My 350 on BREXIT: Britain out, long live Europe?

“Focusing too heavily on the « national identity » model has hindered European leaders from finding alternative ways for constructing a sense of community that has respect for Europe’s growing diversity.”

Isabel Ruck
30 June 2016

In the aftermath of the historic British vote to leave the EU, openDemocracy is asking for our readers' thoughts on Brexit and what needs to happen next in 350 words. We've had an extraordinary response and you can read them all here.

Recent events reveal quite blatantly that Europe is struggling with a deep identity crisis, of which Brexit constitutes, according to me, just a symptom. The « democratic deficit - talk » is a less convincing argument, since many member states, including Britain itself (just recall the unelected House of Lords !), are in many regards less democratic than the European Union’s institutions. I therefore believe that we are dealing with an identity crisis.

If such is the case, it is not helpful to simply continue to treat only the symptoms, while perfectly ignoring their common cause. One never heals from cancer just by treating a single metastasis. Yet, the problem that Europe is facing with regard to its identity is that they have never been able to agree on the content of it. Focusing too heavily on the « national identity » model has hindered European leaders from finding alternative ways for constructing a sense of community that has respect for Europe’s growing diversity. Instead we have desperately tried to forge a « Schmittian holy grail » through symbols like the European flag and the European anthem … but Europe had now to learn the hard way, that there was no European Bastille Day that unconditionally federates all societies.

The traditional way of nation-building by inventing a common past has pushed Europe to the brink of an implosion. Paradoxically it seems that the past is a much more divisive factor for forging a European demos than it is a federative one, for the glorified past is necessarily situated in a national context, one that all rising populisms à la Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Norbert Hofer try to exploit.

It appears to me a pressing necessity that European politicians work towards a new vision of the European community. It is only when we accept to lessen our organic ideal of community and replace it by a procedural one, through the sacralisation of shared political processes, that Europe can indeed move from a « community in itself » to a « community for itself », that is an ensemble that has developed a binding group consciousness.

Only if a married couple is able to conceive of itself with shared interests in building a common future that requires a constant effort with regard to the possible ups and downs, is their marriage eventually going to last. With my kindest thoughts to all the Brits, who didn't want to pay the high price of this divorce but are now forced to… 

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Emily Bell Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism and director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia Journalism School

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