The UK referendum on the British membership of the European Union is fast approaching, and the final days of campaigning are becoming more hectic, even more heated, and fantastically lunatic. Most recent opinion polls suggest that leave is ahead of remain, though the bookies whom I trust more than the opinion pollsters despite the recent Leicester City debacle suggest that remain is still the likelier outcome but its odds have been lengthening for the past few days. I have a feeling that the degree and nature of popular antagonism and even animosity towards the very idea of the EU are far stronger in the UK than in other EU member states, and I would like to suggest that at the heart of this strong British scepticism towards the EU is a lack of recent national trauma in Britain. This is not a rigorous sociological or socio-psychological study, and it is not based on a large sample, nevertheless, this is something that has been making a consistent impression on me for the past few years and perhaps longer, after conversations with friends and acquaintances from different countries, representing a reasonably broad spectrum of political opinions. There are many people in Europe who are unhappy with how the EU operates, and are sceptical towards the powers and functions of the EU institutions, be it the Commission, Parliament, or Council, yet many of them do believe that the idea and existence of the EU in principle are a good thing. British Euroscepticism is different in that it does not believe that the EU or for that matter Europe is a good idea at all: the EU should not exist.
My views about the consequences of Brexit in a nutshell are thus: in the long long term (if such an expression makes sense), its economic effects will be relatively insignificant since regardless of the outcome of the referendum and the British membership of the EU, the world will become more closely connected and interdependent (in other words: globalization), but in the short to medium term, the economic consequences will be severely negative that is likely to create a lost generation, and it will again raise constitutional issues as Scotland is likely to vote remain. It will however divide very profoundly how Britons see and define themselves – regionally, generationally, in terms of class, as well as political orientation – before they can come up with something that integrates all the centrifugal forces that have been unleashed by constitutional anomalies and referendums. I don’t have much of a personal stake in the outcome to the extent that my status in the UK is unaffected, as I am a non-EU citizen permanently resident in the UK, unless of course the leave camp triumphs and starts to deport people en masse.
Back to the main thesis of this piece. What do I mean by national trauma? Within the past couple of generations, and in many cases within living memory, many Europeans have gone through traumatic experiences, as individuals, societies, cultures, and countries, suffering from dictatorships, foreign occupations, and civil wars with attending evils such as ethnic cleansing and huge numbers of displaced people. The traumatic experiences do not end with the fall of dictatorships, liberation from foreign occupations, or cessation of civil wars. Coming to terms with what have happened during such times is also difficult and can strain the people and political culture for a long time. Of the EU member states excepting the UK, only Sweden can perhaps claim to have been spared such trauma in the past century or so. Many peoples in eastern, east-central, and south-eastern Europe a century ago were ruled by empires that were hostile to them culturally, linguistically, and religiously, and they gained independence after the First World War, only to be invaded and occupied during the Second World War, and ending up under the Soviet yoke for much of the second half of the twentieth century. A century ago, Ireland and Finland were ruled by the British and Russian empires respectively. The Nazi and Soviet dictatorships, their repressions, their occupation of other countries and peoples, and their gross human rights abuses are well-known. Other EU countries went through traumatic times too. Italy was under Fascism. Spain went through a civil war and lived under Francoist dictatorship. Greece also had a bloody civil war and was ruled for a time by a military junta. A large part of France was occupied by Nazi Germany directly during the Second World War and a collaborationist regime was set up in Vichy, and the post-war difficulties, for example Algeria, cast a long shadow over the country. More recently, there were civil wars in former Yugoslavia. People have lived under repression and their memories are fresh: abuses of human rights were real and threats to them remain.
For many Europeans, the EU is not only an institution, but it is also a fundamental idea that guarantees that things that never should happen again do not happen again and ensures the rights and freedoms of people, cultures, and countries. In my view, national traumas account at least in part for this perspective, and such traumas constitute a common European experience. As such, there is an emotional attachment to the EU by many Europeans in a way that Britons in general do not possess, cannot comprehend, and cannot imagine. It is unlikely that two member states would go into a war against each other. It is unlikely that member states will descend into dictatorships. May be not impossible, but certainly unlikelier. Given their traumatic experiences, people know that their freedoms like rights are not abstract notions, but something concrete that can be curtailed, restricted, and deprived. Citizens of EU member states feel that they are in a better position in terms of overall security, not just militarily but also economically and societally, by being a member of a strong and large bloc, because they have been overpowered by mighty neighbours in the past. Sovereignty (however defined), or rather lack thereof, like rights and freedoms, is not an abstract notion, but real and something that many people have experienced in a very stark fashion. They have a nuanced and realistic understanding of and aspiration for their countries’ position in the world.
