Brexit is looking likely. A great institution founded on hope for a better tomorrow is foundering. But it just needed time to improve.
To begin, the old argument for the EU may be tired, but it is still true: Nationalism is bad for the species. The 20th century gave us Two World Wars. Wars which saw men made beasts as they scrabbled, bloodied or gased or both over muddy fields and clawed over razor wire to bayonet enemies they had never met who more likely than not would shoot them before they got anywhere near doing so. Wars which saw the slaughter of innocent men, women and children in dirty gas chambers to be harvested into fertiliser. There is the illusion that if the EU breaks apart that somehow Europe will not return to its former state of neo-barbarism. I think this is wishful thinking. We face many pressures – the great implosion of the Islamic resurgence, which sees no sign of abating, resurgent Russian nationalism, and of course, the grand rise of right-wing individuals like Donald Trump in the US, and a variety of dubious right-wing parties across the EU, to say nothing of India with its new BJP Hindu-power government and Pakistan, and potential conflict further afield between China, Japan, and the Koreas. This is not the time for disunity.
The idea of renewed national conflict in Europe, or world instability to the point of nuclear conflict may seem ridiculous. But ridiculous, unthinkable things have happened many times to figures in world history who assumed the status quo was always going to remain. For instance, think about the four years of trench warfare in the First World War. This had previously been unthinkable to a generation who had grown up in the shadow of 19th-century diplomacy and rapid infantry warfare, (after all, most 19th century wars had been relatively brief and localised, like the Crimean wars, the Italian war of independence, etc.) hence the ‘over-by-Christmas’ myth. A single assassination, of Archduke Franz Ferdinand upturned all that. Witness 9-11. Only a few minor individuals whom nobody had heard of, with minimal funding, were able to penetrate the US defensive net and play havoc. Is it so far-fetched to believe that if a single leader got to relatively unrestricted power in just a single country in the right ideological or international environment (North Korea, quite possibly Pakistan), circumvented whatever controls were in place and decided to carry out his own messianic goals, he (lets face it, it will probably be a he) could play havoc and set a chain of events that would end only in skullheaps and charred cities?
In a nuclear world, nationalism is not something the species can afford. Obviously old issues like Germany V. France are unlikely to reoccur. But nationalisms have a way of generating new conflicts that never existed before. Look at the rise of German nationalism itself: this was a relatively new problem in 1871. Its victory over the French in that year created an ongoing feud with France, in this case over Alsace-Lorraine and more general national pride (read self-image and ego) which only concluded with a 50 million bodycount.
Given the right environment, like in today’s Middle East, these problems can simmer for years, even decades, but then boil over unexpectedly, like the Arab spring or, again, 1914.
A world with 200 nation states (many of which like Pakistan and India are diametrically opposed to one another) and an increasing number of Nuclear weapons (or at least an increasing number of states which possess these glorified suicide boxes) is not a world where Nuclear war may happen. It will happen. It is merely a matter of time and unlucky combinations of circumstances. Time and again, from the Cuban missile crisis to the more recent Kargil war between India and Pakistan, Nuclear war has been at times narrowly dodged. But this cannot go on forever. It is only a matter of time until a chain of events comes along which causes the rise of the bomb.
The only way to lessen and eliminate this threat is by submerging our feelings of ‘otherism.’ And the best way to do this is by creating institutions like the EU which regard us all, at least theoretically, as equals, no matter our race, religion, ideology, gender, sexual orientation, etc. The EU is a safety break on nationalism – a damper on the darker devils in our nature. That exclusivist ‘us-versus-them’ idea which always boils beneath the surface of any human interaction, anywhere, anytime, from sex, to religion, to politics, to race, to geography to any unnumerable combination of these factors, and many, too many to count.
If Britain votes to leave, then at worst case scenario that may mean one sad, bitter thing – we could not live together. The EU couldn’t allay Britain’s fears about mass immigration, or about being overwrought. And Britain just wasn’t willing to cooperate. The idea that we as a species – as a race – could live together, has failed. This leaves us with the option of going back to the old 1940s model of the nation station, perennially unstable, perennially on the edge of an abyss of barbarism.
For years the British media has covered the EU with relentlessly negative and at times utterly unreasonable viciousness. And that coverage is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is the idea of cooperating with neighbours so utterly abhorrent that there can be no future except as divorced, mutually acrimonious nations, with no hope of unity? Rhetorics of hatred – against immigrants, minorities (homosexuals, different racial/religious groups, whatever) can start leading people into making decisions, rather than just being used by politicians or elites for their own ends or as diversionary tactics for larger social problems, as in Britain. In many cases, many of the issues British people were concerned about were not ‘make-or-break.’ But as time went on the public rhetoric deployed amidst an increasingly nationalistic environment has made many people vote leave, when in reality they never wanted that originally.
There is one thing all can agree on: Britain’s time in the sun has faded. It is a great country, which continues to punch above its weight in areas as diverse as technology to reality TV. But its power is soft, not military. All those advantages which marked Britain off as a one-eyed chicklet in the blind’s kingdom ranging from its legal system, to the industrial revolution are being either copied or overrawed: India and China now both have relentlessly growing economies which make them able to overaw basically smaller countries. Whatever long-term future Britain has on its own, it is hard to see it as being anything but a return to its pre-1492 levels of power: a limited power of some note, but nothing special, much like Portugal and Spain. All this ignores the obvious room-elephant that Britain’s economy will take a savage hit should it leave the European Union, one its already pressured people (especially younger people, who are being systematically screwed out of wages and jobs by the older generation of Britons) can ill-afford.
