By Eugène E.
Sweeping through Paris recently, former UK prime minister Tony Blair gave Le Figaro an interview, in which he predictably lambasted Brexit as the undoing of forty years of “integration and liberalization” (“quarante ans d’intégration et de libéralisation“), and told the French daily about his personal efforts to, in turn, undo the results of the 2016 referendum that saw the majority of Brits spurn the EU. He couldn’t have said anything else. A high-profile bard of ultraliberalism, Blair is one of those Pollyannas who have spent much of their careers extolling the virtues of the doctrine whose miraculous, alchemic powers can turn excreta into rosebushes, plastic into platinum, and perhaps restore some of the dead back to life, upstaging Christ’s revival of Lazarus, if not Christ’s resurrection itself.
Blair, it should be noted, was the prime minister who, bankrolled by questionable data and equally questionable intentions, dragged his country into a pointless war in Iraq, destabilizing a region hardly known for its stability. He was the prime minister who responded to the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London by, effectively, promising more integration and liberalization – not in so many words, but that was the gist of it. And he was the prime minister who oversaw the affairs of the UK as the country was hurtling towards the credit crisis, only to accept a lucrative advisory position at – of all places – JP Morgan shortly after leaving Downing Street – a cozy sinecure that reportedly netted Blair seven-figure sums. There’s nothing wrong with a former PM pursuing commercially attractive projects; but there is something sinister about a former national leader, who served in office at a time when a major crisis was building up, going to work for the very forces responsible for the said crisis.
It wasn’t Blair’s only post-premiership foray into the world of private capital. As the global economy ran aground, banks imploded, and the air was filled with premonitions of endless lines to soup kitchens, the former PM embarked on fiscally rewarding adventures in the private sector, carousing with some of the world’s richest people and pocketing millions of dollars for providing vague labor, of which those who had once voted him have a most hazy idea. He became the godfather to billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s daughter – and if there is something incongruous about a quondam leader of a left-of-centre party getting so close to a right-wing billionaire known for his fluid sense of ethics, Tony Blair is unlikely to feel too self-conscious about it. Ultraliberalism makes some ideological differences very unimportant.
In a way, Blair belongs to the same constellation of good-looking, youthful and hopelessly mediocre cheerleaders as Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau. Unlike Trudeau, however, who has to date revealed himself as nothing more than ultraliberalism’s useful idiot, Tony Blair has greater political embonpoint and weightier international gravitas; and if his post-Downing-Street remuneration is anything to go by, he’s anything but an idiot. For someone like him, Brexit is a matter of constipation. Those forty years of “integration and liberalization” have allowed Tony Blair to become – well, Tony Blair.
But what about Brexit itself? Is it a positive development or a negative one? Depends on who you ask, of course, but we have only heard from two camps. Brexit has been represented as a struggle between (largely older) nativists and (mostly younger) cosmopolitans, between those who wanted to defend the traditional concept of Britishness (and uphold the sovereignty that it implied) and those who wanted to belong to the larger international project of the EU (and, inevitably, accept the partial loss of national sovereignty that it required). If you were a Remainer, in other words, you were naturally pro-EU; if you were in the Leave camp, you had to be anti-EU. This is a very black-and-white, binary view of the situation, which is convenient for labeling and pigeonholing; but there exists a third dimension that has not been much commented upon. It is possible to support European integration and yet applaud Brexit. In fact, I contend that to believe in a more integrated Europe is to encourage the UK to leave the EU – the sooner, the better. A Europe that is free of the UK can be a stronger and more united Europe.
