The blogosphere and the media are filled with commentary and reporting about the Brexit vote. There is a lot commentary by economists, political science people, diplomats, and the British. While I don’t have much to add to the remarks of these experts and locals about the immediate effects, I have some thoughts, wearing my amateur-student-of-history hat.
That hat’s brim shades my eyes and allows me to see into the future and the past. It is my view, by the way, that hindsight is not 20/20. Looking into and understanding the past is almost, but not quite, as difficult as seeing the future.
A long view of European history, I think, shows that Europeans have trouble getting along with each other. From the distant past until World War I, dynastic squabbles provided plenty of excuses for soldiers to march about, stabbing, bludgeoning, blowing up and shooting one another and bystanders too. Consider, just to pick one example among many: The War of Spanish Succession, a major international conflict that lasted from 1701 to 1714. The belligerents included, on one side, Spaniards loyal to Charles of Aragon, the Holy Roman Empire including Austria, Prussia, and Hanover, England and Scotland, the Dutch Republic, the Duchy of Savoy, and the Kingdom of Portugal, and on the other side, Spaniards loyal to Philip of Castile, the Kingdom of Naples, the Kingdom of Sicily, France, and Bavaria. I’ll go out on a limb to suggest that few residents in Hanover had any issues with the residents of Naples, or even felt threatened by them. They may not have even had a clear idea where the south of Italy might be. Yet the rulers of these monarchies (except for the Dutch) brought the European continent to war to decide who would rule Spain.
As these dynastic struggles tended to recede, as absolute monarchy gradually passed from the scene and nationalism rose as a powerful European force, wars’ causes and purposes changed to. The vast struggles of the Napoleonic era, fought between immense armies of tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of men, had to do with French nationalism mixed with typical dynastic struggles. I might say that World War I was the last major fight that involved powerful or absolute monarchs: Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor Franz-Joseph, and Mehmed V. The French and British at that time were a republic and a constitutional parliamentary monarchy. That terrible war ended with the destruction of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires, putting an end to the major monarchies and to their dynastic struggles. Various governments, many of them democratic, replaced them as an outcome of the Versailles Treaty and other treaties, but over the next two decades most of them fell into authoritarianism or worse.
Over many centuries, the English tended to rely upon the sea to protect them from invasions. The only contested invasions that I remember are two by the Romans and the Norman invasion of 1066. I’d count the Armada of 1588 as a contested invasion, although the Spanish didn’t set foot on England. The English, however, didn’t refrain from involving themselves in the continent’s struggles. Some of them, such as the 100 Years War, involved direct dynastic claims on the continent. For the most part, England, and after the early 1700s, the United Kingdom, England remained aloof, aligning itself without formal treaties with one side or another continental power so as to bolster the weaker against the stronger to prevent any one nation from dominating Europe and thus posing a danger to England herself. Thus the UK allies with various monarchies fought against Napoleon and the French in immense land and sea battles.
This system worked well for the British into World War II, when they intervened with the French to ostensibly help the Poles when Germany invaded in September 1939. By the summer of 1940, nearly every nation of western and central Europe was in German control, and the British were fighting alone. This was the time of the Battle of Britain, and the Germans were assembling ships and barges to ferry their army across the English Channel. While this heroic fight ended as a British victory, but with tens of thousands of civilian casualties, it led to the great Battle of the Atlantic. The Germans tried, and nearly succeeded to starve the British people and economy over a period of several years of ferocious U-boat warfare.
While the British Army was driven from the continent at Dunkirk, not to return until D-Day in 1944, Churchill and his nation understood the danger posed by the Nazis and Germany. Indeed, this danger was so great that the British allied themselves with Stalin and the Soviet Union, a nation and social system that the British otherwise (rightly) detested.
After WW II, many thinkers wondered how it had happened that an apparently great and civilized people, the Europeans, had descended into genocide and destruction, twice in three decades. Historians today argue as to which nation started or caused World War I, but people of that time, the time of the Treaty of Versailles, blamed the Germans. Everyone believed that German resentment over the settlement of World War I, and other factors such as German racism, led to World War II. What, they wondered, could be done to insure that the Germans never again dragged the entire continent to destruction and catastrophe?
