The Long Unraveling

     The post-war order came at an extraordinary cost. A cataclysmic event for humanity, millions killed, whole cities bombed into oblivion.
     My father, a soldier in Europe, and my mother, a citizen of Paris, survived that cataclysm. And in his photos of Paris during the time after the war, you can see the explosion of life, the sheer joy of being alive.
     I was born in that time.
     A common news analysis of Britain’s EU exit is that it exhibits an unraveling of the long entente that followed that period of liberation. There is something in that, but I think the unraveling started quite a while back.
     The nativist parties have been growing in Europe for years now, moving from the fringe toward the mainstream. Their raison-d’etre is to push against internationalism and indeed against immigration.
     So take Denmark, a country I came to know well through many friends and visits. The Danes are long past the internationalism and solidarity integral to the concept of a European Union — but they are dependent on trade.
     When I was there a couple decades ago, their doggedly, determinedly liberal outlook made it seem as though the cultural revolution of the 1960s in the U.S. had become permanently engrained into their society.
     But their nation took in a large number of refugees in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. And over the years, from what I saw and heard, a big segment of population ultimately had enough of the foreign culture they had invited into their country.
     And so the Danish People’s Party grew and grew to become a political kingmaker.
     You saw that post-compassion sentiment in the Danish reaction to the current wave of refugees out of Syria and Iraq. The nation turned a cold shoulder, arresting those who tried to march through the Danish land. Sweden then put up a gate in the middle of the main bridge from Denmark to Sweden and began checking passports.
     Denmark loves statistics, and they are easily accessible in the Danish libraries and through the government. When I spent a summer learning some Danish and studying the culture, I was struck by how closely the various numerical measures of society matched up between England and the Nordic countries.
     So it is not so surprising that after another Middle East war, the English too were done with the concept of welcoming the weary, the poor, the tempest-tossed. While their fears may be baseless, as many have argued, in all likelihood they put the ‘leave’ vote over the top.
     Because the other main factor cited by politicians and pundits alike resentment of far-away, meddling bureaucrats in Brussels has been there since the EU was born.
     I remember being in the Gare de Lyon in Paris with my mom who was by then a petite, older French woman who always dressed carefully, including a hat, when she went out in public. I loved the French for treating her so well.
     One of the clerks in the train station joked with her that he really did not want to put her connection through “Mastricht,” saying the name with a vehement inflection. He was alluding to the 1992 Mastricht Treaty that established the EU and its currency.
     The bureaucratic French, with the concept of central, regal power deep in their DNA, ratified the controversial treaty but just barely.
     By an equally slim margin, the independent Danes rejected it. They approved it on a second vote only after the “four Danish exceptions” were included, having to do with keeping the Danish krone as their currency, and control of their own defense policy, home affairs and citizenship.
     So there has long been skepticism in the European nations about the cession of sovereignty to far-away bureaucrats. But there was largely a consensus that the loss in political power was worth the gain in the economy.
     So there stood the status quo, more or less, with a simmering resentment against Brussels but the ship EU holding together. Then along came Greece, in a sense the Achilles heel of the enterprise.
     The near bankruptcy of the Greek government ended up demonstrating the harshness of the EU central banks as debt collectors, and brought an ill-informed resentment from the Germans. But that too sort of settled down, at the expense of Greece’s throttled economy.
     Then, in their remarkable compassion, the Greeks opened the gates of Europe to a flood of refugees and immigrants, at one point 5,000 per day. And in the end, those numbers and images, combined with enduring skepticism over the central bureaucracy, I would suggest, put the British vote over the top.
     What the future holds is not clear, possibly some regression towards a primarily economic union. But the world’s troubles runneth over these days, and the desire to build a moat around the castle is unlikely to abate.
     After the British vote, a family member texted me and our family is the embodiment of the post-war order “Frexit next.”

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