Nothing is inevitable in history, we are told; but even so, the European Union is something of an inevitability. As the incomparable thinker José Ortega y Gasset wrote in The Revolt of the Masses, a state is “not a thing, but a movement”. A state is never static; it is perpetually in flux. In order for a state to become greater, it has to seek further integration with other lands; if it fails to do so, it shrinks until it is no more. “The idea of the State is bounded by no physical limits”, observes Ortega y Gasset. A state is a construct “whose unity consists precisely in superseding any given unity”. To that end, the history of Europe has been a history of unification (not to be confused with expansionism: unification is contingent on consent by those who are unified; expansionism is unilateral). It is all too easy to forget that the modern German state was once a smorgasbord of princedoms, duchies and electorates that were brought together with Bismarck’s iron fist. Italy, too, did not achieve unification until the 19th century. Why, then, should the process of unification stop there? Why should Germany’s borders today be seen as more immutable than the borders of the Duchy of Württemberg?
Ortega y Gasset differentiates between a nation and a state: the former is restrictive, since its growth can only come with a demographic increase; the latter corresponds to the dynamics of history, as it occurs when different peoples realize they have a common project. A project is not restricted to language, territory, or blood (these are facilitators and enablers, to be sure, but not causes – the people of France are French not because they all speak French; they speak French in order to live successfully in a united France). A state, of course, is supranational. But the mutative characteristics of a state also inform the concept of a nation, which, as Ortega y Gasset tells us, is never really formed. A nation is “either in the making, or in the unmaking”. As he elegantly puts it, “what at one period seemed to constitute nationality appears to be denied at a later date”. He wrote that we ought to be surprised that Europe had not become an empire, and he prophesied that Europe was ready to become a national idea. Written in the 1930s, these are powerful words. The European Union, therefore, is nothing if not inevitable.
Ortega y Gasset would have called many of Europe’s nationalist parties “false dawns” (the term he used in reference to the Fascist and Bolshevik movements), and he would have been right. However valid the immigration stance and national identity views of a party such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front, such parties are anachronistic in that they are going against the laws of history. History has its own laws; the gradual unification of European nations and states was mandated by one such law. If the history of Europe is a history of integration, the desire to restore it to some anterior state is a move against history. An anti-EU party in France is, by definition, an ante-EU party. However, as Ortega y Gasset wrote, the past is a “revenant“, which, if extinguished, “comes back, inevitably”. “The past has reason on its side . . . If that reason is not admitted, it will return to demand it”. If the national structure of France, for historical reasons, was subsumed by European unification, attempts at its restoration will end in naught. Furthermore, if the National Front wants to leave the EU and shrink, why stop at the kind of France that existed before the EU? Why not return to a smaller France still? One that can accommodate a sovereign Burgundy or an independent Normandy? This is a point missed by many Le Pen voters and Catalan separatists alike.
There are many compelling reasons for European integration. Its demographic situation is a shambles. Nationalist ideas made sense in the 1950s, when Europe was still basking in its diminishing glow of global domination; they make far less sense today, when Europe has to contend with a powerful China and a rising India. Denmark, Austria, and Finland have under 10 million inhabitants each, while China has at least five cities in which the population is at least 10 million people or more, and at least ten cities where the population is at least 5 million people or more. How does one compete with such a behemoth without being part of a large block? Marine Le Pen can praise the example of Switzerland as a prosperous non-EU country in Europe, but France is not Switzerland; and the nostalgia of the National Front for a more glorious past (when France held decidedly unSwiss global pretensions) makes such comparisons rather strange.
A European Union is a great idea, but the indefinite article at the beginning of this sentence should be noted. The EU has happened too fast, too chaotically, and without the kind of agenda that would truly appeal to Europeans – a common project, as Ortega y Gasset called it. The EU ought to have fostered, among other things, the notion of “Europeanness” – an identity to complement the existing national identities. There are no incompatibilities here: one can feel Bavarian and German without experiencing any identity crises. However, any such Europeanness has been made impossible by the abnegation of traditional values, rampant consumerism and, perhaps most important, mass immigration from Muslim countries. The EU was supposed to have erected a sound roof over European heads; instead, for many, the European Union has come to symbolize overpaid Brussels-based bureaucrats, economic problems, and a burgeoning number of mosques and minarets on European soil, along with the non-European people who go to worship there. Little surprise that many voters are looking for the exit.
