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October 29, 2020

About Brexit and Europe

We already know that Brexit, the original acronym that designates Britain’s/United Kingdom’s exit from the EU – last summer another one, Grexit, was used for a few months because Athens did not want to leave the organization –, has sparked and continues to amplify an avalanche of analyses in the European press and not only there (large American, Chinese, Russian dailies have joined the current). A simple Google search turns up over 17 million entries for Brexit, so well over a year since this file entered debate the issue of United Kingdom’s exit from the EU – as a result of a democratic referendum – has made an enviable career, significant for the intelligent and professional initiation of a political initiative.

That this is so is shown by a political map of Europe displaying the results of a “World Economic Forum” survey on each country’s attitude toward Brexit at the end of last year. The results speak volumes not only about Europe’s diversity, about whether England is considered a constituent part of the continent (where this country was often called “perfidious Albion”), but also about old Europe’s current trends toward global developments. From globalization to the fourth industrial revolution, from continental fears of great power hegemony in Europe or from the insular-continental divergence in history to the fascination with the biggest historical empire, the British Empire of the 19th Century, the one over which the sun never set.

Firstly, the map shows some incredibly small scores in the case of states such as Austria (21 per cent) and Czech Republic (27 per cent). According to the methodology used, the result is obtained by deducting from the “pro-in” vote the “anti-in” percentage (according to an “indy-100” indicator used since 2006 precisely in order to relativize the “I don’t know” answers) and knowing the “anti-in” percentage in each case, the “pro” vote stands at 40 per cent in Austria and the Czech Republic. In the case of France, the calculus shows that precisely half of the respondents were in the “pro-in” camp, and here we are talking about a country that was England’s competitor on the continent and on the seas and oceans for hundreds of years, one that opposed United Kingdom’s EU accession last century. Here we have to mention what French leader Charles de Gaulle stated in 1963 when he rejected United Kingdom’s request to accede to the Common Market (which later became the EU): “England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries. (…) It is possible that one day England might manage to transform herself sufficiently to become part of the European community… In this case… France would raise no obstacle.”

In the case of Poland and Romania (which register the lowest rejection score among all member states, namely 4 per cent), we have 62 and 65 per cent respectively in favour of England as part of the EU. Scores just as high are registered at the other flank of Europe – in Spain (66 per cent), Portugal (63 per cent) and even in Ireland (63 per cent). What is the explanation for these comparatively very high scores in the EU’s Western and Eastern flanks? Could it be a revolt of Europe’s “margins” against the unbridled omnipotence of the continental “centre” where Germany (48 per cent “pro-in”) and France (32 per cent “pro-in”) – namely the organization’s engine, as the German-French duo is known – dominate. Or, taken in turn: faced with a threatening neighbourhood of the traditional imperial Russian East, Europe’s Eastern flank needs British support in the face of a historically verified marriage between the continent’s centre and East?; and the Western flank is open to cooperation on the seas and oceans, being situated, along with the United Kingdom, on the Atlantic coast, but in its turn feels the same need of allies as the eastern margin does in relation to the “centre” of Europe? Maybe there is also the recent perception shown by Poles and Romanians – the most “pro-in” in the Eastern region – that emigration to the United Kingdom brings the biggest material benefits compared to other EU destinations. But why this difference between the continent’s South and North? In Italy 58 per cent “pro-in,” Greece 35 per cent and Cyprus 16 per cent, but also Malta 71 per cent, while in Scandinavia we have Sweden with 45 per cent “pro-in” and Finland with 39 per cent, then Estonia 58 per cent and Lithuania 73 per cent. If in some cases – see Cyprus – we are talking about the memory of a colonial past, in the other cases one can invoke, from the standpoint of security, rather the threat of the imperial East, common to the area between the Baltic and the Black Sea. One cannot rule out a temptation toward isolationism/neutralism of the states located in the far north of the continent, at any rate historically more recent than a voluntary involvement in a continental power balance where the United Kingdom attached to the continent remains decisive (Finland and Sweden are not de jure NATO members for instance). And, in the South, Greece and Italy are today far more preoccupied with the disintegrating wind that is blowing from Africa and the Middle East than with the continental balance of power, where a Germany preaching economic austerity is more frightening than an Anglo-Saxon neo-Keynesianism that opposes the canons of the Frankfurt Church.

If we were to sum up the continental reaction to Brexit, we could not evade the conclusion that there are three fundamental trends that have the gift for being traditional and innovative at the same time: an East significantly interested in a well-balanced European balance that would save it from an awkward embrace of the imperially re-assertive East; a hard centre preoccupied with its own welfare and ready to engage in a global competition while neglecting the eastern and southern periphery, even against them; a Western belt for which a continental United Kingdom ensures easy opening toward globalization and South America, where they have major cultural and economic interests, but also a rampart in front of the unexpected reactions of the “hard core” from the centre. A nuance: the North’s quasi-neutrality/isolationism, which are traditional, toward Brexit, together with the South’s over-interest in existential threats from beyond the Mediterranean – understandable today when the existence of the European Union is called into question by the waves of refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East – indirectly outline also dissatisfaction with a problem that does not have a point and place right now. Today old Europe has other stringent issues to solve, and less to focus on a Brexit that seems to become increasingly United Kingdom’s domestic political game. Therefore, dissatisfaction with this game but also with a domination of the continent’s “hard core” alike, which seems to justify this warning signal that the Anglo-Saxons have pulled. This warning signal reminds that Europe can endure only within a balance of power that it knew how to chisel during centuries from which the United Kingdom cannot be absent nor can it be dissipated damagingly for its own civilization and global aspiration, but also foreshadows that Brexit is damaging to the United Kingdom alike. It is what UK Premier David Cameron is saying in a passionate posting on Facebook on February 28: “There is no doubt in my mind that the only certainty of exit is uncertainty; that leaving Europe is fraught with risk. Risk to our economy (…). Risk to our cooperation on crime and security matters. And risk to our reputation as a strong country. (…) With so many gaps in the “out” case, the decision is clearly one between the great unknown and a greater Britain. A vote to leave is the gamble of the century. And it would be our children’s future on the table if we were to roll the dice.” And the Premier of the United Kingdom knows what he is saying.

Overall and irrespective of the criss-crossing of the meanings of the demonstration of the results written on it, the map we have presented is an unswerving proof that Europe is a united and diverse continent – being perceived as such by its nations – and has to remain so in order not to provoke the demons of the past.

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