A Bid from “the Continent”, a Plea to remain

By Lambros Fatsis

In the heat of Brexit, it may seem inopportune, if not entirely irrelevant, to recite poetry, when so much “real stuff” hovers over our heads. Yet, there is something about the lyrical outbursts of poets that can alert us to the possibility of thinking beyond and across boundaries, in our last-ditch attempt to decide whether to “leave” or “remain”. A few verses from John Donne’s, ‘No Man is an Island’, should suffice to convince us that no nation is ‘entire of itself’, but also recognise that ‘if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less’. What could be more pertinent than such devotions (prayers) upon an emergent occasion, which can also be rewritten as a devotion (loyalty) to the UK’s place as a ‘piece of the Continent’, and ‘a part of the main’, especially when we realise that both the EU and the UK will be smaller and weaker if they part ways.

This may seem especially true as we escape the high planes of poetic sensibility, to return to the the pedestrian terrain of politics. What greets us on our return is an artificially polarised debate, which shores up multiple scenarios, dilemmas, and confusions, while also revealing the hypocrisy, short-sightedness, and prejudices that inform it. These run into familiar refrains that warn us against weak levels of EU integration among its member states, poor national regimes of (self)regulation (especially the PIIGS), the German dominance of the EU, and the (now visible) destructive consequences and effect of the Eurozone crisis.

These distressing signs of Europe’s ill-health, as it currently stands, translate into three main scenarios that stress decay and stagnation, while also nurturing hopes for the cosmopolitanisation of Europe. The decay scenario laments the EU’s collapse under the weight of its own internal and external contradictions, the stagnation scenario blames jealously guarded national interests for the failure of successful integration, while the cosmopolitanisation scenario envisages a post-national Europe, whose identity lies between rather within European nation states. The latter scenario, developed by Ulrich Beck and Edgar Grande who also came up with the other two, may in fact be Europe’s only hope to reform itself in accordance with its principles and values, but requires more political commitment, and less economistic calculation at a moment when the opposite trend prevails.  

In Beck and Grande’s “manifesto” for a (more) cosmopolitan Europe, such initiatives involve strengthening an EU-wide ‘civil society based on universally shared constitutional norms’, and forging a ‘new post-national model of democracy which instead of incapacitating European citizens, accords them an active role in the decision-making process’. This in turn calls for a ‘cosmopolitan approach to integration’ which no longer strives to overcome but rather acknowledge national difference, while simultaneously establishing Europe as ‘the driving force of a global cosmopolitanism, and a member of the new transatlantic security community’. Inspired though all this may sound, it is plagued by its own idealism, unless it becomes applied policy or second nature to the citizens of Europe.

Faced with such recurrent plot lines in “the EU-runs-amok” and “the EU-needs-you” genre, many (rightfully) read them as a dilemma between opting out to escape the clutches of an ill-fated union, and staying put to ensure that the European project has the legs to run with a little help from its members.  This sense of ambivalence towards Europe, not as a geographical entity but as a political enterprise, expresses both admiration as well as misgivings, especially in countries, like the UK, who have historically displayed a sense of remove from and reluctance towards the possibility of “an ever closer union” with its European partners. Such discontent with “the Continent” could be described as “the Bolingbroke syndrome”, where much like the character from Shakespeare’s Richard II, anything distinct from the British Isles is treated unenthusiastically at best.

This disjointedness however leads to distortions and confusions, the most important of which being the tendency to blame any political dissatisfaction on the EU and treat it as specific to it, when its roots may be closer to home that we care to admit. Such a sullen attitude reeks of hypocrisy, demonstrates our short-sightedness, and exposes our prejudices, making us rather unpleasant allies. Armed with a pre-packaged suspicion of the EU we appear so eager to nod approvingly at any remark that disparages it, displaying a “me-first” ethos, and a lack of vision for a union of which we are members. In doing so we allow nationalist vendettas to sully our relationship with our fellow-members, clinging to some peculiar notion of exceptionalism which reminds the world how different we are compared to everybody else, without perhaps realising how cocooned we are in our mental fortresses.

Such attitudes do not only encourage divisiveness and polarisation, and cultivate alarmism and escapism, but also turn our attention away from home-grown problems. Faceless bureaucrats do not exclusively reside in Brussels but can be found in Westminster and Whitehall too, political representation and democratic accountability is a problem here as much as it is elsewhere, especially if one thinks of the current electoral system or such hangovers from the past like the unelected House of Lords. Even if these are dismissed as negligible footnotes in comparison to the “European superstate”, concerns about the future of public funding, aggressive anti-immigration policies and tactics, and calls to replace the Human Rights Act with an English Bill of Rights should raise an eyebrow or two, especially when all the above are entrusted to the hands of the present government.   

Pursuing national interests sounds sensible, if not the “right” thing to do, but we might be taking a very narrow view of it often mistaking sovereignty for power, and union with uniformity, in a world where wealth creation (via economic opportunity), social cohesion (via civil society), and political freedom (via legislation) press against the limits of “the nation”. The choice then is between remaining in a union which changes as it develops, or leave when we might be most needed as Brits of the Continent, and parts of the main.  

Dr Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton. This article was written in preparation for the Free University Brighton’s forthcoming EU referendum discussion at the Brighton Dome


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