Somewhat to the surprise of their political elites (a surprise that itself speaks volumes about those elites' detachment from their citizens), the citizens of the United Kingdom voted yesterday - in the tradition of parliamentary democracy and its principle of responsible accountable government - in a courageous act of citizenship that has reaffirmed their national sovereignty and rejected the EU's Napoleonic aspirations. In the process, it may help trigger the long-term recovery of the values of democratic citizenship and accountable government among the European nations themselves. Such values are not anachronistic luxuries but rather are among the very few resources citizens have to resist the overwhelming power of global capitalism and its bureaucratic managerial elite.
The EU had its remote beginnings in an admirable effort, in the wake of the disaster of the Second World War, to reestablish a framework for European political life and economic cooperation largely in harmony with the philosophies of the post-war Christian Democratic parties. The 1951 Treaty of Paris formed the European Coal and Steel Community among France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. This developed, through the 1957 Treaty of Rome, into the European Economic Community. Over the last 30 years or so, however, the European Community has evolved into something somewhat different and has long since left its Christian Democratic philosophical origins behind. In the process it has produced a growing gulf between its bureaucratic elite and the ordinary citizens of its constituent states. It is those increasingly disgruntled citizens whose voice is now being heard.
The future will not be easy - either for the United Kingdom or for the other European states. Parliamentary democracy and responsible accountable government are not problem-free. They require commitment on the part of citizens and hard work on the part of those the citizens elect to govern in their name. The dominant dynamic of post-modernity has been citizen passivity, characterized by diminished commitment and participation and the denigration of cultural diversity and experience reflected in tradition. To reverse that course will be a challenge. There are no guarantees in political life. But perhaps this single step will be partial beginning in that multi-mile journey.