Podcast: Problems Passing on the Torch
12 October 2021
Britain seems caught by ever more radical posturing. Rather than matching the rhetoric from London, the European Union should hold onto its raison d’être of deal-making and compromise.
This article incorporates some of the ideas discussed at the most recent V/I breakfast with Kalypso Nicolaïdis, who recently published Exodus, Reckoning, Sacrifice: Three Meanings of Brexit through a crowd-funding initiative. The reflections below are a summary of the discussion with Nicolaïdis but also touch upon some of the mythical stories that frame the book.
Since Britain has voted to leave to European Union, it has experienced two remarkably different time perspectives. One is long-term and refers to a distant, promised land often referred to as “Global Britain”. The second one concerns the everyday, the nitty-gritty of the process that will bring the UK’s departure from the EU to its conclusion.
Meanwhile, continental Europe is somewhere in between these two perspectives. It looks both with wonderment and consternation to the chaos that has taken hold of Britain. There is little comprehension for the sheer willingness of many Brexit supporters to pursue an abrupt departure on 31 October, even though this would inflict damage upon the economy and bring the “brain gain” from the continent to a halt.
Integrity means integrity
Many of the ongoing difficulties to find a solution boil down to language. Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator for the European Union, has repeatedly stressed that the integrity of the single market needs to prevail in dealing with Britain’s withdrawal and the future relationship. But what does integrity mean? How indivisible are the four freedoms and how does this translate into a negotiation position?
There are EU member states who would opt for a more flexible approach in negotiating with Britain, to find a compromise that keeps it as closely to the EU as possible. Poland is at pains to avoid an abrupt departure of the UK, which would be followed by severe disruption of trade and investment. However, there is growing impatience in capitals such as Paris, Brussels and Berlin that unity should prevail over everything else. This shifted attention to the preparation of a “no deal” Brexit.
Militancy is spreading on both sides of the Channel, whether it is for a hard exit and the belief in a better future outside the EU or to protect the integrity of the single market at all cost without considering the strategic necessity of compromise. The current negotiation positions allow for no workable solution in the short term.
What is needed, therefore, is a new language of tolerance. We may find inspiration in classic archetypes, mythological stories from our childhood that may change the way we can think about Brexit.
Three stories to guide us forward
The first story is about the biblical exodus. To let the people go to their land of milk and honey may cost them forty years of suffering in the desert of Egypt. Faith in and a yearning for the promised land cannot be underestimated.
And yet the reality is more than a simple exodus story. This biblical myth is full of ambivalence and mystery. The Pharaoh in this story, the EU, is not an almighty power. Neither is Moses, the UK, entirely free of doubt; the past few years have shown how undecided Britain is regarding its future.
Another mythical archetype revolves around a sense of reckoning. Moments of crisis such as 9/11, can profoundly shock us and necessitate a moment of self-reflection. The referendum sparked soul searching on the continent. Why do the British dislike us? This brief interlude of doubt – a Narcissus Europe eternally gazing at its own image but never able to grasp it – eventually gave way to a more assertive position that excluded compromise and sought to make an example out of the British departure.
The third story is about sacrifice. While the EU has struggled to find consensus on a range of issues, from migration to the rule of law, it has acted with remarkable consistency on Brexit. From the negotiating mandate to European Council meetings, there has been little to no dissent from the official position.
In mythology, scapegoats are recurring for the important role they play in restoring order after a time of chaos. Sacrificial tendencies are rife at times when other challenges require unity. Is Britain the demonstrative scapegoat in this story? The Greeks only break with their sacrificial tendencies when Theseus kills the Minotaur. Yet, here the story is complicated by the fact that the EU is a union of choice and not one constructed by force.
Risk of contagion
One should not underestimate the risks of Brexit. Could it set a precedent for other member states – like the opening of Pandora’s box? The negotiation process to leave the EU, however, has shown to be more of a vaccination than a contagion. No other country imagines to leave in the foreseeable future, because it appears to be extremely difficult to achieve.
Yet, Eurosceptic posturing and bombastic rhetoric can have deleterious effects, even when no real action follows. Both Poland and Hungary have engaged in battles with the EU that could lead to exclusion. As such, a new language of tolerance may fall on deaf ears.
Rather than talk about risk, the Brexit precedent could be turned on its head. Britain’s departure could provoke a reflection on what the most ambitious relationship with a third country could look like. This would allow the EU to export its philosophy, to make it appear as benevolent rather than coercive.
What the Union needs is a positive story in the eyes of its citizens, one that encourages us to reach out.
It has been clear from the start that short-term tactics, aimed against compromise, go against long-term strategic interests of convergence.
A general fatigue about Brexit has made us forget that the EU still has an important role to play in the negotiation process. There are alternatives that can be imagined beyond another extension or a refusal to budge over fixed positions. The history of the EU has always been about compromise and deal-making. Now, just like Britain, it is stuck in a theatre of macho politics.
Breaking the backstop
We need less rhetoric from French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and instead more imaginative solutions for the future relationship. While the peace achieved through the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland remains primordial, the Irish backstop as part of the withdrawal agreement was always meant to be an insurance policy for the future.
It is not impossible to envision an agreement that makes the backstop obsolete, through a dual regime of autonomy or a system of harmonised standards. However, any creative solution will have to overcome a deep political divide between London and Dublin.
Many myths and metaphors have been used in the political spectacle of Brexit. Just this week, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar invoked the Greek goddess Athena to tease his British counterpart. What we need is neither playful references, nor the spirit of Dunkirk, imperial nostalgia and the yearning of taking back control.
Myths of a different order can guide us in the Brexit spectacle.
Ancient mythology invites us to larger reflection and universal wisdom that are lacking in the day-to-day world of politics. Stories about exodus, reckoning and sacrifice help us to identify where short-term decisions are flawed and may disrupt long-term strategic imperatives.
European citizens will not benefit from macho theatre and a more radicalised style of negotiation between London and Brussels. Instead, the EU should hold on to its history of compromise and deal-making. Only a greater degree of tolerance will help to avert Britain from crashing out of the EU.