Global Implications: Brexit Indicative Of Changing Landscape On Both Sides Of Atlantic
Addressing a packed crowd at Strings Music Pavilion on Monday, the Right Honorable Douglas Alexander, a former top British Labour politician and current senior fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said United Kingdom's 2016 withdrawal from the European Union — commonly known as Brexit — comes with political, economic and military implications that will likely be felt on both sides of the Atlantic for years to come.
For the past 44 years, Alexander said, UK has been been closely tied to its European contemporaries, first, as a member of the European Economic Community and, later, that body's successor, the European Union. He added those close ties have worked to bolster the stability of Europe and, by extension, the world.
"The European Union has contributed not only to peace, but to the continent's embrace of democracy and prosperity," he said, "and, right around the world, countries and regions today are following a similar path and choosing to come together."
He described this "banding together" as "… part of the adjustment of the power of relationships in the new world."
In this new world, he said, more and more governments are realizing that "great powers have the capacity to dominate, economically, politically and militarily." This, he said, bolsters the case made more than 300 years ago by William Penn: The opportunity for smaller nations to to gain leverage through acting collectively is compelling.
"The reasons, to my mind, are pretty straightforward," he said. "Power and wealth are shifting East in what many are already describing as an Asian century."
Alexander offered a quote from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: "Countries are banding together, not in opposition to the rising powers, but in recognition of the geopolitical fact that they have risen."
"And yet, in the early hours of June 24th last year, the British people made a fundamentally different choice," Alexander said "Rejecting the urgings of the British government, President Barack Obama, the Bank of England, OECD and the International Monetary Fund, among others, the British people voted … by a clear but narrow majority of 48 percent to 52 percent, to leave the European Union."
So, given the benefits of EU membership, why did UK vote to leave?
Alexander said it was due to a confluence of events that began in January 2013, when former British Prime Minister David Cameron made "the fateful decision" to include in his own party's election manifesto to hold an in-out referendum on UK’s membership in the EU.
"That decision ended and will forever define David Cameron's premiership," he said.
At the time, Alexander said, Cameron perceived himself to be under internal pressure inside his own party from members hostile to UK’s membership in the EU. At the same time, Alexander added, Cameron was feeling external pressure from the UK Independence Party, which had long lobbied for an in-out referendum.
When, in 2015, Cameron's own conservative party won a majority in the House of Commons, the prime minister was left with little choice but to deliver on his manifesto pledge and call for the referendum.
Though Cameron subsequently worked — with little success, Alexander said — to renegotiate Britain's terms of membership in the EU so as to offer a reformed relationship to the British people, EU leaders had little interest in helping a British leader who had, essentially, created his own crisis.
Also of relevance, Alexander said, was Britain's attitude of pragmatism as opposed to idealism with regard to the EU, an attitude that has allowed the island nation to maintain a certain detachment from Europe even through its 44 years of membership in the European Economic Community and, later, the European Union.
The resulting public discourse, he said, driven partly by tabloid newspapers, equated the EU not with peace and prosperity, but rather with "meddlesome and burdensome regulations affecting too many aspects of British life."
As to the future, Alexander said, Brexit confronts the UK with "a pretty stark choice."
"Do we retreat into a little England of isolationist mediocrity, or do we look outwards and embrace the opportunities — and, yes, the responsibilities — of our interdependent world?" he said.
As for his own choice, Alexander said he hopes the UK will find a way to retain strong economic and political alliances with Europe post-Brexit.
"In an era defined by interdependence, there is nothing splendid about isolation," he said, adding that addressing the big challenges facing the world — climate change, ensuring a stable, yet dynamic global economy, eradicating disease and improving global health and preserving Western values — can be better addressed collectively.
"Every one of these challenges, I would contend, can be met more effectively by nations working together rather than working alone," he said.