15. 3. 2017

Our problem with the radically unexpected stems from the fact that we only have the tools of the expected to deal with it. “The mind can never foresee its own advance,” wrote Friedrich von Hayek without necessarily equating advance with progress. This unavoidable limitation of our predictive powers may be one explanation why experts often vastly overshoot or undershoot when estimating the impacts of low-probability outcomes such as the recent Brexit decision of the electorate in the United Kingdom. (The other may by the tendency of politicians and their constituencies to confuse the real world with the world they would like to see.)

Although the effects of the vote to separate from the European Union will take years and perhaps decades to play out, one thing seems to be clear already: Britain shows no sign of sinking beneath the waves it had once ruled. The imminent collapse of the economy and social fabric that some had predicted has not materialized. The latest figures on consumer spending and employment show that the UK has even derived some benefits from the weakening of the pound that followed the vote, the credit agencies see possible economic slowdown but no looming risk of a recession, and the regional and local governments look forward to their share of the “Brexit boost,” i.e. the money that Britain will no longer have to contribute to the EU budget. And although the more euro-leaning parts of the kingdom, Scotland in particular, have been vocal in letting their displeasure about the outcome of the referendum be known, and in keeping their options open, there seems to be no imminent breakdown on the horizon.

On the European side, the worst fears seem to be over as well for the moment. There has been no immediate meltdown of the Union, no visible tendency in countries with strong Euroskeptic feelings to follow suit, no rush for the exits. With the exception of some prominent figures in the European institutions, the ill-considered temptation to punish the British as deserters has subsided somewhat. Currently, Turkey seems to pose more of a problem for the EU than Britain, which may be just as well.

The long-term effects on the economy, security, and stability of both the United Kingdom and the EU may or may not be more serious, and will depend on the wisdom, the goodwill, and the negotiating skills of the two sides once the article 50 of the Treaty is triggered, probably sometime around the New Year. (Those who believe it will never be triggered can keep on dreaming.) Just as in any divorcing marriage, the rational need to minimize the damage of the break-up, to protect and equitably share the assets of the marriage, to provide for the security and well-being of the offspring, and to preserve what can be preserved of the relationship for the benefits of both partners will battle the irrational impulse to vent out one’s own frustrations, to punish the wrecker, to prove one’s own worth by diminishing the worth of the other, and to keep as much of the spoils as possible for oneself. Hell may have had no fury like a woman scorned, in the words of William Congreve, but that was before the invention of party politics.

It is perhaps time to remember, on both sides of the English Channel a.k.a. Canal La Manche, that to be European is not primarily about sharing institutions, legislation, and directives, but about sharing the same values, beliefs, traditions, and feelings of identity. As long as we can cross the Channel from either side and still feel comfortably at home, the problems over the separation that both sides will undoubtedly face can most likely be managed.

Michael Žantovský

Michael Žantovský is the Honorary Board Chairman of the Aspen Institute Central Europe.

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