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Do not stare into the abyss

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In an age when most people associate global instability with wars, civil wars, and international terrorism originating in the Middle East, few remember a time when Europe held the unrivalled position as the leading centre of global mayhem. But between 1914 and 1945 World Wars One and Two would convulse the entire world in a paroxysm of violence without precedent in the history of humanity. And nothing better illustrates the breadth and savagery of these wars than the US decision to unleash two nuclear bombs against Japan, killing more than 200,000 people in two flashes of light from the skies.{{more}} If the radioactive mushroom cloud is the most enduring symbol of man’s capacity to wipe out all human civilization, Hitler’s genocidal campaign against the Jews in the Nazi death camps in Europe stand as the most powerful reminder of how prejudices, xenophobia, and racism could fuel such atrocities. And so in 1945, when the last shot was fired, more than 70 million soldiers had died on the battlefields alone, tens of millions would die on the home fronts, and hundreds of millions of lives would be forever altered.

Europe lay in ruins.

The creation of the European Union in 1958 was a direct response to this nightmare. Proceeding from the principle that countries bound together in a common economic enterprise would never go to war against one another, over the next seven decades the EU would expand itself into 28 countries, becoming the most powerful trading bloc in the world. It would also transform itself into a political union, where member nations sacrificed some of their sovereignty for the well-being of the greater collective. This would entail constructing literally thousands of agreements, both small and huge, by which the members of the union engage one another and the world. And the most fundamental component of those agreements is the free movement of people, goods, and services throughout the union.

Last week, British voters shocked the global economy by voting to leave this union. As global markets crashed, trillions of dollars have already gone up in smoke. The British pound cratered to its lowest value in more than 30 years and continues to fall. The global repercussions are being felt everywhere, a stark reminder that Europe retains the capacity to destabilize the world far beyond the traumas of the Middle East.

The crisis invites two questions: (1) how did we get here and (2) what does this portend?

The first question is easy to answer, the second less so. As Caribbean people have long recognized, free trade is a double-edged sword. While most people might benefit, some do suffer. This is precisely what has happened in Britain. Moreover, during the crash of 2008, the British government responded with increased austerity programmes that devastated the safety net for those segments of the population entrapped by persistent poverty. As British citizens began to see the EU as enabling immigrants to compete against British citizens for jobs and the decreasing benefits of the welfare state, immigrants of black and brown hue became increasing scapegoated as responsible for British distress. And to win over sceptics in his party and secure for himself a second term in the Prime Minister’s Office, the British Prime Minister made an extraordinary gamble: he promised to hold a referendum on Britain remaining within the EU, although he himself opposed leaving the EU.

His gamble failed.

What the future holds for Britain, however, is less clear. The vote to leave the EU is non-binding, but the British already have a glimpse of the political and economic crisis this would spark. Indeed, a decision to leave the Union could lead to a dismemberment of Britain itself, as the Scots and the Irish could seek independence from the United Kingdom. Moreover, it remains unclear whether Britain could leave the Union without Scotland’s agreement, something they would not do.

To leave the European Union then, the British Government must do the one thing it has refused to do: it must formally invoke Article 50 of the European Union Treaty, informing the EU that it will leave. This decision is irreversible. Instead, David Cameron has announced his retirement to be effective in October and has said that it will be up to his successor to inform Brussels of that decision. In the meantime, three million British citizens have launched a petition asking for a new referendum to essentially overturn the decision in the previous referendum. In this moment of economic and political paralysis, the British might do well to reflect on the warnings of the German philosopher, Nietzche, “Do not stare into the abyss because the abyss might stare back at you.”

The British are staring into the abyss right now.

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