Geography matters, the balance of power matters, and democracy–it’s not yet clear if democracy matters or not.
I’ve been asked to comment on Brexit. I’m happy to do so, but not by promoting a position yes or no, or by attempting to unravel the political machinations, as I have neither the knowledge nor the interest to do so.
What I can do is propose two beneath the surface contexts which might be useful in understanding what’s really going on. These are the impressions and opinions of a distant observer, someone who is neither an expert nor a resident of the United Kingdom / Great Britain.
It seems to me that geography is still salient. As an island sea power, England is close enough to the continental land-based powers of Europe to fear invasion or continental hegemony but independent enough to not rely too completely on continental European powers.
This is not just a consequence of its temperate weather (thanks to the Gulf Stream) or being an island; the historical reliance on sea power places it in the same general category as the other historic blue-water sea-power-based European nations: The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Sweden.
These sea-power nations projected power and secured trading rights and colonies by controlling the seas and access points to interior lands, the so-called Rimlands.
Continental powers such as Russia, France and Germany have at various times made formidable attempts to create rival blue-water navies, but in each case the British or American fleets eventually limited these claims to dual power bases (both land and sea-based power).
(Naval history buffs know the British fleet contested the Baltic against Russian and Swedish fleets in the early 1700s, that Admiral Nelson defeated the Danish fleet at Copenhagen in 1801, and the French fleet’s blockade sealed the American victory in the War of Independence at Yorktown in 1781. Nelson’s victory over the combined Spanish and French fleets at Trafalgar in 1805 cemented British sea-power hegemony until the rise of the German Navy in the 20th century.)
As a result of these inherently different bases of power, any alliance a sea-based power makes with a land-based power is contingent, that is, more a matter of choice than of absolute necessity.
Land-based powers exposed to invasion from bordering states or nearby Great Powers do not have the luxury of contingent alliances; they must secure alliances that establish a balance of power that will thwart would-be invaders.
Thus the continental powers France and Germany need an alliance to balance the threat posed by the other great land-based power, Russia. For its part, Russia has the same need to maintain a balance of power that offers some security from encroachment or hegemony from East (China) and West (Europe).
This difference between sea-based power and land-based power may help explain the contingent nature of Scandinavia’s participation in the European Union. It is not surprising that Denmark, Sweden and the U.K. retained their national currencies. (There are 28 member states in the EU but only 19 countries in the single-currency eurozone.)
This works both ways. A French-British alliance is not a substitute for a French-German alliance, as a British-German alliance is not a substitute for a German-French alliance. The continental balance of power demands land-based alliances with one’s neighbors; a contingent alliance with a sea-based power is no substitute–especially if the sea-based power has a less pressing need for a land-based ally.
Then there’s the special relationship of Britain and the U.S., both sea powers whose interests in continental Europe are to help maintain a balance of power that minimizes the risk of armed conflict.
In sum: Britain’s participation in the EU was always contingent, and despite the continental urge to punish Brexit, Britain’s exit doesn’t really damage the balance of power. In terms of balancing land-based power, U.S. and NATO engagement with the Eastern European nations is far more consequential to continental Europe than Brexit.
In addition to geography, there’s democracy and the asymmetry of the neoliberal economic order. Not to put too fine a point on it, but democracy only works for the political and financial elites as long as the people vote as they’re told.
Once democracy becomes a source of resistance to the Power Elites, then elections that go counter to ruling-elite wishes must be declared illegitimate or reversed. (Hence the Power Elite’s furious battle to delegitimize Brexit and Trump’s election. Little wonder that the infamously bogus Steele Dossier was concocted by MI6 operatives.)
In other words, democracy is only acceptable if the voters rubberstamp the ruling elites’ centralized control of capital and power.
The last mechanism clanking away beneath the surface of Brexit is the hollowing out of economies ruled by centralized neoliberal (i.e. globalized) elites. High Street (Main Street in America) is simply not profitable to financial elites, and neither is a decentralized economy that serves localized needs rather than centralized profit centers.
So the economic and social fabric of the nation is ground down to dust in favor of Amazon, Wal-Mart, a handful of banks in London and New York and regulatory satraps in the central state who protect and serve the financial elites and their political and Deep State partners.
Geography matters, the balance of power matters, and democracy–it’s not yet clear if democracy matters or not. If the Power Elites have their way, democracy must either rubberstamp the Power Elites’ dominance and exploitation or it’s a threat that must be neutralized by whatever means are necessary.