In November I spent ten days in India and the United Arab Emirates, an independent state that would most likely not have existed if not for the aftermath of both world wars. Since that time, the BBC news has been 90% Brexit coverage and commentary, the frothy reporting detailing each cabinet secretary departure, the appointment of their replacements, and speculation over the fate of Theresa May’s Conservative minority government. With the defeat of the accord in Parliament there is no guarantee that the any revised deal will go through and Plan B options include in a new Brexit “people’s” referendum, a Hard Exit with no deal in place at all, or some middle ground with a customs union between the UK and continental Europe. All options are both on and off the table simultaneously, resulting in an immobilized political class at Westminster.
To be fair, the UK always had one foot out of Europe’s integration given that it turned its back on the Euro and kept the Pound Sterling. When the Eurozone was more restrained and consisted of mostly larger, northern economies, this decision looked questionable. However, as nations with less robust financial infrastructure like Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (PIGS, not including Ireland here) joined and never respected Euro guidelines for financial controls, the Eurosceptics in the UK argued that the Island Nation made the right decision. With the English Channel serving as much more than a physical divide between Great Britain and the continent, UK voters increasingly chafed at having European regulations from food packaging to trade imposed on them by Brussels, which seemed very far away. They never bought into the European Parliament and Leave advocates like Nigel Farage fed off UK nationalism to undermine Europe in the minds of the UK population.
The Brexit referendum was won by a hair and is still being litigated by politicians and voters alike. There is significant support for a do-over, though May is insisting another referendum is not under consideration. If she is defeated in an election and removed as leader, a new Tory leader may change course if only to get a stronger Leave mandate or have Stay carry the day and then try to put the whole mess behind the government, that is if continental Europe takes them back without some serious concessions.
Modern internationalism In Europe – the Common Market, the European Parliament and the Euro, were all born out of the ashes of WWII, along with the far greater scope of the United Nations. Similar efforts at international integration were undertaken after WWI. We should remember the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, one of which promoted the self-determination of peoples but also promoted cooperation and co-dependence. The League of Nations never got the authority it deserved, and its ultimate failure was the Second World War, but not before timidity and capitulation in the face of German expansionism that no group of nations, including an isolationist United States, was willing to confront. WWII was not a failure of leadership in 1939, it was 20 years in the making – the unfinished business of the 1919 Paris peace talks which crippled Germany economically but left them undefeated and their infrastructure intact – and which did not integrate them into Europe as a whole. The weakness of the Weimar Republic led to the rise of National Socialism and Hindenburg’s fateful decision to offer the Chancellery to Hitler despite their reduced numbers in the Reichstag elections of 1932.
My references to the historical chain of events above serve a purpose – as we commemorate 100 years since the Armistice of 1918, we should also take the time to consider the events that followed and how allowing nations to pull away from each other with the cries of nationalism and isolationism ultimately resulted in even more devastating death and destruction. The Great War was not, in the end, the greatest war at all. The leaders at Versailles in 1919 were real statesmen – Lloyd George of Great Britain, Clemenceau of France, Wilson of the United States and Vittorio Orlando of Italy worked diligently to sort out all the commitments made during WWI. Nations were created to make good on the promises made to the Arab leaders whose armies fought under the direction of T.E. Lawrence – which had to be reconciled with the Balfour Declaration in favour of a Jewish State. Israel is a vibrant, modern, pluralistic democracy with a hot economy – coming from the UAE, I saw firsthand what is possible in the Arab world and how it can catch up. I truly believe that stability in the region is linked to economic development for a broader range of Arab peoples, including the Palestinians, so that there is more to be gained by sustaining the peace than fighting for territory though war.
What makes the 1918 Armistice and the Paris 1919 peace talks so important is that we are still living with the echoes of that war and its aftermath. We can also watch grainy films of the fighting, some of them now in colour, see interviews with WWI veterans recorded in subsequent decades, and visit the trenches around Vimy. No one talks about the Prussian War of 1870, the unification of Germany under Bismarck that the set the stage for the next 75 years of European history, because, frankly, the current generation cannot watch it on their iPads. However, there are WWI and WWII podcasts waiting to be consumed by young people who are asking the simple question, “how did we get here?”
Brexit is a (narrow) failure of UK leadership to sell the historical value of integration and cooperation. WWII was the culmination of a collective European failure to enforce the peace, promote economic cooperation and integration and to check German expansionism before it got too late. Weak leadership in European democracies leads to authoritarian expansionism filling the void. We’ve seen this movie before. Someone download it onto the isolationist’s iPads, please.