A caution to US voters: Be careful. You might get what you want and swim in its unforeseen consequences – one of which may be an enormous wrench thrown into the works of the world’s most vexing dilemma.
I say that, of course, in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Among other things, progress on tackling climate change is now imperiled.
But first, a step back in an effort to understand the valid complaints of Leave voters, most of whom were older, economically dislocated northern English men and women. Their plight has been overlooked or even dismissed by economists and internationalists (“there will be winners and losers in today’s sophisticated, globalized world, tra-la …”), and they feel abandoned by their traditional advocates, the Labour Party – much like US Rust Belt dwellers sense no love from their former champions, the Democrats. They found the European Union’s dizzying bureaucracy sterile and resented its intrusive micromanagement. What’s more, as Paul Krugman points out, many EU policies were not given a thorough vetting:
The big mistakes were the adoption of the euro without careful thought about how a single currency would work without a unified government; the disastrous framing of the euro crisis as a morality play brought on by irresponsible southerners; the establishment of free labor mobility among culturally diverse countries with very different income levels, without careful thought about how that would work. Brexit is mainly a symptom of those problems, and the loss of official credibility that came with them. (That credibility loss is why the euro disaster played a role in Brexit even though Britain itself had the good sense to stay out.)
At the European level, in other words, I would argue that Brexit just brings to a head an abscess that would have burst fairly soon in any case.
However, the Leave movement’s legitimate issues were drowned by a campaign vilifying immigrants that lied about Brexit’s costs — and, as we already see, those costs usurp its advantages by far. The British tabloid press, which makes The New York Post look like the Old Gray Lady, bears special blame. We’ve all read about the roiling markets and London’s teetering position as Europe’s financial giant, and then there are the moves in Scotland and Northern Ireland to flee the UK. Great Britain, which was a world player again partly because of its EU membership, may shrivel into a parochial England and Wales.
Would that more voters had abided the wisdom of Lord Michael Haseltine, who said this in an Oxford debate: “The man in the desert is sovereign. He can do whatever he likes, but he has no power — and power is the essence of the political purpose. Unless you can do something — unless you’re in a position to make decisions and implement them — then you are powerless, however sovereign.”
Which brings us to climate change, where an allied Britain exemplifies Haseltine’s point. In the words of Eric Wolff, editor of Politico’s Morning Energy tip sheet, “The U.K. is the world’s 11th largest emitter of carbon and the 2nd largest in the EU, and its withdrawal could throw EU plans to fight global warming into chaos, and create complications around ratifying and implementing the Paris climate agreement. Outgoing U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres said earlier this week that the Brexit would force a ‘recalibration’ of the U.K.’s roll in the deal.” Brexit could bring more hydraulic fracking because the regulations are EU regulations, and …
The U.K. is one of the biggest supporters of the European Trading System, the bloc’s carbon trading market. The ETS has long been criticized as ineffective, and the EU has been working to reform it. But it is “vital” to have the U.K. at the table for those discussions, the International Energy Trading Association has said. The organization also points out that the U.K. is a hub for carbon and energy markets. EU organizations would have to reshuffle as U.K. members resign and leave posts of influence. At least one member of the European Parliament, Ian Duncan, who holds a key position working on the ETS reforms, had already drafted his resignation letter earlier this week.
I can see British voters, jaws agape: “I didn’t know that.” Now they do – perhaps too late.
To emphasize: Britain is a world power. Votes in world powers not only mark a nation’s internal politics but etch themselves on far-flung fronts. Remember that in November, oh American voter.
We now see the wisdom in electing officials so they can make educated decisions. Re-delegating complex issues back to the Average Joe and Josephine, who are sometimes gullible to the sound bites of flag-draped, marketing-savvy nationalists, is precarious at best. Out-going Prime Minister David Cameron made a colossal mistake when he agreed to the Brexit referendum.
But perhaps not all is lost for our sister across the seas – or for us. There’s a little-discussed “out” for Parliament: The referendum result is not legally binding. The MPs could ignore it at the peril of their own careers. So far, all the talk centers around exercising “the will of the people” (slightly under 52% of British voters), but buyer’s remorse is already rampant and it may build in the coming months. Bill Bower, portfolio manager of the Fidelity Diversified International Fund, is playing wait-and-see: “Just because it’s happened doesn’t mean it’s over. I am expecting more discussions about the conditions that could be met to keep the U.K. in the European Union.”
Perhaps I’m a sap for the UK because I lived there for a year, but I’m hoping the EU will take a breath and recognize the peril of striving for a “United States of Europe.” Its technocrats have stumbled across vague but real feelings of national identity. Perhaps it can reel back and trim its sales for the sake of unity. And I hope Britain can swallow its pride, admit its mistake, and remedy it – not only for itself, but for a world over which it wields great influence