Brexit from the States

Photo by Flickr user doctorlizardo

In some ways, Americans have never felt closer to Europe than they do today. Social media collapse our sense of distance, so that people who live thousands of miles away can seem as proximate as our own neighbors. All it takes is knowing a few people who have recently spent time somewhere between Iceland and Turkey to appreciate the significance of today’s vote in the United Kingdom.

But that doesn’t mean that many people in United States care all that much about the outcome. To be sure, those with business interests abroad are worried about the consequences of a “Brexit”. Anxiety about the outcome of the vote has affected Wall Street. As the recent presidential primaries have demonstrated, however, there is a growing divide between the relatively small number of Americans who have direct control over their investment portfolios and the majority for whom meaningful intervention in the stock market appears as difficult to achieve as meaningful intervention in the weather.

For these other Americans, the concept of Europe – and the United Kingdom’s place within it – is abstract and, given the level of knowledge in the general population, likely to be missing in detail. When politicians like Donald Trump mention Europe, they know that a sizable percentage of their audience can be persuaded to believe a great deal, because they lack the education and experience necessary to arrive confidently at their own conclusions.

It’s why the specter of Europe has been so extensively deployed in American debates over free trade, labor laws, and health care and why it factors so prominently in current attempts to link immigration and terrorism. Historically, while most Americans like the idea of visiting Europe, a relatively small percentage of them want their homeland to become more like Europe. This is particularly true in conservative circles, which explains why John Kerry’s “French-speaking” cosmopolitanism was so effectively derided during George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign. Yet this antipathy is also present on the so-called Left, as demonstrated by Hillary Clinton’s put-down of Bernie Sanders when he suggested that Denmark could provide a useful role model for the United States.

For those who follow global politics closely, it might be tempting to propose that Americans project their own anxieties about the fate of federalism onto contemporary Europe, fretting that if the center cannot hold there, it might not hold back home either. But such an argument, however compelling, only works to the degree that Americans understand the relationship between the European Union and the full and partial member states which comprise it.

Just the other day, I heard two people in a café discussing a news story on the upcoming vote in the United Kingdom declare their incredulity at its foundational premise. “You can’t vote to be someplace different from where you actually are,” said the first. “It would be like us voting not to be in North America,” replied the other. Mind you, in light of the consistently abysmal performance of American students in geography assessments, this qualifies as a fairly informed opinion. At least they knew where the United Kingdom can be found on a map.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the vote, from an American perspective, is that it has so perfectly coincided with the Euro 2016 football tournament. Americans may not know very much about geography, as compared to the citizens of other developed countries, but more and more of them know something about soccer and follow it abroad as well as at home. When I started watching World Cup matches over three decades ago, it was difficult to find anybody else in the United States aware that they were even taking place. Now, my social media feed is full of commentary by Americans who have taken time out from their day to watch contests like Italy-Ireland and Portugal-Hungary.

Within the context of Euro 2016, of course, the presence of Iceland, Turkey and Albania is celebrated more than it is called into question. For Americans who are more interested in sports than politics, the scope of the tournament implies that an expansive definition of Europe is a fait accompli. The same could be said of the Eurovision song contest, which also attracts many American viewers. Both articulate a cultural vision of Europe which somehow transcends the details that need to be sweated in Brussels.

It’s interesting, in this regard, that while Euro 2016 has effectively communicated a cohesiveness at odds with dire reports of imminent disintegration, it has simultaneously reminded everyone that the United Kingdom itself can be thought of as a precursor to the EU and, what is more, one whose continued existence in its current form is also in question. Remarkably, Northern Ireland and Wales not only qualified for the tournament, but have progressed into the knockout stage along with England, stirring up the same kind of “subnationalism” that motivated Scotland’s recent independence vote.

As a nation of immigrants, a great many of whom came from the British Isles, not to mention a nation that still commemorates its rebellion against that same United Kingdom, the United States is more likely to be a place where people are interested in the potential break-up of Britain than they are in Britain’s potential break with Brussels. There are millions of Americans of Irish, Scottish and Welsh descent who would welcome the diminishment of English hegemony more enthusiastically than they would the United Kingdom’s decision to go it alone.

Of course, if the vote today does yield a “Brexit”, the likelihood of another Scottish vote on independence will increase considerably. And while Wales and Northern Ireland may lack the resources to contemplate a full departure, they may well demand concessions from London that will increase their own autonomy. It’s hard to imagine Americans getting too worked up about such an eventuality, whatever fondness they still hold for the “special relationship.”

Photograph courtesy of Flickr user doctorlizardo. Published under a Creative Commons license.