What the Irish view of Brexit can teach us

I had the good fortune to be in the Republic of Ireland in the days leading up to the Brexit vote and a few days thereinafter. The European news reports and the conversations I had while traveling around Ireland gave me a pro-EU perspective on Brexit.

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The citizens of Ireland, although not able to vote, were vocal about their opposition to the U.K. leaving the European Union. I heard not a single comment in support of Brexit. Newspapers and television reports consistently showed a close vote, with most believing Brexit would be defeated. Clearly, then-Prime Minister David Cameron must have thought that as well, otherwise he wouldn't have called for the vote.

The aftermath of the vote (Friday and Saturday) was truly telling. The people of Northern Ireland, who had overwhelmingly voted to stay, are at least pondering joining the Republic, which would certainly be an ironic twist on many levels. Those attuned to Irish politics over the last 35 years are well aware of the strong feelings in Northern Ireland against joining the Republic. However, economic pragmatism may ultimately control decision-making: A refreshing change demonstrating the evolution from religious-based animosity to thoughtful progressive analysis. Scottish leaders were also calling for another vote for Scottish independence as the Scots also voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU.

Even more confounding, of course, was that Google searches after the referendum suggested many in Britain did not know what the EU was. Several recent newspaper and blog stories have posited that the digital world simply allows reinforcement of one's ideas and prejudices, and not, as was hoped, and was often prophesied, that the internet would open the eyes and minds of the world to information, allowing an expanded level of information. Flowing from that would be a flourishing discourse on important issues. This does not seem to have occurred, as much of the digital world was captured by talk-show hosts and bloggers and now by GOP nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel plans to subpoena Trump lawyer who advised on how to overturn election Texans chairman apologizes for 'China virus' remark Biden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day MORE, leaving only a trail of information that tells a tale with little regard for truth or accuracy.

Much has been written about Brexit's economic impact and there have been immediate negative impacts, including the decline of the British pound, uncertainty of London continuing as an economic center and a decline in British real estate values. The next steps are less clever.

Maybe we need to focus on issues beyond the economic. Writing in the aftermath of Brexit, Fintan O'Toole in The Irish Times noted that:

The questions that flow from it are not just about whether the Netherlands or France or Denmark might follow where England has led. It is about whether the blowback from failed austerity, the hubris of the euro project and the relentless rise of inequality will provide a fair wind for racism and chauvinism.

The EU already has two member states – Poland and Hungary – that have moved towards authoritarian nationalism and away from liberal democracy. The success of the English nationalist revolution (and that is what Brexit is) will further energise those forces throughout the union.

The racist implications of Brexit reminds students of history of the Know-Nothing movement in the United States, about which a not-yet-President Abraham Lincoln wrote:

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and [C]atholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

We must acknowledge the dangers underlying these highly charged and frequently irrational approaches to complex problems. In the case of Brexit, Trump and other countries, the movements flow predominantly from economic fear. The burden is on politicians and government to develop real solutions and business to contribute to a more balanced economic scene.

Owens represented New York's North Country from 2009 until retiring from the House in 2015. He is now a strategic adviser at Dentons out of its Washington office and a partner in the Plattsburgh, N.Y. firm of Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, Kelleher & Trombley, PLLC.


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