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Brexit and Trump-Sanders are part of something bigger: Paul Heise

Posted 5/3/17

Brexit, the vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, is not the catastrophe that people seem to think it is. The European Union-watchers would have you believe that the departure of …

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Brexit and Trump-Sanders are part of something bigger: Paul Heise

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Brexit, the vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, is not the catastrophe that people seem to think it is. The European Union-watchers would have you believe that the departure of the United Kingdom means that the European Union will shatter. Maybe.

Anyway, the UK doesn’t belong in the EU and consistently fought paying the full price of membership. The sooner everyone admits that, the lower will be the cost of their exit. Sometimes you just have to admit that the parts don’t fit. That doesn’t mean that Brexit and Trump-Sanders aren’t part of something larger. They are.

The European people and leaders invested not just their wealth but their soul in the project of making a united Europe and avoiding another war-ridden century. They may have rushed the expansion when taking in the Eastern Europeans but that project will succeed. The United Kingdom is, as always, a special case. Unlike its neighbors across the channel, the UK is a neighbor and not a family member. The biggest problem is that the UK knows it is not “European.” When the Brits use the word Europe they are referring to the other side of the English channel.

The reasons for this are deeply embedded in their history and psyche. Historically, the Roman influence with its sense of the law and private property did not survive the Anglo-Saxon conquest. More recently, the Napoleonic and Hitlerian forces were stopped only by the channel. Britain was twice spared invasion and conquest that the continental powers suffered.

Occupation fundamentally changed the conquered nation, and France and Eastern Europe know this, as does Germany. The European countries that opted out of full EU membership were those on the periphery like Sweden who had a weaker core European experience. Or they are those too small to match the negotiating power of their larger neighbors.

The UK was never a core member and with Brexit has now opted out of everything, while both parties fear the consequences, even as they see it as necessary. The British value the special relationship with the United States greater than their relationship with their European neighbors.

Adam Smith, the great English economist, suggested in 1776 before our revolution, that England and the colonies unite and the king move to the colonies. Today, the UK prefers a U.S. neo-liberal, free market economy over the supposedly overbearing EU rules.

Admittedly, something larger is going on. Brexit has been seen as a populist rejection of the British elite. In this respect, it is like the vote to elect Donald Trump as president of the United States, which was also a rejection of the Washington swamp. In fact, European union watchers are seeing this same populist movement rising in France, the Netherlands and Eastern Europe. The governing elite of the European Union, those who guide and guard the European project, are being rejected by the voting citizens. This amounts to a continent-wide crisis of confidence.

The historians, pundits and politicians in the United States and Europe used to call these periods of worker upheaval a Peasant Revolt or an Age of Crisis. The history of Europe, including the UK, is a story of these recurring worker revolts, with declining frequency and intensity as the means of controlling workers improved.

The part of the story that is constant is the reason for the revolts. First, historians see increasing income inequality, next is declining income or wages and third is an external event such as famine, plague, war or religious backlash. The General Strike of 1919 was specifically a complaint about income inequality, low wages, dangerous working conditions and immigration. From the 14th century and the Great Rising to 2016 and the Trump-Sanders campaigning, the causes espoused by the workers have always been the same.

We know the problem is what it has always been: income inequality. And that the solution is still to raise wages. It is our turn to fight for and return to the high corporate taxes and the rising wages of the Great Moderation of the 1950s and 1960s. Everyone prospered.

Paul A. Heise , of Mount Gretna, is a professor emeritus of economics at Lebanon Valley College, Annville, and a former economist for the federal government.

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