Of Brexit, Europe and the Politics of Closure

Five weeks ago I woke up and realized thatImage 1 the British people had just voted to leave the European Union. Since then I sensed that new reality creeping into my everyday life. Squeezing in an overcrowded Tube coach, grabbing a coffee at the newest bar, walking through office corridors, and waiting in the awkward silences of elevators: Brexit was everywhere.

I watched London adjusting to the aftershock: talked to people, asked for their views, listened to conversations full of bafflement, regret and anxiety. From my British friends and colleagues – mostly Remainers – I got a sense of apology, shame and reluctance to accept what just happened. Try as they may to dissimulate with sarcasm and witty remarks, all they really seemed to say was: ‘What have we done? How could this happen?’

How could this happen? There are many ways to interpret Brexit and most have already been eloquently put forth: ordinary people’s disenchantment with the elites, London’s alienation from the countryside, Britain’s demographic rift, Europe’s democratic deficit, political ubris, Tory’s polarising rhetoric, Remainers’ reluctant European heart, Leavers’ damning mystifications, Labour’s lukewarm attitude, and the shamefully sordid and confusing referendum campaign.

Whichever explanation you prefer, Brexit is a local expression of profound reactionary tendencies, the conflagration of some of the most intense social, economic and political tensions which built up in the early 21st century: globalisers and localisers, technocrats and populists, migrants and nativists, cosmopolitans and locals, millennials and baby boomers, liberals and protectionists, libertarians and nationalists. In today’s western world – where globalisation makes winners and losers, and inequality of income and opportunity are on the rise; where we assist to the largest migratory surges of recent history, and terrorism divides us and numbs us to violence –the prevailing instinct is to close up, to seek shelter in our little world, withdrawn in the comfort zone, bracing for the next attack, for the next blow on the door.

As the liberal-minded Economist put it this week, the left-right split is being replaced by the open-close divide. As foreshadowed by Stephan Shakespeare in 2005: ‘We are either “drawbridge up” or “drawbridge down”. Are you someone who feels your life is being encroached upon by criminals, gypsies, spongers, asylum-seekers, Brussels bureaucrats? Do you think the bad things will all go away if we lock the doors? Or do you think it’s a big beautiful world out there, full of good people, if only we could all open our arms and embrace each other?’

I am a “drawbridge down”. I always had unconditional faith in people, was always open to others, and curious enough to think that the best was out there and it was yet to come. I believe a fundamental part of human nature calls to discover, understand and meet with the ‘other’, and to strive for what is high, fair and meaningful. This is not to downplay the other side of the argument. Cultural and national identity fundamentally shapes our values, ethics and worldview. Most of us firmly believe our country’s history, culture, art – and I would add cuisine – are unique and worth preserving. And it should be preserved: this is indeed one of the task history assigns to every generation – to protect and salvage what is good and fair in our society, and to carry it through the ravages of time.

At the end of the second world war Bertrand Russell wrote: ‘important civilisations start with a rigid and superstitious system, gradually relaxed, and leading, to a certain stage, to a period of brilliant genius, while the good of the old traditions remains and the evil inherent in its dissolution has not yet developed. But as the evil unfolds, it leads to anarchy, thence, inevitably, to a new tyranny, producing a new synthesis secured by a new system of dogma. The doctrine of liberalism is an attempt to escape from this endless oscillation. The essence of liberalism is an attempt to secure a social order not based on irrational dogma, and insuring stability without involving more restraints than are necessary for the preservation of the community.’ [1] While by dogma Russell had in mind religion, in today’s western secular states superstition takes the form of fear, demagogy and a kind of political discourse dominated by an irrational, illiberal and self-styled authority which preys upon our deepest irrational anxieties, impulses and prejudices. Immune to any form of empathy and tolerance, disdainful of dialogue, and impermeable to the accountability of facts, this discourse is already shaping conventional wisdom and persuading us that the outside world is a nasty and brutish place to be.

After the earthquake, we are now left in the debris bracing for other disasters to come, while this Hobbesian worldview threatens to become the early 21st century’s zeitgeist. I wonder what all this means for us Europeans: I worry that we may start taking for granted the privileges, liberties and comforts we freely enjoy thanks to the European Union. I worry we may stop seeing the point in cooperating and working together through common issues, and prefer going our way instead. I am worried we snob and condescend those same institutions that our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers helped creating with their work, their taxes and their aspiration, in the hope of leaving their grandchildren a better lot than they had.

Fifty years ago European countries rose from the ashes of war and devastation to cooperate and build together a future of peace, solidarity and common prosperity. After centuries of prejudice, suspicion, hostility and wars, the European Union was created to become a place where individuals could freely realise their potential and pursue their happiness, while assuring economic wellbeing and social justice for all. Cooperation, openness, diversity, freedom, equity: these values are as inspiring today as they were then. We must now live up and defend these ideals, for to forsake them is to forsake a part of our identity, our philosophy and our common history.

Brexiteers found that scapegoating the European Union is easy, politically uncontentious and satisfying. We must stand against this attitude, stop abetting the convenient blaming of European institutions and repel the sense of negativity that now surrounds Europe. We must call the European Union to implement a progressive, liberal and democratic agenda fit for our time. We must vocally demand EU countries to take in more refugees, treat them in line with UN conventions, and scale up redistribution plans; we must call our governments to give Greece unconditional debt relief in line with (belated) IMF recommendations; to launch a program of long-term private and public investment in infrastructure and the green economy as proposed by the OECD; to cut carbon emissions in line with (and possibly more rapidly than) the Paris Agreement on Climate Change; to push with radical banking reforms; to deploy public sector resources to boost inclusive innovation; to implement policies addressing growing income and wealth inequality; to fight for gender and race equality; and to fend off any attacks on civil liberties and human rights.

We must return to believe that change for the better is possible, and that every possible solution hinges on the principles of international cooperation, solidarity between people, citizens and nations.  Most of all, we must return to believe that realigning Europe to the old ideals is possible and worth trying. For, unlike the Brits, we will need to really believe in the positive argument for Europe when it’ll be our time to decide its fate.

[1] Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p.Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p. 9-10

Pietro Grandi (25) is a young professional in London. He earlier wrote This is not my European Union anymore

Disclaimer: This Post reflects solely the author’s opinion and do not represent the platform as a whole

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