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Would a Brexit Really Be So Crazy?

It might be just the wake-up call the European Union needs.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Britain is a world by itself; and we will nothing pay for wearing our own noses.

Cymbeline, Act III Scene 1

On Thursday, if British voters decide to exit the European Union, it is likely that sentiments such as the foregoing will have proven decisive. The line comes from one of the Bard’s late romances, and the character who throws it in the teeth of an imperial Roman emissary is the comic villain of the piece: the crass, braggadocious, dim-witted son of the queen. Cloten is just the sort of scoundrel for whom patriotism is purported to be the last refuge.

You might say it’s a part Nigel Farage, the head of the U.K. Independence Party, was born to play. Certainly, in no small measure, the emotional support for the “Remain” vote stems from the conviction that if Farage and his fans are for leaving, surely leaving must be a terrible idea that only a bigot or a fool could support. In this view, cleaving to Europeanism is not merely the only sensible choice, but the only idealistic one as well.

But in Shakespeare’s play, things are not so simple. The comic villain has a vital role to play in bringing the drama to its happy conclusion. And so, too, may Nigel Farage—not only in Great Britain, but in Europe.

The European Union has lost what luster it had as a consequence of the debt crises of the past decade. And in the past two years, the huge increase in refugee flows triggered by civil wars in Syria and Libya, compounded by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s unilateral decision to open the gates to hundreds of thousand migrants, have led to an entirely new crisis in the legitimacy of European institutions. To its critics on the left, the EU means rule by German bankers out to destroy the social compact of Europe’s poorer nations. To its critics on the right, the EU means rule by politically correct bureaucrats blithe to the destruction of Europe’s historic national identities.

But manifest though these failures have been, they are not actually a rebuke to the European idea itself. The EU’s predecessor organization—a bloc based on the trade of coal, steel, and other commodities—was founded in the wake of decolonization. At the time, the nations of Europe were too small to operate as great powers upon the world stage (and Germany, in particular, would have aroused fearful opposition if it had tried to do so). Practically speaking, to wield influence commensurate with its collective power, Europeans needed to act collectively. With the rise of China and India, and the huge demographic expansion of the global south, this assessment is even truer today than it was when the common market was founded in the 1950s.

From an idealistic perspective, meanwhile, the case for a cosmopolitan, transnational conception of citizenship remains as valid as ever. Europe represented an alternative to the visions of forcible unification that animated Napoleon and Hitler, and, implicitly, to the Iron Curtain that divided the continent into armed protectorates of America and the Soviet Union, respectively. Today, it represents a rebuke to Putinism and ISIS alike, precisely because it says that Europe is defined by its institutions rather than by common blood, religion, language, or territory.

Where Europe went wrong, and where it has gone increasingly wrong over time, is precisely in the design of those institutions. Aside from occasional referendums to ratify various agreements, Europe at a very fundamental level was designed not to earn the consent of the governed, but to bypass the need for that consent. Europe’s parliament is exceptionally weak; real issues are resolved by the European Commission, which is not accountable to the voters, or by the European Central Bank, which is barely accountable to the member nations’ governments.

Europe does not suffer from its lamented democratic deficit by accident, but as a consequence of the divergent interests of its most important founding members. France wanted to preserve the cherished French state, and use Europe as a force multiplier for French interests. Germany wanted to preserve the power of the cherished Deutsche Mark, and use Europe as a mechanism for making German power acceptable. Both countries largely got what they wanted—but the price was a set of institutions that was maximally insulated from any electoral rebuke.

This disjunction encouraged Europe’s bureaucrats to understand their job in extravagantly idealistic terms, even when it involved the grubbiest of horse-trading. And once the European idea came to be seen as both necessary and providential, any opposition came to be understood as purely atavistic.

Enter Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and the campaign to “Leave.” That campaign has been characterized by a variety of demagogic claims, particularly around immigration. But its core message resonates beyond the precincts in which xenophobia holds much sway, because that message is fundamentally about the accountability of institutions. To take the case of immigration, it’s not about who gets to come, but about who gets to decide who gets to come.

It is a mistake to identify the nationalist impulse as exclusively—or even implicitly—about blood and soil. Consider how the 2015 referendum on Scottish independence was understood at the time, and how that compares to how the Brexit is being debated. In both cases, elite opinion lined up in favor of staying together. Not coincidentally, so did the bulk of the economics profession. But few thought of Scotland’s vote as a vote for blood-and-soil nationalism.

This was in part because the Scottish National Party went out of its way to emphasize that it favored a diverse, multicultural Scotland, but also because the case for local control was made in a way that did not implicate an ethnic basis of citizenship. The pro-independence voters wanted Scotland to have control over its own resources, and its own decision-making. They wanted responsive and accountable institutions, and believed they would find those closer to home. And they were willing to pay the likely economic price.

Why is the Leave campaign understood so differently, when the issue of control is even starker? Scotland, after all, had full representation in Westminster, where Parliament is sovereign. It has far more influence over the affairs of the United Kingdom as a whole than Britain is ever likely to have over a united Europe.

Similarly, it’s a mistake to read the significance of the cause exclusively through the character, or even the arguments, of its leader. Unlike Donald Trump, Nigel Farage is not up for chief magistrate. If Leave wins, he will not become prime minister. And far from marking the end of Europe, a British vote to leave could be the blow that finally prompts a rethinking of Europe’s mode of governing.

Comic villains can play a crucial role in bringing about a comic resolution. Cloten plans to murder Leonatus, the hero of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. He also, with his mother, helps instigate war with Rome over a refusal to pay tribute. But it is that war which brings Leonatus back to the wife whom he had previously thought faithless, and which brings Britain’s proper heirs back to their royal father.

And after victory in their war with Rome, Cymbeline oddly offers tribute to Rome once again. But on reflection, it’s not so odd. Rome has a great deal to offer Britain, but what is offered must be offered in fair exchange, and not as a matter of submission—and that can’t happen without Britain’s successful revolt. Similarly, if the EU’s leaders take Great Britain’s departure to heart, they will work to redress Europe’s democratic deficit, and make its institutions more responsive to Europe’s electorate. If that happens, Britain may discover that joining again makes sense further down the road.