The Brexit clock ticks down to the last few months and still no way “out” in sight. Despite the optimism that a deal has been done, the political mood sours by the minute.
Here we explore the ironic similarity between current events and the scene almost two hundred years before, and look for lessons offered.
We suggest that the true problem behind Europe’s current crisis is not the established bogey man, but instead globalization forces and the the threat posed by technological advance, just as Europe found after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.
A hundred days, two hundred years ago
In the early stages of the Nineteenth Century, Napoleon Bonaparte had become the scourge of Europe and had been the only thing uniting the competing European powers (which included Russia). In many ways he was the glue that held Europe together, preventing conflict between Britain, Holland, Austria/ Hungarian empire and Russia, each with aspirations to be a global super power.
Once he was gone, after the famous “Hundred days”, Europe had to come to terms with its own issues, and immediately set about competing with one another “offshore”. It took a further 50+ years before that competition led to the Franco-Prussian war. Why did it usher in so long a “peace in Europe” – was Napoleon the problem after all? Well no, as we’ll see next.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana
Back in the 1800s, the World was just embarking on a mass globalization of resources, coupled with enormous technological advance (notably sea travel), that actually held the superpowers (especially within Europe) together. At least, to the extent that they saw economic competition more profitable than war. They continued to compete, but their “frictions” and fights took place outside of Europe, on the seas and in the New Worlds of Asia and the Americas. Aided and abetted by multinational companies that were often bigger and more powerful than countries themselves, like the East India Company and its Dutch equivalent (VoC), these forces kept the mainland of Europe quiet, at least compared with the previous 100 years. Global trade, and with it prosperity, “globalized”. So too did conflict.
Free of major conflict for nearly 40 years, inevitably mass conflict returned to the European continent, starting with the Crimean War. Ostensibly a conflict “on the fringes of Europe”, the war between Britain and her allies against Russia set in motion the typical 15-20-year cycle of conflicts on the Continent which had dogged Europe for centuries. The next in the cycle, the Franco-Prussian war, arguably set the stage for the War to end all wars, World War One.
The Hundred Weeks
Two hundred years ago it was the Hundred Days of Napoleon’s second coming which resulted in this re-birth for Europe, at Waterloo, in Belgium.
So it appears ironic that, having voted to leave the EU (BREXIT) in June, 2016, the UK finds itself in an almost hundred week (two year) negotiation phase which still looks like a ride towards a fresh Waterloo for Europe.
It’s now becoming obvious to many (at least Peter Mandelson) that there really is no exit from this Escher-like maze we call the EU.
Every proposed “solution”, like a customs union, “Norway“, “Canada-plus“, etc, has consequences that make the cake inedible. It’s becoming obvious the UK simply can’t have her trade-cake and eat it herself (ie no EU immigrants). If you haven’t followed all the machinations, or still find it all unfathomable, here is a good short summary of the blow by blow, including what happens if there is no deal.
But as with 200 years ago, the problem isn’t the recognized “Napoleon” of our times, the EU.
Instead we feel, the problem is the success of globalization and the threat of new technologies that will change the balance of power. Just as 200 years ago, with the advent of maritime technological advance, the growth of global trade and the discovery of global resources, the “globalization” of power forced countries to behave according to global demands and strategy had to become global. Little point in scrapping with the neighbor over land or citizens when there was much more at stake leagues away in the New Worlds.
No different today. For a country like the UK to become obsessed with local challenges like the EU, it has to ignore the requirements set by an ever globalizing World. Who will you trade with after you’ve left? On what terms? How will you remain relevant in an ever louder World, where size creates volume. How do you disentangle your ever globalized economy from an equally globalized neighbor. We are all but astronauts on a spaceship in deepest space. The concept of leaving the ship is not logical. But neither is the more draconian, “HAL” type concepts of ridding oneself of the irritating neighbors.
Seventy-odd weeks later – who EU pushing?
