After the Brexit: Navigating without a Compass

Could the United Kingdom take another vote? Of course it could; no legal obstacles stand in the way. A referendum, being a national consultation, implicates other nations only insofar as its result is duly reported to them. Suppose a critical number of British citizens were to become convinced that they had been deceived and that Nigel Farage, among others, had brazenly lied to them. Suppose Parliament were to act on the petition for a second referendum that, at this writing, has already gathered the signatures of more than three million Britons. Or suppose that Parliament might just be reluctant to ratify a vote of this scope without first consulting the legislative bodies of the other groups that make up the United Kingdom (notably the Scots).

None of these possibilities is likely. But none is unthinkable, either. And nothing prevents the sovereign people in Parliament assembled from citing one of them (or another) as grounds for reconsidering its earlier decision and changing course. Unique circumstances breed unforeseen outcomes. More evidence that, as Marx liked to say, history is more imaginative than man and often takes dramatic turns.

The tone of the leaders who are pressing the British to come quickly to terms with their choice is a scolding and vengeful tone, the tone of a betrayed spouse urging an errant mate to end the ambiguity and get out of the house.

Is such a turn to be desired? Absolutely. Because what was true yesterday will remain true tomorrow. And one cannot very well shout from the rooftops that the Brexit is a terrible thing that spells doom for the Europe of Monnet, Adenauer, and Churchill, or plead that Europe and the idea behind it are hanging in the balance, and then pass up a chance, however remote, to prevent the irreparable from occurring.

Yes, the odds are low. And I understand the argument that it is necessary at this point to be clear and move quickly; I understand that the present situation--this intermediate, indeterminate state in which one no longer knows whether Great Britain is still in the common house or already alone in the dusky solitude of triumphant sovereignism--is no good for anyone. But we are faced with a question of consistency and principle. Assuming we were serious when we portrayed the Brexit as a dirty business that would have no winners (and it is never too late to do the right thing or to be heard), we cannot just step blithely from there to saying, "Too late! The deed is done! You should have thought sooner about the meaning and the consequences of your vote!" If we were to do that, how could we shake the painful feeling that all of this was, for us as well as the British, just a game?

The truth is that there is something deeply disagreeable in the tone, not only of the commentariat, but also of the leaders who are pressing the British to come quickly to terms with their choice. It is a scolding and vengeful tone, the tone of a betrayed spouse urging an errant mate to end the ambiguity and get out of the house. A bit like the tone we heard last year directed at the Greeks: "You wanted Tsipras? Well now you've got him and, what do you know, even more austerity!"

Politics is not moralizing. It is the art, not of punishing, but of repairing. Not of radicalizing people by pushing their backs to the wall or making them pay for their mistakes but rather of arriving at compromises--with others and with oneself. And even if the Brexit continues to the end of its course, which still appears to be the most likely outcome, the challenge will not be to teach the English a lesson ("This is what you get for voting the way you did! Tough luck for you!") but to have enough sense to try to ensure that the decision is no more costly than it has to be for everyone.

One thing that has become very clear is that the departure of Great Britain--should that come to pass--will provide a life-size, real-time lesson for countries tempted to follow it. For decades Europe's advocates have insisted that the Union is a source of peace, democracy, and prosperity. And for decades their opponents have retorted that the opposite is true--that there is nothing like a nation to ensure those benefits to its citizens.

Well, now we are going to find out. From here on it will be the facts, whether we welcomed them or not, that determine the outcome. And in the months and years to come, from the pace and direction of economic growth, employment, and national wealth in the United Kingdom, and from changes in the ratio of companies choosing a base in London against those electing to relocate to Frankfurt or Paris, we will be able to deduce which of the two contrary propositions was correct. We should pay close attention. How often has history offered us such a clear opportunity for empirical testing of the validity of heretofore unverifiable theories?

And yet that is not the whole story. For there remains an important question that will have to be answered soon and in the midst of uncertainty: More Europe or less? Should we call time out to bind the wounds? Or, contrarily, should we push ahead? What have the British taught us? That Europe's pace was too rapid? That one should not meddle with the eternal order of nations? Or that we were too indecisive? That it was because we hesitated too long at the crossroads that Europe is now dying?

I am of the second school. I believe that if we have sinned it is through a lack of will and a surfeit of confidence in the invisible hand of history, which we believed would lead us quietly and effortlessly into the European dream. And I am convinced that only a giant leap in the direction of union can pull us out of this rut. But at the moment no one can know for sure. We are navigating without a compass.

Translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy