A historic vote, no question. Great Britain voted on 6.23.2016 to leave the European Union. As this blog post is being written, a new British Prime Minister has been appointed (Theresa May), only the second female in British history (Margaret Thatcher being the first). The biggest question along with the biggest fear has been what Brexit will do to not only the European Union as a whole, but Great Britain as an individual nation. There are so many variables that this blog post will not seek to answer them all, but as this blog is one that is primarily focused on history, I wanted to attempt to provide the reader with a little history of Europe that I think will allay some fears, and maybe provide a little historical perspective and precedent to the discussion.
In the sixteenth century there existed a collection of German market towns with the associated guilds that banded together to form something called the Hanseatic League. This loose confederation attempted to create something of a trade union, one in which the member states (and guilds) would enjoy greater freedom of trade with less restrictions. The entire purpose was to try and foster more trade, make it easier to conduct business, and provide protection from pirates (yes, those pirates). The point is that this league, in the eyes of many historians, can be considered the first attempt among many to try and bring some sort of unity to the European continent, in this case via trade. The league had to take into consideration the cultural as well as regional differences in order to operate successfully. As history continues to prove just about everywhere, this was going to be easier said than done. The Hanseatic League was relatively successful until the mid-seventeenth century and eventually died in the 1862.
There were also numerous instances in which nations and regions worked together to try and stimulate trade, take advantage of monetary policy set by the ruling class, but also to take advantage of the emergence of capitalism. Fernand Braudel points out in his excellent book The Wheels of Commerce that the Mediterranean region was really where the modern stock market began, with speculators coming from all parts of Europe to participate, cheat, make money and generally expand and grow trade throughout Europe (as well as the world). Even the old Hanseatic League was part and parcel of this opportunity.
Braudel and others also point out that labor routinely went from place to place in order to secure jobs, with people traveling throughout Europe seasonally to chop forests, harvest grain, be evaluated for servitude (girls would present themselves to be hired…for many a great opportunity to earn money for their family and be exposed to a ‘higher’ class of people and the resulting education that would accompany such an opportunity) or any other opportunity to make money. What remained, however, was the emerging nation state…borders. Societies were kept intact, with some immigration occurring and said immigrants adopting the customs of their hosts. It was a system that worked, and worked well for centuries, up to and including World War II. It would be fair to say here the economic progress was a somewhat unifying factor in European history.
There were many other ways in which Europe has tried to unify, but most of them were either through conquest and the desire for power (see Louis XIV as one example), through marriage (see the Habsburg dynasty as well as Charles V-the last true European emperor), or even protection after a significant conflict (see the Congress of Vienna and the accompanying Concert of Europe). All of the examples that I provided are much more complex and involved than what I’ve described here, but the point is that throughout European history, there have been any number of attempts to create conditions that exist as they do with the European Union. All of them have failed, with the exception of economic cooperation which has been “rebranded” time and time again and still exists. Nationalism, a desire for nation states to choose their own course, and an unwillingness to abide by rules established by an outside power (the European Parliament and Commission) because of a desire by the people to control their own destiny have historically been the sticking points to any long term sustained success in this area. Of course, there is much, much more and the topic is much more complicated than what I’ve put down here, but the gist is that at some point in the future, all of the attempts to create a United States of Europe have failed.
This brings me, finally to the Brexit-Great Britain leaving the EU. Not only is this NOT shattering, it should have been expected. Europe will not fail, it will not fall, and Great Britain certainly will not cease to exist. In fact, I would go further and say that the big fear for the EU is that Britain will actually thrive because of the Brexit, thereby undermining all of the naysayers and potentially damaging the control that the European Commission has on the EU. That, it seems to me, is the much bigger problem for the EU. As a result, those in control of the EU will do all that they can in order to paint the most catastrophic picture that they can of the British exit or-Brexit. History suggests that they will be wrong.
So, please, dear reader, do not panic over this whole Brexit “thing”. History is on the side of the
Brits, who have led the way in so many different areas of European history. The end is not near. The
end of the EU may be.