The exit of Great Britain from the European Union (EU)—commonly called, “Brexit”—has proven controversial among the internationalist establishment because its inherent nationalism goes against the historical trend and establishment project of reducing nationalism and strengthening supra-national integration. The benefits of integration however have proven limited over time, while the costs of integration have become more apparent. The internationalist—that is, globalist—establishment has made integration and supra-nationalism a priority for laudable reasons. Europe has been beset by war for centuries, with those between the Germans and the French among the worst with the Franco-German war of 1870, World War I, and World War II being only the most recent. An initial agreement between Germany and France concerning coal and steel after World War II helped to establish economic ties between the two traditional belligerents, which heped mitigate the chances for another war. From this simple economic foundation, the range of supra-national issues and responsibilities continued to expand until the modern EU was formed.
Another reason behind European integration was to create the economic scale necessary to compete in international trade with the United States, Japan, China, and newly formed trading blocks like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). To expand Europe’s economic scale, its sovereign states, starting with Germany and France but eventually including Great Britain and others, gave up some of their sovereignty in the form of currency, foreign policy, and border control to the EU establishment in Brussels. In addition to benefits of reducing the chances of war and increasing economic competitiveness, EU-driven integration included a range of costs that impacted the political establishment far less than the citizens of the nations such integration was intended to benefit.
These costs eventually increased to the point and became so onerous that British citizens put forward a referendum to leave the EU. Historian Niall Ferguson, “one of the outstanding public intellectuals of our time,” being a member of the British political establishment, predictably supported its supra-national integration project and came out publically against Brexit. Specifically, Ferguson argued that the costs of leavingthe EU would far outweigh any potential benefits. He summarized his views in characteristically quotable fashion describing Brexit as, “the ultimate divorce,” and Brexit supporters as “Anglo-loonies.” Despite Ferguson’s warning, the British public voted against the EU and for Brexit. Determing the consequences of this vote and determining how the British establishment will execute it, if at all, has not yet been determined.
Somewhat less predictably, after the referendum passed Ferguson has retracted his previous criticism of Brexit and now supports it. When this reversal was noted by a fellow at an event at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Ferguson responded that admitting he was wrong was liberating and his commenter should try it some time. He said his previous support was given half-heartedly primarily because he supported the establishment’s David Cameron and looked at the issue from a purely British perspective. However he concluded that upon further reflection, the EU “deserved” Brexit because of its persistent mismanagement of the region’s common currency, the Euro, its poor foreign policy, its unsecured borders, and its continued problems dealing with Islamic extremism. Perhaps most concerning to the British public were problems associated with uncontrolled immigration, as symbolized by the anarchic migrant camp in Calais at the head of the Channel Tunnel. Ferguson said that rather than listening to establishment opinion, he should have listened to British citizens in pubs.
In reviewing Ferguson’s reasoning, he is true to his rigorously historical training by being strong on the facts but somewhat weaker on the theory. Modern international political economy reveals two analytic lenses worthy of review: the analytic tensions between (1) international and domestic explanation, and between (2) institutional and social explanations. Establishment analysis tends to focus on international explanations and the institutions necessary to implement integration and support supra-nationalism. One only needs to review the research done at Harvard’s Center for European Studies (CES) or published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) to see the preponderance of the international, institutional—i.e., globalist—perspective. The benefits of integration are received early and are well understood, driven as they are by standard comparative advantage dynamics—that is, each region doing what it does best with reduced barriers to resource, investment, information, and population flows.
However, the costs of integration become apparent more slowly and impact domestic populations more than the globalist establishment, like CES or WEF, whose members’ professional careers depend on continued integration and funding of the institutions that promote and maintain it, like the EU. Continuing the Calais example, the mass immigration that created this unsafe and unsustainable migrant camp is more likely to impact non-establishment Britons in Birmingham, Rotherham, or London rather than the scholars and policy specialists in Harvard and Davos. These impacts specifically take the form of higher crime rates, lower wages, and competition for housing, all of which lend themselves to empirical analysis should there be sufficient interest on the part of researchers to perform the studies. Such globalist incentives help to explain the lack of a domestic and social perspective that reveal these more long-term and under-analyzed costs that motivates Brexit and Ferguson’s revised opinion.
Public intellectuals increasingly, if belatedly, recognize that there are costs associated with their international integration-based ideas and policies. Besides Niall Ferguson, economist Michael Spence recently commented on the costs associated with increased integration and that those costs are borne primarily by domestic populations, while economist Dani Roderick questioned the inappropriate integration advocacy role played by globalists.
Beyond recognizing costs, it is worth reviewing nationalism as a social feature with its own reasons for existence, history, and attendent benefits. Anthony D. Smith wrote extensively about nationalism, which is based on the relationship between elites and non-elites within a country. Smith notes that elites traditionally interacted with elites from other countries, which led to diplomacy and the communications necessary to avoid war. Domestic populations, in contrast, tended not to interact with one another. Nationalism protected non-elite populations from threats. Historically a healthy polity is marked by fellow-feeling between a country’s elites and non-elites. It is worth questioning whether or not the globalists, through their supra-national advocacy, harm domestic populations. Is is also worth suggesting revisiting the origins of nationalism to better understand the benefits of what the globalist establishment may be casting aside too carelessly.