Today the United Kingdom opened a new chapter in its long history in the midst of widespread uncertainty, apprehension, and sporadic jubilation. Prime Minister Theresa May formally inaugurated the process of withdrawal from the European Union – the news of the day. For the time being, the political antics of Donald J. Trump have been swept from the daily news reports.
It was a day few actually anticipated outside the now-faltering Ukip party, a political faction resembling the US Tea Party – nationalistic, populist, and based on an antipathy toward “foreigners,” whether refugees, immigrants, or simply people somehow not British enough.
Called in a moment of political miscalculation by former prime minister David Cameron to preserve the support of the far right wing of the Conservative Party, the referendum of last June delivered a shocking result, surprising even to many who voted in favor of the “Brexit.” The “yes” vote prevailed by a slender margin – 52 to 48 percent, hardly a landslide, but accepted as decisive despite significant opposition in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Other member EU states have expressed regret and even dread, perhaps none so much as Ireland, although similar movements have surfaced in Greece, Italy, and Spain – countries at the lower end of the economic pyramid but which have in many instances benefited greatly by bank bailouts and infusions of credit in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008. Ireland, which has much more to lose than other EU countries because of its close economic and political ties with the UK, largely opposed Brexit, not least because Ireland is the only EU state with a land border with the UK, one having a long and tragically bloody history. No one wants to see a return to a “hard border” with the watch towers, armed guards, and barbed wire of “the Troubles.” Theresa May and Ireland’s Enda Kenny have pledged that there will be no return to that distressful situation. Whether they can deliver on the promise is another matter. If they can’t, the social and economic fallout will be disastrous.
The creation of the European Union sixty years ago this week was undeniably one of the greatest achievements of the post-World War II era, second only to the creation of the United Nations. Sacrificing the promise of a truly unified Europe on the altar of political expedience by a weakened political party desperate to hold on to power could well be the greatest catastrophe of the present century. Time, as the adage goes, will tell. The capacity for catastrophe seems inexhaustible. Let it be said that optimism is currently in short supply.
European unity will undoubtedly survive in some form without Britain, but it will be a diminished union. Whether or not Brexit proves to be a disaster or merely a setback, there is now no turning back.