The big Brexit game is fast approaching its final phase, and no one has done a better job in describing the enormous exercise in unseriousness it remains than former UK Ambassador to the European Union Sir Ivan Rogers. In his recent “Nine Lessons” lecture in Liverpool, Rogers has not quite called Brexit that, but utter unseriousness at the highest level is what his verdict amounts to. “The debate of the last 30 months has suffered from opacity, delusion-mongering and mendacity on all sides,” Rogers said, and it must count as the understatement of the year.
Apart from dissecting the technical, political, personal, and policy details—describing the remaining options until March 29, and the tactical schemes of the Prime Minister, her party, and her opponents—Rogers helps us see that the Brexit endgame also raises a question about the bigger lesson of it all. Brexit is big, but it is, of course, a part of something bigger still. So if this is the verse, what is the chapter?
Brexit is a glimpse into nasty normal Europe. Europe’s history of two millennia is one of coming to terms with too much politics in too confined a space. It is the story of frantic but futile—and frequently horrifying—attempts to stabilize an inherently unstable continent. It is the story of deep distrust among European tribes, peoples, and nations. It is, to use a Freudian phrase recently repurposed by Bob Kagan, a continent that revels in the “narcissism of small differences” at the expense of its own prosperity, security, and greatness.
Brexit in its banal futility reminds us of this normal Europe, a Europe just waking up from a 70-year hiatus of borrowed stability paid for by America. It is a Europe that has enjoyed a by-and-large jolly good two-and-a-half generations of unparalleled stability, prosperity, and security. It is a Europe that, at the very moment it gets relegated to being a second-tier strategic consideration on the global level, loses its collective nerve and wants back a past that can never be repeated.
Brexit is not alone, but it stands out as the wildly improbable unforced error it is. Hungarian niche nationalism, Austrian provincial narrowness, Le Pen’s revolt against the centralized system of the republican Sun Kings, the religiously infused particularism of Poland, True Finns up north, xenophobes in sunny Italy—they are all explicable, in their own way. A mix of fear of globalization, economic pressure, threatened identity, government incompetence, ultra-fast technological change, a global changing of the guard, an irredentist Russia, and by now more than a decade of de facto American absence does not fail to instill fear and loathing in the Old World.
And yet this is Britain we are talking about, and the British—an ultra-pragmatic people, as we Germans learned in school. They are a nation of shopkeepers whose main merchandise are the various flavors of common sense. They are shielded from self-doubt because, as Robert S. Vansittart wrote in The Mist Procession (1958), “the strength of the British lies in their inability to know when they are making fools of themselves.” They are a people prone to eccentricity but not to massive ideological imprudence, and that is because, again Vansittart: “It is un-British to wonder whether we can afford our eccentricities.”
It is a country with a strategic mindset and an eye for the bigger world picture, with an open-market kind of DNA, a world-class financial industry and global soft power in abundance. It is a country that had receded from an Empire mindset gracefully and had installed itself nicely in the center of that new European thing that needed to be ruled, the European Union. And it is a country that was actually really, really good at doing just that. The European Union as we know it today is arguably more the product of the United Kingdom than it is the product of France or Germany. Nobody quite played the Brussels EU game as good as London did, until now.
Why has a country of this pedigree lost its plot on a story of this magnitude? In that question lies the answer to what it all means at a grander scale. It is not just about the all too relevant drivers listed above. This is about a mindset lost all across Europe. This is about getting used to having it too good. This is about failing to recognize how brittle Europe’s situation already is in a changed world order, and about a misunderstanding of what’s still at stake. This is about strategic frivolity and geopolitical haplessness. This is about feeling insulted by being demoted to global sideshow. This is about cultural (and ethnic) snobbishness colliding with the market forces of Asia, the mobile labor reserves of Africa, and the power of the used-car-dealer brutality of Donald Trump. This is about the inability to recognize that the European Union in Brussels is not a sinister Kraken but a cleaning mechanism, a conflict vaporizer that looks unattractive but helps you get the nasty stuff out of your system by means of that horrible thing, procedurally generated compromise. This is the story of Europeans having enough of the shabby stuff that made them rich and free: bland compromise, bland middle-of-the-road politics, bland summits (and more summits), bland treaties, bland reforms, bland institutions.
And in all of that lies that other factor that cannot be overestimated: the boredom. Nothing explains the meanness of some of the Brexit rhetoric (especially on the Irish question) better than the utter boredom and ennui of its main protagonists. Only boredom and ennui breed callousness of this kind. Stale blandness is not for these folks. Only a great game suffices, the playful banter with other people’s lives and livelihoods. And it needs to sound abstractly principled but be devoid of anything tangible. It needs to be gloriously harsh and it needs to make clear who is rightfully entitled to call the shots. Not only in Britain has upper-class entitlement married well into populist entitlement, forming a grand coalition of those who claim “only we represent the real people.”
Europe has always been a nasty continent politically, if not also in other ways. We had forgotten all about it because we had it so good. Now, with America distracted, with Russia reaching deep into Europe, with the INF Treaty gone and Europe tired of the constitution it gave itself, Europe will not just be nasty—it will also be very much alone with its nastiness.
This can happen very quickly, and all the signs are nicely in place. And then one thing is for sure: Europe will no longer be a boring place. That is perhaps the worst news of all.