In this post, Bertrand Taithe considers some of the causes and consequences of Britain’s forthcoming withdrawal from the European Union.
The place in which I have lived for over 22 years, as an academic immigrant, has voted against membership of the EU on Thursday 23rd June 2016. The same village is now festooned with Union Jack flags as part of its festive 1940s memories weekend – the event is a celebration of the spirit of the war during which the good folks dress in second-hand uniforms of varying accuracy, invite fake Tommies and GIs and even the occasional Russian or Wehrmacht re-enactors to parade in the street and make camp on the school grounds. One cannot avoid the conclusion that this celebration has taken a very different tone when, a week before, Jo Cox, the MP from the neighbouring constituency has been stabbed and shot to cries of ‘Britain first’.
This is not to attribute to an exercise in nostalgia for a united society facing a common enemy any deep sinister motives. Rather, it is to point out that 1940s weekends and other flag-waving events are not only nostalgic reminders of nationalisms gone by. They are also popular engagements with the rituals of patriotism, at a time when patriotism is once again used for political aims.
By 1940 the great European ideal of internationalism was deeply buried. The left was split by the alliance of Communists and National Socialists, the main institution of internationalism was seen as a great irrelevance and a failure. A parallel comes to mind in 2016, though to compare the EU with the League of Nations is perhaps a little far-fetched. Yet both have interesting common features: the League was a Wilsonian idea but it really built on 50 years of preliminary international conferences, technical networks and ideals which brought together the same kind of experts who later fed into the European project. It combined liberal economic ideas with liberal notions of social justice and global aspirations of development and protection – making humanitarian aid a cause at the heart of international relations through new common institutions. Arguably, it only tentatively raised the issues of citizenship, minorities and participative democracy when so many of the key powers were empires. There were tensions in the edifice and states embraced ideals in its debating chambers they privately rejected.
Much the same could be said of the EU. Like the League of Nations, the EU combines a charisma vacuum, a failed engagement with the citizens it claims to represent and yet profound technical expertise and a desire to protect citizens. The legacy of the League was a technocratic one. The technical committees of the League survived throughout the war and were later the bedrock of UN collective expertise. The International Labour Organisation and the WHO are obviously the main examples of this continuity while the work the league undertook on behalf of refugees acquired new meaning in the turmoil of the 1940s. The EU has delivered over and over again on technical issues, on education and rights, on ecological and health norms, on workers’ rights, but its overall political project, much like the loftier dimensions of the League of Nations, is in danger of failing utterly.
Part of this failure of course is that international bodies such as the EU or the League of Nations remain empty drums on which states play their own tunes while pretending to be listening. Access to citizens is not part of their remit – the EU parliament is as toothless as the petitions to the League were. Its remit is technical, not democratic. Ventriloquism is the only way Leagues or EU can speak. They are no more than echo chambers – resounding and deafening when cacophony is the only sound given to them.
The debates of the League were not edifying when Ethiopia faced the Italian onslaught and generated a mass displacement of refugees, when faced by the nativist and racist ideology of Fascists across Europe in Spain, Italy, Germany and increasingly across the democracies of the continent. The drum ceased to beat altogether when it became obvious that no-one was listening any more. The EU is not yet faced with these issues or on that scale and perhaps the comparison becomes less relevant. Yet with the UK, one of its five largest countries, withdrawing over a range of issues which range from accountability vacuum to the rejection of the non-British and the fear of the other, the discourse is changing and we are witnessing the revival of old nativist tropes and somewhat more muted racist ones.
This is not a complete surprise. The EU has been in weak responsive mode for a decade and its democratic agenda has stalled even as its technical expertise became part of the problems member states face. As an international body it became the site of conflicts between states rather than the expression of internationalism. Ironically, the EU became also the target of the most committed internationalists, with MSF denouncing its deal with Turkey or its treatment of refugees and migrants – MSF has decided to reject all funding originating from the EU and its constitutive states to make the point that the EU as a whole is failing as a humanitarian or internationalist organisation. Torn between calls to close the border and appeals to expand or guarantee humanitarian rights of refuge, the EU makes no sense to the humanitarians who used to take ‘its’ money.
Of course the EU has no money of its own and it does not raise its taxes, it is not either a humanitarian or internationalist structure per se. As merely a supranational pooling of sovereignty and expertise it does not have much of a will of its own, and its ‘programme’ is poor in political terms. Crises reveal the EU’s weak political nature, and they are an ‘occasion for cheering’ much like the one enjoyed by detractors of the League of Nations in 1936. To reject the EU is to challenge how little it can do, rather than denounce its role. The pooling of some elements of national sovereignty has not diminished the existence of sovereign voices. The EU only has the foreign policy governments allow it to have. MSF is targeting the drum rather than the drummers: citizens and states besieged by demagogues.
Governments themselves are looking at their public opinion and at the resurgence of nationalism with fear – evaluating how far the debate has shifted towards a rejection of internationalism and globalisation. Opening up societies to refugees now appears a difficult humanitarian line to pursue. The fact that the country most reluctant to accept its share of the people needing protection (and yet one of the largest donors of international development aid) has now turned away from internationalism, partially on those grounds, should be something humanitarians and internationalists need to ponder. Weak international bodies and structures are not the single cause of a weakening of internationalism – attacking them and weakening further their frail legitimacy is to indulge the enemies of internationalism. To rejoice in the end of an internationalist illusion, as some did in 1936 or as some do today, is to disguise as realism profound cynicism on the prospects of humanity. The terms of the debate on the League of Nations or on the EU were and are not about pragmatic evaluations of what works or what should work: they are about what constitutes our common humanity and how we should define citizenship. Despite their best efforts, technical experts did not articulate a social compact which could resist the allure and romance of nationalism with its binaries of love and hate, inclusion and rejection. So-called European citizenship fails to live up to the most basic requirements of the concept. In current debates (July 2016) this citizenship of the European Union offers no long-term guarantee of residency or political participation in Britain post Brexit. The vote out of the EU effectively disenfranchised some of the union’s citizens (this would also apply to the British residents in the EU) and the EU has shown no explicit concern with the fate of citizens in this debate. Furthermore, EU citizenship and internationalism is precisely what renewed nationalism defines itself against.
I have never dressed up as a free-French in my village fete. Were I to choose a costume for the village parade, I think I might go for the grey business-like suit of a League of Nation expert, anonymously working through the war in grim and earnest despair but in the hope of an internationalist future. On second thoughts, I think I might give it a miss.
Bertrand Taithe is Professor in Cultural History and Director of the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester.