“What’s in a name?” asked Juliet in a fit of despair. Names shape our world even if underlying truths are more important. She knew that Romeo being a Montague would inevitably determine the course of their romance, and force them into secrecy.
We should be careful with names. Take “Brexit,” the name for Britain’s exit from the European Union. It has disproportionately shaped how we have talked about what finally took place, both in the run-up to “Brexit Day” (January 31) and now in its aftermath. If what happened is thought of as “Britain’s exit,” then what transpired is a sovereign choice, a singular act in time. And since actions have consequences, the press has focused on analyzing what those repercussions might be for Britain itself.
These are not irrelevant questions, but they are not the most important ones. By framing what happened in terms of Britain leaving, we ignore the question of what Britain is leaving, and more important still, why. “Nationalism,” “sovereignty”—these clipped answers frequently bandied about by pundits and politicians are at best only partial.
Like Juliet, we should try to look beyond names in search of deeper truths. Because while Brexit was a sovereign democratic decision, it neither came out of nowhere nor was it necessarily irrational. The relationship between Britain and the EU has always been complicated (if not exactly star-crossed), but that fact should not be viewed in isolation, nor seen as overwhelmingly determinative of what ultimately happened.
The EU has rarely fared well when it has allowed itself to be voted on in simple referenda. Voters, while passively acquiescing to the emergence of the modern supranational EU, never developed the kind of enthusiasm for the project that its architects thought would naturally come to them with time. The French and Dutch decisively rejected the EU Constitution in 2005, and further votes around the continent, including in the UK, were quickly scuppered in order to avoid an embarrassing spectacle. Brussels learned a lesson, but arguably not the right one. The Treaty of Lisbon was passed in 2008, with much of the substance of the EU Constitution reworked as a series of amendments to existing treaties, thereby avoiding another popular rebuke.
Last year, France’s Emmanuel Macron admitted that had France also put the prospect of a French exit from the EU to its voters in a referendum, Frexit would have likely followed. A convinced Europhile, Macron is also perhaps the least sentimental and most clear-eyed European leader. He has consistently identified Brexit not as a destructive act of a foolish electorate, but rather as a symptom of a profound crisis of legitimacy of the European Union itself. Part of that legitimacy crisis is self-inflicted, the result of European leaders barreling on with further integration and enlargement despite obvious voter hesitation. And part of that is structural—the unhappy reality that Brussels’ rule-making bureaucracy dressed up in democratic clothes (the European Parliament, the European Commission) has never succeeded in convincing voters that it is accountable to them.
Luuk van Middelaar, a political theorist and former speechwriter to the President of the European Council, convincingly argued (in my pick for book of the year last year) that the structural problems were gravely exacerbated by four crises that have battered Europe since 2008. His first three are the euro debt crisis, the Ukraine crisis, and the migrant crisis. The fourth and current crisis, Brexit, is best understood as a product of the three that preceded it. His book tells the story of how Europe is managing to muddle through, and how it might be developing a kind of political legitimacy through this improvisation. But for Middelaar, that Brexit ultimately happened is evidence that Europe is not legitimating itself fast enough. Brexit should be a lesson and an impetus to serious structural reforms.
What about resurgent nationalism, that atavistic force that the European Union was itself designed to drown? Isn’t talk of “sovereignty” just cover for the politics of resentful nationalists like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczynski—and Britain’s Nigel Farage? Isn’t Brexit, therefore, ultimately about values, about Britain’s flight from tolerance and cosmopolitanism?
Another recent book, by historian John Connelly, helps suggest a different perspective. It focuses on Central and Eastern Europe and grapples with the pervasive role that nationalism has played in the region for the past 200 years. But nationalism, in his telling, is less an ideology like liberalism or fascism, and more a language for politics—a “crisis frame” that emerges when societies feel threatened. Nationalism is not the only, or even the most authentic, language for politics, but it has remained ever-present since its “invention” in the middle of the 19th century.
Stalinism adapted to, incorporated, and even partially repressed nationalism after the turbulent interwar years and the cataclysms of World War II, but it never extinguished it. Nationalism played an important role in the Hungarian uprising of 1956, in the Prague Spring of 1968, and in Poland’s struggle to cast off the Soviet yoke through the 1980s. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, liberal democracy promised a better life for Europeans digging out from the catastrophe of communism, not just in terms of dignity but also in terms of material prosperity. And since 1992, the prospect of membership in the European Union has proven to be a powerful impetus for former communist countries to reform themselves. Through at least 2008, the pull on countries like Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey was still substantial. Even though electorates in the West were already tugging on the reins of the increasingly ambitious EU, measured by its attractive power in the East, the European project was still healthy.
As late as 2016, few people fully appreciated how much the “pull” of the EU had weakened. I remember I was as shocked as anyone when the Brexit results rolled in that June. Certainly, neither Prime Minister David Cameron nor Chancellor Angela Merkel fully understood what they were dealing with, since they failed to reach a sellable agreement on migration ahead of the referendum that could have tipped the scales. But neither Orban nor Kaczynski were as naive as the bunch of us. As attentive politicians, they had successfully anchored their appeals to voters who had well-established concerns about the EU. The euro crisis, the Ukraine crisis, and finally the migrant crisis convinced enough people that Brussels was neither accountable nor responsive to them. The “crisis frame” became available because the alternative had taken a beating: An appeal to nationalism only became possible because the larger institution of the EU became less credible.
Macron is rumored to have read Van Middelaar’s book and to have largely agreed with its analysis. One way to understand Macron’s European politics is to see them as a set of desperate measures undertaken to prevent something like Brexit from happening again, by addressing the issues of trust that have given political entrepreneurs like Farage, Orban, Kaczynski—and Marine Le Pen in France—running room. His decision this past October to hold up the opening of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia (a move that will in practice likely put an end to European expansion) is an attempt to calm voter concerns. He had been giving speeches saying that an already ungovernable European Union won’t be made more governable with the admission of new members, nor would it be more economically sustainable admitting poor countries after a net creditor nation like the UK has left. He has been marketing the EU as une Europe qui protège—a Europe that protects. It is neither simply a regulatory body nor just an idealistic project for making the world a better place. It is there for the benefit of its members’ citizens, first and foremost.
Those, then, are the perils of thinking about Brexit as a story that’s mainly about Britain: You miss the forest for the trees. Of course, Brexit is about Britain and its exit—the ongoing negotiations with the EU, as well as with the United States and other important trading partners, will have outsize effects on the lives of British citizens for decades to come. But it is even more about Europe, and about how and why it failed to keep Britain in. The answers to those questions are much more difficult—and troubling—than simple morality plays about Brexiters and Remainers allow.