On Brexit, the UK/EU Divorce

Published June 24, 2016

Going into yesterday’s vote in the United Kingdom, the smart money was on “remain” – that is, that the UK should remain a member of the European Union. Pre-election polls gave remain the edge, the exchange rate of the British pound was trending up, and the betting markets were giving 3-to-1 odds. But, when the votes were counted, the people were found to have voted to “leave.”

The financial markets today have reverberated with anxiety. There’s talk of Denmark, Italy and Netherlands demanding an opportunity to leave. And, the week prior, Switzerland quietly withdrew its application to join.

The polls were wrong. They often are nowadays. Polling is an art as well as a science. Anybody can pull a sample of beads from a jar in a laboratory, and in so doing estimate the percentage of white- versus red-colored beads remaining in the jar. But surveying people is another matter. The challenges facing real-world pollsters are continually changing. Nowadays, we suspect that people who are disrespected by the elites – called stupid and racist, compared to Nazis and so forth – are reluctant to participate in polls.

The EU has been suffering an on-going crisis since 2008. First, the crisis revealed that certain European countries had been cooking the books all along, running deficits in excess of what was allowed. Already in weak financial condition, these countries were unable to borrow from the marketplace to sustain their spending and, so, turned to the European Central Bank and to the creditor nations of Europe for loans. One after another, bailout loans were approved for them in return for “plans” to bring their deficits under control. But, Greece has been totally unable to comply with these plans, and Portugal, Italy and Spain have been only marginally able. The nations of Europe have since been drifting apart in terms of fiscal and economic performance, with those on the southern tier grousing under “austerity.”

The on-going crisis reveals the fundamental problem with the European project. It is that the culture of the northern countries is different from that of the southern countries. In the north, work and saving are embraced in what was once called The Protestant Ethic. While certain people point out that these countries have generous programs of social insurance, they also require work.

If a person does not find a job in the prescribed period of time in Sweden and the northern states of Germany, the government will place that person into a job, even a make-work job. In contrast, unemployment benefits never end in Spain. The people of northern Europe view those of the south with resentment because of the continuing transfers of income. And, the people of southern Europe view those of the north with scorn for being cheap and demanding.

The cultures of the northern and southern Europeans, while different, can be complementary. Consider a marriage of an accountant and a musician. This marriage can be heaven or hell. One has the ability to earn a living, and the other to bring joy to life. If they appreciate what each brings, it will be heaven. But, if they don’t, if will be hell. One day, perhaps, the northern people of Europe will be able to enter into a partnership with the southern people. But, until they come to appreciate each other, they should have an affair instead of a marriage.