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Slouching towards a not so brave new world

The Brexit will make an already diminished Europe, more vulnerable to the insidious forces of xenophobia

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

The stunning success of the campaign for the British exit from the European Union, or Brexit, is one of those “hinge moments’ in history whose reverberations are usually felt for many years. This is by far the most damaging blow to Europe’s fantastic rise from the rubbles of WWII and its long march towards a united Europe, whole and free, and the promised United States of Europe. The rejection of the EU by a simple majority of the populations of the United Kingdom cannot be reduced to one overarching cause. For years to come, scholars, historians, journalists, politicians; the serious ones and the charlatans will analyze the reasons, assess the consequences and assign the blames.

Already much has been written about the fear and loathing that led Britain to sever its 43-year complex association with the continent, about the angst and anger that alienated a large number of British citizens from the political and financial elites in London who were overtaken by the sirens of technological progress, open borders and greater integration, the limitless promise of the globalization of prosperity and the benefits of immigration. One incessant refrain heard from the proponent of withdrawal from the European Union was: we want the restoration of our sovereignty. This was maybe the loudest battle cry of this rebellion against globalization and against the conceit behind the concept of “beyond Westphalia” which prematurely celebrated the fraying of traditional national sovereignty that emerged after the Peace of Westphalia of 1648.

The Brexit will make an already diminished Europe, more vulnerable to the insidious forces of xenophobia, Islamophobia, ethno-nationalism and identity politics within the Union, and will embolden Russian irredentism and strengthen President Vladimir Putin’s political and strategic leverage in Europe. Putin will exploit the fact that Brexit will undermine the very idea of the West. In perilous times, when societies face powerful transformational forces and currents that are not easily controlled or even understood fully, the worst thing governments could do is to seek the council of the multitudes and accept the verdicts even when they are provided by simple majorities no less. In such uncertain times, the masses, whether in the streets or at the polling stations often make disastrous choices. Watching the results of the referendum I could not but think of those wise sages of ancient Greece, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle who had more than a jaundiced view of Democracy.

Bread and Circuses

The gleeful reaction of Russia, Iran and the right wing forces on the continent to this blow to the idea of Europe as whole and free, and to the liberal order that emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union, is a stark reminder of the dangers of complacency in the West, the lack of decisive leadership in Europe and the United States to confront the dark forces within and without, and the absence of political and economic imagination to make globalization more inclusive. In bad times the Roman Empire sought to generate public approval and acquiescence by providing the populace cheap food and by staging spectacular games to distract the disenchanted; hence the concept of Bread and Circuses, which took on a tremendous political significance to wield and exercise power.

The modern equivalents of Bread and Circuses will not satisfy the disenfranchised victims of globalization. The failure of imagination among the custodians of the liberal order; the politicians, the economists, the public intellectuals and the leaders of the new industries responsible for the interconnectedness of a globalized world, to minimize the negative – some would say the predatory- aspects of globalization, will be a bigger challenge to meet, after Britain’s decision to shrink itself into a foggy island.

Sins of the fathers

Brexit can also be seen as another manifestation of the “sins of the fathers”, against their hapless children. Preliminary data shows that 75 percent of people aged between 18 and 24 voted wisely for remaining in the EU. But this youthful strata was outweighed by their resentful parents who exhibited what can best be described as “electoral intensity” when they turned out in very high numbers to register a resounding no to the European Union. According to the British pollster YouGov sixty one percent of people over the age of 65 voted for Brexit. These are the alienated white middle aged men or slightly older voters who feel that they don’t have an economic or cultural stake in the current order, who resent the bureaucrats in Brussels who, (they are told repeatedly), are undermining the sovereignty of a once mighty empire.

The Brexit will make an already diminished Europe, more vulnerable to the insidious forces of xenophobia, Islamophobia, ethno-nationalism and identity politics within the Union

Hisham Melhem

These are some of the victims of globalization, who saw their jobs migrating overseas, or taken over by new immigrants from Eastern Europe, or Muslim immigrants from the old colonies and their children. They are threatened by overwhelming technology, stagnating incomes and salaries, and they are fearful of what they see as an existential demographic threat: the new Muslim immigrants and their descendants. For this group of people the recent waves of destitute refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and migrants from Africa, walking the highways and byways of Europe, plowing the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean and drowning by the hundreds, all the while oblivious to national borders, were the last straw.

That generation of British citizens and their counterparts in the rest of Western Europe, is the last to have lived in societies that were essentially homogenous and dominated by (mostly) one national language and one dominant Church. The fact that Europe today is a multicolor tapestry of peoples from all over the world, and a modern day tower of Babel emitting a cacophony of sounds and languages they cannot relate to, have deepened their sense of being marginalized and overlooked.

Globalization and its discontents

Brexit is in part the first concrete counter-revolution against the forces and values of globalization that swept the continent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin wall and the advent of the digital revolution. The European Union was a unique experiment in economic and political integration involving more than 500 million people, in the richest region in the world. But the rising tide did not lift all boats and many islands of the disenfranchised were left isolated and strewn with shipwrecks and angry stragglers. Globalization did not only leave behind many losers, but it turned many of them into victims. These losers and victims of globalization instead of storming the glimmering outposts of the new elites in the financial markets of London or the political corridors where the faceless bureaucrats of Brussels roam, they went to the polling stations and exacted their revenge.

