As of this writing, we enter the first full week of a new era in European and world politics, Anno Brexitae—the years after British voters decided to leave the European Union. This era is full of uncertainty—giddy and hopeful uncertainty for those who embraced the idea that Britain’s future required leaving, glum, fatalistic uncertainty for those who fear the loss of the benefits of EU membership.
Interested readers have already been treated to a flood of publications on the Brexit vote, a flood that will continue to gather force as Britain and its European partners negotiate the terms of the divorce. FPRI Radio has already devoted an episode to immediate reactions, and there will certainly be more to come.
As we sift through both the political complexities to follow and the even more complex analyses thereof, it’s an opportune time to consider one salient feature of the Brexit campaign, and indeed of most discussions of the fate of the European Union—not the Democracy Deficit (as significant as that is), but the Passion Deficit.
All of the passion in the British campaign was on the side of Leave. Some of that passion was negative—the stoking of fears of immigrants, or hatred of faceless, dastardly Eurocrats in Brussels. But a lot of it was positive, emphasizing British (well, more often, English) sovereignty and national identity against the anonymity of a distant regulatory regime. Exuberant Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson rhapsodized early and often n the joys of throwing off the shackles of Brussels and liberating Britain to chart its own destiny, while Nigel Farage and UKIP offered a darker descant on projecting British culture against faceless floods of dark-skinned immigrants both intent on taking English jobs and living off the English dole.
That passion carried a lot of voters along, and opponents of Brexit would be wise to understand and respect that. Passion is not in itself bad or irrational. All successful political organizations—Left or Right—depend upon the passion of their supporters. Passion alone does not make a movement wrong or right; lack of passion, however is often the difference between success and failure.
The lack of passion of Remain advocates was partly a function of the people involved. Tory leaders David Cameron and George Osborne had built their careers on crassly manipulating Euroskepticism, so would never have been convincing as advocates of the European idea. Jeremy Corbyn of Labour apparently still considers the EU a Thatcherite conspiracy against the Working Man, and probably secretly dreams that Brexit will eventually lead Britain to leave NATO as well. The cosmopolitanism of British Remainers was a bad fit with metropolitan fear and loathing of people who live outside of the charmed circle of the educated elite, and thus much of the Leave campaign centered on warnings about the terrible things likes to happen after Brexit. As reasonable as those warnings may have been in light of the economic turmoil of the last few days, they did not have the force to stir electoral passion. Nor did they offer a particularly hopeful vision for the future. Unable to articulate their vision of the EU in ways that would attract broader support, many progressives now enthusiastically attack those benighted souls not smart enough to be on the right side of history. That may be comforting to those who are already convinced, but is unlikely to change the political arithmetic.
Personalities alone, however, do not completely explain the failure of Remainers to make a grand appeal for the positive virtues of Europe. The EU’s great practical successes—the single market, freedom of movement, expanded educational opportunities, infrastructure subsidies to underdeveloped regions—are taken for granted. Distant, technocratic, regulatory Brussels has become a punching bag for national governments to mask their own shortcomings, and a source of parliamentary stipends for Euroskeptics who can’t win seats in their own national parliaments. The European idea, however, is lost.
Perhaps that was inevitable. The idea of Europe as a distinct cultural space that needs to develop common political institutions in order to defend its interests has enemies on both the Right and the Left. Conservatives, attached to national identities that are themselves centuries younger than Europe, are suspicious of anything that places itself above those national identities. Meanwhile, many on the Left are uncomfortable with the idea of a distinct European civilization, preferring to think of the EU as a step in the direction of a completely borderless world. Thus the EU has remained a hazy halfway house of practical success generally devoid of passion or meaning.
The Passion Deficit feeds the Democracy Deficit. Unable to define Europe, the EU has too often retreated into empty procedural regulations. The debate about whether the proposed European Constitution should make reference to the historical role of Christianity shaping European identity comes to mind. Stripped of reference to any by the most abstract ideals, the constitution became an unwieldy monster document, easily caricatured and unmourned after its defeat in the French and Dutch referenda of 2005.
Without a willingness to believe in a common European destiny, there is no support for the kind of supranational structures that would have democratic legitimacy. Talk of subsidiarity is only talk if there is no agreement on how the different levels of government would interact with each other, and how they would relate to the actual lives millions of individual Europeans. The EU has a lovely flag and a very catchy anthem, but without a sense of Europe as a community with a common historical identity and purpose, it will never inspire the passion needed to guarantee its success and cohesion.
It was not always so, of course. One of Europe’s Founding Fathers, Robert Schuman, presented the case for Europe as a political, cultural, and moral necessity in 1949 when he declared:
“The European spirit signifies being conscious of belonging to a cultural family and to have a willingness to serve that community in the spirit of total mutuality, without any hidden motives of hegemony or the selfish exploitation of others. The 19th century saw feudal ideas being opposed and, with the rise of a national spirit, nationalities asserting themselves. Our century, that has witnessed the catastrophes resulting in the unending clash of nationalities and nationalisms, must attempt and succeed in reconciling nations in a supranational association. This would safeguard the diversities and aspirations of each nation while coordinating them in the same manner as the regions are coordinated within the unity of the nation.”
Contrary to recent statements from pro-Brexit writers, especially American conservatives, who justify Brexit by claiming that Britain joined a free trade area and woke up in the a political organization, British politicians knew that Europe was always about more than economics. As Prime Minister Harold Macmillan declared in his speech to the House of Commons in July 1961 when he announced British desire to join the EEC:
“This is a political as well as an economic issue. Although the Treaty of Rome is concerned with economic matters it has an important political objective, namely, to promote unity and stability in Europe, which is so essential a factor in the struggle for freedom and progress throughout the world. In this modern world the tendency towards larger groups of nations acting together in the common interest leads to greater unity and thus adds to our strength in the struggle for freedom.”
That sense of hopefulness and necessity has been lost—lost in a morass of Brussels bureaucracy, in the stagnation and despair of depressed economies, in fears of inassimilable immigrants, in the partisan joys of showing “them” that “they” are not in charge, and in the smug complacency of elites who will not lower themselves to make a direct appeal to the passions of their fellow citizens.
Who knows if the European idea can ever regain its old élan? Perhaps it never will. Perhaps the disappointments of the past decades and the natural human tendency to react to complexity by withdrawing into small and familiar communities is overwhelming. This is the moment of triumph for all who celebrate the national and particular, or who simply disdain Europe altogether. For those who have not lost hope, however, and who are willing to work to rebuild that which has been allowed to decay, it would be well to remember the words of Konrad Adenauer. Surveying the damage done to the European idea in 1954 after the collapse of the European Defense Community, Adenauer told the West German Bundestag:
“European unity was a dream of a few people. It became a hope for many. Today it is a necessity for all of us. It is, ladies and gentlemen, necessary for our security, for our freedom, for our existence as a nation and as an intellectual and creative international community.”
However the British and their European partners work out the details of the future, all of them will have to decide what role Europe should play, not only in the world, but in their hearts as well.