Small Britain, Small Europe
The tensions revealed by the British elections are representative of Europe's wider dilemmas.
This article was originally published in Spanish by El Mundo on 7/5/2015
In his apocalyptic “The Second Coming”, the Irish poet William Yeats wrote that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. Penned 100 years ago, shortly after the first collective European suicide, this poem is bang up to date when it comes to the state of the United Kingdom today and the decadence of the European project, not to mention the general frivolity of modern politics.
For many years now, pro-Europeans in London and on the continent have failed to spark enthusiasm for the project; nor are they sufficiently convincing about its relevance in the 21st-century or the benefits of the EU for the UK and vice versa.
In times dominated by simplistic political discourse and short-termism dictated by the immediacy of Twitter, well-founded arguments, real data and any appeal to the public interest of tomorrow, as opposed to the individual interests of today, melt into the overriding cacophony. This is doubly the case when clichéd concepts such as “democracy”, “people” and “solidarity” are reiterated so often by a discredited political class that we have almost forgotten their meaning and value. Let us also be honest about our own role as citizens and our current stance: given the choice between the cold reality of Britain’s trade deficit with the EU and whichever colourful diatribe voiced, pint in hand, by Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, and Tory Europhobes, many Europeans now sympathise more with the latter.
Clichéd concepts such as “democracy”, “people” and “solidarity” are reiterated so often by a discredited political class that we have almost forgotten their meaning and value.
We live in a time of fears (of the immigrant, European or otherwise; of the economy; of terrorism…) and existential insecurity. In the search for security and collective identity, therefore, the appeal of Nation or tribe and promises of protection, real or otherwise, hold greater weight than a commitment to that great abstract entity called Europe and its most visible institutional embodiment, the EU. This is especially true when the policies of recent years – including terrible errors and virtually no acceptance of responsibility (for the euro crisis and the rest) – have confirmed the self-fulfilling prophecy invoked by some Europhobes, minimising Europe’s success stories. These are achievements that are so much part of our everyday lives we will only remember how important they were when we no longer have them. David Cameron, with his yes-but-no and no-but-yes, has to juggle three open conflicts: convince his European colleagues of the need to reform (or re-found) the EU; convince, via a referendum, the disinterested British population; and, along the way, defeat his own internal rivals from the militant Europhobic bloc.
There are similarities with the situation in the Catalonia of Artur Mas and the ANC; faced with an unappealing status quo and in the absence of a positive plan to inspire people, a “no” campaign and move towards rupture gain momentum -it is simply more attractive. Orwell was absolutely spot on when he said that people “don’t only want comfort…and common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty parades.” If, as Europhobes and populists from France to Hungary are doing skilfully, we add to this emotional factor a sheen of rationality (Europe as problem versus nation and sovereignty as solution), you get a powerful political impact, especially when ruling elites make this agenda their own.
Just as in a marriage crisis, the arguments from both sides for averting the “Brexit” Armageddon range from nostalgia and an idealisation of what the relationship once was to a crude use of fear.
So the customary platitudes about the role of the UK in Europe and about Europe itself will not do. In both Downing Street and Rue de la Loi, there is a dangerous sense of drift. Just as in a marriage crisis, the arguments from both sides for averting the “Brexit” Armageddon range from nostalgia and an idealisation of what the relationship once was to a crude use of fear, threats and moral blackmail over the risks of a break-up and the importance of the accumulated wealth (a crass error in one’s private life and in diplomacy). To put it bluntly, the importance for Europe of today’s UK in diplomatic, military and commercial terms, or even political dynamism, is somewhat relative. Despite the old-world respectability of Whitehall diplomacy, the axis of European foreign policy is, and will be even more so in the near future, Germany. To talk of the military impossibility of a Europe without the UK is, like almost everything, highly debatable in the midst of cutbacks in Britain’s defence budget, limited potential for political initiative after the Iraq intervention (and the “no” vote in the Commons over Syria), and an ambiguous view of European Defence. Furthermore, British enthusiasm for EU enlargement – another area in which the UK used to provide leadership – is not what it was due to an adverse climate with regards to the migration issue and expansion. True, the UK still has a capacity for global projection and power above the EU average. Brexit would make Europe smaller.
But here’s the thing: with or without London, it seems that Europe actually wants to be smaller and less relevant in the world. As there are Little Englands, Petites Frances, Pequeñas Españas and Little Italies also exist. We are moving towards Fortress Europe, one which fears immigrants; those that manage to arrive without dying at sea and those who are already here (and were even born as Europeans). The Europe which cannot escape from this combination of introspection, self-sufficiency and conflict with itself. That which has so little belief in the legitimacy and originality of its project that it fears referendums and disciplines those who propose them.
With or without London, it seems that Europe actually wants to be smaller and less relevant in the world.
Whether they like it or not on the other side of the Channel, the fact is that the UK is currently the model European country in the sense that it represents several of the key tensions which are straining our system and that of nation-states. Britain is in the midst of a process of political and territorial fragmentation, which, in fairness, its democratic institutions are so far managing. At the same time, the country is struggling to adapt to an asymmetrical globalisation, supporting trade and finance agreements in Asia. Such global echoes generate populism in British society, leading to measures against immigration and the freedom of movement. The dominant security agenda post July 05 and post Charlie Hebdo circumscribes political liberties, with equal or even greater rapidity than in other member states. Like most of the West, the UK is dominated by spin of communication, the ‘selfie’ political discourse and the “there is no alternative” to current policies when it comes to the fundamental issues, feeding disaffection. This discourse does not convince, but it does distract.
These dynamics and tensions are similar to those which menace the EU. The European Utopia has almost become exhausted for two basic reasons: the realisation of the initial objectives which justified its creation, and the absence of broad consensus with regard to its essential purpose in the 21st century. The visionary Tony Judt was right 20 years ago when he warned of the risks of the “Grand Illusion”: thinking that having sprung forth in unique historical circumstances, the European project could be maintained (and expanded) for centuries and centuries, especially when its prosperity faltered.
To remain under this illusion without restoring the necessary consensus is to walk towards disaster or, at best, a zombie existence. In all honesty, despite the clumsy diplomatic manoeuvring and gratuitous populist nods, some of the Cameron government’s proposals deserve to be discussed. At least they are more interesting than those standard federalist declarations trotted out in some Belgian city which no one ever remembers and which have zero political impact.
Neither the UK’s nor Europe’s crisis can be seen in isolation from the deeper changes taking place in our societies.
Ultimately, neither the UK’s nor Europe’s crisis can be seen in isolation from the deeper changes taking place in our societies, particularly in the West, and which impact directly on the political community. Amidst a crisis of leadership and collective ideals, with narcissism the rule of thumb in human relations and the growth of polarisation and intolerance, great projects – be they individual states or Europe – are vulnerable, as is the very concept of commonwealth. Just what is it that unites us as national societies? And what unites us and what do we wish to attain as Europeans? I am afraid that for these questions, regardless of referenda, “yes” or “no”, we will need something more than new Churchills or Schumans.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.