Lessons from ‘Brexit’

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Lessons from ‘Brexit’


The BBC cited five factors — an angry electorate, globalization, immigration, lost pride and populism — as the reasons for Britain’s drastic decision last week to leave the European Union. The surprising “Brexit” outcome indicates how explosive political forces can be when rage adds up with a populism recipe.

What has made the British so angry? Anxiety about the future, disgruntlement toward the political and social mainstream, and distrust in the EU institution bred — and fed — the public rage. Demagogues riding on public angst fanned agitation with little relief and mediation from a dysfunctional parliament and a dull intelligentsia community.

Undermined political leadership in recent decades has lost faith from the populace due to their failure to address several major problems.
First, government leaders let fiscal and financial crises get out of control by neglecting to solve fundamental problems following the 2007-2008 financial meltdown. The EU was at the epicenter.

Second, the EU suffered identity crisis while the leadership turned a blind eye to the severe imbalance among member countries in sharing the benefits and costs of integration. Skepticism and fissures deepened and widened in the meantime.

Third, advanced nations that long championed globalization fell to the self-doubting fallacy of shifting to a protectionist position when their interests were at stake. While cheering civilian movements for western-style democracy, they had been neglectful in the consequences of political upheavals and economic breakdowns in northern Africa and were confounded by a flood of immigrants in search of a freer and better life in the West. One folly after another built up to today’s catastrophe.

What brings us to the question from “Brexit” of whether it is right and reasonable to put the nation’s future in the hands of the populace discouraged and enraged by their reality through a direct vote.

The state must deliberate on ways to prevent emotion and impulse from building up to implosive collective action and protect national interests from exploitation by rabble-rousers.

The British now may feel self-gratified in restoring a sense of pride from retrieving full sovereignty. But they have to pay a dear price. The repercussions are not small and the rift between the British and the rest of Europeans has gotten deep. The aftermath may leave a lengthy and broad pain and dent on the world. Can a member country’s leave from the EU bring about such sea change? The world has become something of a mountain slope with soil muddy and weak from frequent showers giving grounds to landslides upon a flood.

The international society must join forces to prevent the ripples from having far-reaching effects and remove the uncertainty as soon as possible. The leaders of Britain and EU must settle their differences and finalize exit talks early. The EU commission must present a reform outline to restore order and calm the rest of the EU. World leaders also must be ready to address the pending challenges.

First, they must design ways to address public distrust and apathy toward representative politics and relieve social rage. Second, they must contemplate whether a referendum can be an alternative to the dysfunctional legislative and how a destructive end can be avoided when populism guides direct votes. Third, they must revise and develop globalization, blocs, and a free trade system to alleviate polarization, stratification, and divide between the rich and poor countries. They should consider special talks to address these questions.

Korea also should draw a lesson from the developments. Local politicians must reform themselves before they also are bombarded by an avalanche. They must tend to various ailments in the society to remove the potential risks before implosion. The country must embark on serious discussions in skepticism and hostilities toward political and government leaders, doubts about the five-year single-term presidential system, anxiety over the lethargic economy and escalating threats from North Korea, corrupt ecosystems from deep-seated collusion between the business and bureaucratic sector, a hopeless youth and senior population, disregard for safety in the society and increasing crime and suicides from lack of anger relief and control mechanisms.

The discussions must begin in a planned and calm manner before campaigning for next year’s presidential election starts. But we must be on guard for the rise of political forces to ride on public anger and populism fever, especially during the next presidential election.

The candidates for the next state leader should be willing to step into the crowd and hear their voices out directly instead of falling prey to populism. The representative democratic system must be restored to act as the channel to speak for and answer to public disgruntlement and rage. The “Brexit” then, could be a priceless lesson for us.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jun. 29, Page 28

*The author, the former minister of commerce, industry and energy, is the chairman of the North East Asian Research Institute.

Chung Duck-koo
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