trump’s supporters are drawn to him precisely because of the offensive attitudes he spouts.) But assuming all of Trump’s supporters are narrow-minded racists is very dangerous for the left and for the Democratic party. The Democrats used to be the party of populism, but now they seem to be struggling to identify the grievances of working Americans, let alone respond to them.

The Brexit vote does strike me as an interesting case for theorists of international relations. As someone who adheres mostly to a defensive realist perspective on international politics, I have always been a bit skeptical of the EU. The nature of the organization is to ask states to surrender control over their national policies in exchange for access to a single currency and economic market. In this sense, the EU is a peculiarly anti-democratic organization—particularly for one that lists democracy among the preconditions for membership. (Think of how Greece was punished when its citizens voted—yes, voted, that most democratic of activities—to reject continued austerity measures in the summer of 2015.) Can we imagine if NAFTA had contained a provision that surrendered our national monetary policy to some unelected body also responsible for Canada and Mexico? The idea would be laughable in the American context, yet somehow we are surprised that the UK would opt to retake control over its own immigration and trade policies by voting to leave the EU.  We will see whether this is the first in a series of falling dominoes to exit the union.