WASHINGTON – If you are reading this column, the world still exists.
This should come as a relief to anyone who has been reading the commentary about the United Kingdom’s allegedly terrifying and catastrophic vote to leave the European Union. The vote could lead, some forecasters say, to a global recession (one that, knowing today’s press, will inevitably be called a “Brecession”).
“We could yet see European countries doing what they have done for centuries — physically attack one another,” worries one thinker consulted by Politico about the fallout. Political scientist Ian Bremmer called Brexit “the most significant political risk the world has experienced since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Supporters of Brexit labeled the campaign against it “Project Fear,” an attempt to fill British voters with mindless terror about the risks of leaving the EU rather than to appeal to their reason. It did not work on a majority of voters. But it seems to have gotten some supporters of the EU to the threshold of a bomb shelter.
The assertions that Brexit will cause a geopolitical catastrophe rely on a dubious reading of history that has managed to become an article of faith in pro-EU circles. An article in Slate after the vote recited the catechism: “It’s hard to argue with the fact that after a half-century of carnage that dwarfs today’s Middle East conflicts, not to mention the centuries of war that preceded it, Western Europe has been at peace for 70 years.” It’s not at all hard to argue that NATO brought peace, or that the EU grew out of that peace, rather than vice versa.
For much of those 70 years the U.K. was not part of the EU, and for most of them the EU did not have its present form or even name. It is not clear that its exit will unravel the EU, let alone that this unraveling would set France and Germany to fighting over Alsace-Lorraine.
The U.K.’s departure from the EU need not lead to a burst of protectionism, either. Britain has not turned against trade. A majority of Britons polled this month favored free trade with the EU even after a breakup. Many of the leading Brexiteers are free traders themselves. Some of them go so far as to argue that Britain should pursue free trade unilaterally.
The “remain” camp insisted that other countries would not conclude trade deals with Britain if it went its own way. The EU would wish to make its exit painful so as to keep other members from leaving. U.S. President Barack Obama said Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for trade agreements.
But change is likely to be at the margins because free trade is in the interest of Britain’s trading partners, too. That’s why trade agreements get made. To shut Britain out of markets in a serious way would require other countries to act in a self-destructive manner. If they do, it will be their own fault and not that of British voters.
Some economists have expressed the reasonable concern that Brexit could set off a panic that raises global demand for dollars and thereby unduly tightens monetary policy in much of the world. Like a protectionist surge, however, this disaster is not inevitable and instead depends on future decisions. The U.S. Federal Reserve can help avert this scenario by calling a halt to interest-rate increases and otherwise signaling its readiness to accommodate higher dollar demand. It might help, too, if foes of Brexit turned down the hysteria a notch.
Remainers said that the geopolitical and economic risks were not worth taking because Brexit had no practical benefits. But this is to ignore what at least one pollster found was the chief motive for “leave” voters, both Tory and Labour: “the principle that decisions about the U.K. should be taken in the U.K.” It’s easy to dismiss this concern as xenophobia — too easy, for Americans who would never dream of handing any supranational organization significant power over public policy affecting them.
But it can also be read as a desire to protect democracy, which is intertwined with national sovereignty. The EU has a democracy deficit because there is no European public to which it can be accountable.
As if to prove that the EU is at its heart undemocratic, some remainers are now urging Parliament to ignore the result of the referendum. These fans of the EU are living in a fantasy world rather than making practical decisions; angrily rejecting people for whom they have little understanding and less sympathy; throwing a tantrum. They are, in short, the mirror image of the caricature they have created for what Brexiteers are like.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review, where he covers national politics, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.