TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Europe after Brexit

Walk around Berlin these days and you will find that you will hear almost as much English being spoken on the streets as German. While some describe this situation as a sign that Berlin has now become a cosmopolitan city, this very interpretation reveals precisely the attitude that has led to the rise of English in Germany. To speak English is to be cosmopolitan, and to speak German is to be provincial, and so it becomes a mark of pride to converse in English rather than one’s native German, at least for a certain segment of the population. And therein lies the problem. For it is precisely that segment of global business people, academics, and bureaucrats against whom nationalist sentiment has been rising all over Europe amongst the monolinguals who see themselves as excluded from the European project.

With the Brexit vote, Europe is now faced with the curious situation in which its default lingua franca would no longer in fact be one of its official languages. This circumstance reveals a split within the English language itself, between a global English, oriented around U.S. political power, international business, and academic discourse, and a provincial English, whose speakers, especially in regions such as Wales and the English Midlands, have emphasized that they are in fact opposed to the cosmopolitan English of London bankers. This cultural and economic divide, which is increasingly restructuring politics all over the world, will pit “provincial” languages and their monolingual and poorly employed speakers against a cosmopolitan, English-language elite, who will increasingly make the world go round economically but will gradually be losing political power. As the German and British examples illustrate, provincial languages now would include all non-English languages and even English itself, to the extent that it is a spoken dialect rather than a written, managerial language. As such, the key conflict that will drive European politics will be that between national identity and capitalist cosmopolitanism.

As a protest against both immigration and London elites, Brexit has re-established national identity as the primary basis of political unity in Europe. Even the Scottish “Remain” voters demonstrate this, as the wish to remain in the EU is for Scotland its way of being able to establish its independence from England by way of the structures of the EU. This dynamic provides a sense of the future possibilities for the EU. For the Brexit vote may have more consequences for Europe than it does for the UK. First of all, the vote will cement the idea, already being accepted in light of the refugee crisis and the end of Schengen rules, that politics in Europe has been and will continue to be organized within nation-state contexts. As much as English has become a European lingua franca, political discourse does not take place through any kind of common English-language newspapers or magazines. Rather, political discourse still takes place within each national language in each nation’s own newspapers, magazines, and broadcast systems. Without a common European public sphere, national identity will always remain the primary definer of political identity. Yet, this inability to establish such a unified European public sphere cannot be described as a particular mistake that the EU has made, but rather has been a consequence of the objective cultural and political situation of Europe. Without a history of a common linguistic public sphere, as was the case in the Germanic states before nineteenth-century German unification, nor a clearly defined geographical boundary, as has been the case for Switzerland, Europe has not had even the possibility of being able to establish itself as a political unity that can represent itself to itself as unified. Instead, such political unity has had to continue to coalesce along national lines.

A common complaint by nationalists is that the Brussels bureaucracy runs according to its own logic, oblivious to democratic sentiments. Consequently, one of the key difficulties of the EU has been its democracy deficit, even as it tries to hold onto the principle of democracy. But in fact it may be that the EU’s sole chance of survival as a multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual entity would be through a more and more imperial political structure that would deny democratic decision-making. The world’s experience of multicultural entities has not seen any examples of a combination of democracy with a truly multicultural political space (Switzerland is a special case to be discussed below). Rather, the most successful multicultural political entities have always been empires. The Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Roman Empire, and the Chinese Empire were all able to allow the peaceful co-existence of disparate linguistic, ethnic, and religious groups within a single overarching political system. None of these empires was organized democratically, however, but monarchically with a set of representations of imperial authority and power.

