25 June 2016
The decline of the west or: Brexit, stage right
The European Economic Community was meant to embody the ideal of a post-nationalist, post-warfare continent. If any entity embodied "the west" it was the EEC or, as it came to be known later, the European Union. But it was never quite a perfect fit. For years, Great Britain wanted to be part of it, but Charles de Gaulle blocked their admission while he ruled France; his was a vision of a "Europe" that excluded Britain (and by extension the U.S. -- de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO) rather than "the west." De Gaulle's departure from the scene ended French resistance to Britain, and the U.K. joined the EEC in 1973. Now Britain will leave the Community after a close referendum vote, but in many ways it's now a different community from the one Britain aspired to join. Since the Maastricht Treaty of 1994 it had more political power, and its taxes and regulations were increasingly resented by right-wingers in Britain, long before the refugee crisis that arguably put the "Brexit" over the top. The left wing had plenty of objections to the Union, most having to do with its imposition of austerity economics on certain member states, but the Brexit is seen widely as a triumph for a broader Anglo-American right, represented by a gloating Donald Trump, ironically romping in Scotland, where support for the EU remained high and now has reignited an independence movement whose own referendum failed last year. A second referendum may have a different outcome, which would be ironic given how Britain appealed to Scotland to remain in the U.K., and which perhaps would confirm that ours is a centrifugal age, the traumas of globalization having provoked tribalist reactions of all sorts as people look to those around them for support and resent any diversion of their attentions. If the left remains ambivalent about phenomena like the Brexit, it's probably because, whatever their reservations about the EU as it exists, they'd still like to try again, preferably from the ground up, or with the guidance of socialist principles, while the right presumably is through with the idea of Union for good. Whatever the EU's flaws, it's hard not to see the Brexit as a step back from progress to the extent that it means a permanent step back from regional or cultural amalgamation. It's unclear, however, to what extent the Brexit represents a repudiation of the European or western ideal in favor of some sort of Anglo-Saxon chauvinism. It certainly seems to repudiate the idea that Britain is answerable to the rest of Europe, and that repudiation clearly appeals to a certain Anglo-American chauvinism that sees "Atlantic" rather than "western" civilization, characterized by the obstinance of the Anglo-American right, as man's highest achievement. This civilization or quasi-civilization has a missionary quality; it would like to see the rest of Europe or the west adopt its ways and biases and abandon all vestiges of socialism in the process. This mentality saw the EU as socialistic even as critics from the left saw the same entity as an enforcer of capitalist hegemony. The debate over what the EU is or was will continue; the question now is what alternative to the EU might someday replace it, and whether something might yet be salvaged from the idea of continental union as the alternative to perpetual rivalry and war in Europe.