Brief Reflections On Why So Many People Care About Brexit

It is fascinating to see how many people are taking an interest in Brexit and the European Union as a whole. Up until then, one rarely heard the media, let alone the average American, give much attention to the E.U. or its various issues and dynamics. Generally speaking, we Americans tend to be an insular lot, and our interest in the world is usually limited to conflicts, the actions of rivals or enemies, or the saga of U.S. citizens abroad.

I suspect much of what is driving our interest in the event is the fact that 1) it involves a culturally similar country for which most Americans have an affinity and familiarity with, and 2) that Brexit and the E.U. as a whole represent debates and issues of universal relevance: sovereignty, integration, xenophobia, nationalism, globalization, popular will vs. representative politic, and so on.

For better or worse, the historical trend over the last couple of centuries is an increasingly integrated and more interconnected world, defined by an unprecedented level of exchange of commerce, media, culture, values, and people, and the subsequent interdependence all that entails. The European Union was and remains one of several markers of this trend, and by far the most ambitious and daring.

Having just returned from spending two weeks in E.U. members France and Spain, this topic is even more salient. I saw firsthand the large number of travelers of all ages from the various nationalities of the E.U., and all the subtle but appreciable ways in which the E.U. facilitates unity (flying between France and Spain was equivalent to flying domestically, lots of restaurants flaunted their E.U. credentials, etc.) Of course, there is more to judging the E.U.’s legitimacy and effectiveness than through the lens of a casual traveler. But it is precisely the subtle benefits of the E.U. that make loving and appreciating it, for all its issues, so difficult.

For all of its flaws and shortcomings, it represented a fascinating experiment in attempting to reduce centuries of war and enmity by appealing to a shared interest in peace and prosperity, namely through economic unity. Whether or not this model can be applied successfully and democratically to other regions, much less the world, remains to be seen, but there are no shortage of regional and international institutions, multilateral treaties, and grassroots transnational networks moving to that end.

Just as the country or nation-state is a political entity we take for granted – but is in fact a radically new form of political and social organization – so, too, may the E.U. be the beginning of a long-term transition towards yet another form of political identity and association. Obviously, it is far from a foregone conclusion, but it is interesting to see how it all plays out in my lifetime, and how much attention, discussion, and political action it is garnering from people across the world.

What are your thoughts?

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