LONDON – To understand the Brexit situation, the beginning of wisdom is to look closely at what is happening in the rest of Europe.
One will see exactly the same forces at work — rejection of too much centralism, yearning for greater local control — that have driven the British to pull out of the European Union.
In almost every state political pressures are welling up, some of them openly populist, challenging the established political class and questioning its values and its legitimacy — and of course questioning even more strongly the higher “authority” of rule by a supranational European hierarchy bent on submerging national identities in an integrated totality.
This is this spirit of the digital age. Across continental Europe it is currently most visible in the openly hostile anti-Brussels attitude in the Eastern and Central European nations, notably the so-called Visigrad Four of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
All of these are brave peoples who have fought in the last century for their independence against bitter suppression. Of course they are glad to be free and European, but they do not want to see past domination from the East exchanged for any kind of bullying from Brussels and the West, especially when it comes to matters such as migration rules. All of them want their national parliaments to retain more, not less, home sovereignty, as did the United Kingdom.
Thus Hungary is in outright revolt against EU proposals for migrant and refugee quotas, arguing that the sheer volume of migrant pressure, on a scale never before envisaged, demands much tougher rules about admission than in the past. Voices have been raised calling for its expulsion from the EU.
Poland is questioning central EU rules on energy transition and calling for treaty change, and, of course, Greece remains more hostile than ever to the centralist authority imposed on the Greek people by the European Central Bank. Much the same goes for the other Mediterranean countries in a euro-currency system that requires a degree of surrender of political sovereignty, which these countries are simply not prepared to make. Governments that have tried to stick to the hard-line recipe imposed from above have been rapidly undermined by populist revolt.
The commitment of France to the cause of European integration looks shaky with the rising challenge of Marine Le Pen ,whose policy is to leave the union, while Nicholas Sarkozy, former president of France and now again candidate for the job, has called for a drastic reduction in the powers of the European Commission. Even in Germany Angel Merkel is by no means safe from these turbulent and rebellious forces.
In all these countries the mood has switched from more Europe, the old cry of the European political class, to Less Europe — so much so that the president of the European Commission himself, Jean-Claude Juncker, a committed Europe-builder if ever there was one, has spoken of “an existential threat” to the future of the EU.
Nor are these profound societal upheavals, and their geopolitical consequences, confined to Europe. The attack on established authority, trending into anarchy, has become the new platform on which every ambitious new political leader wants to climb — Donald Trump in the United States being a classic example.
Conventional policy thinkers find it difficult to grasp what is happening. A good example of this is the absolute failure of many Western diplomats, including the U.K. Foreign Office, to recognize the real source of Middle East developments. With tyrants being challenged or overthrown — in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia and elsewhere — the assumption was that democracy would spread its wings and liberty triumph — in short that the world was witnessing democratic revolutions similar to those which threw off the old Soviet yoke in Europe in the last century. Careful intervention by outside powers would help this benign process along.
But the outcome in every case was something far more complex. Instead what has emerged in the Middle East region is not rule by the people, but the surging and destructive power of new networks, tribal, religious, doctrinal or straight criminal — a new kind of political energy growing like an organic whole — disorganized and unpredictable. Libya, where the Western powers intervened to ensure the downfall of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, is a clear example of this confused result.
The world’s leaders can now see what their advisers clearly did not see before — that empowered and connected networks devour ordered hierarchies, crunching them between two new forces and sources of power.
This creates a kind of global schizophrenia — a tension in every community, and even inside individuals (3.5 billion of them now being daily on the internet and the web) between their local and personal identity, and sovereignty and the desire for a central frame and shaping force.
You can hear a tearing sound as old hierarchical institutions and their leaderships are ripped apart. Old political parties start smelling of decay as the struggle to assert conventional top-down authority and “party lines” is overcome and rejected.
Middle East leaders like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, or Bashar Assad in Syria, or Gadhafi in Libya, never foresaw or understood this new power, or what was about to hit them. Conventional means and structures of authority were about to be smashed. They were living on a fault line of San Andreas size and depth.
The question now is whether Europe’s leaders are better prepared. If not, then Brexit will turn out to be just one more phase in a fundamental re-ordering of international relations and government mandates.
David Howell is a British Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.
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