Alexander Gillespie: Unpopular EU must solve big issues to regain support

A demonstrator wrapped in the EU flag takes part in a protest opposing Britain's exit from the European Union. Photo / AP
A demonstrator wrapped in the EU flag takes part in a protest opposing Britain's exit from the European Union. Photo / AP

We witnessed history on Friday when 52 per cent of the voting population of Britain voted to leave the European Union.

Countries leaving treaties is not unique, although the complexity of the relationship that Britain is exiting is mind-boggling.

The scale of the historic event is in the threat to the European Union. Unless radical changes are made, it is doomed. For the European Union, Friday's vote was comparable to the end of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s or the disintegration of the League of Nations in the 1930s.

This is not to suggest that the countries of Europe will fall into war against each other as they did twice in the first half of the 20th century. Although there is much anger in Europe over what happened, tempers will calm. Inter-European conflict is very unlikely because mature democracies, as all of the members of the Europe are, do not fight each other with weapons.

However, within countries, tensions can be expected to rise as the anti-globalisation forces start to eye the "others". This will especially be so in Britain if the economic recession predicted with the exit vote sets in.

In the years it will take for the British economy to kick-start again before the benefits of a devalued currency take place, the migrants that have not left will begin to feel nervous and exposed. These people will be blamed for the recession that comes with the Brexit, not the ones who voted for it.

Scotland will leave the UK peacefully. Northern Ireland could easily slip back into violence as the European money that held the peace together disappears and decision-makers in London struggle to find the will or resources required to keep the guns locked up.

The Brexit decision was a stark reflection of the discontent of the majority of British voters. This discontent was under-estimated by the scholars, the wealthy, media, bookies and most of the politicians on the left and right.

In a campaign in which more was left unsaid than said, it was a vote for traditional ideals of sovereignty, whereby a country, alone, could set its own course on questions of migration, social policy and economic direction.

Tensions can be expected to rise as the anti-globalisation forces start to eye the 'others'.

It was a vote against the vision of the European Union as a cosmopolitan, multicultural, globalised and rule-based world founded on common values.

This will not be the first vote on these issues. The next will not be in Europe, but in the United States as Americans decide whether to support Trump or Clinton.

After that, the referendums will return to Europe. Discontent in France over the European Union is already at over 60 per cent of the French population.

Questions of security and identity are driving the French. The Dutch are unhappy for similar reasons. The Germans, who are finally over their guilt for World War II, are reaching the end of their tolerance for the waves of migrants arriving in their country and having to pick up the cheque for other European countries.

While the British contributed the second largest amount to the EU budget, of 12.5 per cent, the Germans contribute 21.3 per cent, or 29 billion ($45 billion) a year. It is not that the Germans do not have the money; they resent giving it to fellow members who repeatedly do not play by the same economic rules.

There was a time when Europe was a desirable club to join. It offered economic prosperity, identity and an overlapping security blanket with Nato against the threat of communists. Today, the threat is terrorists, cultures which reject the founding values and economic malaise.

Unsustainable debt levels threaten to submerge Greece, Italy and Portugal. Near 10 per cent standard unemployment and 20 per cent youth unemployment across the EU are rotting its cohesion.

The unsolved migration crisis continues to pour fuel on to the fire. The more than one million people who landed in Europe last year will probably be matched this year. On the day of the Brexit vote, 4500 people were rescued in the Mediterranean.

If Europe is to survive, it must successfully address all of these challenges. It will not be enough to play hard against Britain and make their exit as painful as possible to scare others from taking the same path. The goal now must be to make the EU desirable. It must offer a better alternative for the challenges of the 21st century, rather than putting the gearbox into reverse.

- NZ Herald

Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at Waikato University.

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