Bringing Europe's Leaders Together

The EU should show confidence in the face of Brexit

Successful or not, the UK has always been a fearless pioneer, writes FAZ London Correspondent Jochen Buchsteiner.

It is difficult to deny that since the Referendum, Britain has shrunk in stature, at least politically. The days when Britain “boxed above its weight” seem for the moment to have passed. But this political diminishment, if such it is, need not necessarily be bad either for Britain or for the Continent.

Rather than bearing grudges, Britain is keen to cooperate. Its government is campaigning for free trade, has no desire for conflict with its neighbours, and has undertaken to its own citizens that the country will remain a liberal democracy, open to the world. One sometimes wonders, in fact, what all the fuss is about.

The problems Brexit brings with it are obvious. Externally, the EU will have less ability to project itself, and internally it will be less well-balanced. The same goes for the UK – so far at least. But it cannot fully explain why Brexit has given rise to such outrage.

What makes the UK’s departure from the EU so polarising is that it raises fundamental questions – far more fundamental than how many bankers will abandon the City of London, or how much it will hurt European exporters. Not even the uncertainty over the strategic implications – whether Britain will be marginalised on the world stage or find a new role for itself, whether the EU will suffer a setback or forge ahead – can explain the bitterness that can be sensed in heartland cities of the EU such as Berlin, Paris and Brussels.

What is truly disturbing about Brexit is deeper-seated: the rebellious impulse that drives it, the view of the world at its heart. By turning their backs on the European Union, the British are implicitly attacking the consensus of modern Europe – one that has essentially three elements: that the EU project of “ever-closer union” is a progressive and civilising mission, and should accordingly be carried through to its conclusion; that to this end, the institution of the nation state must be weakened; and that it is the mark of enlightened democratic societies that they prioritise prosperity over cultural identity. Brexit, it could be said, goes against everything almost the entire European elite finds reasonable.

It helps to look at the historical, philosophical and cultural dimensions in order to understand this upheaval. When the British went through their last great crisis – the economic near-collapse of the 1970s – Karl Heinz Bohrer described them as “somewhat desiring their own downfall”. He saw what was happening almost as a “melancholy act of rebellion, patched together out of imperial pride, mixed with the high explosives of British self-indulgence and a casino mentality.”

How different and peculiar the British still are has been shown in the approach they have taken to the negotiations. David Davis and his people wanted to move quickly from issue to issue, often with no clear idea where they were heading, with the emphasis on flexibility. The Europeans, in contrast, focused on procedure and principles. The British took an optimistic view of the situation they had created by holding the Referendum, and were trying one way or other to make the best of it. Their European counterparts, on the other hand, were feeling aggrieved, and swung between huffiness and vindictiveness. Once again there was a collision between “Cool Britannia” and the stiff and sometimes rather solemn Continent.

Instead of responding graciously to the UK’s decision to leave, it is all too obvious that the EU has been trying to make leaving as costly and painful for Britain as possible. This attitude was manifest in the threat to shut Britain out of the security arrangements for the Galileo satellite system – a project to which Britain has contributed considerably. Only people who no longer believe in themselves make it so difficult for others to leave. And indeed, self-belief is what the European Union lacks. Behind the strong, united front it has presented in the negotiations, there lurks a clammy fear that its own attractiveness is waning.

There have been occasions before in history when the British dared to do things which at the time seemed doomed to fail, but which in hindsight presaged a new era. So it was, not only with Henry VIII’s break from Rome, but even earlier, in the 13th Century, when the signing of the Magna Carta reduced the royal prerogative. And just in the last century, Britain astonished the world by declaring war on Hitler’s Germany, despite the latter being militarily far stronger. Many thought this would be Britain’s downfall, but of course it turned out otherwise. And forty years later, wasn’t Europe turned upside down again when Margaret Thatcher (together with Ronald Reagan) let loose the neo-liberal revolution?

None of these examples are directly comparable with Brexit, but they serve to remind us that Britain has, over time, made a name for itself as a fearless pioneer. And the country also has a reputation as a political laboratory. If the EU is confident of being on the right side of history, it should be kind to the British and follow their journey with benevolent curiosity.

Jochen Buchsteiner is UK Political Correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). This article is based on the English version of his essay “Die Flucht der Briten aus der europäischen Utopie” (Rowohlt 2018, 144 pages), translated by Oliver Wright.

Published in December 2019