I have just returned from a trip to Europe where whether “to Leave or to Remain” is very much the question of the day. It relates to the national referendum which Britain will hold on Thursday- June 23, 2016 on Brexit: should it remain within the European Union or leave? The proponents on both sides have been quite strong in their respective positions accusing each other of exaggeration, if not misrepresentation. Each side has been ruthless and vigorous to varying degrees (The Economist (June 18, 2016 at p. 24-25)) to the point that some wonder whether the murder of the young MP Jo Cox was the result of the campaigning getting much too vitriolic. Without doubt, the vote will be based on emotion, not facts.
To highlight this Brexit issue, The Economist (June 18, 2016) printed several articles including an extensive essay entitled “Between the Borders” relating the history of the European Union. Starting with six members (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg) signing the Treaty of Paris in April 1951, today, it has evolved into 28 members. While in 1951, its members spoke four languages among 177 million people with 1.6 trillion dollars in annual output, today, its members speak 24 languages among 505 million people with an annual output of 19 trillion dollars. (Id. at p. 45.)
What intrigued me was that this essay (if not indeed, Brexit itself) unwittingly, was about cultural diversity. Within the world, certain cultures are “individualistic” while others are “collective”. With respect to the former, the individual’s interests come before the collective’s interests. Self-interest- “how can I benefit from this”- is paramount. In contrast is the collective interest or interest of society as whole- “I will do what is good for the community even though it may be not be good for me individually.” Whereas individual gain is encouraged in an Individualistic society, it is frowned upon in a collective society Examples of societies with this individualistic bent include the United States, Great Britain, and much of Western Europe. Examples of a collective society include Venezuela, Columbia, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, Thailand, and Iran. (Courtesy of Nina Meierding!)
Thus, Brexit is nothing more than a clash between individualism and collectivism.
In the 1950’s, the memory of World War II and of Nazi Germany and Bolshevism in Russia was fresh in the collective memory. While the individual states jealously guarded their respective sovereignty, they also wanted to keep Germany and Russia in check. So, for that moment in April, 1951, collectivism prevailed over individualism though not by very much. (Id. at 46- 47.)
However, as time passed, this union evolved into the European Economic Community in 1957 as purely a trade agreement among states (Id. at 46) (to allow free trade of coal and steel between Germany and France). Slowly, it grew into a more complex organization. As the years passed, the borders between the countries became open, a single market with consumer protection laws was created, as were a single currency, a judicial system, a central bank, and a central parliament. Some- if not all- of its members (still jealously guarding their individual sovereignty) no longer liked being controlled by an overriding authority (that is, a parliament, a court, a bank et cetera) situated elsewhere and over which they had little to no control.
Slowly, the common purpose or collectivism was becoming less and less important to the point that those in favor of Britain leaving the European Union see Brexit as “taking back control” of their country. (Id. at 26.)
Reading the series of articles in this issue of The Economist reminded me of the American colonists wanting to show their independence by having the tea dumped into the Boston Harbor because they did not like being taxed by the King/ Parliament from thousands of miles away to pay for expenses incurred during the French and Indian War and when they had no representation in Parliament. The slogan of the colonists was “taxation without representation.” (see,http://www.bostonteapartyship.com/boston-tea-party-facts )
Eerily, this is the same thing some of the British are saying to the European Union in a more modern way. They do not want to continue to send their share of revenue each year to the European Union and be told what to do by its legislature, courts, banking system et cetera without much control over the situation. Like the American colonists, they want a say in their future.
By the time this blog is published, the Brexit vote will be concluded. As I write this, the “Leave” campaign (individualism) is slightly ahead in the polls. Whether the final vote will reflect its edge in the polls remains to be seen especially in light of the murder of MP Cox. That event seems to have been a reality check of sorts.
But, stepping back from the intricacies of this campaign, one can learn a lot about cultural diversity; individualism vs collectivism. This is really what the Brexit vote is all about.
… Just something to think about.
Postscript: The “Leave” campaign won. The vote was 52% to 48% in favor of Brexit; The British are taking back control of their country. For now, individualism is more important than collectivism, but, as often is the case, the consequences of this vote are unknown and could have effects more far reaching than those in favor of exiting the EU could have ever imagined.