This is a time-capsule post, of the kind that gets written with the author expecting to check in five-years time what really happened.
Like many people all over the world–as shown by the instantaneous collapse of the stock market–I expected Britons to have voted in favour of staying in the European Union. This is a people known (unless until today) for their pragmatism and common sense. Clearly, though, many things have gone the wrong way and we’re witnessing today, with a sour taste in our mouths, the success of the Brexit campaign. 24 June 2016 has been hailed by The Sun and by UKIP leader Nigel Farage as ‘independence day’… You know that something is bad when, in addition to this absurdity, Donald Trump claims that this is good (for the time capsule: Trump, who failed to be elected President of the United States by a landslide in 2016). ‘May you live in interesting times’, the Chinese curse goes.
I have titled this post ‘The incredibly shrinking United Kingdom’ because I see the UK even further diminished in its global position by this strange manoeuvre. Let me get a couple of ideas out of the way before I continue. To begin with, someone should change the rules of referendums, for in the end the percentual difference between the two options has been quite small: 52% to 48%. This is not a clear victory but a divided country. Now, if Brexit goes horribly wrong and throws the UK into the waste-basket of History (a phrase often used in Catalonia in the last year), can the overruled 48% demand any responsibility from the other 52%? Obviously not. This is why this kind of potentially very dangerous decision should be made by a much wider difference, at least 65/35. You need to be sure that your victory (or defeat) is final and this is not at all the case today. Second point: Brexit is, no doubt about it, a clear sign of the European Union’s failure to constitute itself as little more than a commercial union. I cannot imagine Donald Trump celebrating the secession of, say, California; the fact that he’s toasting today to Brexit means that the EU is not at all a union, as the United States are. I would not like as a Catalan to be left outside the EU, which is one of my main doubts considering a possible independent Catalonia. At the same time, the EU has utterly and completely failed to inspire in us, Europeans, the feeling that this is what we are, in the same way Californians feel that they are American.
I’ll add a third point: that the UK leaves the EU is particularly poignant because, of course, it was one of its founding members back in 1957, when it was born as the European Economic Community–a name bearing all the seeds of trouble to come. British disaffection for Europe is an extremely complex issue, which many others have analyzed with better, finer tools. Nonetheless, this disaffection has its roots in the perception that the UK is contributing more than it is getting out of the EU; European solidarity is based, after all, on the idea that the richer states must help the poorer ones, which is why Brexit will certainly be a terrible blow for us, in Spain. Now, this suggests that Germany should be happier than any other nation to abandon the EU but the Germans do see that the union is needed if only because, let’s be clear about this, cheap labour is to be found in its southern and eastern areas. The Britons are right now too blinded by an oddly euphoric chauvinism that won’t let them see that European migration is not the problem but the solution to their economy. I’m aware that much of Brexit has to do with Britain’s wish to decide for herself which migrants to admits to its shores but the vision of an all-British workforce is not only treacherous but also downright silly.
If we accept the argument that staying in the EU brings more economic benefits than staying out of it –and I think this is a powerful argument because the previous arrangement of nations in Europe led to WWI and WWII– then we need to wonder what is being pursued with Brexit. It is not impossible to think of a future scenario in which Scotland will be an independent nation and a member of EU, and in which Northern Ireland might be unified with Ireland for the same reason (or Gibraltar decide to return to Spain). There is, then, a very real danger of national dismemberment with even England/Wales being sharply split between pro-EU London and the rest. How British (English?) economy can thrive even supposing the UK’s split is prevented is beyond me. Norway is doing fine on its own without being a EU member (and so is Switzerland). However, part of their success has to do with their being very realistic about which role in the world they want to play: a marginal one (at least politically, I would not say the same about Switzerland and world finances). Oddly, Brexit supporters dream of a Britain which is not only free from EU restrictions (so they claim) but also a powerful nation in the world. Like in Victorian times.
This is the way in which Britain is shrinking: it has lost track of its dwindling importance both within Europe and in the world. In Spain we’ve gone through that: we used to be the biggest Empire in the world, remember? Being rich didn’t suit our (or rather, the Castilian) temper very well, which is why we went downhill all the way into bankruptcy and even invasion by Napoleon. A series of independentist uprisings eroded little by little the Empire until this was finished off in 1898 by the United States pushing us out of Cuba. The Civil War (1936-9) happened when the Republic was getting Spain used to the idea that we should be a modern European country rather than an ex-Empire. Yet the band of ultra right-wing nostalgics headed by Franco fought its way into what the Brexit campaigners now want: autarchy (or total self-rule). I do know that the parallelism between backward, isolated Spain, which only joined the EU exactly 30 years ago, and Britain does not hold. Yet the lesson we learned after Franco is that imperial glory will not feed people; we very humbly accepted the crumbles at the table of the rich EU, briefly believing before the 2008 crisis that we were finally one of the diners. The UK went through its worst economic crisis back in the 1970s and that 52% who have voted ‘out’ today seem to feel confident enough that, no matter what, they will stand on their feet and do fantastically well in terms of economics, politics and general prestige. As an English Studies specialist I can only call this position neo-Victorian.
This is, naturally, an extremely false position to be in. Whereas those who want to stay in the EU have given a long list of reasons why leaving it would be negative, the Brexit campaigners have given no truly valid reason to leave the EU, other than wounded pride. Most likely, they imagined a Europe in which the UK would be the leading country and cannot simply accept that the leader is Germany, the hated enemy of the past. Somehow, they have managed to convince themselves that the United States will play a crucial role in this post-Brexit British Renaissance, even though President Obama warned Britons against Brexit. As a Catalan I feel that the path taken is even much more uncertain than independence. Supposing the Scots voted to leave the UK, they should be doing so in the hopes that they would do much better on their own, including the possibility of joining the EU. But the UK has not voted for independence, no matter what UKIP says, but for isolation, which is a completely different matter. Britain was isolated in Victorian times, in the sense that it did not belong to any other international association, and was extremely powerful. Now the same solitary status wants to be recovered. But, then, what’s next? Leaving the United Nations?
I’m flabbergasted–that’s the word I was looking for. I simply don’t understand how a civilized nation can make this very obvious (right-wing) mistake in the 21st century. It must be the influence of so much SF but I always imagined the world converging eventually into a world-wide federation, Star-Trek style. What I wonder today is not why the Britons (well, 52% of the 75% voters, that is to say, 34% of Britons over 18) want to leave the UK but where they think they are going.
Among the many questions about the future of the EU I heard this morning on TV, here’s the one closest home, as an English Studies academic: will English still be an official European language? That’s a good one… Everyone, start learning French and German as fast as you can…
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