A conversation I had a dozen years ago in Hungary about that country’s milk helps explain why the British voted to leave the European Union.
As part of the Hungarians’ efforts to transform their economy after communism, they planned to join the EU, which they saw as a more free-market-oriented alternative to the collapsed Soviet bloc.
But some policy folks I met with told me that one of their challenges concerned locally produced milk. It did not meet EU standards, so their dairies would have to go through a not-insignificant transformation. Furthermore, Hungarians liked their milk the way it was.
Were there health issues? Were people dropping in the streets of Budapest from lactose-related illnesses?
No! It was just that the EU wanted uniform standards for products across countries. Why not just label it “Magyar Milk”? I asked. Why not let consumers in Hungary, France, Italy, and elsewhere choose whether or not to buy “Magyar Milk”? Because Brussels said “No!”
The economic attraction of the earlier, postwar European Common Market was that it was creating a single market for goods and services. It eliminated tariffs and other barriers to commerce.
But the Hungarians were finding out that they were trading unelected masters in faraway Moscow for unelected regulators in faraway Brussels.
And the British people, fed up with decades of such regulators, have now said, “Enough!”
Most Brits backing Brexit no doubt understand that the EU is not a free trade zone. Rather, it is the internationalization of economic management by elites. And many see the continent swinging from one economic crisis to another, guessing which socialist economy will next sink like Greece, asking just how stagnant for how long the French economy will be.
A large part of the frustration for the Brexit Brits is the lack of autonomy and control over policy that so often is dictated from Brussels. Most don’t want to jump to laissez-faire capitalism—their loss—but they at least want a larger say in their economic fate.
And yes, immigration is a major issue. With their imperial history, the British are used to foreigners in their midst. You’ll find some of the best Indian restaurants in London!
But the rise of al Qaida and ISIS; Islamist attacks in London, Madrid, Paris, and Brussels; and the Syrian refugee crisis represent a clash of civilizations and a challenge to what is left of the Enlightenment values that created the modern world. The past associations with radical Islamist clerics by London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, and his censorship of signs that offend his religious dogmas are more indications that the concerns of Brexit backers are legitimate.
There is, sadly, a possible darker danger to the vote to leave the EU. The legitimate concerns could become more tinged with an irrational xenophobia—an indiscriminate lashing-out at all foreigners—and with an economic nationalism that will stifle free trade.
The West has been experiencing a slow-motion version of the collapse that took place in the Soviet bloc. The economic, political, and social crises caused by statist and corrupt, crony policies cannot be mitigated by those same policies that caused the crises in the first place.
The West is at a crossroads. The British voters have tried to pull their country back from the path that leads to the abyss. Britain, the Mother of Parliaments, helped give the world the values of individual liberty and limited government. The British people, as they recommit to those values, are now showing the spirit of Winston Churchill, who in the face of tyranny and defeat said, “We shall never surrender!”
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.