Brexit: a leap into the unknown?
'Should states behave selfishly or altruistically?'
Edmund Wilson | 16 June 2016

The press’s response to the migration crisis ranges from sympathy for innocent refugees to paranoia about an invading horde. Yet how will we respond in the Brexit vote on 23rd June? When it comes to it, should states behave selfishly or altruistically? Or, as international relations experts would put it, should we vote Leave and be “pluralist”, where self-preservation dictates what states do, or vote Remain and be “solidarist”, where common humanity is key? And if we vote Leave due to fears about migration, will we really be leaping into the unknown? This choice is far less modern than it appears.

Brexit supporters might reasonably argue that pluralism allowed Britain to remain independent for centuries. Pluralism emerged from the ashes of empire, in an attempt to create perpetual peace through the balance of power. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) dismantled the Holy Roman Empire's dominance in Europe, as well as ending the Thirty Years’ War which had left millions dead and economies bankrupt. In this settlement, Europe’s monarchs radically acknowledged that states, as opposed to empires, were sovereign. The maxim “to each prince, his own religion” became the basis for a pluralist peace. States signed a declaration against arbitrary attack: the state’s toys were its own, and no one else’s.

But the Remain camp might point to pluralism’s riskiness. Napoleon’s challenge to pluralism was only narrowly beaten by a European alliance committed to maintaining the Westphalia balance. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s attempt to achieve hegemony over Europe in 1914 also nearly succeeded, as his troops came within artillery range of Paris twice.

When Hitler came closer still, the altruistically constituted United Nations was created in order to avoid an infinite loop of conflict. This called the pluralist logic into question: if a supra-national body can tell states what to do, then surely state sovereignty is meaningless? The question endures today: what really controls world politics - solidarism or pluralism? The former represents a borderless world constructed like the European Union, and the latter a Westphalia-like world of independent, sovereign states.

The rise of solidarism has certainly changed international society, and European actions from sanctions on Russia to migrant camps in Calais are sometimes motivated by what are deemed moral imperatives. Yet solidarism has not replaced pluralism. States in 2016 may be motivated by a wider variety of factors than in 1648, but it is the states that remain the pivotal actors within world decision-making, and not any ethical super-state as early EU thinkers envisaged.

Nevertheless, the 23rd June has the power to change the course of history. We can reassert the EU as one of many mediators of a borderless world, where altruistic solidarism prevails. Or we can wind back the clocks to a system of states that has intermittently kept the peace, albeit where states base their decisions on self-interested pluralist grounds. The first, Remain choice is a bet on the continuation of the 70 years of peace we have enjoyed since the Second World War. The Brexit option, far from being a step into the unknown, would hark back to a bygone age of 300 years of perilously maintained balance of power.

Which Europe would you prefer? And if you read this article after 23 June, which Europe have we chosen?


Image sourced under Creative Commons License.

James Routledge 2016