In the meantime, a disunited Europe will only encourage those very undemocratic, ideologically-driven, violent forces in the world we fear, ranging from Salafi Saudi-sponsored Islamists to Russian Nationalists to keep pushing. Imagining that Britain will somehow be ‘safe’ in a networked, modern world linked together by modern transportation and mass communication outside of the EU is untrue.
Brexit could very well spawn additional chain-of-events problems which would be unthinkable right now. When it comes down to it, a big war like the Second World War could only pose a small threat to species survival. That is not the case anymore. The spectre of cities wrecked, civilisations destroyed may seem utterly fanciful – if you take the short view and ignore historical precedents, like the breakup of the (mostly ineffectual) League of Nations which helped presage the start of World War 2.
At days end, Nation states are imaginary constructs. They are a complex concatenation of coalescent culture, imagined family ties (for instance the grand-motherly figure of the queen and the rest of the royal family, – around which a vast merchandising industry has grown, or the constant presentation of the Obama family) and media. They are also the result of bureaucracies expanding from premodern kingdoms that conquered areas which often had no real commonalities previously, education into the idea of ‘we’re all one against outsiders’ which helped wed these areas to a common myth and simple geography. Nationalism is the ultimate expression of our sense of the ‘other,’ no matter how many social, political, economic, or legal structures are grown around it. It was originally all about war between one group of people and another. And simply shedding this basic function has never happened.
No matter how hard it is to hear, no matter how much people love their nations, their culture and customs, their people and places, this is not something we should be motivated to die for. Britain is not a ‘natural’ thing any more so than the EU is. A ‘British’ government has no necessary motivation to do what is right for its people any more so than the EU might. And love of country is no excuse for hate of an Other.
‘Britain’ has only come about through the efforts of centralising kings and governments over the 1200 years – small in the 140,000-200,000 years of Human history. Britain is no more eternal than any other nation state is, and it will one day fade to being forgotten, just as all other nations (my home nation of Ireland included) and religions (Thor worship anyone?) will.
When we feel that resources are scarce or that our sense of identity is under threat, we tend to lock ranks with whomever we feel is the most familiar, most trustworthy group we can reach out to. The recession has helped cause this, as have lowering wages and the general pressures on the middle classes (perceived or otherwise) across the Western world. So has a widespread mistrust of authority figures around the West.
As an Irish citizen, I can honestly say that I have usually had just as much in common with or far more so than a person of the same social background from Germany, the Netherlands, the USA or Canada than I would have with, say, a farmer out in rural Cavan. The lives of people across the continent are growing more similar, not more diverse. Even accepting that we have cultural differences, the fact is that ‘Britain’ has had constant cultural contact with the continent through trade, people moving back and forth, and now the media.
I have never quite understood the argument that ‘We should look after our own first.’ What does that mean? Do others simply have less value as human beings than ‘Our own?’ What do ‘British values’ mean exactly anyway, and how are they different from Europe’s?
As an Irishman, I love my country. I love the land most of all. I love the trees, mountains and streams, the lash of the waves against its shores and the wind as it clears the heather. I am proud of institutions like secular democracy, hewn together over generations uncounted and setbacks, blood and wars endured and compromises reached. But none of this gives us a right to an army. Love of one’s country is not an excuse for hatred of an Other. No matter how much one disagree with their viewpoints.
England itself has a long history of devising social institutions which were revolutionary for its time – a parliament independent of the absolute monarchy for instance, the first step in the slow march to democracy and miles ahead of most of the other ramshackle ‘divine right’ cowboy notions floating around Europe at the time. But these institutions took time. Britain had to fight a savage civil war which ended in the King minus a head before parliament finally stood supreme. Then it teetered near dictatorship under Cromwell, thereafter the monarchy was restored for a while (under the famous Dutch ruler William of Orange – proof positive that Britain has had foreign oversight and influence before), with the parliament gradually gaining more power as the 18th century teetered on. Then into the 19th century more power was given to wider sections of the populace till ultimately modern democracy took hold in the 20th. So it was hardly a straight line of improvement. It took a lot of trial and error – much worse than anything that has happened in the EU’s history, no matter the apocalyptic media-driver doom and gloom.
The EU was to be a new model – on which other groups such as ASEAN were to be based. Ultimately, it is a prototype on which unity of the human race is possible. It is one of the very few political organisations between states based on mutual agreement. It isn’t a tributary arrangement. It is not a state hammered together by brute force, marriage at the sword, plantations, supposed treaties giving some outsider land when he/she has no such right, aggrandizement masquerading as religion, supposed ‘civilizing,’ ‘True faith’ or ‘democratizing’ missions, blood massacres or threat of same. It is neither an Empire, a Caliphate nor Kingdom, with monuments wrapped in models of captured enemy cannon, spears or skulls. It is the accumulated political knowledge of our species that wars don’t work. It is a model of cooperation, of resolving our differences peacefully. Of a democratic and humanistic, altruistic way of looking at the other. Also it is a new model, one relatively untried before, just like British parliamentary democracy was. And because of this, naturally, it has its flaws. Flaws which need to be rectified, granted. And it does have an image problem. But given time, these can be resolved. And we can look forward to a brighter, more peaceful future, where cooperation and compromise are the ways that conflicts are resolved and wars between nations may one day in the far hopeful future long past our grandchildren’s generation may become a past thing.
There may come a bitter time when sacrificing a bit of independence for future survival may have seemed the saner choice, for Britain, Europe and the World.