Britain with the major and extremely important exception of Northern Ireland has not had a comparable traumatic experience in recent times. This statement is not meant to downplay the horrendous losses of life and suffering during the First and Second World Wars, yet Britain with the exception of the Channel Islands was not directly occupied by enemy powers in either World Wars and it did not fall under an extremist regime. France, a fellow victor power, has had a far more complex and ambiguous time in dealing with the World Wars, and the trauma runs very deep. I somehow do not think that many French would go on about two World Wars, a World Cup, and two Euros. The determination by France and Germany – at least by their political leaders and elites – since the days of Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer not to repeat the past in part reflects the depths of respective French and German national traumas, and this determination has created the Franco-German axis fundamental to the EU, and this bond is extremely powerful. Would a British prime minister hold hands with a German chancellor at a First World War battleground, as François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl had done in 1984? That seems an unlikely picture. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, and political leaders from across world marched to show solidarity with France, who was next to François Hollande, arms linked together? Angela Merkel, of course.
Perhaps Britons should congratulate themselves on their genius, and laud their institutions and history, and be sure, supreme, and sovereign surrounded by water and waves and a land border in Ireland. British political establishment, media, and elite more generally – even pro-Europeans – have never really embraced the EU as a Wertegemeinschaft, a community that shares values, but rather as a Zweckgemeinschaft, a community that only has and serves functional purposes. There has been an almost complete lack of clear, positive political narrative on either side. It is essentially about economic utility. There is no emotional attachment to the EU. The EU is something to be tolerated, as it serves a good purpose, according to the remain camp. It does not serve good purpose for Britain, therefore Britain should leave it, according to the leave camp. Hence the relentlessness of negative campaigning based on a curious mixture of bean counting and fantasy accounting, whether the remain camp forecasting dire consequences of leaving the EU, or the leave camp promising money to everyone and shut the borders to keep the migrants away. The level of political drivel – not worthy to be called debate or discourse – from both camps has been thoroughly depressing. And the British people have to make a decision based on such infantile political jaw-jaw.
I doubt this referendum will settle the EU question once for all in case of a narrow remain vote. If it is a reasonably clear remain vote, is that a start of fundamental shift in British attitudes towards the EU, or nothing really changes? It would be a nightmarish but a thoroughly fascinating situation if the UK as a whole votes to remain thanks to the votes in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but England votes to leave, even though that would prevent a renewed move for Scottish independence, which would almost inevitably follow if the UK as a whole decides to leave but Scotland votes to remain in the EU. A vote to leave is a leap into the unknown, and there will be a period of prolonged uncertainty and volatility, since negotiations to leave the EU and coming to agreement about finances, market access, and trade would be extremely complicated. The current government cannot conceivably continue in the event of Brexit, and it would be interesting how much of the milk and honey promised by the leave camp a post-referendum government can deliver.
In my opinion, this is a referendum in which the winning side is likely to gain little after it, as disillusionment and cynicism set in whatever the result: if Britons vote to remain, the leave camp will continue to make the case that the UK should leave because of money and migration, and if Britons vote to leave, the economy goes belly-up (and no one has laid out a convincing case to the contrary at least in the short to medium term), then voters will feel deceived as well as hurt. This referendum was meant to neutralize the division among the Conservatives on Europe. Just like the recent referendum on Scottish independence was supposed to neutralize the SNP and failed in that aspect, this referendum can take the UK out of the EU, which David Cameron had not intended or wished, and even if Mr Cameron wins it, it will not put an end to the Tory division on Europe. Indeed, it is only likely to deepen the party division whichever way the result goes, and Mr Cameron’s position would be untenable in case of a leave vote, and severely compromised in case of a remain vote.
As alluded earlier, this referendum and the narratives surrounding it have revealed real and deep divisions within Britain, forced upon its people to settle an internal party division, which is set to continue for quite some time. It is not a traumatic national event like a dictatorship, foreign occupation, or civil war, but it will have a long-term effect on Britons’ perception of themselves. What will emerge from that process remains unclear, and it would be fascinating to imagine what future historians will make of what is happening at this moment.