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Bill Owens: Brexit: A View From Ireland

I had the good fortune to be in the Republic of Ireland in the days leading up to the Brexit vote and a few days thereinafter.  European news reports, conversations with people I spoke with while traveling around Ireland gave me a pro-EU perspective on Brexit.

The citizens of the Irish Republic, although not able to vote, were vocal about their opposition to the UK leaving the European Union. I heard not a single comment in support of Brexit.  Newspapers and television reports consistently showed a close vote with most believing Brexit would be defeated.  Clearly, Mr. Cameron must have thought that as well, otherwise he wouldn’t have called for the vote.

The aftermath of the vote (Friday and Saturday) was truly telling.  The people of Northern Ireland who overwhelmingly voted to stay are at least pondering joining the Republic, which would certainly be an ironic twist on many levels.  Those attuned to Irish politics over the last thirty-five years are well aware of the strong feelings in Northern Ireland against joining the Republic, however economic pragmatism may ultimately control decision making.  A refreshing change demonstrating the evolution from religious based animousity to thoughtful progressive analysis.  Scottish leaders were also calling for another vote for Scottish independence as the Scots also voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU.

Confounding even more was, of course, the exit polls and other polling that was done which demonstrated that many of those voting in favor of Brexit did not know what the EU was.  Several recent newspaper and blog stories have posited that the digital world simply allows reinforcement of one’s ideas and prejudices, and not as was hoped, and was often prophesized that the internet would open the eyes and minds of the world to information which would allow an expanded level of information and flowing from that a flourishing discourse on important issues.  This does not seem to have occurred as much of the digital world was captured by talk show hosts and bloggers and now by Mr. Trump leaving only a trail of information that tells a tale with little regard for truth or accuracy. 

Much has been written about the Economic impact and there have been immediate negative impacts including the decline of the pound, uncertainty of London continuing as an economic center and a decline in British real estate values.  The next steps are less clever.

Maybe we need to focus on issues beyond the economic. Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times (June 25/26, 2016) stated “The questions that flow from it (Brexit) are not just about whether the Netherlands or France or Denmark might follow where England has led.  It is about whether the blow back from failed austerity, the hubris of the euro project and the relentless rise of inequality will provide a fair wind for racism and chauvinism.

The EU already has two member states – Poland and Hungary – that have moved towards authoritarian nationalism and away from liberal democracy.  The success of the English nationalist revolution (and that is what Brexit is) will further energize those forces throughout the union.”

The racist implications of Brexit reminds students of history of the Know-Nothing movement in the United States about which Abraham Lincoln said “Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

We must acknowledge the dangers underlying these highly charged and frequently irrational approaches to complex problems.  In the case of Brexit, Trump and other countries the movements flow predominantly from economic fear.  The burden is on politicians and government to develop real solutions and business to contribute to a more balanced economic scene.

Mr. Owens is a former member of Congress representing the New York 21st and a Senior Advisor to Dentons.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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