Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Liberalism’s setback, but not defeat

Regardless of how the British voted to exit the UK, the pressure in under a decade to rejoin will be tremendous, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

Firstly, a setback is not defeat. A setback is a temporary slump; defeat has long-range or historic consequences. The second is lethal. One party in a conflict loses its essential strength. The first is to lose a battle, but not the war. Here, we will venture to propose that the British exit from the EU is a major setback for the EU and that possibly, after not too long a time, Britain could return to the EU. How is this a “setback” for liberalism that requires us to summon that virtue known as patience?

Generally speaking, international relations are governed by two basic theories: Idealism and realism. The first expresses the liberal perspective; the second the conservative one. Liberalism presupposes that human beings are intrinsically good, that they are inclined to cooperate and that they are set on a course to progress driven by mankind’s abilities to control nature and the mature awareness that conflict destroys all parties. Realism presupposes the antithesis: That human beings are intrinsically bad, that they are lustful and greedy, which leads them to conflict with all around them and that their dominant instincts are closely related to the thirst for power and rule that inevitably drives them to war. Force is present in both theories, but in radically different ratios to diplomacy and politics.

The EU is a perfect translation of the liberal outlook in international relations. In a continent that experienced two world wars, a hundred years of colonial wars before that, a struggle to remedy the effects of the French Revolution and, before that, a “Thirty Years War” and a “Hundred Years War”, the second half of the 20th century came as testimony to the fact that out of the depth of destruction nations can mature and develop political inventions of no less importance, historically, than the industrial/technological revolutions that began with steel and continued through the computer. That EU engendered the greatest process of political engineering that sought to rein in mankind’s evil instincts and give the power to work together and to overcome the various types of hatred that history has recorded. No other international grouping in the world has ever achieved anything comparable to Europe’s success in eliminating the roots of conflict between the French and Germans, the French and British, the east and west of Europe, the north and south of the continent, and the pre-Cold War and post-Cold War, and in embracing 28 nations in a framework in which all members subscribed to the liberal and democratic way to handle all their basic issues, whether political or economic.

British Prime Minister Cameron was not logically wrong to bring the question of Britain’s EU membership to a vote. By the logic of things, the liberal outlook and the movement of history, the British vote should have come out in favour of “Remain”. That would have been the normal result of a country that regards itself as being the font of democracy and liberalism and that, even if it does not feel the need for a constitution, sees itself as progressing in the framework of these principles and in accordance with the outlook of the logic of nature and history that shaped them. But the result did not come out as expected, and this came as a shock.

Non-liberal means and methods cannot be used to accomplish liberal aims. As I have written before, the referendum was a major mistake for reasons with which we are familiar and which events in the UK have confirmed. Liberal philosophy, in its entirety, is based on the concept of the freedom of the individual and the rejection of tyranny. It simultaneously rejects the domination of the herd and the exploitation of their emotions to achieve narrow interests. The liberal idea is essentially about people putting their heads together and working things out. Hence parliaments, elections, a majority and minority, research centres and think tanks, lobbies and interest groups, political parties and so much more.

Of course the referendum was not the only mistake. Perhaps Britain, itself, laid the seeds for its own exit when it insisted on expanding the EU eastward until it reached the borders of Russia and northward to the North Pole. The result was only to be expected. With economic freedoms came the migration of peoples (long before the refugee crisis) from the new EU countries which ultimately drove the British into voting to leave the EU. It could also be that the liberal path to European relations triggered the “realist” tendency in British politics, giving preponderance to the notion that the EU is a German preserve, especially after unification when, to many in Britain, it came to seem as though Germany, rather than England, had ultimately emerged as the victor from World War II. This same “realism” nourishes the British hope that by playing the EU and the US ends against the British middle they will be able to acquire a manoeuvrability suitable to a true world power.

Such are among the many ideas that tantalise the realist imagination. All the opponents to exiting the UK were forever arguing that Britain is the fifth largest industrial power in the world and that the EU, not to mention all other countries in the world, have an interest in dealing with the UK. But the matter is not so simple. In fact, the British themselves will probably discover over time that the question is far more complicated than they were led to believe by politicians who were pushing fiercely for Britain to leave the UK.

In all events, the British are currently on course to an exit and they have chosen a new cabinet to oversee this task. Quite soon, London will be officially submitting the notification invoking Article 50 of the Barcelona Accord and setting into motion a negotiating process that can take up to two more years.

I will take this opportunity to predict that after another two years, which is to say four years from now, the British will come knocking on the EU doors again asking for readmission. This prediction is not based on some liberalist concept of “inevitability” in accordance with which the EU is naturally destined to prevail. Rather, it is because those who are now handling the British exit have opted for a negotiating footing based not on a complete exit from the EU but, rather, on remaining in a part of it — the common market — while shedding all other EU obligations and restrictions. It is impossible to know at this stage how the EU will handle such a division. But whether it approves it or not, in the long run the objective realities of commerce and investment make the incentives for rejoining the EU great. Ultimately, this is the direction of the movement of intensive mutual reliance that is eventually translated into laws and institutions given the name the EU.

Moreover, a closer look at the results of the referendum support this prediction. Seventy per cent of voters under 30 (and they made up approximately 48 per cent of voters) voted to remain. About the same proportion (70 per cent) of people over 45 voted to leave. Eight years from now, the youth of today will be the backbone of the state and society. This is the internet generation. The generation shaped by social networking, cultural exchange and European and international media and communications. These are not isolated groups in provincial towns where there are many defunct and outdated industries and a proliferation of xenophobia. The demographics of Britain will change and this, in addition to the views of Scotland and North Ireland, which both voted to remain in the EU, will build into enormous pressures. These pressures will prove unsustainable, because by then the British will not be facing the choice of remaining or leaving the EU but rather the choice of remaining Great Britain, in its current form, or of being whittled down to just “little England” which, at that point, might just agree to becoming the US’s 51st state.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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