A bizarre accident of timing paired the United Kingdom’s referendum to leave the European Union (June 2016) with the American election of Donald Trump (four and a half months later). Various folks with axes to grind – including Trump himself – have relished the apparent symbiosis between Britain’s majority vote to Leave and the narrow electoral college result. In other words, for the very few of us – or maybe I’m the only one – opposing Trump while supporting “Brexit,” this has been a tough week.
For most Americans and Britons, Trump and Brexit have become two sides of the same coin. As the folks who read this are much more likely to be American, I’ll focus on what makes the European Union … different. I made such a case  when the referendum was held.
Voting to Remain in the EU was a vote to allow the 27 other nations to impose themselves partially on UK legislation and UK taxation. It was a vote to stay in an institution whose leadership pushed aside elected governments in Italy and Greece to impose its will on those countries. Say what you want about Clinton and Obama, but they never forced a Governor to resign, let alone a Canadian or Mexican politician doing so. Whatever one thinks of Janet Yellen, she doesn’t dictate state budgets, let alone Mark Carney or his successor as Canadian central bank chief. The EU is not like anything American politicians – let alone American voters – have ever experienced. It is an unaccountable, anti-democratic, and sclerotic institution based on a 20th Century vision that has long passed its sell-by date.
That so many Americans are determined to defend this thing can only come from one fact: Donald Trump doesn’t like it. To be fair, supporting something Donald Trump opposes is far more often the correct thing to do. This is one of those rare exceptions, for one cannot disagree with Donald Trump’s views on the EU without agreeing with his assumptions about it.
To wit, Trump (and his Breitbartist enablers from Steve Bannon to Stephen Miller) see the European Union as a globalist organization, dedicated to pious internationalism above all. Nearly all of Trump’s opponents – on both sides of the Atlantic – swallow this assumption whole (indeed, for many, this delusion predated Trump’s political career). Simply put, it’s wrong.
The European Union is not a globalizing institution; it is a regionalist one. Unlike the North American Free Trade Area (where individual nations set their own trade policies with the rest of the world), the EU is a customs union – meaning little to no internal trade barriers and uniform external barriers. This kind of construct impedes global trade rather than encouraging it. Indeed, one of the chief arguments put forth by the Leave side (and yours truly) was that Britain could lower trade barriers with the rest of the world once it was outside the grip of the EU.
Of course, if the EU used its multi-national base to expand freer trade around the world, that would be different. In reality, however, the EU plays no such role. The only major free-trade agreement it has signed recently (with Canada, in 2014) remains unratified five years later. Even its current, temporary enforcement was nearly derailed by a regional government of Belgium. The EU is simply too unwieldy and too provincial to fulfill the globalizing role given to it by so many of its defenders and detractors – including Trump.
That hasn’t stopped the misperception from inflicting serious damage to the issue. Nearly every American has convinced themselves that a successful Brexit is somehow a win for Trumpism. Never mind that Boris Johnson – current British PM, the first pro-Leave PM Britain has had, and a supposed Trump acolyte – ended his predecessor’s policy for setting a limit of the number of immigrants coming into Britain and endorsed a policy that would be bashed as “amnesty” by the Trumpenproletariat (Independent ). Never mind that when Trump tried to convince the rest of the G7 to let Vladimir Putin back into the club, Johnson sided with the European leaders against him (CNN ). Trump says he likes Brexit, so Brexit must be bad.
The resulting polarization has cheapened the debate, while making it nearly impossible for defenders of the democratic world (of whom I consider myself one) to make ourselves heard. Thus, more and more Britons come to believe that Brexit is more about Trump’s vision than that of Michael Gove, or of Iain Duncan Smith, or even of Johnson himself – making Brexit not only less likely to happen, but also less likely to be liberalizing for world trade even if it does happen.
It takes a lot for an American to ruin another nation’s body politic without using military force, but sadly, Donald Trump pulled it off. Years after his poison has left the Republican Party and the conservative movement badly weakened, it is now impairing Brexit and the British Tories.