Faculty Forum - Featured Post Posted on Tuesday, July 12, 2016

“No feelings of emotion”: After Brexit, what next for Europe?

In the weeks leading to the British referendum on the European Union, I was researching at the National Archives in London. One particular document stood out. Dating from January 1978, it was a memorandum of a meeting between the British Prime Minister at the time (James Callaghan) and his Greek counterpart (Constantine Karamanlis).

Back then, the Greek government chief was trying to shore up support for his country’s bid for a place within the European Economic Community (EEC), a precursor to the European Union. He urged his British host to help speed up Athens’ application for membership. This was particularly important, Karamanlis pointed out, to “remove the temptation to dictatorship in Greece.” (Greece was ruled by a military dictatorship between 1967 and 1974.)

The Brit’s response was reassuring but frank. The EEC, Callaghan explained, “aroused no feelings of emotion in the U.K.” Britain had joined five years earlier. Did the British benefit economically from membership? He could not say with certainty.

And while he “fully accepted the political advantages of belonging to the EEC,” the premier also admitted that “the British people did not.” For them, it appeared “more credible to think that the U.K. should have close ties with India than that they should have close ties with Europe.”

Callaghan, moreover, acknowledged that ahead of ascension, “some people in the U.K. had exaggerated the economic attractions of membership, with the result that a degree of backlash was now being experienced.”

Fast-forward to 2016.

The situation has reversed. But today, as four decades ago, an enormously important decision has also produced backlash, and a sense, among a considerable number of people, that the campaign to leave the E.U. was based on exaggerations and false pretenses.

The above anecdote illustrates more than the well-known fact that Britain has had a conflicted relationship with the experiment in European integration from the beginning. Tensions between the economic and political imperatives in forging a closer union with Europe have been longstanding. More pertinently, the anecdote suggests that there have also developed different—and conflicting—historical versions about why and how Britain joined in the first place. The country’s membership has meant different things to different people over the decades.

This also helps explain, in part, some of the conflicting reactions to the vote. The decision was shocking but yet also not wholly surprising. (The headlines in German, French, and Italian newspapers oscillated between end-of-the-world panic and desperate resignation to a sense of British eccentricity).

To be sure, the anxiety is understandable. For many families, the referendum result raises troubling questions about their livelihood in the U.K. For others, the voting result reflects the sharp divide between London—cosmopolitan, ethnically diverse, young, and wealthy—and the rest of Britain. (It is worth remembering that the stark urban/rest-of-the-country divide is not unique to 2016 Britain. Inequality may be a global problem but at the local level, it is often experienced in terms of historically informed geographic divisions.)

What now? Predictions of the future are tricky, especially for those who specialize in the study of the past. In the months leading to the referendum, a great number of authors used and abused British history, as the historian Mark Mazower recently pointed out, in an effort to draw the “right lesson” about the vote. As if history can reliably provide an answer — and only one — to the complex predicaments of today’s world. Yet, history can be a conflicting guide. It can offer multiple answers.

In the past, various countries have rejected regional economic schemes, international institutions, and elite-driven visions of the future. Just as it has softened some borders, globalization has also reliably created transnational channels for backlash. Unlike what some commentators suggest, all of this goes back a lot further than the year 1989.

Consider how during the Cold War some countries (a lot smaller and weaker than Britain) pushed against an international order that seemed imposed on them. Some opted for autarky and isolation in the face of expanded markets, free-flowing capital, and all the talk of creating a solidarity front against the superpowers.

The shock over Brexit has also betrayed, among other things, a Western-centric mental geography of world affairs among Anglophone commentators. When other countries have rejected aspects of the international order — Russia comes to mind, but think also of China, North Korea, Cold War-era Albania, and so on — it has been possible to dismiss them as bizarre “outliers,” “special cases,” and “extreme examples.” It is not as easy to do this with Britain.

Much of the panic over Brexit, in other words, in addition to reflecting genuine, understandable, and warranted anxieties, has also brought to the surface unspoken but deeply held assumptions about what drives history forward.

The bitter irony about Brexit may well be that the more dramatic consequences will be felt among those not yet within the European Union, and thus not even having the theoretical option, as E.U. citizens do, to move elsewhere. They are the people trapped along Europe’s Mediterranean borders. Or those who have been waiting for membership for a quarter of a century at this point, only to see the E.U.’s time, energy, and attention go to drawn-out negotiations with the bespoke suits with no plan in London.

For many years, Berlin and Brussels have held the prospect of E.U. membership as a carrot for countries in the Balkans, the majority of which are led by fantastically corrupt and autocratic leaders. In Paris last week, the French and German leaders assured their Balkan counterparts that Brexit does not put enlargement into question. Yet, now more than ever, the choice between deeper or wider integration seems like a thing of the past. The E.U. may very well go in the direction of continued integration in the heart of the continent, as opposed to wider political integration along the periphery. This would push the periphery further out, keeping the risks external, along a geopolitically volatile area. Not much good would come out of that.

This article is part of a series of Roosevelt House Faculty Associates’ commentary on the Brexit vote. Click here to read the full series.

Elidor Mëhilli is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History. The views expressed here are strictly his own. Mëhilli’s research in London, for a project on Mediterranean contacts and crises since the 1970s, was made possible by a Hunter College Presidential Travel Award.