June 29, 2016

Horse 2131 - Europe Is Worse Off Because It Has Lost A Whinging Child

As the world continues to look on at the horrorshow that is the aftermath of Brexit, the various nativist movements in France, the Netherlands, Italy and Greece are all voicing their opinions that they want out as well. In conjunction with this, the Scottish National Party would like to see another referendum on independence as all 31 districts in Scotland voted to remain in the EU, there are louder calls in Ireland for reunification with the north (especially from Sinn Fein), and the Catalan independence movement is once again making its voice heard that it should leave Spain.

Brexit, which is surely one of the most idiotic political move in the history of British politics, was only really given any traction because soon to be ex Prime Minister David Cameron took a gamble that it would fall and his premiership would remain intact until such time as he could depart the stage gracefully. Instead, by releasing the ball into the roulette wheel of public opinion, he has accidentally landed on Double Zero and nobody has won. Cameron's replacement will be either one of the Mad, Bad and Sad trio of Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt or Teresa May - if those three are the next logical candidates for Number Ten then God Save The Queen and heaven help the rest of us.

In the grand scheme of things, Brexit is completely understandable. A hundred years ago, Europe was plunged deep into the bloodiest and most pointless conflict that the world had ever seen; partly precipitated on the fact that none of Queen Victoria's grandchildren got on particularly all that well and their nations were all living on the drug of nationalism. Following a period where the victors thought it worthy to punish Germany for the war, they made Germany pay repatriations which utterly drove the German economy into the ground. Once the Great Depression struck, Germans who had been reduced to abject poverty and misery, decided to return to nativism in the worst possible way and it is little wonder that the rise of Hitler should follow. Naturally, this laid the groundwork for an equally bloody and pointless war and by the end of the Second World War, the only thing which people had learned was how to build more efficient killing machines and that the deaths of several hundred million people wasn't exactly the most desirable of outcomes.

It was in the rather sombre afterglow of these events that the beginnings of the European Union were established. One of the theories which led to the creation of the European Steel and Coal Community was that if the wheels of industry across Europe were entangled an enmeshed, then the likelihood of yet another war with the cost of a hundred million people for no good reason would be reduced. This has worked remarkably well and the gradual evolution of the European Steel and Coal Community into the European Economic Community and then finally the supranational European Union has for the most part kept peace in Europe for seventy years.
What we've seen in the meantime though, is a massive race to the bottom in terms of wages, as the left has won the cultural war, the right has won the economic war and both sides yell at each other at a vacated centre.

One of the problems that the EU has always faced is that as a supranational organisation, of itself it doesn't have any kind of general mythology to work with. One of the phrases that has been thrown about now for almost seventy years is the idea of the great "European project" as if all the countries were even remotely pulling in the same direction. Granted that not being engaged in another bloody continental war, was a massive driver to tie down and bind the various nations together but at some point it is like trying to tie down a massive custard, things will just leak out the sides.

Mythology is a powerful thing despite our modern tendencies to reject things as unscientific. The world is an amazingly complex place and it is shared myths, especially when it comes to the idea of nationhood, that helps to bind people together. I don't know if the European Union has been sufficiently mythologised for enough people to share that common story. I'd suggest that precisely because Europe as a thing is such an empty concept, that this has left a space for far right groups to leak into.
Europe must by definition be a cosmopolitan space. The problem that I see that it was always going to face against the tide of nativist and downright atavistic forces is that it is impossible to present any reasonable tools to combat them. From a philosophical standpoint, I don't think that there are any tools other than gentle ridicule which make any sense because modernity by its nature can not provide any sensible overarching mythology to hold such a cosmopolitan thing together.

Nativism is an immensely powerful tool. One only needs to look to the United States which is so American that even ridicule of its mythology, forms part of the mythology. You can look at everything that doesn't work in the United States and it still holds together as a coherent concept. Even someone like Donald Trump who is obviously and overtly a nativist, has never been accused of not being American. America is very very good at being America and that's despite being a country of 330 million people. Europe though, just isn't all that good at being Europe.
Britain by virtue of once presiding over an empire on which the sun never set (because God doesn't trust the British in the dark), was one of the better countries to have in the EU; not because they have some sense of destiny driving them forward but because Britain as a nation knows what it means to not have things work properly. One of the great ironies of Britain being in the EU was that it was precisely because of its complaining about the EU's impotence and incompetence that it deserved to be there.

I can't speak for most of Europe because I don't speak the languages and therefore I don't have the necessary cultural grounding to make assessments that make any real sense but one the reasons that Europe will be poorer for Great Britain leaving the EU is Britain's almost obsessive celebration of failure.
If you were to look at the way that this is expressed in something like comedy, Britain is replete with characters who are colossal failures. Steptoe, Hyacinth Bucket, Blackadder et al. are all essentially tragic characters who never really succeed in life. Across the Atlantic, you're more likely to find someone dysfunctional like Jerry Seinfeld who never really suffers a loss of dignity at all.

It says something equally as tragic that no British team honestly expects to win a World Cup in any sport at all and even the early exit of the Three Lions from Euro 2016 at the hands of a jubilant Iceland which has a population which is smaller than the local council that I live in, is not really anything out of the ordinary. I once saw a banner at Wimbledon, on Henman's hill, which said "We Support Henman All The Way (To The Quarter Finals).
This is what the European Union is going to miss. Britain joined the common market only after being rejected several times before and even then, once it was inside, it was a grudging partner. Britain brought to the European Union, a sense of dour and dowdy pessimism. This is very different to say Germany which brings a great deal of Prussian work ethic, or Italy which is amazingly chaotic and still has a sense of style. Smaller countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Portugal etc. are all looking to see what benefits they can get from standing up with the big players but only Britain was really prepared to stand up with a sense of its own identity and say that things were rubbish if they were.

In the absence of some grand all encompassing mythology which describes all of Europe, Britain's contribution as the petulant child was valuable. Left to itself, Germany and France will naturally try and assume that they are the stars of the show; to the detriment of everyone else. Britain which once controlled an empire from a series of office blocks in the square mile, ceased to roar and bray with the force of the lion and the unicorn a very long time ago but it admirably took up its new role of Tigger and Eeyore. People forget that these were the creations of the very British AA Milne and that while Eeyore was the embodiment of rolling pessimism and Tigger enthusiasm mixed with incompetence, they were both inadvertent statements about the British character. People will also forget that when Europe invariably implodes (which it will almost do), the British smugness which will say "I told you so" will just be the other side of that same pessimism and petulance which Britain displayed inside the EU.

I don't think that the European Union has failed in its job at all. I think that Britain voting to leave the EU is like finding out how a magician does a trick, no longer being impressed by it and then wondering what the point was in the first place. Aside from the ugliness of racism which has tainted this whole thing, the British people have correctly surmised that the EU is a giant bureaucratic mess but by being the first ones to pull their cog out of the great European machine, they risk unentangling and unmeshing all the cogs; which will send Europe spinning back towards the likelihood of yet another war with the cost of a hundred million people for no good reason.
If everyone decides to start releasing the ball into the roulette wheel of public opinion, then all across Europe more nations will land on Double Zero and that means nobody wins at all.

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