Wisdom of the people

Abdel-Moneim Said
Saturday 2 Mar 2019

Democracy, so lauded as a pillar of the new world order, has proven problematic in recent years, leading to fragmentation and polarisation

History will probably write 2016 in bold with a double underline, because that year occasioned two events that had major repercussions throughout the world.

The first was the British decision to leave the EU initiating the process known as Brexit.

The second was the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. In the first case, there was a plebiscite giving people the choice to leave or remain in the EU and the people chose the former.

In the second case, people were given the choice between a businessman who had never held public office in his life, nor was even a prominent member of the Republican Party, which chose him as its candidate, and Hillary Clinton, wife of former president Bill Clinton, former secretary of state and former senator from New York.

In short, a celebrity of the US political establishment. The people chose Trump. You won’t find a country more practised in the exercise of democracy than Britain or the US, or that have all the prerequisites of advanced, industrialised, educated nations that espouse open-mindedness and humanitarian values, a willingness to compromise and an aversion to polarising extremes.

In both cases, the people chose — and the will of the people must prevail — albeit by a margin of less than two per cent of the votes cast, but in accordance with the rules of the game which state that the option, be it candidate or decision, that obtains a simple majority (50 per cent plus one) wins the day.

It has been three years since those two events and the world has definitely changed. In Europe, no country lacks clamourers to leave the EU, or extremist groups to the far right and far left. The extreme right has come to power Hungary and Poland while in Italy a government was born containing both extremes.

The earth continues to turn, of course. Terrorism in the Middle East reached Europe and the US, migrants and refugees top the list of foreign relations issues, and developed countries of the north found themselves staring at their worst nightmare: the march of the South, infants in arms, children in tow, knocking on doors at borders or braving the waters of the Mediterranean on fugitive boats.

Was all this a consequence of the people’s choice of Brexit and Donald Trump, or similar “fateful” decisions? It is hard to say. Perhaps the choices had a causative effect and perhaps, too, they were the result of something deeper and more pervasive.

The peoples of the UK, the US and other countries in Europe, the Americas and the developed world have become so overwhelmed by technological and global developments that they have recoiled and turned inward.

So, Britain withdraws from the entity it had helped build for five decades with the encouragement of the US which had initiated the European project to begin with. It was the US that launched the Marshall Plan to revive Europe after World War II, a plan that required European countries to gradually relinquish their separate nationalities in favour of a multilateral organisation that would eventually evolve into a transnational authority.

By the beginning of the third millennium, a European Union had been born. It had a unified bank, a unified currency, a single customs border and, for most of it, a single visa. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the US had appointed itself the leader of globalisation to which process the EU and NATO were to be subordinate.

It will take history some time before it comes up with other reasons (if it can find any at all) for what made a people to turn their back, via the ballot box, on a system that had made them strong and wealthy.

Initially it seemed that Brexit would be little more than a formality in international relations, just entailing the procedures laid out in Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, according to which a country has to negotiate its exit from the EU just as it had negotiated its accession.

But, as the Egyptian proverb has it, it’s easier to get into a Turkish bath than out of one. To be fair, British Prime Minister Theresa May did not encounter great difficulties in reaching an agreement with Brussels.

It was the UK House of Commons that rejected it. May tried to change it, but Brussels couldn’t go where its members wouldn’t let it. So, this left the British government with three options: 1) a “hard exit” without an agreement or clear rules or rights for Northern Ireland, which has a border with the Republic of Ireland; 2) another referendum now that the issues have become clearer to the people; or 3) a plebiscite on the agreement rejected by the House of Commons. 

Conceivably there was also the option of the government resigning and making way for the election of a new one that might have another way of handling a situation that was no longer just about “leave” or “remain” but also about the continued cohesion of the UK, inclusive of Northern Ireland and Scotland, both of which have their own views on Brexit.

But how can any of these options happen when the famous British two-party system has begun to fall apart? At first, Conservatives and Labour were united in their rejection of May’s agreement. Soon, however, members from each of the parties began to form their own independent blocs or they simply split off from their parties while the option of another referendum has gained ground.

The UK has become embroiled in a constitutional crisis. What would happen if the people voted to return to the EU? Could there be a third referendum after another year of discussing the issue? Is there an end to the people’s demands to vote?

The case of the US is not all that different. After three years of Trump, California has begun to speak of seceding from the American union. Perhaps this is merely a kind of warning.

But it is also a fact that Trump has moved to punish California as well as the other states that joined it in the lawsuit against his state of emergency declaration in order to build a wall between the US and Mexico. Coincidentally, all those states — 16 in all — had voted against Trump in 2016.

In only two years in power, this president has landed himself in trouble with Congress, with both parties, with the Department of Justice, with the intelligence agencies, with the Federal Reserve Bank and with the Pentagon.

Equally, if not more important, this is a president who declared The New York Times an “enemy of the people”.

One wonders, did the British and American peoples understand the consequences of their political choices when they voted to exit Europe or exit the world?

* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies. 

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