An academic poverty hangs heavy over the run-up to Britain’s EU membership referendum – the Thameside shouting match that on Wednesday pitted Bob Geldof against Nigel Farage is likely just the first among many faux-theatrical farces to come.
For all its bluster, its sloganeering and its forthright anti-intellectualism, the Out campaign is essentially a factionalised skeleton, devoid of any real vision in its own right. Meanwhile, the ‘Remainiacs’ look destined for a thrashing whatever the outcome of the vote, with the future of pro-In Prime Minister David Cameron already in jeopardy among the ranks of an increasingly hostile Conservative Party. At the very least, this polarised and frequently surreal situation makes for a droll alternative to affairs on the European mainland, where uncertainty and tumult loom large as ever. Times such as these only serve to remind the United Kingdom that it is a nation apart from its so-called allies, capable of both remarkable sobriety and fits of political preposterousness, with very little in between.
At the turn of the 21st Century, it has become fashionable in tabloid circles to talk of two ‘Europes’ – the Anglo-Franco-German axis, a land of milk, honey and fiscal responsibility, and the Other, a decrepit league of agro-economies united in their proclivities towards spending binges, fecund corruption and financial parasitism. The subject of this slander is prone to shift – Greece, with its unrelenting debt nightmare, is a frequent target in the German gutter press, whilst the ex-Warsaw Pact states are rarely spared the ire of their more wealthy Western counterparts – but the very existence of this chauvinism within the European Union, a community founded in the spirit of transnational reconciliation and socio-political integration, is a tragedy illustrative of the true extent to which that bureaucracy has degenerated since its prime in the 1990s and early-2000s. Contrary to depictions of it as a resolute, tyrannical front of big capital, the EU’s moribundity is laid bare by the day, as it lurches from one crisis to the next, seemingly unable to coordinate a unified response in the face of some of the most dire catastrophes of our age.
Is there anything worth redeeming about the Brussels Leviathan? Indeed, it is a question far more intriguing than the torpid Brexit debate, an issue that threatens constantly to bring to the fore cretinous diatribes and dubious anti-German rhetoric thought lost to the interwar period. Samuel von Pufendorf, a jurist of the 17th Century, once dubbed the Holy Roman Empire, with its byzantine politics and constitutional arcana, a “mis-shapen monster”. This evocative appellation could just as easily be applied to the EU today, a structural trainwreck on the perpetual verge of outright collapse. A technocratic Commission commands virtually unchecked dominion over legislative proceedings; on the flipside, the Eurozone is as confused and shoddily-planned an official venture as one might hope to find in the modern era. The future can invite only pessimism.
It is not just the institutional superficialities of the EU which have served to condemn it to its present death spiral. As an organisation, it appears at odds with the very mode of political discourse that now reigns supreme in the West. For eleven governments to sit down and collectively assent to the introduction of a pan-European currency, as they did in 1992, would seem a laughable proposition in 2016. Ours is a paradoxical epoch – whilst the world is an indisputably ‘smaller’ place than it was just a decade ago, Europe’s pseudo-ideologues, the Orbáns, Farages and Le Pens, speak a Westphalian tongue not far divorced from the standards of Pufendorf’s day, what with their incessant appeals to national sovereignty and cultural ‘self-preservation’. It is far too easy to dwell upon the outlandishness yielded on an almost weekly basis by the latter, at the expense of a serious inquiry concerning this apparent gulf between a globalized international order and its thoroughly nationalistic, increasingly influential malcontents.
Although the populists like to tout themselves as the rightful inheritors of an essentially progressive ideological legacy – UKIP, for instance, harkens back to the laissez-faire spirit of Gladstone and Peel, whilst Holland’s Geert Wilders explicitly identifies as a liberal – there is something considerably darker, and infinitely more reactionary, in the offing here. Within their detestation of refugees, that amorphous foreign rabble purportedly bent on imposing their barbaric ways upon reluctant Frenchmen and browbeaten Swedes, we encounter a germ of this truth – for all their loathing of multikulti and liberal relativism, the New Right seems perfectly content to let ‘the foreigners’ wallow in their own ‘backwardness’, provided the wallowing occurs well outside the geographical confines of Europe. They care little for the wholly borderless, truly emancipatory implications of the Enlightenment, reducing Europe instead to a worthless caricature of itself, one cultural sphere among many. For this movement to embrace fully a radical universalism, the civic values that gave us the French Revolution, the secular state, bourgeois democracy and constitutionalism, would be tantamount to an admission of defeat – at best, all this is to them nought but a set of mundane folk rituals, something only the entrenched white masses might hope to engage with productively. It is no coincidence that these movements tend to align themselves with Putin’s Russia – the Kremlin presents itself as a vanguard against the ‘globalist’ cosmopolitanism said to have consumed the West, offering instead an ‘alternative modernity’ that is proudly antediluvian, more authentically regressive than anything one might have been able to envisage twenty years ago.
There is, in fact, a second Europe. It is the ‘crazy’ Europe, the Europe of Rousseau, Locke, Voltaire and Hegel, the egalitarian spectre that dares transcend the temporalities of language and distance, a glorious vestige that the EU has come to embody in however fragmentary and, yes, ill-fated a form. It is true that the dryness and malaise of the European institution renders it ill-disposed to receive this extraordinary bequest, but it stands as the only framework through which the continent’s young radicals might ever aspire to address the manifold controversies of this age. It is easy to scorn the (oft-hysterical) posturing of the In camp, who warn of a post-Brexit ‘retreat’ from the world stage. But they are not wrong. A return to protectionism and social-chauvinism in Britain, on the mainland and across the globe, would be an irreparable tragedy. The latter is an imminent possibility, and the passivity presently exhibited by so many of Europe’s progressive peoples cannot be afforded in confronting it.