The Editorial Board
Jan. 29, 2020 7:14 pm ET
Friday night marks an epochal event in Europe’s history as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. It has been a long journey to reach this point since the Brexit referendum in June 2016—so long that it’s easy to lose sight of the event’s significance amid the fog of political confusion along the way.
That significance can’t be overstated. The EU was founded on the notion that only an ever-deeper economic union—with an ever-closer political union close on its heels—could secure peace and prosperity for a Continent traumatized by the 20th century. Most continental political leaders, if not their voters, still believe this. Those leaders also believe, although few dare say out loud, that both forms of union must compromise nation-state sovereignty.
British voters think otherwise. Their 2016 vote to leave the EU, ratified in December’s general election, was not a vote for war and poverty. It was a vote for a different and, they believe, better form of peace and prosperity than the EU can offer.
What is this British vision? Above all, it’s democratic. Voters chose to choose. The most resonant theme of the 2016 referendum campaign was “take back control,” by which Brexiteers meant making decisions about Britain’s future through its elected Parliament.
That referendum exposed how undemocratic British politics had become as decision-making had been surrendered steadily to Brussels. Large geographic sections of the U.K., and large segments of society, felt disenfranchised and wanted to reclaim their government.
00:00 / 27:00
British politics since the referendum has become so rowdy—sometimes to the point of dysfunction—because voters had the temerity to assert themselves despite resistance from a political and bureaucratic class invested in the status quo. In that sense Brexit has unleashed a bigger and long overdue political overhaul. Brexit has cashiered a long list of centrist politicians on the right and left who used EU membership as an excuse for their own mediocre economic performance.
December’s election campaign was the most ideologically interesting since the 1980s as Britons weighed a stark choice between bold ideas right and left. They wiped out a Labour Party whose urban progressives no longer represent blue-collar voters, and cleared the way for a new breed of economic reforming, one-nation conservatism.
One feature of this new politics is how immune voters have become to economic scaremongering, which is all to the good. Britain benefited from unrestricted trade with the EU and faces serious disruptions as businesses adapt to the loss of those benefits. But Brussels mandarins don’t possess a magic elixir uniquely capable of spurring economic growth. Ask unemployed French youth, stagnating German entrepreneurs or anyone in Greece.
Britons instead have heard European anxiety that Brexit will trigger a “race to the bottom” on economic policy. What this really means is that EU politicians are aware that a freer economy more open to commerce at home and trade outside the EU would deliver more prosperity to more people than continental social democracy. British voters may not embrace this open vision in the end, but they’ve given themselves the choice. They also can hold their leaders newly accountable for the results.
All of this frightens so-called good Europeans and the business world because it’s a direct challenge to their understanding of themselves and their “European project.” Central to this worldview is a distrust of non-elite voters and markets, both of which they blame for the evils that stalked the Continent in the first half of the 20th century.
Hence the EU’s most powerful arm is the bureaucratic Commission whose leaders are chosen in conclaves of national heads of government with little reference to voters’ preferences. Similarly, the euro—the Continent’s defining economic feature—has become a means by which a technocracy frees national governments from having to make serious economic-policy decisions.
Brussels bureaucrats handle core functions once managed by elected national governments, such as border security, diplomacy and trade. It hardly matters if Brussels often performs these functions badly; the appearance of activity is enough to lend the EU legitimacy.
Continental Europeans have been more content than Britons to surrender such sovereignty to the EU. But they are becoming less so as it becomes clear the EU is struggling to deliver peace and prosperity. Instead voters are getting a migration crisis, anemic economic growth and periodic political eruptions.
Brexit is an opportunity for continental leaders to grapple more seriously with these failings. Rather than fearing Brexit’s success, the key will be to hope for it and then learn from it. Continental voters would be loathe to scrap the EU, but they increasingly want to change it. A Britain with greater political independence and deep trading ties to Europe without all the useless red tape and hopeless centralizing could be a model. So far European leaders hope it will merely be an aberration.
What happens now matters far beyond Britain's shores, or Europe’s. A Brexit that goes badly, with failed reform and stagnation in Britain and trade friction with the EU, would drag down Britain and weigh on continental economies not strong enough to take the strain. The effects would ripple toward America and Asia, and perhaps embolden dangerously disruptive political movements in Europe.
A Brexit that goes well would be an economic boon to everyone. Its liberalizing energy would be a model for dissenting political movements on the Continent. Its example of renewed democracy, channeled through traditional representative institutions rather than the street, could be a benchmark for other Europeans.
Britain’s voters in 2016, and again in 2019, chose peaceful and prosperous coexistence with their neighbors rather than mindless but relentless integration. It’s the most consequential choice any European electorate has made in at least a generation, and friends of Europe in America should wish them every success.