When I was 13, at the Lycée Mignet, in Aix-en-Provence, France, my new friends told me I had to decide. Was I for the dream of a United Europe or against? “Oui” or “Non”? What you chose decided who your friends would be for the rest of the year.
This was 1958. I was an English-born kid from New Zealand. I discovered my classmates were as passionate as our professors on this. Because as I gradually learned from our schoolyard arguments, what was at stake was Europe’s first chance to debalkanize, become a community, put an end to what had been a European given for the previous thousand years: Suspicion of the other, the memory of old scores to settle, regular paroxysms of war. And death. Lots of death.
Today, the dream of a new Europe is still alive. Just. And this is what worries me: People forget how easy it is for Camelot moments to disintegrate. The Brexiters play carelessly with the inflaming of passions and the reviving of old prejudices. It has worked. Now Britain apparently wants Fortress Britain. Arm’s length relationships.
Suddenly, I’m thinking of my schoolmates, Novalone, Labriot, Cova. Of looking them in the eye. And receiving back a new, unspoken feeling:
“You’re not one of us any more.”
Why should I be surprised? Separations emphasize differences, whether they’re divorces or countries or groups of countries. And like a crack in the road, differences always widen with time. Each side needs to emphasize its peculiar identity.
You want examples? Let’s look at the fate of societies that have given in to the easier option of splitting, rather than splitting their differences: North and South Vietnam. North and South Korea. Northern and Southern Ireland. The northern and southern U.S. states 150 years ago. Northern and southern Sudan. China-Taiwan. And maybe the most unnecessary tragedy of all, India and Pakistan, breaking up to replace their ancient unity-in-diversity with suspicion, competition and fear. Seventy years later, this has escalated all the way to the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) recipe of thermo-nuclear weapons pointed at each other from a mile apart.
Which is what is so magnificent about the European experiment. It goes against all of history, and is all the more beautiful for it. The idea was simple: Of creating practical, market interdependence – starting with the modest European Coal and Steel Community, right after the most ghastly war the world has ever known – to tie all of us former enemies together so strongly, economically and culturally, that if we attack others in the group we hurt ourselves, cut off our nose to spite our own face.
As with siblings, being in a family doesn’t mean you have to love everybody all the time, just emphasize the similarities, work on improvements, keep your eyes on the prize. You have problems with the EU? Make a noise! Get some change. Redeploy, don’t destroy. A millennium of continental convulsions lies behind this European dream. We can’t let Camelot fall apart for peevish reasons. And read history. You want out? Remember how 1930s Europe disintegrated into a charnel house in a few fleeting years.
Pakistan? It is a fine country, but its separation from India was as damaging as is Britain’s departure from Europe.
Indeed, Britain is in danger of becoming Pakistan to Europe’s India.
What do we need?
We need time to reconsider.
What can we do?
Four million citizens (and counting) have already signed the petition calling for a second referendum. Now somebody needs to tell London and Brussels to hold fire until we’ve all had time to work this out properly. Right now we’re throwing the baby out with the bath water. And this baby needs way more nurturing before we decide its life is over.
Sometimes you need to remember the nightmare to remind yourself why you’re fighting for the dream.
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