Brexit is a chance for Europe
The chaos that’s shaking Britain to its core has come a long distance. The constitutional crisis, the 2 million protesters in the streets of London on Saturday 23rd March, the likely fall of Theresa May this week, and even the 2016 referendum itself are merely the culmination of more than 40 years of turbulence between this island nation and the rest of the European continent.
In fact, the calling of this referendum was inevitable when looking from a long-term historical point of view, because the UK has always been split – torn even – between on the one handthe Commonwealth that was its natural zone of influence, and on the other Europe where it was less dominant. The debacle was in fact etched into the stone of the European project because the customs union was Britain’s nightmare, forcing it to choose Europe over the Commonwealth, while the establishment of an intra-European free-trade zone would have allowed it to reap the rewards of both by maintaining its preferential relationship with its former colonies. The hostility of the Brits to the European project therefore emanates from this choice to join a customs union that was indeed dictated to them in the first place. Nevertheless, they haven’t stopped trying to sabotage it because it doesn’t conform to their doctrine, nor to their vital interests. From the outset, the supranational institutions, European integration and the continent’s deep desire not to repeat the terrible mistakes that sparked two world wars were not understood, or consented to, by this British nation that leant more on the side of informal decision-making processes.
These are the tensions that arise from such historical factors, from the hegemony of the former British Empire, from international trade and from this nation’s political and even civilisational influence that were undeniably at play in the 2016 referendum. Aside from the political parties, the various sensitivities and social classes, the very identity of the British was antelling indicator of the current, awful crisis. A statement made by Hugh Gaitskell, leader of a party nevertheless reputed to be in favour of the EU – the Labour Party – in the late 1950’s, claimed that his country’s accession to a European Community would spell “the end of a thousand years of history”! The paradoxes of Brexit are thus plenty, and we haven’t yet understood them, or seen the end of them.
While the UK was meant to take back control of its destiny – at least according to the Brexiteers –, and while the country’s no-deal exit would be at most a scratch on the surface for the European Union since it conducts only 10% of its trade with Great Britain, the no-deal version of Brexit would be a massive and unprecedented shock for the country as half of its trade is done with Europe! Another inherent contradiction of Brexit is that the peace between the UK and Republic of Ireland was ensured precisely because of these two countries’ accession to Europe. Without the European project and without the customs union there would have been no reconciliation or standardisation between the UK and the Republic of Ireland!
Brexit is therefore not just Britain’s wish to leave Europe. It is also – perhaps above all – a temper tantrum and final reflex to repudiate this Europe that the Brits feel confused over because it has slowly but surely dismantled their identity after having undermined their legitimate interests.Implicitly, Brexit – Britain’s rejection of Europe – is a chance for Europe to finally reveal the true nature of the European Union that, after originally being a project to ensure peace and establish customs and monetary unions, must now urgently become a political project. As for the UK, the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world, its current convulsions show that it is more than ever a nation governed by the parties, for the parties.