Dear Partners in thought,
While I was much looking for a friendly Waterloo rematch and regardless of who wins the World Cup on Sunday, we know two things. The World Cup winners are Russia which did a great organisation of the event and also surprised on the field. And the other big winner is…the EU, with the four last teams standing being member states, still including England, if not the UK.
Thinking about this, I wanted to address a very sensitive matter in some quarters of Europe and of course Britain…”Why the EU matters”.
Having gone to bed listening to the early Gibraltar results, I woke up in disbelief at the news that Britain had voted at 52% to leave the EU back in late June 2016, more than two “long” and “painful” (for my British friends) years ago. It was hard to comprehend why a majority of otherwise very sensible British people went into the bloodiest self-inflicted wound in British history, at least from my European vantage point.
One could see that facts were scarce during the campaign (on both sides, though the additional GBP 350m a week to the National Health Service got the Oscar) and emotions ran high, with immigration and globalisation being key at the time, also due, for the former, to the shock of the great migration crisis and the erstwhile open door policy of Germany that looked for demographic solutions, also driven by the inner generosity of its leader. Without going back into details, it is fair to say that populism, with its easy answers to complex issues, as well as a return to a glorious, elusive and never directly experienced Victorian past (forgetting the electricity shortages of the 1970s) and part of the elite, notably on the elder well-off and slightly disconnected Tory side going for the imperial way, played major roles in the outcome. For the Remainers, the main question was: How can we best prosper economically as a nation?” while for the Leavers it was: “Who should govern us?”, making for a rather arduous, cross-purpose, conversation. After two years of facts sinking in and a debilitating Brexit process, I now hear from a few hard core Leave supporters that “it does not matter if we are a smaller country if we are sovereign in the end”, the feeling being driven by the leading and essential feeling that Britain somehow had lost its sovereignty to Brussels while the Brussels leadership “could not run a pub”. The fact is that Britain will suffer economically, with many Leave voters on the Labour side, in more economically desolate locations (in part of North England and Wales), will be prime victims, similarly to the core heartland Trump base will if trade wars go on. It is hard to imagine that a country is stronger or simply more viable while poorer. I feel personally very close to Britain, all the more given her stand alone sacrifice during WWII but also the very useful attachment to free markets and capitalism which Europe – and indeed the EU – always benefited from all the years when they were a member state. I would like to dream of ways whereby we could get it back, also for her sake as I deeply care for her.
Having voted No to the Maastricht treaty in 1992, still enamoured of dreams of national glory and basking in a strong Gaullist family past, I can only understand the drive of those who want to be, in their own minds, “who we truly are”. Identity is key and main trigger topics like immigration need to be carefully handled, not because voters are racist, but due to a common heritage that has made nations. However this need to be reconciled with daily historical, social and business reality. The EU is far from being perfect though should be reformed and not discarded to be replaced by one-on-one relations between states. The EU and its predecessors were set up for one main reason that people forget: Peace in Europe. My generation has grown without war on the continent (except in its outskirts like in the Balkans at a vivid transition time), something that should be remembered and is actually not the norm for all past generations. In times of the supremacy of mega-states, like the U.S., China or India and the emergence, albeit slow, of the African continent, Europe can only be strong as a bloc of nations, which its leading global trading status has shown (and even if common defense should be much strengthened, all the more given recent NATO developments). These two facts, added to all the smaller reasons we know, especially in the area of the economy and business (which the British discover daily with the dreadful negotiations process) are simply key. We tend to focus on lofty ideals while forgetting the “essential”, like with the tree and the forest. We can only be strong together, which does not mean a loss of national identity or a Federation even if all forms of togetherness can be reviewed among partners. We also need to explain the EU far better to the people forming it, even those who have greatly benefited from it (Think Poland and other Central European states). We need to take into account real issues like the immigration flood in Italy and not give lessons when we are not at the frontline. But we need to work together and keep peace and prosperity on our continent, putting the sirens of populism at bay through education and communication, avoiding all the suffering and costs of a divorce that can only be messy at all levels and particularly at the human one.
It is clear that there has been a majority in Britain for about nine months that no longer wants to leave, even if the famous “will of the people” may still conceptually prevail and keeps propelling the national ride to hell. It would be useful for the British to vote again, as democracy also means the possibility of changing one’s mind or for Parliament to get involved as it should have more freely in the past two years, if only to vote on the terms of any Brexit, the latter which we all know will be in name only, simply as Reason will prevail. I also believe that the EU should welcome back Britain with open arms and not penalise it for the last two years and wasted time as a clear show of restored unity and focus on the future.
Happy Bastille Day to all!
Serge Desprat – 14th July, 2018 (Boston)