The United Kingdom left the European Union at the end of January, three and a half years after the public voted for Brexit in a national referendum, the first time a major country has left the bloc in the postwar history of European integration.
Looking back to 2001 when the fervor for European integration was more or less at its apex, I was ridiculed when I expressed my doubts about the EU's permanency to a group of Europhiles. They believed the EU had successfully dampened passions for sovereignty and nationalism. This does not reflect reality, however, as one observes Brexit's drama unfold. In fact, the EU has failed in this respect.
No situation lasts forever. There are many who believe this even without bringing up Niccolo Machiavelli, who believed that any political system decays or changes, and none -- whether monarchy, aristocracy or democracy -- remains permanent. If anything remains the same, it is people's passions.
The pull of sovereignty and nationalism is deep and tenacious. When those passions do not seem inflamed, they are only asleep. The Brexit vote took place against the background of multiple backlashes against the inflow of immigrants, the spread of EU's regulatory authority, stagnant low wages and other matters. The well of such passions will never run dry.
Some say that these form the basis of Britain's political reason. However, how valid are they?
First of all, regarding the economy, the nation will lose 130 billion pounds ($170 billion) over the next 15 years using conservative estimates by the British government.
The economic damage will be even more severe if the United Kingdom and the EU do not successfully negotiate the terms of their relationship, including striking a trade deal, within the transition period by the year's end. In that sense the Brexit drama is a far cry from an end.
On the other hand, the tumultuousness on Britain's sociopolitical front is reflected by the increase in crimes involving race and religion. In early 2016, prior to the Brexit vote, 58 percent of people who were of an ethnic minority said they encountered racism. In 2019, it had grown to 71 percent. In fact, hate crimes rose by more than 21 percent in England and Wales three months after the Brexit vote.
Separatist trends within the country are strengthening. It is understandable. Boiling down to its essence, Brexit is English nationalism demanding independence from the EU. Scotland and Northern Ireland, with different ethnic characteristics than England, preferred for the most part to remain in the EU.
That division will not immediately lead to a breakup of the United Kingdom but will lead to growing and deepening resentment in the country.
Despite all this, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been liberally sprinkling words of eternal optimism. He says that a truly free "global Britain," now that it has escaped the EU's yoke, will be realized. People supported him in the general election.
There was little institutional change before Johnson's election and so far the economic impact such as diminishing wages, rising prices and labor shortage is not noticeable. But these problems will increase in the future.
In terms of foreign relations, Britain will have to maneuver adroitly against competing pressure from the EU and the United States. The European bloc has little desire to allow Britain, which decided to diverge from its regulations, to access its free markets. Meanwhile, the United States will press Britain to buy its products now that it is unconstrained by EU regulations.
Ultimately, Britain, considered a politically mature democratic nation, made a politically unwise choice. This implies that something similar could happen to any democracy. It is of course incumbent for Japan -- a relatively stable democracy -- to reexamine itself.
There are nearly 10 million people sustaining themselves on a yearly income of 1.86 million yen ($17,000) in Japan. Add to this an influx of workers and technical trainees from overseas and there is strong opposition to such facets of globalization, including economic partnership agreements, and people harbor a deep mistrust of the political elites driving those policies.
Japan's domestic situation is not much different from Britain's.
A stable society is the foundation of mature democracy. Japan should use the British case as a lesson to draw how to maintain it. If it is not achieved, we will have to heed Machiavelli's words and be ready for the currently stable Japanese democracy to transform.
(Ken Endo is head of the Hokkaido University Public Policy School. He earned a Ph.D. in politics at the University of Oxford and was a researcher at Harvard Law School, a research fellow supported by Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a visiting professor at Institut d'etudes politiques de Paris. He is also the author of numerous books including Togo No Shuen (The Demise of Integration) and Oshu Fukugo Kiki (Europe's Complex Crisis).