Separation Anxiety: Brexit

"How much special treatment [do] we have to shove up the English arse so that they stay in the EU," wondered German comedian Oliver Welke as he lampooned Britain's upcoming Brexit referendum, bringing laughter and snorts of consternation across Europe. In the program, broadcast on the national German television station ZDF, Welke and his assistant ridiculed Britain's irrational demands for “special treatment” within the EU, its perceived sense of exceptionalism, and the attractiveness of its population. “50 years ago, the Brit inhabited the whole world. At that time, the same, now, ancient grandma from the dynasty of the horse faced ruled the people. That's why many Brits think they are still a world power” quipped Welke's assistant Dr. Wischmeyer, neglecting Her Majesty's Germanic ancestry in the process.

This historical faux pas aside, Welke's program can be seen as symptomatic of Europeans' deep-rooted failure to understand the idiosyncrasies of Britain's political culture, its very European mistrust of unelected officials, or to acknowledge its population's sense of separateness. Rather than labelling British sentiment as "nostalgic" or "insular," foreign observers should view Britain's relationship with Europe as similar to Canadians' perception of their southern neighbours; the vast majority in Britain do not view their country as exceptional but, rather, as "separate" from Europe.

Wischmeyer's lecture illustrates Europeans' assumption that it is right-wing exceptionalism which is the sole source of British mistrust of the European ideal and that Britain is nostalgic in the face of change. In a shallow way, this analysis holds water, as the people who recycle the country's former 'glories' in their demands for a British exit are the foolish, particularist, and ambitious. But these strawmen are not alone in their scepticism. Wary of creeping corporatism and a lack of accountability, many on the Left of British politics reject further European integration, paralleling left-wing, North American groups who oppose NAFTA and TPP.

Thus, anxieties toward Jose Manuel Barroso's European "empire" run deep across the UK's political spectrum and to ignore this fact is to risk undermining the Kantian precepts of the European ideal - to create a common political culture, “embodied in the rule of law, multilevel democracy, and human rights.” The European project is not a de facto outcome; it is a conscious, ongoing effort to bring together nations by incentivising them to take part in it. The EU must offer reasons and incentives for membership, not simply mythologize its own existence and call the critics and unbelievers backward reactionaries.

So what separates the British from their European neighbours? What drives this divergence from Barroso's dream? Separating Britain from its European neighbours is a political system and culture which, rooted in tradition and happenstance, was formed apart from the continent. Britain's longstanding practices of political conduct and institutional continuity contrast sharply with Europe's legal systems, which remain indebted to the Napoleonic Code, and their fluctuating political bodies. Handing over the powers of the continent's political institutions is a somewhat simple task, given that they lack significant continuum in the first place. For the British and their love of chaotic governance, gradual relinquishment of all political sovereignty to a new, European imperium is viewed by both public and policymakers as an ignoble act, unworthy of generations past.

Even meritocracy, an oft-intangible concept, separates island from continent as Britain's model is rooted in Smithian economics and the success of its industrial revolution, which resulted in a more porous social hierarchy and a greater extension of political freedoms. In European countries, meritocracy emerged asymmetrically and, in some cases, remained stratified, as evidenced by the dominance of the Junker class in modern Germany or by Bonapartist and Republican France's top-down, government sponsored systems. Given these divergent paths, Britons have viewed political power through a lens tinted by local tradition and wealth and, thus, are naturally resistant toward the machinations of unelected EU technocrats, meeting in Brussels' smoke-free backrooms.

Europeans, themselves, have often viewed the British and their political culture as foreign to the continent. In an article published in The Envoy last week, Ming Marukatat places all of the blame for the UK-EU's uneasy relationship at Albion's door, despite his insightful analysis of Britain's potential, post-Brexit economic woes. In a manner typical of foreign observers, such as France 24's Douglas Herbert, Marukatat omits the historical role of European leaders, such as Charles de Gaulle's twice blocking Britain's entry into the EEC in 1963 and 1967, in sidelining Britain. In the recent past, other EU leaders, such as Jean-Claude Juncker, have been quick to brush aside Britain's qualms regarding further integration, inflaming the island's nativist sentiment in the process. With the notable exceptions of the Dutch and the Germans, European elites have done little to accept or sooth the rocky relationship between the incipient superstate and its rebellious Atlantic province.

With less than 100 days until the EU referendum, Europeans and foreign observers should recognize that Britain does not view itself as the exception but, rather, as a distinct partner in a trade federation of equals. This vote need not be a comment on Europe's death; the majority of Britons do not hold xenophobic attitudes towards the continent and are simply mistrustful of big government, both British and European, a quality that many in Europe also subscribe to. Faced with rising nationalist movements within the Visegrad group, France, and the Netherlands, Europe's bureaucrats would be well advised to appreciate and learn from Britain's well founded concerns. Britons, in return, should heed their former Foreign Secretary David Miliband's caution that a vote to leave Europe might be "a cold, hard lesson in the demon of hubris, born of delusion that the world owes us a break."

James A.F. Watson

James is a contributing editor at The Envoy, and studies history at UBC. When he’s not working on his deadlift form, he reads Persian political history and international relations theory.

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