British Prime Minister David Cameron may have lit the fuse that may lead to the disintegration of the European Union, but it was the EU’s own actions in the early 1990s that proved to be the powder keg.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe faced a critical decision: enlarge the EU by admitting the former Soviet bloc countries or deepen the EU by strengthening its core. It made a terrible mistake by choosing to massively enlarge the EU.
A far better option would have been to strengthen the European core with France, Germany and Britain leading a movement to structure a properly decentralized federation, united around common values, democratic institutions and an advanced post-industrial economy. Such a core could easily have withstood a free movement of peoples.
The resulting two-tiered EU with a common market could have admitted new members to the core when they had proven their democratic credentials and matured their economies to the point where they were compatible. Instead, there was a rush to add new members and damn the consequences.
There’s no way to reverse these decisions, but a statesmen of vision might have articulated an option to fix these problems rather than leave, and create something truly historic. Regrettably, Cameron was not that statesman and the opportunity has also been lost.
Rather than win voters over with positive change, Cameron went on a spree of promises to earn victory in the last election. He bought the loyalty of the far right with the promise of a straight up ‘in or out’ referendum on remaining in the European Union.
Cameron’s lack of vision and insight crippled the Remain campaign from the onset. The branding tells the tale: Leave vs. Remain. Any competent advisor could have pointed out that Leave is the active choice, while Remain is passive and reactionary. A pro-Europe campaign with this messaging was always in trouble.
The European Union is certainly flawed and the immigration crisis is overwhelming. Indeed, that should have been part of Cameron’s messaging. However, at no point did he argue convincingly that a strong Britain in Europe is the best (and perhaps the only) way of dealing with these problems. Rather, his Remain campaign was a tactical mess and rudderless. And Cameron’s lack of leadership proved a disgrace to the office that once housed some of history’s most exceptional leaders. Even his command of the facts was lacking.
Having created a political vacuum with his ineptitude, Cameron has now unleashed dangerous forces within Britain itself. It is not inconceivable that a bitterly divided United Kingdom might shatter to pieces.
Not only did Scotland vote in favour of staying in Europe, but the day after the referendum Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon made it a top priority to immediately enter into negotiations with Brussels to “protect Scotland’s place in the EU.” It’s not impossible to imagine another Scottish referendum, and the very real possibility that a newly independent Scotland would opt to remain a member of the EU. An independent Scotland could even adopt the Euro as a currency.
And that’s not the end of the potential for disintegration. Northern Ireland also voted to remain in the EU. The result has shaken the political foundations of this divided society so thoroughly that many are seriously considering Sinn Fein’s offer of a referendum on Irish reunification. A few months ago it was an impossibility; today it is conceivable that Northern Ireland could choose to stay in the EU and reunite with their fellow nationals in the Republic of Ireland,
Aloof and wooden, Cameron’s record is dismal; not only was he tragically wrong on this referendum, his answer to Britain’s troubling budgetary woes was to implement a punishing and deeply divisive austerity.
While he will be remembered as an unexceptional man who won elections but lost the referendum that ultimately could leave the United Kingdom in pieces, the EU itself is hardly blameless for this debacle.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.