Brexit and the Wailing of the Anglo-American Commentariat
Damon Linker has a corker of a column up today about the hysterical reaction to Britain’s vote to leave the EU:
It’s perfectly reasonable to worry about what will happen after Britain’s historic vote to break up with the European Union. Will Brexit provoke Scotland and Northern Ireland to secede from the United Kingdom, leading to its dissolution? Will it embolden other members of the EU to bolt? And will those secessionist movements empower unsavory characters who end up being seduced by Vladimir Putin and modeling themselves on his form of authoritarian populism? Will the dire short-term economic consequences of Brexit create chaos and recession in the long term, too?
As I said, lots of reasons to worry.
But what we’ve seen from a wide range of writers and analysts in the days since the Brexit vote is not necessarily worry. It is shock. Fury. Disgust. Despair. A faith has been shaken, illusions shattered, pieties punctured. This is what happens when a life-orienting system of belief gets smashed on the rocks of history.
The name of that shattered system of belief? Progressivism.
Why did the Brexit vote deliver such a shock to the progressive belief system?
Whether or not it’s expressed in explicitly theological terms, progressivism holds out a very specific moral vision of the future. It will be a world beyond particular attachments, beyond ethnic or linguistic or racial or religious or national forms of solidarity. In their place will be the only acceptable form of solidarity: humanitarian universalism.
And this means that the progressive future will even result in the end of politics itself — at least if politics is understood as encompassing more than the jostling of interest groups, bureaucratic administration, and the management of government benefits. Politics in that narrow sense will remain. But politics in Aristotle’s sense — this particular community in thisplace with this history and heritage, determining its own character for itself, deciding who is and who is not a citizen, who will rule, and in the name of which vision of the good life — that existential form of politics will cease to exist in the progressive future.
Politics in this expansive sense will come to an end in the imagined progressive future because there will be nothing left to debate. The big questions of politics will already be answered, the big disputes settled once and for all. Everyone will understand that all particular forms of solidarity are morally indefensible (just various forms of racism) and that all strong political stands against humanitarian universalism in the political realm are politically unacceptable (just various forms of fascism).
It would be one thing if progressives understood their universalistic moral and political convictions to constitute one legitimate partisan position among many. But they don’t understand them in this way. They believe not only that their views deserve to prevail in the fullness of time, but also that they are bound to prevail.
It is this faith in the inevitability of progressive triumph that has led so many commentators to respond so intensely to the rise of Donald Trump. I don’t mean reactions that focus on Trump’s personal, temperamental shortcomings. Those are real and worthy of serious concern. I mean reactions that take the form of moral indignation and outrage — as if the very fact that millions of voters have cast ballots for a candidate who strongly opposes immigration and free trade is some kind of moral and theological betrayal, or an offense against capital-H History itself.
The progressive response to the outcome of the Brexit vote is remarkably similar.
I think that’s all pretty much right. But I notice something. All of those links in the “shock – fury – disgust – despair” paragraph are to Anglo-American writers. What do people on the continent – those whom Britain would leave – think of Britain’s announced intention to depart?
France has shown a divided response to the news that the UK has voted to leave the EU, although a vocal majority (online at least) appear to have been pleased.A survey of newspaper Le Figaro’s readers found on Friday morning that most respondents in France were satisfied with the result of the vote. . . . 68 percent of the more than 10,000 people surveyed were satisfied with the result, compared to 32 percent who weren’t.And this majority was the most vocal on Twitter on Friday, as many French vented their anger – as well as predictable digs at “Les Anglais” – over the Brexit vote.The hashtag #BonDebarras – Good Riddance – spoke for itself, but one user sniped: “Les Anglais are beginning to realise that most Europeans are delighted that they are splitting.”Other snarky tweets recalled that Britain had always had an arm’s-length relationship with the European Union, having opted out of the euro, the visa-free Schengen zone and the Common Agricultural Policy.“Have they ever really been part of the EU?” one asked.
Merkel said she had “deep regret” over the U.K.’s decision, but the remaining 27 members of the EU should be “willing and able to not draw quick and simple conclusions from the referendum…which would only further divide Europe.”
The chancellor said the countries should “calmly and prudently analyze and evaluate the situation, before making the right decisions together.” . . .
Schäuble and Merkel would apparently like to see a treaty between the EU and the U.K., covering trading rules and other regulations that would “not offer too much leeway to Britain in gaining access to the European Union’s internal market.” Again, the aim here is to avoid creating incentives for other countries to consider following the U.K.’s lead, and leaving the EU.
Handelsblatt also said Merkel and Schäuble want to avoid letting France and Italy use the Brexit pandemonium to push for a greater pooling of liabilities in the Eurozone.
