Happy Independence Day, America! How American History could have averted Brexit




As Americans celebrate Independence Day from the British Crown, it is a perfect time to reflect on the decision by the United Kingdom to declare independence from the European Union. Students of American history might have anticipated the outcome of the Brexit vote and a look at our history might serve as a warning to the remaining members of the European Union.

The noted American philosopher, George Santayana, famously opined, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense). If we look back at the Revolutionary Era in America we find an interesting parallel to the crisis now facing Europe.

In 1776 the Second Continental Congress simultaneously declared that the colonies were independent of the British Crown and appointed a committee to draft a new constitution for a union of the new states.  This committee produced the Articles of Confederation under which the new national government would operate. Yet, these Articles were quickly recognized as too weak for an effective government and by 1788 they were replaced by the United States Constitution. The European Union has failed to recognize that a weak confederation can’t long endure. Brexit may, therefore, be the beginning of the end of that insufficient effort.

There were many problems with the Articles of Confederation. Among these was the lack of a unified tax base, making it impossible to pay off national debts.  Lacking the ability to tax its citizens, the new government could not raise an army. Foreign relations became an amalgam of divergent interests.  A weak central government led most citizens to view their allegiance to their state rather than to their country. These weaknesses were quickly identified and within a few years the Articles were replaced with the Constitution, which provided a much stronger central government. The benefit of the stronger federal system created by the Constitution is evident by the endurance of our county 228 years after its adoption.

The EU, on the other hand, did not seek to create a strong central government. Instead, individual member states maintained unilateral power of taxation. The EU has no army and no common foreign policy. Individual member states are connected by little more than a policy of free trade and migration. In these respects, the EU more closely resembles the U.S. under the Articles of Confederation

If the United States could not survive under a weak national government why should we be surprised if the EU cannot not do the same? Inevitably, some member states will outperform others and feel pressed to retract support. As the economically stressed countries of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (the so called “PIG nations”) drain the EU of its resources, the more productive economies, such as France and Germany, are likely to revolt. The Brexit vote may some day be viewed as a modern “shot heard round the world”, leading to the wholesale disarticulation of a union insufficiently conceived and inadequately effectuated.

As Americans, we can be confident that our Constitution provides for a cohesive union unlikely to be shaken by the vicissitudes of current affairs. What we are witnessing in Europe is nothing less than an encomium to the genius of our founding fathers. It is unfortunate that the Europeans did not have the foresight or fortitude to remember the lessons of American history. Perhaps, then, their current troubles might have been averted.


-Jeffrey Oppenheim, M.D. is a neurosurgeon and the former Mayor of Montebello, New York