By contrast, democracies, because they are structured as the rule of the majority, automatically establish the majority as the basis of state authority and thus turn the state into the nation-state. This dynamic just as automatically forces “foreigners” into the position of being minorities. The problem of minorities is consequently a problem that is endemic to democracies. To the extent that the EU has retained democratic structures, especially in its referenda, those democratic processes have consistently moved toward an affirmation of national identity as well as a subordination of minorities to national majorities. The free movement of people within the EU has only exacerbated this tendency, leading to the English desire, expressed in Brexit, to limit immigration, not only of Syrian refugees but also of Eastern or Southern Europeans from within the EU itself. While it might make economic sense to promote such movement of labor from one part of Europe to another, culturally it feeds into the minority dynamic that leads to a negative reaction from the majority. And as the majority will always win the day in a democracy (in the case of Brexit, 52% to 48%), the mixing of cultures in the individual democratic states will always occur, not in the mode of a peaceful co-existence of disparate cultures, but as an exacerbation of the “minority problem,” which has historically (most prominently after World War I) arisen with the establishment of nation-states.

The example of Switzerland offers the only hope for the success of the European Union as a political entity. But it is unlikely that it can provide a model for Europe. Due to its combination of geographic isolation and vulnerability, Switzerland’s different groups were forced to unite because the conquest of one of its regions by an outside power would have threatened the entire Swiss mountain region. It was thus able to develop its particular federal system as a defense against external threats, allowing it to cohere together politically in spite of its cultural and linguistic diversity. The suggestion here is that the EU might be able to subordinate national identity to a federal system to the extent that it is able to harden the boundaries of Europe in order to defend against outside threats. But here it would be important for Spain, say, to feel threatened if Lithuania were to be occupied, or even voluntarily allied itself with Russia. The Swiss model has worked because all parts of Switzerland saw themselves in immediate danger if any other part of Switzerland were to be pried away from the federal unity. Not only does Europe’s geography and history not support this type of mutual interdependence, but the expansion of European borders has also undermined the sense of an indivisible European political space. If countries can be added one by one, then, as Brexit demonstrates, they can also be detached one by one, and there is no sense of a necessary political or military unity.

What then are the prospects for Europe after Brexit? First of all, its political unity, already shaken by the Greek crisis and the refugee crisis, will probably continue to unravel, with different countries moving, like the UK, to establish increasing control over borders and immigration on a national level. If stricter borders within the EU will also imply harder borders to the outside, this development will not promote EU unity but rather, because of the nationalist dynamic, create different groups of EU states that would coalesce based on their security needs. Richer, more Western nations, such as France, the Netherlands, and Germany, will have less need of a union with poorer, Eastern nations. Those Eastern countries, however, will need to figure out a new security framework, either through increasing reliance on the United States or increasing accommodations, however distasteful, with Russia. A very much less likely scenario would be that security concerns about Islamic State or Russia could exacerbate to such an extent that Europe could re-coalesce into a firmer political and military unity, along the lines of the Swiss model. But this remote possibility could only realize itself to the extent that European nations felt so threatened that they would undertake a serious military rearmament that could lay the foundations for a common European military and foreign policy. The level of insecurity coupled with U.S. disengagement required for this to happen is hard to imagine, mainly because it would entail a more imperial Europe with a martial character, not the kind of bureaucratic Europe of the current EU.

Economically, the free trade zone will most likely continue to function as before, even with the UK. However, the fault lines of the Brexit vote will reinforce a continuing realignment of political divisions into parties that represent the winners and losers of economic globalization. The divide will not be so much between “haves” and “have-nots” but between the employed and the unemployed (or underemployed), between the well-educated and the poorly educated, between cosmopolitans and nationals. This conflict will continue to drive politics all over the world. Whatever happens with Europe, the challenge will be to develop viable solutions to both address and give voice to the frustrations in the provinces, which today span the entire globe.

1 comment to Europe after Brexit

  • John Lagerwey

    The author might be reminded of the fact that there once was a Europe of the elite based on Latin (or Greek). The so-called “deficit of democracy” in present European institutions is because national sovereignty refused a federal model (rejection of the Maastricht treaty), leaving Brussels to the Eurocrats.