Merkel’s coalition partners, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), said the U.K.’s vote for Brexit should be seen as a signal for the rest of the EU to press its case for greater integration—precisely what the Brexit voters reacted against. The party said committed Europeans had “failed to clearly point out” that the fears motivating the shift—over immigration, employment and refugees—were “unjustified.” . . .
The SPD said the European institutions should now be reformed to patch up the democratic deficit identified by pro-Brexit voters. “We should use the opportunity to overcome the weaknesses that the great European project still has,” it said, while warning of the rise of the far right.
Reading between the lines, the German center-right and the business establishment are distressed because the UK was a reliable voice against greater fiscal integration, and greater fiscal integration would be expensive for Germany. The French, meanwhile, are saying good riddance for precisely the same reasons.
I see a variety of emotions, including anger and spiteful glee and quite a great deal of worry. But I don’t see sackcloth and ashes. Even the German center-left, who have probably the most idealism about “Europe” of any major European political group (and with whose views I have considerable sympathy) see the merit of some of the British criticisms, specifically related to the “democratic deficit.”
In other words: from many quarters within Europe, what I see is a response that is political. Some of that politics is purely self-interested – treating Europe as merely a business deal. Some of it sees something higher at stake – but is concerned to identify what concrete political moves must be made in order to best achieve that higher end.
It’s from the Anglo-American liberal commentariat, primarily, that I see the wailing, the gnashing of teeth, and the rending of garments. These people do seem to have suffered a blow to their faith. But what is the nature of the blow?
Well, the one thing I can definitely say about Britain leaving the EU is that it will take Britain out of the rooms in which the decisions about the structure of the EU are decided. It will make Britain an observer to, and an outside influencer of, rather than a participant in, European politics. The European project may go forward, or may go backward, or may go forward in a wholly new direction. But it will go forward without Britain.
That, it seems to me, is what makes the loss feel so keen.
There is a very good case to be made that the departure of Britain from the EU would help the cause of making the EU into a successful, more functional entity. I make that case in my own column this morning:
[T]he only way Europe can work is by becoming a deeper union. The euro can only function if Europe has a common fiscal policy. Europe can only wield diplomatic clout commensurate with its demographic and economic bulk if it has a common defense policy. And Britain was always going to remain the largest, strongest foot-dragger to further cessions of national sovereignty.
Now, given America’s failed experiment with the Articles of Confederation, and the painful experience of the American Civil War, you would think we would appreciate the need for unity, and an effective central government. But in fact, we strongly opposed a British exit precisely because of their foot-dragging.
The United States only ever wanted Britain to remain in the EU because we always favored a broader Europe over a deeper one. We wanted to make sure a country that saw the world in similar terms to the way we saw it remained inside the European tent. And we opposed a more deeply united Europe that might steer its own course apart from America, particularly if it developed a genuinely independent defense capability outside of NATO.
It has never been obvious that this policy has been in America’s best interest rightly understood. If Europe is to be our ally, then we need that ally to be able to pull its weight. A weak, dysfunctional, and dependent Europe serves nobody’s interests, including America’s. Those who really believe in a functional version of a European Union, as opposed to a fantasy version, must believe that Europe can become, over time, something more like a nation. And if that is what Europe is to be, then an ever-broader union is a mistake, inasmuch as it makes deepening the union ever more difficult and expensive. If Europe must deepen, it must first shrink.
Will France and Germany agree on the compromises necessary to make Europe work? It’s not clear – and never has been – but the Brexit forces the question.
That price may not be worth paying, for either country. If it isn’t, Britain’s impending exit gives these two central states to the European project the opportunity to rethink, and renegotiate, the project itself. A less-ambitious, confederal Europe that stuck to being a common market might well endure better than the current arrangement — and might entice Britain back in.
Meanwhile, if Europeans decide to pay the price for true union, and the gamble pays off, then some in Britain may come to regret having missed out on the opportunity to be present at the creation — or, alternatively, to have prevented it. But Britons should abjure regret. This is not the 19th century. Britain cannot decide the fate of the continent. Nor can it be central to its affairs. In the context of a united Europe, Britain can either be an independent nation and bridge between Europe and America or it can be an important but ultimately peripheral province of a united European state.
By leaving, the British make it possible for Europe to choose its own destiny, and for Britain to choose whether and how to join it.
And that, I think, is what is most distressing to those parts of the commentariat that have been most distressed. Their crisis is not that they see history no longer moving smoothly toward the sunny uplands – when has it ever done so? – but that they see history passing them by, leaving them on the sidelines. Even if Europe ultimately succeeds, it will have done so without their being particular central to its success.
That, of course, was always the case – especially for the American commentariat. But the Brexit puts paid, as firmly as possible, to any lingering illusions of potency.