Did you naively think the whole EU membership debate had something to do with Europe and its smörgåsbord of cultures, cuisines and intellectual enlightenment? No doubt some of those who voted to leave the EU reminisced simpler times and older ways where at least we had a sense of social cohesion based on shared values, but most simply wanted to regain control over the country's administration so it works in the interests of its current citizens rather than serve as a social engineering playground.
Nostalgia is not unique to Britain, but it is easy to understand why those who endured the repressive dictatorships of the mid 20th century may be keener on belonging to a community of peaceful free-trading European nations. For many the expansion of the European Economic Community and its later transformation into the European Union coincided with a period of unprecedented economic and technological growth. Yet these apparent advances have failed to improve the perceived quality of life of most Western Europeans. The relative socio-economic security of the 1950s, 60s and 70s has given way to a new era of permanent volatility in our jobs, family structures, local communities, housing and dependence on external organisations.
So come April 2019 the UK will no longer be half in the EU, it will be half out of it. Some imagined the UK could regain its national sovereignty, stabilise migratory flows to more sustainable levels, forge new more advantageous trade deals and give our young people a chance to learn new skills through greater labour market protection. Alas all that is happening is the UK will technically be able to open its markets even more to the rest of the world. I suspect the end game will be like being an associate member of the EU, NAFTA and ASEAN with special deals with India and Australia. None of these trade deals are likely to restore power to our Parliament. Quite the opposite, such trade deals will merely transfer yet more power to unaccountable multinationals, headquartered not only in places like Chicago or Frankfurt, but in locales as exotic as Hyderabad, Mumbai, Shanghai or Seoul.
If you still harbour illusions in the European Dream, Martin Schulz, former President of the European Parliament and current leader of the German SPD (social democrats), let the cat out of the proverbial bag by openly advocating a United States of Europe and urging countries that do not share this vision to leave. What's also clear is that the international elite no longer follow the lead of the United States administration. The USA's share of the global economy has been steadily declining for over 50 years. China's economy is set to overtake the USA's by 2025, while many leading trading countries are moving away from the US Dollar. Worse still US-led intervention in the Middle East has lost the all-important battle of hearts and minds as its collusion with Saudi Arabia and Israel becomes all too clear. The Syrian Civil War, fuelled by foreign mercenaries, marked a watershed as Russia, rather than the USA, helped defeat ISIS and enable millions of displaced Syrians to return to their homes. Both the BBC and CNN have lost enormous credibility as the facts on the ground fail to match the fairytale accounts of evil Assad-led forces targeting heroic freedom fighters.
While most Europeans want both peace and stability through international cooperation on environmental and security matters, few outside the metropolitan elites and idealistic students, want a United States of Europe with open-door mass immigration from Africa and the Middle East. Yet this is precisely what Europe's politcial elites offer. Only coercive means, usually threats of economic meltdown, can persuade national electorates to support tighter integration. Oddly the strongest resistance to European Federalisation comes not from France, Italy, Spain or Portugal, whose economies have struggled to adapt to the Euro, but from Eastern Europe, whose people do not want to accommodate rapid change in the ethnic composition of their countries. Eastern Europe has seen its fair share of ethnic cleansing over the last century and the spectre of Islamic hordes at the gates of Budapest and Vienna loom large in the collective psyche.
However, Europe faces another little-mentioned crisis. The continent's primary strengths have long been its educational excellence and strong skills base. Yet most technological innovation now comes from the United States and East Asia. Hundreds of millions of Indians, Iranians, Chinese, South Americans and Russians can now compete with Europe's younger generation. As standards continue to rise in much of East Asia, they're falling in much of Europe as schools have to accommodate children from new migrant communities, who seldom speak the local language at home. At the same time many traditional low and medium-skill jobs are undergoing smart automation leading to the growth of workless underclasses and the proliferation of part-time non-jobs such as charity awareness raisers. With millions of Eastern Europe's best and brightest now in the UK, Germany or Scandinavia, local youngsters are less motivated to pursue many high-stress professions such as nurses or plumbers. More striking is the dramatic fall in the scientific excellence of major Western European countries, of which only France remains in the top ten countries with the most engineering graduates. And guess which major country has the highest number of engineering graduates relative to its population? Not Germany, France, Italy or the UK, but Russia. In computing we see similar trends, Russia, Ukraine and the Far East produce proportionally more talented programmers, especially in the more demanding domains of machine learning and artificial intelligence, than North America and Western Europe. Whereas once the top developers would be attracted by higher salaries in California, in our interconnected world more and more startup companies run their operations east of the old Iron Curtain. JetBrains, the company behind Android's new Kotlin programming language (named after island near St Petersburg) comes to mind. Not only does Google rely on many engineers trained in East Asia and Russia, but both Russia and China have their own home-bred alternatives, Yandex and Baidu.
So what was really going through the minds of our politicians as they negotiated the UK's new relationship with the EU? I suspect their two main concerns were how to continue the process of globalisation on all fronts while the UK nominally leaves the EU and second how to placate public opinion back home and keep alive the illusion of democracy safe in the knowledge that the only likely alternative government, a Corbynite Labour administration who may well end up in coalition with the more business-friendly Liberal Democrats, will seek an even deeper relationship with the European Union and do nothing at all to address the issues that concerned voters most, unbalanced mass migration and job security. In just two years since Jeremy Corbyn's surprise election and Momentum's takeover of the party, Labour have fully embraced a future of extreme interdependence. If you dream of a borderless utopia with universal basic income guaranteed by taxing global corporations, the EU may well seem a side issue or a mere means to an end. As things stand, I can only think the future of our country's younger generation may be slightly better if we emulated the high-skill economies Japan, South Korea and Russia than follow Sweden and Germany's recent conversion to welfare consumerism (a common argument among Swedish politicians is that while many of their low-skill immigrants do not work at least they contribute to the economy through their consumption).
The sad truth is we're a small archipelago that imports around half of its food and is a net importer of most manufactured goods and raw materials. A larger population will only increase our dependence on imports. Our geography and historical ties push towards two dwindling blocs, either with Donald Trump's USA or with the EU. Both are discredited on the world stage. The EU tries to cast aside the imperial legacies of its constituent nations, while collaborating with the USA in the destabilisation of the Middle East and its attempted economic colonisation of the Balkans and Ukraine. The world is changing before our eyes. The whole Brexit debate may be swept aside as smart automation and the growing power of East Asian multinationals consign both the EU and US to the status of regional bureaucracies overseeing divided communities that could easily descend into civil war.