Brexit also is the latest example of people voting against their economic interests, by elevating to the fore what they consider erroneously as cultural imperatives and concerns. We have them a plenty in the United States, and many of them are currently under the spell of the orange painted Donald Trump, the vile snake oil salesman who already conned millions of Americans. The charlatans of Brexit, people like Nigel Farage the UK Independence Party leader and Boris Johnson former mayor of London and others deceived the electorate that leaving the Union not only will be cost free but will save Britain hundreds of millions of Pounds that Brussels supposedly takes away from Britain every month.

The dire warnings of most financial experts that Brexit will create a huge hole in the country’s public finances, where summarily dismissed by these slick purveyors of mendacity. The financial reverberations of Brexit were felt globally; as expected, American stocks were hit hard and plunged more than 600 points at the closing bell Friday afternoon at Wall Street. A diminished Britain – and it will be diminished politically, strategically and economically- will have adverse effects on American interests and influence in Europe, and the Middle East where Britain was a reliable ally for generations. If Brexit, triggers similar moves in other EU countries, a clear and present danger, the whole idea of a post war Europe whole and free could be irreversibly undermined, leading the U.S to hasten its pivot to Asia.

The brief history of globalization tells us that its antithesis; tribal nationalism, remained alive and well. These two active forces collided in Europe in the 1990’s; greater economic and political integration in the continent, at a time when the Balkan region was tearing itself apart in the worst ethnic and religious bloodletting on European soil since the Second World War and the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews. The best aspirations of globalization proceeded along with the worst impulses of exclusion and tribalism. In addition to the positive forces brought about by globalization, such as technological progress and communication, interconnectedness, the breakdown of artificial barriers to trade and the movement of peoples and ideas; globalization has spawned also the countervailing forces, of xenophobia, ethno-nationalism, autocratic tendencies, nativism, narrow identity politics and deepened the hostility to incorporating immigrants and even refugees fleeing the threat of mass murder. In the Middle East, technological advances, the internet and social media were used as effective tools of mobilization by the most atavistic forces active in the region, primarily ISIS.

Although Sectarianism in the Middle East preceded these technological innovations, one could say that, paradoxically, globalization has fanned the flames of sectarianism; that are consuming countless numbers of mostly Sunni and Shiite young men. Brexit was a victory in part for xenophobia, Islamophobia, tribal and parochial nationalism, and the rejection of immigrants and refugees. These attitudes have hardened the hearts of peoples who lived for decades in liberal, pluralistic and humane societies; hence the shocking indifference in western countries to the plight of Syrian refugees for example, even though stemming the flow of refugees through a political settlement is both a moral imperative, and a political necessity that serve also western interests.

Europe’s maladies, America’s immunities

Donald Trump, who was in Scotland insensitively and shamelessly peddling his own business and explaining how his golf courses and hotels will prosper as a result of the fall of the British pound, wasted no time in celebrating both Britain’s woes and its referendum folly. He saw in Britain’s withdrawal from the EU a vindication of his own xenophobia, and hostility to immigrants and international trade agreements. “The people of the United Kingdom have exercised the sacred right of all free peoples. They have declared their independence from the European Union and have voted to reassert control over their own politics, borders and economy”. The man who has been railing against immigrants crossing porous borders, and against the tainted “establishment” in Washington that has been supposedly undermining America’s sovereignty, said of the British electorate “they took their country back... just like we will take America back”.

Trump knows that those who voted for Brexit have their own counterparts in America, people who are anti-bureaucracy, anti-immigrants who chafe that their national identity is being threatened by the forces of globalization, and who still yearn for a bygone white Christian America that speaks only English. That is why Trump can claim that "come November, the American people will have the chance to re-declare their independence. Americans will have a chance to vote for trade, immigration and foreign policies that put our citizens first." The assumption is that Britain, and the US have been highjacked by similar sinister forces; the immigrants and the compromised elites in Brussels and Washington.

But the United States is not Britain. And Brexit was an up or down vote on a proposition, and not a national election of a President, the full House of Representatives and an important number of Senators and Governors. America’s electoral system is more complex and is usually determined by the votes in the Electoral College, and Trump even at this late stage in the race does not have a campaign in the traditional sense and has yet to start collecting a war chest, not to mention that he is running against a strong opponent in Hillary Clinton. America has immunities against the maladies that made Brexit succeed, such as a rich and valued history of immigration that has helped build a pluralistic society.

America’s experience with immigration, while not ideal is radically different from Britain’s (and Europe’s) history with immigration. America does not have a colonial legacy in Africa or the Middle East. Fear-mongering and xenophobia can go too far in a country like Britain, or France, but they can go so far in America before they trigger a strong backlash. There are powerful societal forces and constituencies in the United States that will create a countervailing force to neutralize the appeal of Trump’s politics of division and fear. However, complacency should be avoided at any cost.

Yet the negative forces that Trump unleashed in the US and the right wing populist and exclusionist movements gaining influence in some countries in the European Union, could with a little help from Putin undermine 70 years of a western liberal order that, notwithstanding its limitations and shortcomings is still the best antidote against the dark forces of autocracy, political repression, unbridled nationalism, religious extremism and intolerance. There is no science for the future, and only time could tell, if we are slouching towards a not so brave new world.

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Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.