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Fear, Logic and the European Project: The Brexit and the United States

A few years ago, I attended a conference on the European Union (EU). One speaker described the EU as an elitist project, a way in which businesses could expand markets. “So what?” was the answer from another scholar. I found the “so what” answer curious for a number of reasons. First, the person argued that the project saved Europe from itself. There would be no war because actor’s hands were tied. This leads to the person’s second point: since there was no war, everyone was better off. Economic prosperity is good for everyone. For a scholarly conference, I detest short, quick, binary perspectives.

The conference I am speaking about took place in 2012, in the midst of the ongoing European crisis. What our esteemed scholar fails to understand is that any elitist project can be quickly undone by the masses. Communism and Nazism, two populist ideologies with masses’ support, nearly ended liberal democracy, a very weak and inefficient political system. Liberal democracy can be hijacked by any party or idea with popular support. This fact is the reason Plato warned about mob rule and tyranny as the result of democracy’s failure. Liberal democracy must work hard to deliver stability and prosperity to the masses. Thus, any political system, including countries in the EU, must bear this in mind. Pushing an elitist project will result in popular backlash.

I do believe this is what we are seeing in the European Union and the United States today.

Populist right-wing parties in Poland, Greece, Hungary, France, Britain, Austria, among others, are gaining serious ground. While France and Austria have successfully managed to block the election of these parties to serious positions. However, it is only a matter of time if things remain the same. People are not that complicated: they want the good life. The good life is not having to worry about tomorrow. Populists take advantage of those worried about tomorrow. Once these populists win government, they will ultimately forget the people that brought them to power.

This is what happened to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The unemployed sought change in the Muslim Brotherhood. Once they came to power, they did little to create jobs instead of focusing on bringing religious laws to the country. It took Hitler 6 years to send the masses to their deaths in World War II, even encouraging them to commit mass public suicide in the end. Let’s not forget Stalin and the Soviet project.

I am not arguing that this will happen in Europe. I am putting forward the idea that populist right-wing government is not the answer. Yet, elitist projects are inherently responsible for the rise of these groups. In three weeks we are to see a referendum that may begin the Brexit process. In my estimation, a Brexit would significantly hurt the country’s economy. The country of Britain is intimately connected with Europe and has been since World War II. British commercial banking alone is second only to the United States in Europe and the world. Tourism will be greatly affected as will exports. No one actually knows what will happen but given the decline in the pound after release of a pro-Brexit poll, it can be concluded that pessimistic spirits may rule the day.

I am concerned that a British exit may cause critical damage to the EU as well. Britain is one of the larger economies and a Brexit may lead to confusion and disorder. I am reminded of the end of the West Indies Federation. When Jamaica left the union, Trinidad leader Eric Williams said “one from ten leaves naught,” meaning the West Indian Federation was doomed without its largest member.

Of course, other populist groups in the EU could take advantage of this and may gain further strength.

The United States is in a similar position. The discord generated from almost a decade after the financial crisis has left people feeling extraordinarily apprehensive. Many in the United States want to elect a successful businessman given the perception that he can solve all their problems. While his policies do not hold much water, this perception has largely contributed to Trump’s success. Most alarming is his foreign policy verbiage.

Trump is more about emotion over logic and his rivals operate similarly. Clinton supporters fear Trump and support her over other choices given the perception that she can win. Cruz used the same logic. Not much thought goes into politics these days.

To be perfectly clear: the EU has two options: either they finish the project or disband in an organized fashion. The EU must create a federal union similar to that of the United States. Richer countries must pay more taxes and poorer less taxes so that purchasing power and economic capacity becomes equalized especially when it comes to imports. Germany and Greece pay the same price for the same imports from non-EU countries. Given the difference of productive capacity, it is dangerous for Greece, given its economic power, to continue in Europe in the long-run.

Since there is significant variation across states given productive capacity, Germany must compensate Greece for that differential if the EU is to survive. This is the structural contradiction in the EU: a monetary union without a fiscal union is death. Fiscal unions are needed to protect any sound economic systems, but this is an issue of nationalism. Will the Germans pay higher taxes and allow the Greeks lower taxes? Why should a German pay for a Greek? I thought this was a European project? I am certain the architects hoped that a political union would naturally come when the need arose. Well, it’s here.

The other option would be to disband in an organized, negotiated fashion. Of course, there are no rules for disbanding, an option considered totally illogical. Germany has the most to lose from a disorganized exit as it would be deprived of billions loaned to member states. This is, of course, a serious possibility with every passing day.

These arguments are carefully considered, but does it matter? This is not an issue of logic but rather of emotion. In the preface of my book, The Power of Emotions in Politics, Philosophy and Ideology, we argue that we must take seriously the study of emotion, saying “fear specifically plays a very important role in convincing people to do what they would not normally do; successfully communicating fear convincingly is power. It forces people to limit their options by making them believe there are no other choices available to them.” It may be too late for the European Union if nothing changes.

So maybe the referendum will allow Britain to stay in the EU. Maybe Clinton (or Sanders) wins the election? Then what? If nothing changes, I promise you, Britain, Europe and the United States will find themselves in yet another spot.