Brexit: Should I stay or should I go?

by Michael Sean Winters

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"Should I stay or should I go?" was a 1981 hit song by The Clash, the British punk rock band that seemed so outrageous, so alternative, at the time but now seems awfully tame. That question now consumes the country whence they came: Should the UK stay or leave the European Union? A referendum will decide the matter next week.

Enlightened liberal opinion certainly supports staying in the EU. But, enlightened liberal opinion is not what it once was. At the end of both world wars, there was an enormous effort to erect supra-national juridical structures, and the impulse was correct: Nationalism, distorted first by German militarism and later by fascism and German fanaticism, had played a part in the genesis of both wars. The League of Nations failed in every way and, so, after the Second World War, the effort to construct a world body was matched by the specifically European effort to circumscribe national barriers within the continent. This effort was both advanced and limited by the descent of the Iron Curtain from Stettin to Trieste: Within Western Europe, the impulse to unite powerfully was accelerated by the Cold War, but that impulse stopped halfway across Europe.

When the Iron Curtain collapsed, the impulse for European unity quickly moved east, to the old Curzon Line, but the countries being absorbed were so vastly different from the ones that had constituted the EU for 40 years, the difficulties were bound to be enormous. Those difficulties manifested themselves first and foremost in the always fraught phenomenon of migration. (I say "always" because one of the oldest legal texts we have, the Mosaic law, deals with the issue! Alas, those conservatives who pine for a "Christian Europe" seem to have forgotten what their faith demands in this regard.) Cheap labor from the east flooded into the west. Germany, united, faced the divergences most forcefully and immediately, but the entire European Union was affected.

As well, the latter half of the 20 century saw the rise of issues that required international cooperation for their resolution. Even at the height of the Cold War, both sides saw the need to restrict the proliferation of nuclear weapons and to protect the atmosphere from contamination with the Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Environmental issues, by their very nature, require us to transcend the bonds of locality: Acid rain in 1970s was generated in one political district and deposited in another, just as toxic waste is today. Your village or state or country may cut down your forests, but that will affect the air and water quality of towns or provinces or countries in the region. And, regrettably, the confidence in the forces of the market, and in the related belief that those forces were essentially benign and progressive, led the European Union, like the United States, to indulge in new trade regulations that exploited workers for the benefit of consumers, and even more to the benefit of financiers, in a culture in which marketing agencies had long been active convincing us to see ourselves as consumers first and foremost.

All these developments, of course, put into question the usefulness and even the viability of the nation-state, and there is a kind of leftist intellectual who is only too quick to denounce nationalism as inherently evil, which it is not, instead of inherently problematic, which it always is. Nationalism is one of those things that would have to be invented if it did not exist. A people who belong to a nation aspire to belong to their own state, to entertain no chains on their freedom except those they impose upon themselves. Nationalism is often rooted in an experience of injustice and the desire to right it, or, as Isaiah Berlin once said, nationalism is "the straightening of bent backs." Additionally, whatever theoretical constructs we entertain on the matter, the reality is that we live amidst nations and our sense of human belonging, a humane and necessary sense, is already expressed in national identities. Pope Francis likes to remind us that reality is more important than ideas, a sentiment that would not be alien to the late liberal sage of Oxford.

The champions of the European Union must be honest about the limits of their enterprise. How beneficial it would be to their project if they had a healthy appreciation for our Catholic civic virtue of subsidiary, which ascertains the appropriate level for civic decision-making and defines the different levels of political power by the means with which they can help each other, as opposed to our American, Madisonian belief in the need to separate the powers those levels possess. In Europe, too, there is a confidence in the expertise of the bureaucratic class that is over-stated: I do not deny the necessity of bureaucratic expertise in a complex society, but I do know that those in political power, over time, become unrooted from the experiences of the people they seek to serve, that the view from above needs to be frequently leavened by the view from below and that, when all else fails, there is much to be said for throwing the bums out, a healthy democratic instinct if ever there was one.   

There are plenty of threats to democracy today, and the bureaucrats in Brussels (or in Washington) are far from the most dangerous. The speed with which modern communications occurs has shortened or collective attention span, and difficult complex problems often require sustained attention. The scope of media coverage has widened, we now know about events on the other side of the world in real time, but it has not deepened. Democracies, especially the Anglo-American ones, are still burdened by an economic model that demands growth, when we know that unless that growth is powered by sustainable energy, it will ruin the planet. And, democracies are learning how to wrestle with a relatively new socio-cultural phenomenon, the emergence of multi-ethnic societies and peoples, a phenomenon which represents the best hope of humanity if we can get there without killing each other first.

In our time, rife with ugly nationalisms and fetid ideologies, woe to that hand which would strike at efforts to build bridges, and whatever else it is, the EU is a bridge that has been built. Woe to those who seek to exult nationalism at the expense of internationalism, instead of seeking to balance the two. As a Roman Catholic, my suspicions of British nationalism are rooted in the origins and history of Britishness, to be sure. But, I do not believe those suspicions are the source of my hope that the voters of the UK will decide to stay in the EU. (I hope they make it close: We want the bureaucrats in Brussels to be reminded that they are responsible to the voters in Britain, and throughout the Union.) It is hard to believe that a decision to go will benefit Britain or the continent, that the political discourse will be improved, or grave problems made easier to solve. Most importantly, the last thing Europe needs is additional evidence that it is disintegrating. The purposes for which the EU was founded remain not only noble, but essential to peace in the world. Britons should vote to stay next week.  

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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