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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

I was wrong on Brexit

Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The three words you are least likely to hear from an academic are “I was wrong.” Well, I was wrong to argue against “Brexit,” as I admitted in public last week. By this I do not mean to say “I wish I had backed the winning side.” Rather, I mean “I wish I had stuck to my principles.”

For years I have argued that Europe became the world’s most dynamic civilization after around 1500 partly because of political fragmentation and competition between multiple independent states. I have also argued that the rule of law — and specifically the English common law — was one of the “killer applications” of western civilization.


I was a staunch Thatcherite. I was a proud Eurosceptic. So what on earth, many old friends wondered, prompted me to take the side of “remain” in the referendum on EU membership?

A part of the answer is that I sincerely convinced myself that the costs of Brexit would outweigh the benefits. But I too readily trotted out the doom-laden projections of a post-Brexit recession from the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, and others. I accused the proponents of Brexit of being “Angloonies” as opposed to Eurosceptics. My most desperate sally was to compare Brexit to a divorce — desperate not because the analogy is a bad one (it still fits rather well) but because I myself am divorced.

Why? The answer is partly that 14 years of living in the United States had taken their toll. Americans since the 1960s have wanted the Brits inside the EU to counterbalance the French, whom they do not trust. I had started to think that way. But a bigger factor — I must admit it — was my personal friendship with David Cameron and George Osborne. For the first time in my career, I wrote things about which I had my doubts in order to help my friends stay in power. That was wrong and I am sorry I did it.


The reality was that the EU’s leaders richly deserved Brexit and British voters were right to give them it. First, the warnings I and others gave about European monetary union back in the 1990s have been wholly vindicated.

Second, Europe’s supposedly common foreign policy has been a failure. In the Arab “Spring,” European governments intervened just enough to make the Islamist winter worse. In Ukraine the Europeans overreached without having the credibility to deter the Russians.

Third, the EU institutions mishandled the financial crisis. Today, long after American banks were sorted out and the economy returned to growth, the crisis drags on in Italy.

Nor is that all. Last year EU leaders — and especially Angela Merkel — made a disastrous mess of the refugee crisis precipitated by the Syrian civil war, turning it into a mass migration crisis. They wholly failed to secure the EU’s external border. Finally, they utterly misread the mounting public dissatisfaction — not only in Britain — with the consequences of unfettered free population movement.

Promising a referendum was not Cameron’s mistake. That promise was probably crucial in his winning the 2015 election. His mistake was to accept the risible terms that the European leaders offered him back in February on EU migrants’ eligibility for benefits, instead of marching out of the conference room and announcing that he would campaign for Brexit. My mistake was not to urge that.


My recantation has been greeted with roughly equal measures of delight and derision. Such is the fate of those who admit error: crow is on the menu and will be for weeks to come. The question now is: have I learned enough from this to be worth reading in future?

The debate in Britain since June seems in one important respect to have got stuck. Many “Remainers” have dug in deeper and waste their time dreaming up ways of derailing Brexit. The Brexiteers meanwhile are dividing like 19th-century Protestant sectarians over how “hard” Brexit should be. All seem oblivious to the key point that the referendum result has sent a shockwave through the Continent, the full consequences of which have yet to be felt. Behind the frigid, forbidding facade of Michel Barnier and other EU representatives, the rest of the EU is in a ferment similar to the populist mood that produced both Brexit and Donald Trump.

I do not believe there will be other exits: not Grexit, not Italexit, not Nexit, not Frexit. But I do believe that major political changes are coming to Europe. The process is already under way in Italy, after Matteo Renzi’s downfall in yet another referendum. Next will be Holland, where Geert Wilders’s conviction last week will only boost his popularity.

Then comes the French presidential election in May. Can Marine Le Pen win? Ask the pundits and pollsters and they will say “non.” But remember what their counterparts said about Brexit and Trump. Greece will move to the right. Even Merkel, with her call last week for a burqa ban, knows she must shift rightward to survive.


I was wrong about Brexit and I was wrong for the wrong reasons. But now divorce proceedings are getting under way and it is a relief to be back on the right side.

The good news? Not only was I wrong about Brexit. So were the EU’s leaders. And their people know it.