LONDON — You’ve got to admire the Brits for one thing. They sure are proud of their ancient heritage as citizens of a “tight little island” that has always stood aloof from Europe. Historically, they’ve fought against the Romans (Hadrian’s Wall), the Normans (1066 and all that), Spanish (Sir Francis Drake vs. the Armada), French (Waterloo, Lord Nelson vs. Napoleon) and, oh yes, in the 20th century’s two awful wars against Germany.
The Brits stand apart from Europe to this day. Most of the other nations in the European Union deal in euros — no more French francs, German deutschmarks or Italian lire. Germans years ago assured me the Brits would soon be giving up their beloved currency, the pound sterling, including its mysterious pounds, shillings, pence, yes, jolly, jolly tuppence. Forget it. The Brits remain very much on sterling though they’ve ditched some of the coinage.
Good thing too, as it now appears virtually certain the Brits will soon be pulling out of the European Union. Brexit, Britain’s exit, is due to happen thanks to a national referendum called three years ago by David Cameron, then the prime minister. He wanted voters to decide once and for all what they thought of the EU, made up of foreigners of whom the Brits are congenitally suspicious. Cameron thought the referendum would be soundly defeated and Britain would “remain,” as they say in the headlines.
Too bad, Cameron was wrong. Middle- and working-class Brits from a countryside largely unknown to Britain’s snooty upper classes and educated elite shouted the hell with all those foreigners telling us what to do. In other words, by a rather slender majority, the Brits voted, “leave,” not “remain.”
The implications are so hard to contemplate that all we can say is trouble looms. For one thing, Scotland, a quasi-independent entity absorbed into the United Kingdom in obscure wars among royals centuries ago, would prefer to “remain.” Brexit will only encourage pressure in Scotland for their own version of “exit,” that is, exodus from the United Kingdom.
And then there’s the Irish Republic, which Britain once ruled ruthlessly. Ireland, predominantly Catholic, is not about to pull out of the EU. “Northern Ireland,” mostly Protestant, still part of the United Kingdom, will have to enforce tariffs on imports from Ireland. One anticipates revival of bloody strife between Irish Catholics and Protestants that only subsided a few years ago while vestiges of the Irish Republican Army still dream of Northern Ireland’s secession from Britain and reunification with the Republic.
The root complexes make the debate so compelling, so important. Conservatives are deeply split. The previous prime minister, Theresa May, basically against Brexit, was forced to step down after the failure to work out terms of separation from the EU. Her successor, the colorful politico Boris Johnson, has come out for Brexit, but no one’s quite certain what he’ll do or where he’ll stand now that he’s taken over at 10 Downing Street.
The root complexes make the debate so compelling, so important. Conservatives are deeply split. The current British prime minister, Theresa May, basically against Brexit, is stepping down after failure to work out terms of separation from the EU. She’s almost certain to be succeeded by a colorful politico named Boris Johnson, former foreign secretary, former mayor of London and a controversial figure ever since serving as a news correspondent in Brussels, headquarters of the EU, from which he wrote dispatches making fun of what he saw. He’s come out for Brexit, but no one’s quite certain what he’ll do or where he’ll stand after taking over at 10 Downing Street.
Foreigners may feel far removed from Brexit, but they should empathize with the British dilemma. For natives of other lands, one way to understand Brexit is to think of their own struggles. In much of Asia, memories of Japanese conquest and colonization, of Japan’s pre-war dream of a co-prosperity sphere are still fresh. Now Chinese hegemony poses a threat from Northeast Asia to the South China Sea and on to the Indian subcontinent.
South Koreans are mindful of their own struggle as an independent entity that’s made its mark commercially and diplomatically since the Korean War. Koreans also envision, someday, a unified Korea, no longer divided between North and South, able to withstand countries and societies that have besieged the Korean peninsula over the ages.
One way for Koreans to understand Brexit is to consider the danger of China dominating the Korean peninsula as in the days of the Chosun dynasty when Korean kings paid homage to the rulers in Beijing. You do not have to ask Koreans what they think of a “Northeast Asia” union in which they would have to give up their own currency.
A mythical joining of disputatious entities is not going to happen. Koreans, like Brits, value their independence too much while harboring unpleasant memories of the harsh indignities of Japanese rule, of the Korean War and then of the years of confrontation with North Korea, a cruel dictatorship that owes its survival to Big Brother China.
And let us not forget the Japanese also are tenaciously proud of their power as the world’s third-largest economy, a trading and manufacturing giant that grew from defeat in World War II. More so than Korea, Japan would resist absorption into a larger grouping bearing any resemblance to the European Union.
It’s not hard to understand the British desire to remain aloof and separate from Europe. It’s easy, however, for the Brits in their zeal for Brexit to forget that the EU is a voluntary democratic bloc with an elected parliament.
The post-Brexit future is hard to predict. The Germans have already achieved much if not most of Hitler’s dream for his Germania. Like the Chinese in Asia, the Germans strive for the power and ability to lead Europe as banker, commercial giant and manufacturer.
Despite pessimistic forecasts, it’s still possible, in the end, that Britain will gain strength as a fiercely independent nation, alone and separate from the strife and turmoil of conniving continental European rivals. Without Britain as a leading member, however, much of the democratic spirit that infuses the EU may be lost.