Race up to today, and one is greeted with the irony of a Dutchman and a Frenchman pushing and shoving after a motor race, and a Brit offering the only common sense perspective. Scenes at the Brazilian Grand Prix, on Remembrance Sunday of all days, seemed to some to parody the events of 1815. Then It was the British that saved the (Dutch) Orange state from the tentacles of the Frenchman, Napoleon (though a German, or at least Prussian had a supporting role there too).
But this was only a parody, the you-tube meme of today’s reality.
The real rhyme of history is playing out in the BREXIT negotiations, which are now inside the last 6 months of the 2 year negotiation time frame, and already resemble a scene from an action movie. Will the hero escape from the vault before the whole edifice blows up and swallows him/her and all around?
The clock is ticking down fast.
Knowing me knowing EU
So today we see strong similarities with the past, and perhaps can better put into perspective, the benefits of the current, unworkable situation the UK faces with the EU.
Globalization continues to force countries and even superpowers to prefer economic competition to physical conflict. Yes wars are occurring, but not on the scale of the tragedies we revered on last Sunday, Remembrance Day.
Similarly, Britain plays a “voice of reason” (at least when she’s not suffering her own bout of madness) within an EU that continues to wonder why peace and co-operation between neighbors beats a good scrap.
The plain fact is that it’s the power of globalization that makes leaving a club like the EU impossible, at least if you don’t want to leave yourself exposed to the power of large multinational companies exploiting the benefits of this globalization.
EU know best
Old clubs like the EU are indeed the Trade Unions of the 1980s, pushing back against the forces of globalization which would, left unmatched, reduce the value of labor to the lowest international common denominator.
The optimists like us see this common denominator being raised by the overall benefit of globalizing forces – the most important of which being peace and security, which reduces the costs of armies and defense and of course the cost of reconstruction after conflict – but the pessimists have a point, and it’s the responsibility of sovereign powers to make sure the economic fruits of this globalization are spread more evenly amongst their citizens. Where sovereigns become too small to make a difference, groupings, like the EU, make total sense. Size matters when being heard.
So, does the EU work in this sense? Is this the best Europe can do to help prevent a globalized race to the bottom in equality, living standards and perhaps even freedoms?
That is a question that will need to be reconsidered regularly. Arguably it has done a good job in reigning in the excessive monopolistic power of the multinationals, and note, there has been over 70 years of peace, an unheard of record in the annals of these communities.
But this has come at a cost. Just as the broader Globalization has required risk sharing and the build up of cross-country liabilities which of themselves, create frictions, the same is vividly clear within the EU. The mercantilist success of Germany has spawned the PIGSs of the Club Med.
All pigs are equal, but some are more equal than others
The result of this acceptance of “risk sharing” by European countries is the ever more “Napoleonic” behavior by the very bureaucrats that European citizens have entrusted with this challenge. Brussels.
However this time the Napoleon they parody belongs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm rather than the annals of European history.
In a clear case of some pigs are more equal, the bureaucrats of Brussels seem to have become the problem, and it’s this that Britain rails against. Indeed those disillusioned with the EU upon the Continent, find a similar conclusion.
But this anger and disillusionment masks the true problem.
Until the true challenges are recognized – that of globalization and technology – and the fact that unitary acts (much like leaving a wine club won’t cure alcoholism) offer little comfort against its challenges, more and more counties and their citizens will queue to rail against the Napoleons in Brussels, but with few legitimate options of retribution.
Waterloo, finally facing my Waterloo
To conclude, don’t expect the current, or any other UK government to miraculously come up with an “exit plan” that actually achieves the “will of the people”.
Indeed the current “plan” looks more and more like “an extension of negotiations masquerading as an exit”.
Therefore, the most likely endgame remains in our view, a second referendum and/or a formal extension of the negotiation period past the two years. But for how long?
Ad-finitum comes to mind – since, just as 200 years ago, a hundred days or weeks won’t be enough to solve the real challenges facing communities like the UK – the continued successful globalization of the World economy which makes global responsibility more important than local frustrations, and the onset of technological advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, which will make these “local” worries seem like a picnic.
Now for some ABBA….