The UK’s decision to leave the European Union continues the Great Unwinding of multinational states that began with the collapse of empires after the First World War.
Brexit is often characterized as a retrograde vote against globalization, free trade and the hard-won progress of recent decades. In fact, Brexit continues the progress of humanity, not just of recent decades but of the last century and more. Brexit was a vote against socialism and a hegemonic bloc, a continuation of the Great Unwinding that began with the collapse of empires after the First World War.
More than a century ago, the countries of the world were largely subsumed by great empires, chiefly the British, German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires. Before the empires collapsed, they were beleaguered by two great upheavals. One upheaval came from national liberation movements of their subjugated peoples, which strove to establish independent countries for themselves and were capitalist in nature. The other upheaval came from socialism, which aimed to erase borders and distinctions among peoples, and had only contempt for the small-minded bourgeois capitalism that it believed would be consigned to the ash heap of history.
As a prominent writer of the day, Vladimir Jabotinsky, described the European left, “it regards (nationalist struggles) as absurd, unnecessary, and harmful for blurring class consciousness and distracting humanity from its true task … Only a reactionary would (in the left’s eyes) dream of creating new states when there are already too many old ones; only a reactionary would want governments to divide one people from another.”
In the chaos following the collapse of empires, socialism swept much of the world, with the Labour Party ruling in the United Kingdom; socialism and its national variants, fascism and Nazism, ruling in continental Europe; and communism ruling in what had been the Russian Empire. But independent nation states were also born, or reborn, among them Egypt in the Middle East; Austria, Hungary and Poland in Europe; and Armenia and Georgia in Central Asia.
The drive for nationhood and local autonomy by peoples who shared a distinct culture and history continued in the wake of the Second World War, which saw the decolonization of much of Asia and Africa as well as the rise of independence movements in continental Europe. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, still more nations were created, and even countries created earlier in the century divided into constituent nations — Czechoslovakia, formed in 1918, divided into separate nations for Czechs and Slovaks; Yugoslavia, also formed in 1918, split into six nations. As one metric of the explosion in sovereign states, the League of Nations counted but 35 nations at its heyday in the 1930s. The United Nations had 51 at its founding in 1945. Today, following a relentless march of peoples towards an always-latent, near-universal goal of self-determination, that number approaches 200.
At the same time that many peoples yearn to be free of foreign yokes, others seek to combine, generally under a socialist banner. This ideological tug-of-war between nationalism and socialism — one of the dominant themes that both brings countries together and pulls them apart — plays out most consequentially today in Europe.
The EU is a new socialist order, more benign than empires of old, but akin to them in creating a massive hegemon of centralized political power that attempts to stamp out national interests and free trade. The EU, in fact, should be seen as an anti-free-trade zone, in that it impedes trade for its member EU countries and non-EU countries alike. EU member countries such as the U.K., for example, are prohibited from trading with countries such as Canada or the U.S. except on terms dictated by the EU. At the same time, non-EU members such as Norway or Switzerland must surrender some of their sovereignty as well as their cash if they wish preferential access to the EU market. In what’s called the Norway model, Norway must allow EU citizens to live and work anywhere in Norway without restriction while also funding EU social and economic programs, a requirement estimated to cost every Norwegian man, woman and child an average of 107 euros ($154) per year.
The EU is, in effect, a political bloc that trades first and foremost in sovereignty — to date, it refuses to allow free trade with nations that haven’t first been made subservient. Brexit is the U.K.’s way of saying it will be subservient no more, and others in Europe may soon follow suit. This is merely more of the continuing Great Unwinding of multinational states.