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The EU is bad. Brexit is bad. Both things can be true.

September 6, 2019
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1. Brexit

If you have time to cast an eye across the Atlantic, Boris Johnson’s implosion as prime minister is something to behold.

The short version: Johnson took office and immediately declared that there would be a Brexit by Halloween, whether or not England could work out an agreement on how to unwind the arrangement.

In order to force this threat through a hostile Parliament, Johnson petitioned the queen to essentially shut Parliament down so that he could bypass legislative procedure and accomplish Brexit on something like unilateral executive authority. (I’m abstracting all of this a bit, obviously.)

In response to this executive power grab, a group of conservative MPs revolted. They were thrown out of the party. And suddenly Johnson’s majority is a minority. His own brother—a member of parliament—so opposes his actions that he’s stepped down from the government.

There are some lessons here.

My old friend Chris Caldwell has a long piece about Johnson and Brexit in the Claremont Review of Books in which he suggests that by insisting that there would be a hard Brexit if there can’t be a soft one, he had “burned his ships.”

The problem is that the act of burning your ships does not automatically assure victory and doing so doesn’t make you Cortes.

Just as a for instance, you could say that by attacking the Soviet Union in 1941, Germany burned its ships.

Leaving yourself no Plan B only looks like strategic brilliance when things work out for you. When they don’t, it looks like foolishness.

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2. Two Wrongs

I haven’t talked with Caldwell about Brexit in a while. His current thinking seems to be that the entire concept of national sovereignty is at stake and that if England does not get a hard Brexit, then it means that “the elites” have substituted their will for the will of the governed, essentially permanently.

There’s something to that.

It is difficult to look at the E.U. project seriously and not to see it as an elite attempt to create a supra-national structure with only limited accountability to those it governs.

There may be—there certainly are—a great many benefits to the existence of the European Union. But at the most basic level, it does place the levers of governing one (or more) step further away from the governed than they are even in a representative democracy.

Maybe this is a good thing. (Have you met “the people”?)

But my own view is that, on net, it was probably not a good thing. And what’s more, the manner in which the E.U. was accomplished, as Caldwell details in his piece, was at best injudicious and at worst underhanded.

In other words, I’m basically pro-Brexit.

But the manner in which Brexit was accomplished was basically insane. They took a two-generation long project, which had built up its own logic and constituencies and facts on the ground, and put it up to a one-time vote.

Imagine if we decided to settle, say, abortion with one-time referendum in the United States.

Actually, that’s not quite big enough. Imagine if we decided to the entirety of the welfare state—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, all public assistance—with a one-time vote.

Or: Imagine if, in 1970, Nixon had put the Cold War up for a referendum. If “War” wins then we keep opposing communism, forever. If “Peace” wins then America pulls out of NATO and Europe and Asia and accedes to whatever  the USSR wants. Hope we get good turnout!

As I said: Insanity.

The bigger the question is, and the more irreversible the decision, the more important it is to make the choice over as long a time horizon as possible.

Unwinding a thing like membership in the European Union should never be done with a one-time popular referendum is basically the worst idea in the world—even if unwinding membership in the European Union is a good idea.

In a rational system, getting out of the E.U. would take almost as long as getting in. It would require building coalitions of support and passing through step-down gates. This lowers the stakes on any single decision and gives everyone time to accumulate new information and make adjustments on discrete parts of the whole.

It is entirely possible that Britain’s membership in the E.U. is a net-loss for Britons and a diminishment of popular sovereignty AND that the Brexit referendum was a cure as bad as the disease.

Or possibly worse.

At least before Brexit, there was one side that claimed to care about process and institutional precedents and the sovereignty of Britain’s duly-elected representatives.

After the last week, that’s obviously no longer true.