Winston S. Churchill famously stated, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried."
Democracy works smoothly when there is broad agreement on issues. When a controversial matter arises that splits an electorate, anger and suspicion may intensify the supporters of opposing positions, and government may grind to a halt. Aggressive campaigns on social media can exaggerate benefits and dangers of any pending legislation.
This is the dilemma facing the United Kingdom over the matter of secession from the European Union.
In a 1946 speech, Mr. Churchill called for the creation of "a kind of United States of Europe." His words inspired a series of multinational treaties. A 1951 treaty created a six-nation European Coal and Steel Community to coordinate and regulate heavy industry in the member countries. Six years later, this morphed into the European Economic Community with broader powers to abolish tariffs and regulate atomic energy. Member nations accepted the UK as a member of EEC in 1973. A 1975 UK referendum showed strong support for membership.
The Treaty of European Union, signed by member nations in 1992, shaped the present-day EU. The treaty removed passport checks at borders, facilitated free flow of goods and services among member states, and laid the groundwork for common policies about foreign affairs, immigration, security and legal issues. A European Parliament, with membership based on population, established policy and ruled on disagreements among member states.
In 1998, the EU established the European Central Bank. The Euro, deigned to serve as a common currency, came into circulation in 2002. The UK chose to maintain the pound sterling as its currency.
Currently, 28 nations with a combined population of more than 500 million people belong to the EU. Nineteen member states use the Euro as a common currency. In 2018, the EU, representing 7% of the world's population, generated almost 29% of the world's Gross Domestic Product.
Critics of UK membership in the EU contend that the UK contributes far more to the EU than it derives in benefits. They further argue that EU policies created a flood of immigrants into the UK.
Following election of a new UK Parliament in 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron called for a referendum in May 2016 on the UK's continuing membership in the EU, a position that he strongly backed. About 71% of eligible voters turned out. Almost 52% voted to leave the EU. Voters in metropolitan London, Scotland and Northern Ireland strongly supported continued EU membership.
March 31, 2019, was set as the date for the UK's formal withdrawal — termed "Brexit" — from the EU. Negotiations earlier this year led to an extension of this deadline to Oct 31.
Following the referendum, Cameron resigned as prime minister; Teresa May succeeded him. In the ensuing three years, Parliament has been unable to agree on terms for Brexit. The majority Conservative Party is fragmented. One faction favors a "hard" Brexit—severing of all ties with the EU. An equally determined faction seeks a negotiated Brexit that would allow UK membership in a free-trade union. The Labor party is split. A new Brexit party gains strength. Brexit opponents demand a second referendum on EU membership, contending that the consequences of withdrawal were not spelled out at the time of the 2016 vote.
The Conservative Party does not have to face a national election until 2022. After failing to gain approval for a negotiated Brexit, May announced her resignation effective June 7. The Conservative Party will elect her successor. A dozen or so candidates seek the job, some vowing support for a hard Brexit, others stating that this would lead to an economic and political disaster. UK democracy is caught in a perfect gridlock with no clear way forward and threats that the UK itself may not survive.
Compromise is crucial to the functioning of a democracy. Extreme positions on policy and the demonizing of one's opponents lead to fragmentation of political parties, anger and distrust of the institutions of government. The UK's dire predicament is a warning for the U.S. as we face our own complex, deeply divisive controversies.
Contact Clif Cleaveland at firstname.lastname@example.org.