Last week's vote by the United Kingdom to formally leave the European Union has touched off nothing short of a political earthquake, both in Europe and in the United States. In the aftermath of Thursday's referendum, which saw a slim majority (52 percent) of Britons vote in favor of "Brexit," there has been no shortage of recriminations from the chattering classes on both sides of the Atlantic, which have been quick to label Britons as both xenophobic and foolish for their choice.
None of that is true. Rather, Brexit reflects a different sort of calculus on the part of British voters.
Ahead of Thursday's referendum, commentators and financial institutions alike had warned of potentially catastrophic consequences should Britain leave the EU, ranging from domestic hardship to regional economic turmoil to a break-up of the United Kingdom itself. Many of those adverse trends have in fact begun to materialize. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, the value of the British Pound plunged by some 11 percent. (It has since rebounded slightly.) Global markets have lost more than $2 trillion in value on post-Brexit investor jitters. And, Scotland, which leans heavily in favor of the European Union, and which overwhelmingly opposed disengagement from it, has revived a national conversation about independence and the possibility of separate accession to the EU.
But it would be incorrect to say that British voters did not adequately understand these risks ahead of time, or that they simply ignored them. Rather, a more accurate reading of the situation is that, notwithstanding these warnings, Thursday's electoral outcome was the product of decades of pent-up frustration among Britons with their place in an increasingly unaccountable and unrepresentative community of nations.
In the four decades since they voted to join the fledgling European Union in 1975, the English have slowly but surely seen their sovereignty and prosperity eroded by European mandate. The transformation has been more far-reaching than most outside observers appreciate. Through the EU, as much as 60 percent of England's national laws (on issues such as health care and immigration) are currently created outside the country by unelected political elites located in Brussels who cannot simply be replaced via the ballot box. Those rules have had a marked effect on the country's economic welfare. A recent study by the London-based CIVITAS think tank estimated that the costs to England of EU regulations averages about 20 billion pounds ($27 billion) a year, and that Europe-wide restrictions on employment, energy and banking exact a further toll on Britain's overall economic health.
All of which might be palatable if Europe was a zone of prosperity and stability. But it is not. Over the past decade, European economic growth has remained basically flat, while Greece's debt crisis has in recent years threatened to touch off a contagion among the community's interlinked economies. Moreover, the EU is now weathering its most significant socio-political challenge in decades, as millions of migrants flood into the Eurozone from the Middle East and North Africa, straining social safety nets and inter-communal relations in the process.
Through it all, European elites have done little to reform and reinvigorate their ailing union. Rather, they have simply muddled on, complacent in the belief that the bloc represents the only real political option for its 28 member states.
But, as Britain has now showed us, it is not. Thursday's vote is all the more striking because it reflects a knowing willingness by Britons to countenance significant economic hardship and political ostracism in order to reclaim a measure of their sovereignty.
Four decades ago, Margaret Thatcher – then leader of England's conservative opposition – famously noted that the key to economic and political freedom was "to have the state as servant and not as master." European elites, increasingly complacent in their unaccountable bureaucracy and ever-expanding welfare state, appear to have forgotten this lesson. The British have just reminded them of it.