Which Europe Now?

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, House of Lords shadow leader Angela Evans Smith, Prime Minister David Cameron, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at a memorial service for Labour MP Jo Cox, St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, London, June 2016
James Veysey/Camera Press/Redux
UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, House of Lords shadow leader Angela Evans Smith, Prime Minister David Cameron, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at a memorial service for Labour MP Jo Cox, St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, London, June 2016

Political drama on television is finished. No fictional version could match the vicious infighting in both main political parties in Britain that followed the vote on June 23 by the British people to leave the European Union.

What the vote revealed—and the winning margin was larger than in three of the past four US presidential elections—is a growing and dangerous divide between the political class, often a metropolitan elite, and a large number of people who feel left out of the economic prosperity centered on London and disenfranchised by “political correctness.” Among the latter, insecurity has been growing for years, the result in part of the impact of globalization on real wages and of high levels of immigration.1 It is a problem afflicting many industrialized countries.

Yet the political class, still in a state of shock and disbelief, shows few signs of recognizing the cause of its undoing. The campaign was not a reasoned discussion of the case for the two options but a propaganda war, the likes of which I cannot recall before in Britain, with both sides calling each other, and with some justification, liars.2 And both sides continue to believe passionately that the other was the worse sinner.

Nor was the press any better. Even those newspapers that like to think of themselves as more authoritative and informed than their tabloid cousins allowed their editorial positions to infect their reporting of the campaign. No doubt their own commercial interests played a part.

It was and is simply false to claim that exit from the EU will result in Britain becoming either a land of milk and honey, on the one hand, or a land of plagues and locusts on the other. In truth, the economic arguments are much more evenly balanced. My own guess—and it can be little more than that—is that the effect of EU membership on the level and growth rate of national income in the long run will be much less than either camp would like to claim. But we cannot know today.

Two questions that should have been at the forefront were largely absent from the campaign. First, what will the EU look like in the future? Second, what is the place of Britain in Europe? It is helpful to distinguish three distinct entities: Europe, the EU, and the eurozone.

No referendum can alter…


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