How does the UK fit into all this? It doesn’t. Great Britain has always been in Europe, but it has never really been of it. This is a historical phenomenon that owes much to geography – to the fact that the UK is an island and, as such, cut off from the continent. As the likes of Alexander I, Metternich and Talleyrand were trying to forge a new Europe in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, Castlereagh’s Britain was trying to ensure the continuity of its maritime trade. A Metternich or an Alexander I was an actor; a Castlereagh, part of the audience. In his day, De Gaulle bitterly opposed the admittance of the UK into the EU; and the general was right. This is not to denigrate the UK’s contribution to European history, which has been tremendous; but it is to say that the UK has never truly known the “continental experience”. This detachment has allowed the UK to be spared some of the worst excesses to have ravaged contemporary Europe (e.g., the Bolshevik Revolutions, and the Hitlers and Mussolinis of the 20th century) and to have built a remarkable parliamentary tradition.
But it is precisely this parliamentary tradition, given how much it has mutated under ultraliberalism, that is a problem today. The parliamentary tradition once made it possible for Disraeli to become prime minister, despite his Jewish heritage; however, he was still expected to conform to the values of his epoch and milieu, and assumed high office as a Christian. Then utraliberalism took over, and the ultraliberal parliamentary tradition of today makes it possible for a British citizen to refuse to swear on the Bible and instead ask for a copy of the Koran during a ceremony of import (and one such British citizen of Muslim faith did just that after he’d been asked to join the Privy Council, which advises the Queen; the man is now mayor of London). Neither should it be surprising that the UK was the European country to come closer to the American brand of free-market economics than any other European state. It is the same ultraliberal mantra that has eroded discipline in British society and made policing it a difficult business (witness the now forgotten riots of 2011).
The European continent is not just in crisis mode; its very existence is threatened. It needs new solutions and bold measures. Whatever they are, the UK, with its ultraliberal parliamentarianism and its unfamiliarity with the “continental experience”, will only stand in the way. The UK’s engagement in the EU was halfhearted; the monarchy was the only major EU member not to have adopted the euro as its currency. And it was the first country to not only organize a referendum on leaving the EU, but also deliver an anti-EU verdict in the end. It is high time that Europe got the message.
Instead, Europeans might wish to look east. Since the 19th century – at the latest – the history of Russia has been intertwined with that of Europe. Faced with a shrinking population, Russia is facing demographic problems that are similar to those of Europe. It also shares with Europe various geopolitical challenges (a powerful, ambitious China and a restive Muslim population). And, like Europe, it grapples with its own identity problem, which regrettably gets less commentary than it deserves: since the 18th century, Russia has been a state of two nations – one European, the other Asian. This identity crisis is beyond the scope of this article; for now, the mere idea will suffice – if Russia’s European side is victorious, Russia and Europe might have something to discuss. Naturally, this kind of Euro-Russo integration looks downright chimerical at the present time: for a host of reasons, modern Europe is not ready for this kind of alliance; and the man who has been in charge of Russia for nearly two decades is hardly an ideal partner for any further developments on that front. But never underestimate history’s fondness for surprises.
Russia or not, the loss of the UK as a member can be viewed as a godsend. Yes, there are dangers. Brexit has set a precedent that might precipitate further shocks, such as more referendums, new departures, and rising nationalist populism. These potential shocks might be the death knell of the EU, at least the EU in its present form. But if modern Europeans, free of the British load, find the courage and strength to meet the demands imposed by that process of history that has played itself out on the European continent over the centuries, Europe has a chance to emerge as a Europe that is stronger and more unified.
Along with the interview with Tony Blair, Le Figaro published another article on its website that same day. Rather symbolically, the article reported on a recent study that revealed that France is now home to the largest number of Muslims in Europe. This is a result of the forty years of integration and liberalization so cherished by Tony Blair and his acolytes, with all the threats to social cohesion and peace in Europe that go with it. Brexit offers Europe an opportunity to bring this particular kind of integration and liberalization to an end, without turning its back either on the laws of history or on the future that, it should be hoped, is still within Europe’s grasp.