The Versailles Treaty, designed by and imposed by the victors of World War I, that is, the French, the British, the Americans, and the Italians, intended to so weaken the German nation that it could not again invade its neighbors. German lands (as the Germans saw it) was given to the French, the Poles, and others. Parts of Germany were demilitarized. Large reparations payments, in gold, were required. No assistance was proffered to help the German nation recover from the damage of the war. As the fighting had not been on German land, this didn’t involve reconstruction, so much as recovery from the crushing economic burdens of the war, including the blockade, and the terrible losses of young men.
Near the end of World War II, the US Morgenthau Plan, a draft proposal for internal consideration and planning for after the war, leaked. This plan envisioned returning Germany to an agrarian, peasant society. No industry. Cities de-populated. Disarmed. That is, similar to the ideas of the Versailles Treaty only more.
In the event, at the end of the war, the United States encouraged the Europeans to form alliances and to move to a system of sovereignty and governance more or less like the American system of states and a central government. Nationalism, and the unique circumstances of each of the major European nations, however, led them to resist this. The British were especially adamant about not wishing to be entangled with the continental nations. They had in mind a restoration of their colonial empire. Indeed, while Churchill was out of power, it had been a major war aim of his to preserve the British Empire.
In the first decade after the war, as the Iron Curtain descended upon Eastern Europe, minds focused in fear of the Soviet Union and of local Bolsheviks and Communists. As the western nations began their recovery, aided by the Marshall Plan, these nations formed the Atlantic Alliance including the US and Canada, and NATO as a military defense against the massively powerful Soviet Army. Far from smashing the Germans, Marshall plan funds and other aid went to the (western) German people. On the one hand, people feared a powerful German nation that had twice plunged the continent and the world into calamity, but they saw too that an embittered and impoverished Germany was dangerous. It was at this time that far-sighted men, such as the French politician Jean Monet, proposed and put into place the European Coal and Steel Community. France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, but not the United Kingdom, joined to begin an economic and commercial union for mutual benefit. While the agreement, and many future ones, may not have explicitly said so, one goal was to so bind the German people into peaceful economic and social ties that war would be unthinkable.
The European Coal and Steel Community expanded in its compass and in its members becoming today’s European Union, which now includes many nations from the former Soviet Union’s empire, and even some former Soviet Socialist Republics. The Eurozone, those nations that use the Euro as their currency, is a subset of the greater European Union.
The British eventually joined these efforts. They had lost their empire and colonies. Yet they were still suspicious of formal entanglements with the continental nations. But join they did. The British Conservatives tended to resist co-operation with the continent. Generally, there have been many economic and social benefits for all, although the design of the Euro currency has proven flawed and is causing great damage. The subject of another blog, wearing my amateur economist hat. While the overt reasons for the British to join were economic, and the Conservatives asserted that the loss of British sovereignty was intolerable, the underlying reason, in my opinion, for the British to join was to participate in the effort to tangle the Germans in peaceful exchange. The Conservatives had in mind the traditional protection afforded by the English Channel, and the traditional policies of shifting about to maintain balance.
But, as far as I can tell, after 40 years of membership in the European Union, even the Conservative Party, as a whole, had accepted that the European Union was a benefit to the United Kingdom, to Europe, and the world, for the various overt and for the not often spoken reason I’ve mentioned. Thus, when Prime Minister Cameron called for an unnecessary referendum he was, as British football fans would say, shooting an own goal. I think that’s how they’d say it. A particular mistake was to ask this question when he couldn’t be sure of the outcome of the vote. Thus we have the remarkable circumstance of both important political parties calling for a vote to remain, and losing the vote.
We can see that for most Europeans, if not the British, the idea of European identity is very important. Thus we have the Greek people voting to remain in the Eurozone when doing so will require great difficulties for them. The pros and cons of the Eurozone in so far as what the Greeks should have done will have to await another blog. But leaving the Euro is not at all the same as leaving the European Union, and I fear that other nations may now seek to do so.
It will be very bad for everyone, if the European Union comes apart. (But they have to get their economic act together. Their mismanagement of the Eurozone is causing great difficulties.)