At risk of overworking an overworked topic, an additional perspective on Brexit – the UK vote to exit the EU over the next two years – deserves some elaboration for U.S. policy, the international economy and American politics.
Having followed European economy and politics since graduate school, I followed the UK vote with a great deal of interest.
In this column, less than a year ago, I’d written from portside on the Danube River in Hungary about the European economy and about the effect on it of immigration. At that time, in Calais, France, thousands of immigrants had worked their way north from the Mediterranean in search of some freedom, security, and – oh yes – the social and financial safety net the UK offers its poorest citizens.
Mini-riots at Calais, including forcible entry and violations of the law by the immigrants without papers, led to property damage as they sought to assert some right that did not exist, a right to enter the UK and a right to have the Brits support them.
Culture in the UK, indeed throughout Europe, has been and remains diverse, an artifact of ethnicity, of how Italians made Italy unique, and Germans made Germany unique, the Brits and the French and so on.
Having been to Europe perhaps 20 times in the last 45 years, the Europe that I really began to see last year had changed significantly from trips a few years earlier, not to mention dramatically from 40 and 45 years earlier.
And, unlike previous waves of immigration, where assimilation had been a defining characteristic, that assimilation was lost in favor of the ghettoization – in the European sense – of non-assimilating peoples. And the bilingualism of Germany – once German and English in Munich, for example, has been succeeded by German and Arabic.
What we saw in the Brexit vote was the reasons that states organize themselves, and that’s to advance, preserve, protect and perhaps even grow their self-interest. The Brits saw what was happening in Europe and effectively said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” It’s that simple.
In probably the only time in my life that I’ll quote Donald Trump, he said, “They took back their country.”
That brings us to the larger question, “Why do states exist at all?”
It’s basically for two reasons — to promote self-interest and to provide common services, which range from defense, statecraft, commerce, civil society, international relations, public education and infrastructure such as highways that would seem virtually impossible for citizens to voluntarily and collectively provide.
We’re blessed that our country and its people are generous. We’re generous to a fault, from gazillionaires – many of whom today are pledging to give away their fortunes – to everyday people who give away some of their daily substance and subsistence to help others.
We’ve sent aid to foreign countries, helped build their hospitals and infrastructure, taught them trades and professions, and advanced their agriculture.
But, in modern times, we’ve never thrown open the doors to say, “Y’all come into America,” because we live with the knowledge that America is a small boat in a global world, and it would be swamped if the people who built America were to take on the world’s welfare issues by inviting in the global poor, giving them all the minimal requirements, and, oh, by the way, providing all the benefits, too, of American citizenship.
Immigration policy exists to manage that, and Congress sets that policy in a reasonable way that advances America’s self-interest ,while administering it with a heart, for some of the neediest, as well as for refugees.
The awareness exists for many, if not most Americans, that it was our parents and our grandparents and our great-grandparents who sacrificed themselves to build this country as a legacy for us and our children and our grandchildren. They sacrificed themselves from the battlefields around the world to the factory floors and in entrepreneurship and from every hamlet to every city.
Our parents and grandparents fought off invaders who had rifles and cannons and planes and jets. We agreed to stand in the streets to fight off those who would invade our nation.
What we never imagined is that those outside our country would seek to define for us what American generosity is, and they would seek to nullify American policy, indeed nullify American sovereignty, by wantonly violating the law, sometimes with encouragement from employers who profited from their cheap labor or landlords who profited from providing cash-paid housing or even by a president determined to remake America in his own image and to his vision.
Like millions of Americans, I see our two candidates for president, and I want to say “a pox on both their houses.”
Having said that, unless things change over the next few months, it seems likely that the Brexit constituency also exists here in the U.S., and they will vote to the benefit of Donald Trump.