I am a firm believer in the European Union. That is why #Brexit is breaking my heart.
At the same time, as a citizen of the European Union member state Sweden I recognize the behavior and the thought process among those who voted for Great Britain to leave the EU. Because Sweden, too, has dipped its toe into the anti-EU referendum pond.
The foundation for the European Union was laid in 1957 with the signing of the Treaty of Rome between Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany. This treaty expanded on the coal and steel union from 1952 by creating a customs union. Since then, the original customs union has morphed and expanded into the behemoth that today has Brussels as its capital and includes most countries in what used to be Western and Eastern Europe.
Great Britain joined what was then called the EEC in 1973.
Sweden joined in 1995. By this time, the EEC had become the EU.
The era of the European Union has been the longest period of unbroken peace between Germany, France, and England. This is important because when these three countries go to war–which they have done repeatedly throughout the past millennium and a half, the last time being between 1939 and 1945–all of Europe suffers. The integration of these three countries with each other through the Four Freedoms of the European Common Market–the free movement of people, capital, services, and goods–has enabled a peaceful collaboration unheard of in history before the middle of the 20th century.
And even though Brexit might come as a shock, looking at history the undercurrent of an anti-EU movement has been there from the start. Only after much debate did Great Britain join the EEC in 1973, after having been a member of EFTA since its inception in 1960.
The first referendum on whether or not Great Britain should remain in the EEC was held already in 1975. 66% voted in favor of remaining.
However, Great Britain continued to run its own race within the EU.
Great Britain is not part of the Schengen Area, first signed into law in 1985 and since then expanded upon to create an area of free movement across national borders between EU members states.
Great Britain is not part of the European Monetary Union, i.e. Great Britain has opted to keep the pound (£) as its currency instead of switching to the common currency of the euro (€).
And this is where I, as a Swedish citizen, recognize some of the reasoning behind the Brexit vote.
In 2003, Sweden held a referendum whether or not the country should give up its currency, the krona (SEK), and switch to the euro. The result of the referendum was 52% against the euro and 42% in favor. The Swedish government at the time, led by Social Democratic Prime Minister Göran Persson, was in favor of switching currencies and of course considered the result of the referendum a major disappointment.
In the post-referendum political analysis it was however revealed that the Swedish euro referendum was not so much a vote for or against the euro but rather a vote for or against the general policies of the Swedish government.
In other words, the Swedish voting population used this referendum as an opportunity to express their discontent with their government.
Based on the initial post-referendum analysis of Brexit, it would seem that this kind of reasoning has played a part in the decision making of some of those who decided to vote in favor of Great Britain leaving the EU. The fact that regions of Great Britain that are the most dependent on EU financial aid voted against an EU membership points towards this conclusion.
Of course, the issue is not as clear cut as that. Blended with the domestic political situation of Great Britain of the past number of years and the skepticism towards the European Common market which has been present ever since 1973 is the idea of Great Britain as an island nation that goes its own way.
Great Britain was once the center of the largest empire the world has ever seen. When the British Empire was at its height it controlled 25% of the world’s landmass. London was, without exaggeration, the capital of the world. Since then the Empire has become the Commonwealth, consisting of now-independent nations some of which still have the British monarch as their head of state. The way I see it, the Commonwealth is an ingenious strategy to keep the thought of Empire alive without having to deal with the controversies caused by actual imperialism.
During World War II, before the United States joined the war after Pearl Harbor and before Nazi-Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Great Britain was the only country that stood against Nazi-Germany’s complete domination of Europe. The heroics of the British general population during the Blitz is still talked of today, as are the energizing speeches delivered by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the sacrifices made by the RAF.
The result of the British referendum shows that older voters were more inclined to vote for Brexit while younger voters were more inclined to vote Bremain. This generation gap could be an expression of the changes that Europe and the global economy has gone through during the age of the EU, which also coincides with the age of decolonization and the dismantling of the British Empire.
There is an old saying that goes, “There is fog in the Channel. The Continent is isolated.” This worldview was perhaps a feasible way of looking at the world while India was still the jewel in the British crown.
Today, it is Great Britain that is isolated. And less than twenty-four hours after the referendum result was announced, the British population is already suffering the consequences.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.