BERLIN – The decision by the United Kingdom’s voters to “Brexit” the European Union is not an example of the British black humor that I love. It’s not “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “Yes, Prime Minister,” or “Fawlty Towers”; it’s just Boris, Michael, and Nigel and their disastrous political reality show.
Given the UK’s economic, political, and military significance, Brexit will leave a gaping hole in the EU. But it will not destroy Europe. At the moment, the same cannot be said of the UK. Will the country remain united, or will the Scots leave, with Northern Ireland seeking unification with the Republic of Ireland? Has Brexit paved the way for the decline of one of the EU’s most dynamic economies and the end of London’s reign as a global financial center?
The UK’s withdrawal from the EU is a hitherto unprecedented move and will no doubt throw up many unpleasant surprises. Until now, with the exception of Greenland, the EU has experienced only enlargements, which is why no one really knows how Brexit will take place, how long it will take (Greenland’s exit took three years), and what implications it will have for the UK and the EU.
In any case, one thing is certain: the British decision – even if implemented in the fastest conceivable way – has initiated a long period of political and economic uncertainty and European preoccupation with its own affairs, even as the world around it changes dramatically. If only rational reasoning was the basis of decision-making, the remaining 27 member states would, in line with their interests, move to strengthen the EU by taking immediate steps toward stabilization and enhanced integration. But there seems little hope of that.
Differences over strategy and tactics between the key members of the currency union, especially Germany and France, and between the eurozone’s northern and southern members, simply run too deep. Everyone is aware of what needs to be done: find a new compromise within the currency union between the stubborn German-led focus on austerity and the Mediterranean countries’ need for increased spending to restore growth and boost competitiveness. But Europe’s political leaders seem to lack the courage to pursue this.
As a result, no sign of strengthening or of a new start for the EU can be expected. On the contrary, despite many loud assertions after the initial Brexit shock that things must change, there are many indications that business as usual will prevail.
But the underlying causes for the rejection of Europe run much deeper than current conflicts. Resurgent nationalism has revived the myth of a bygone golden age of ethnically and politically homogenous national states free of external constraints and not exposed to the negative consequences of globalization.
I write this a few days before the centenary of the carnage at the Somme on July 1, 1916. Apparently, the myth-busting power of two terrible world wars, once sufficient to forge a common Europe and establish the EU, is no longer enough to sustain the post-1945 European integration project. The words spoken by former French President François Mitterand in his last speech before the European Parliament – “Le nationalisme c’est la guerre!” – seem to have sunk into oblivion.
Today, nationalism is rising in almost all European countries, and it is directed primarily against foreigners and the EU. These two targets were also used by the UK’s “Leave” campaign. Brexit advocates appealed almost exclusively to nationalist myth, whereas the “Remain” side often sounded like accountants. The bloodless bean counters didn’t stand a chance.
The reversal of the positive vision of Europe not only ignores the past. It is also a symptom of European – or, perhaps more precisely, Western – decline (at least in relative terms), which has resulted in deep-seated distrust of the “elites.” Europe is not alone in this regard: in the United States, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump welcomed Brexit and is pushing many of the same nationalist buttons.
For many Western citizens, entities such as the EU, no less than the rise of major emerging economies such as China and India, are perceived as agents of this decline, rather than as a source of leverage to influence global power shifts and react in accordance with its values and interests. Thus, salvation is sought in the nation-state. Unfortunately, as the UK will demonstrate, this strategy amounts to nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy of decline.
The rising tide of nationalism cannot be pushed back unless the European idea regains its positive visionary power. This will require not only a new European narrative (which the UK’s natural experiment in self-destruction could help to create), but also a renewed EU.
First and foremost, it must be made clear to millions of Europe’s citizens where the real power within the EU lies: not in Brussels and Strasbourg, but in the hands of national governments. The EU institutions are blamed for all kinds of problems: globalization, immigration, welfare cuts and Thatcherism, youth unemployment, lack of democracy, and much more. In fact, by preventing the EU from addressing these issues, the national governments – helpless to tackle them effectively on their own – have made these problems worse.
For now, the governments of almost all member states are maintaining a contradictory stance, rejecting further integration while insisting that the EU must “deliver.” Just what the EU should deliver, and how, in the absence of further integration remains unexplained. But even in Europe, no one can have their cake and eat it.
There still may be time to reverse current trends in the West. We do not need a victory by Trump, or by National Front leader Marine Le Pen in next year’s French presidential election, to know where the nationalism underlying the Brexit vote leads.