There are many sides to the Brexit story, apparently partly botched because the British seem unhappy with the present deal with the European Union. In the UK in fact the Brexiteers lament the lingering excessive link to the bureaucratic behemoth of the continent’s European Union; and the Remainers resist leaving the union.
Yet there is more. The real tragedy of Brexit is the UK losing its destiny and needing to find a new one. Its present destiny came about during Elizabethan age, between the 16th and 17th centuries. England then fought the global power of the time, Spanish empire, dominated by the Hapsburg. England defeated Madrid’s goals to dominate Great Britain, later helped to break up the Hapsburg domains by supporting the independence of the rich Dutch cities and then inheriting and replacing the empire in the 17th century.
The end of the sprawling British Empire and Commonwealth in the 20th century was not the fatal blow. Then in many ways for decades, Great Britain retained a centrality between America and Europe, the two vital parts of the world.
Perhaps the real end came this century with the global economy’s pivot to Asia. London is now geographically distant and marginalized. Moreover, it lacks the continental heft of other players, like the EU, which with its Eurozone is still the world’s largest market.
The Brexit referendum gamble in 2016 tried to reinvent a British global role. It was also about gaining a unique bargaining position as a hub between Asia, Europe, and America, with fingers in every pie and the ability to facilitate all transactions on every cross. But the plan evidently hinged on one small thing – a victory by a small measure against Brexit – and with that there was the following plan to extract better conditions from the EU. This failed and then many things went wrong.
Now the American continent deals with Asia through the Pacific, and Asia wants to reach Europe through Central Asia, thus through the Mediterranean or the Baltic Sea, like in the times of the old Silk Road.
Meanwhile, the new Asian development, including China but not only China, has been pouring billions into Africa, which is kindling also African development. All of this moves new flows of people and goods from the southern continent of the Mediterranean. America, wanting to meet these latest trends, has to come to the Mediterranean again, and so has Russia, the Third Rome, which always had an eye on this sea.
In this dynamic, the UK is geographically peripheral, and it has long lost Malta, its strategic foothold at the center of the Mediterranean, besides possibly losing Gibraltar with the Brexit.
To get out of all this, the UK needs to find a new destiny. Its original destiny was to replace the Spanish-Dutch empire, but what should it do now that all of that is lost?
The European fall of Brexit’s failure
To answer this question, we have to look at the other side of the coin, the “winner” of the Brexit tussle, the EU. The victory was so resounding that almost hours after the UK “capitulation,” Italy also caved to EU requests.
Without the UK, EU is maimed. Deprived of the land of its de facto common language, English, and of its only pan-European media (the Financial Times, The Economist, and the BBC), the EU is largely unclear about what to do with its victory.
Certainly, the traditional parties can tell the Europeans (who vote next year) that the EU can beat the rioters and thus can hope to stem the wide wave of populists clamoring for a return to nationalisms. But this is not enough. European neo-nationalists have questionable yet comprehensive agendas. The EU conversely has only dry mathematical formulae to offer. A present French and German plan proposes further integration, but it is only about economics, and it is still distant from a political union. Italy drafted a bolder plan toward a political union, but so far it has been mired in controversies over fears of a Roman plot to pull out of the euro.
Actually, Brexit makes more urgent the need for a broader ideal for Europe. The EU needs a healthy economic structure, but it needs even more a fresh cultural mission.
Neo-nationalists do not win because they have a mature economic plan for the EU or for their countries. Actually, their economic plans are naïve at best.
They win because they have a clear cultural/ideological goal: the return to some kind of 19th century nationalism. These ideas reek of mildew, but it is at last a mental barrier against the transformation of Europe that is happening without clear ideals or sentiments.
Why should rich Europe welcome more immigrants and shoulder the burden of Italian overblown debt? The answers so far have been: because 1) we need the workforce and we must be good, while a century ago we were bad going to through racism and two world wars; and 2) the death of Italy will bring about the death of the EU.
Yet answer 1 is both too practical (we need the workforce, as if we imported slaves) and also too impractical (need to be good). It misses and totally forgets the cultural earthquake the wave of immigrants is bringing to Europe, which is the real reason for the reaction.
It is this earthquake that shakes common people toward neo-nationalists. No party in Europe so far has managed to positively answer this, without a simple and impractical rejection of the foreigners, because it would need to bring about a new European sentiment and ideal away from the ideals of each nation.
