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Thoughts on Brexit

It’s now 2,840 days since Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, and we are still living in the crisis wrought on the global economy. It is probably widely perceived that 2008 is a long time ago, that we’ve moved on with our lives, that the crisis is in the past, that unemployment is falling and the situation has stabilised. But it has not. We are still in the financial crisis.

Humans tend not to perceive the world in blocks of 5 or 10 years, we simply continue to live, day to day, week to week and month to month. But we are all inside the train crash – moving in slow motion – that started in 2007 and continues today. How we reacted to the crash, and how our governments decided to react, have brought us to this point – for good or ill. And unfortunately things don’t look good.

There is a very serious problem becoming increasingly evident in open democracies globally. I don’t where this path brings us, but it won’t be pretty. By nature I am an optimist – but I have to look at the reality I see around me. I am now deeply pessimistic about where the world – and in particular Western democracy – is headed.

Brexit is the latest example. I am on the fence about the European project overall. I think on balance the project has been a good thing for a continent ravaged by war – it brought about stability, trade and helped bring about prosperity. But somewhere along the way things went wrong. I voted to reject both the Nice and Lisbon treaties – not because I’m particularly against the European Union – but because I felt we were moving too fast for an integration that was either unnecessary, or even if it was necessary, was not supported by swathes of the European population (who also have genuine concerns about just how accountable the EU institutions are to its people).

My view during Lisbon I in Ireland would have been: there is no need to move towards closer union – the union as it stood was close enough – and that to move closer was an exercise in hubris – particularly after the French rejected the European constitution. However the European institutions kept pushing, so we voted again.

But events have moved on quite a bit since we voted in Lisbon II in 2009. In my view the project that started with the Treaty of Paris in 1951 is now over – and we are merely now living through its eventual demise. There are a number of reasons why I believe this to be case:

1) The end of the idealistic post-war European project started with the design of the euro. It was constructed wrongly not through malice, but through incompetence (and perhaps hubris again). When the crisis began in Europe – mainly in the poorer peripheral countries or PIIGS – it became clear that the the entire project was in trouble. And a union founded on solidarity became a union focussed on punishment. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and to a lesser extent Italy and Spain, were to be punished for the profligacy of their banks – despite the equal involvement of German and British banks in the self-same profligacy.

2) The treatment of Greece, through multiple so-called bailouts, while remaining an EU member was contemptuous. Instead of treating a country as a fellow member in need of support, Germany treated it as a country to be reprimanded and scolded. How Greek people, my fellow EU citizens, were portrayed by my own media, or by German and British media, was frankly terrible.

3) The treatment of my own country, Ireland, was one of forcing us into a path of austerity and cuts, when the opposite could and probably should have been pursued. The IMF seemed to favour the policy, but then backtracked.

4) The treatment of Cyprus, like Greece, was embarrassing. Again, a union built on solidarity felt that punishment and austerity were a better course of action. There would be little or no sharing of the burden – because the institutions of the Union felt they were without responsibility for the crisis.

5) Brexit. Brexit is a symptom of the greater economic malaise, and the growth of inequality. It was more a protest vote against austerity than it was a protest against un-elected EU officials. People are still living in the depths of the crisis that started in 2008, and immigration is an easy device to use to blame “others” on the problem, rather than blaming the actual cause – many of the ideologies promoted by the very people campaigning to leave the EU.

Unfortunately, we are already on the slope to European disintegration and it is already slippery. Western democracies are moving to the right because of the financial crisis we are still in; because of the greater inequality it has created and because of the austerity imposed on vast numbers of people. Immigration, or anti-immigration are merely symptoms of that discontent. When most people are doing ok, immigration is not an issue. But most people are not doing ok.

We must ask: where does this all end? What does the world look like in 2030? Where has greater inequality and disintegration led Europe before? History has a way of repeating itself.

It is deeply unfortunate that the generation who knows what war is like is disappearing entirely just as we revert to a type of politics we haven’t seen for two generations – and an entire generation alive today have no frame of reference for what war or extremism looks like. As humans we forget all too easily.

I can hear people reading this already thinking “war?! What is this person smoking?”. And I sympathise with the view. But when I look at this through the lens of history, I see conflagration as one eventual possibility that cannot be discounted easily. If we project out by 10 to 15 years, what are the possible futures? If, as I argue, we are at the beginning of the end of the post-war project, and if Trumpism is alive and well in the US (whether he wins or not), and if European countries increasingly move to the right due to real or perceived economic stagnation or depression – then where does that bring us?

The risks for the future are, I believe, great.

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I strongly suggest taking 5 hours out of your schedule and watching The Death of Yugoslavia.

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