Answer 2 also is no longer working. Growing tension between the U.S. and China is bound to redefine all global rules of economy and trade. Its costs will far exceed any potential Italian exit from the euro. Then the Italian power to blackmail the world with a possible crisis comes to almost nil.
Economics or Nationalism, and difficulties of a “European” integration
This leaves the EU economic versus the nationalist sentimentalists. In good times, “economicists” would win hands down as the thriving economy would distribute welfare to the more destitute. In times of recession and social transformation, with less money to spend and more threats to everyday life, it will be the day of the nationalists.
In all of this, the position of conservatives in Europe is understandable—when the future is uncertain, a return to the known past looks safer. However, a return of the puny European nations with less than ten million people or so, in a world where multi-hundred-million states are emerging, looks unlikely. And even the European giant, Germany, with a population short a hundred million, is not of the size required in the future. The reality is that old values don’t work, new order needs a new basis, and Europe needs perhaps a strong common identity, not a return to the dreamland of the small motherlands.
In all of this, Europe has one thing in common: the fear, real or imaginary, of radical Islam, which is something very different from the old Muslims threatening Europe for centuries until the 18th century, as Lucio Caracciolo in a forthcoming issue of the Italian journal Limes describes. In fact, as communism was the yardstick of the crisis of capitalism in the 20th century, today the radical Islamism is a yardstick of the crisis of capitalism and the culture-religious matrix of individual European nations.
Muslims in Europe are growing, are rarely converted, and are often left to their own devices or secluded in urban areas where state authorities have little or no intervention. In countries like Germany, new immigrants are taught civic rules and German, but in Italy, they are left to the preventive care of the police. In either case, the secular state appears more careful of respecting the cultural identity of the immigrant than of teaching the cultural values of the host country.
In this way, the authority of the state shrinks. And yet, as Limes argues, most of these immigrants feel safer and are more supportive of their new European states than their motherlands, which are often torn between dictators and terrorists.
Islamic immigrants do not integrate because they are marginalized and also because there is not a strong cultural-religious identity to assimilate. What are the cultural values of the host countries where they arrive? Most importantly, these immigrants are quite different and separate: some are Turks, some Arabs, either from Asia or from Africa, and others are from black Africa.
They are very different people but are all viewed as the same by EU citizens, and yet European citizens do not appear the same to them. Morocco immigrants are the same in England, France, Germany or Italy, but the different European states (UK, France, Germany or Italy) offer different models of integration, although in theory they all belong to a EU. Or not? That is, there is no European culture or sentiment to assimilate these new Islamic immigrants: “they” are the same, and “we” Europeans are different before them. This difference among European countries makes assimilation even harder.
The preset of ghost of European states
The modern secular European states are like ghosts made up more of denials and fears than of positive values that could draw in the new immigrants and become a cultural magnet for near Asia and Africa. There is not a strong religious or cultural identity that absorbs the immigrants. The Islamic immigrants then assimilate and adapt to the prevailing European confusion. Here their only identity is also a denial, “we are not like them.” They cannot be converted, with few exceptions, because there is nothing substantial to be converted to in Europe. Those who convert do so thinking of an old idea of Western Christian-Catholic identity that no longer exists.
It is the West, Europe, that is in a crisis of identity precisely when it has won hands down: there is no enemy but the selfish divisions within, and unitary Islam no longer exists.
Europe then needs to build a new unitary cultural identity that goes beyond the single states or the mere appeal to economic matrices will lose it. This both for internal reasons (to fight each nationalism) and external reasons (to fight growing Islam radicalism).
The beginning of the effort for a European peace and integration came under American auspices at the end of the heart-shattering World War II. Now perhaps for many reasons, the US should intervene again to help build a new European identity.
Moreover, this new cultural basis is grounded in tradition, but it has to go beyond that. Britain is an essential part of this, and losing it is a huge loss for the UK, but the EU has little to be smug about in its victory. On the other hand, the UK is more alone; more under siege, torn between its non-English citizens and the EU outside; and marginalized from the main economic routes, with internal economicists arguing against Brexit just for the money and neo-nationalists harping against the EU for a dream of Britannia that is no longer.
The dream of a new Europe perhaps should start from London, the actual melting pot of a European identity, and the cultural crossroads of East and West. Yet if London fails to return strongly to Europe, one way or another, Europe will be in greater danger and the UK with it. Its marginalization will prevent the UK from reaping the fruits of the new Mediterranean centrality but it will only partly shield it from the nationalist and Islamist blowback.