Brexit is about to happen. But Britain will remain inalienably part of Europe. The national myths, memories and mindsets of Britons, Portuguese, Greeks and Poles – and all those in between – are largely composed of the same sentiments. There are differences, chiefly historic and geographic, but these are massively outweighed by what we have in common.
A narrow majority of Britons – like many French, Italians and others – do not realise that the instinctive attitudes they take for granted in their daily lives are the outcome of Europe’s rich and diverse history. No mere political instrument can abolish this shared cultural heritage: Greek philosophy, Roman empire, Christianity, Vikings, empirical science, the Renaissance, double-entry book-keeping, the Enlightenment, the nation-state, classical music, heavy industry, global empire (and its concomitant racism), two world wars and one cold war, democracy, narrative story-telling, capitalism, the idea of self-improvement, socialism, Romanticism, Modernism, pop music, the limited liability company, post-modernism, football, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, tolerance for minority views, the mixed economy, the welfare state, binary computing … An endless list of -isms, events and technologies, forged primarily by Europeans, building on influences and imports from elsewhere. American culture is but an excess of certain aspects of Europe – though jazz is truly original.
No lesser authority than Johnny Depp pointed to the joie de vivre of Europe as something which we all share, certainly in comparison with the work-obsessed Americans and Chinese. The great man pronounced that ‘France, and the whole of Europe, has a great culture and an amazing history. [The] most important thing though is that people there know how to live! In America they’ve forgotten all about it. I’m afraid that American culture is a disaster.’
No man is an island, and no island is separate from the rest of the planet. The sea links polities as much as it forms a ditch of defence. The land, of course, is joined under the waters. And the air in Britain may blow from Chernobyl. The unfortunately-named United Kingdom is faced by the same ecological pollution as the rest of Europe. Every inch and gram of the Earth is equally inter-connected, and at risk. Meanwhile, each continent faces distinct and shared environmental challenges, irrespective of political borders: those of Europe include the effect of global warming on African migration; and changing weather in the Atlantic and the Arctic. To think that the UK can stand apart and make its own solutions is a contemporary version of the myth of King Canute (the Dane who ruled England during 1016-1035): the monarch commanded the incoming tide to retreat in order to show up the sycophants who crowded his court and told him that he was all-powerful.
However, Britain is significantly different from the rest of Europe in one broad historic fact: for the UK, the European project has never been seen as any sort of ‘promised land’. This is quite different than in France and Germany, for which the EEC was created to stop them fighting each other. In Italy, the dire absence of national authority or even identity is substituted by that obtaining at the EU level. For Portugal, Spain, Greece and the former countries of Eastern Europe (as it used to be called), the European Community has beckoned powerfully for the past 60 years as a democratic, far richer, and radically more desirable version of what the people wanted their countries to become (even if some of the glamour is now wearing off).
For Britain, on the other hand, Europe is a place where failed attempts at continental dominion have to be counteracted by Anglo-American arms: in the 20th century one need only mention World Wars One and Two, and the Cold War. Europe is also the place from whence have come the current wave of immigrants, who have stirred up such alarm in the mainly poorer parts of England and Wales (though in fact all of Britain benefits hugely from migrants). We in the UK lack a statesman who can articulate powerfully what Winston Churchill prophetically said in 1948: “We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think of being a European as of belonging to their native land, and… wherever they go in this wide domain… will truly feel, ‘Here I am at home.'”
A wider contemporary perspective is also needed. Britain and the EU will survive Brexit with no major damage. It is not like the Syrian civil war, the al-Qaeda massacres in Mali, the wholesale internment of Muslim Uighurs in China, or the relentless deterioration of ecological conditions in the most vulnerable parts of the world. Rather, I believe that Brexit will ultimately bring an overdue humbling of the quiet but stubborn British sense of superiority, since the country’s global political importance will gradually be further reduced by Brexit. On the other hand, the exiting of the UK might help the EU to discover a new sense of purpose which appeals to the best instincts of the young, most likely deriving from an environmental focus.
Beyond Europe, we are all citizens of the world, with a shared humanity. This is far more definitive of an individual than the particular nation-state to which she thinks she belongs: we are humans first, and only British or Portuguese after the assertion of a huge variety of identities (such as female, gay, young etc).
The big things will not change: post-Brexit Britons will still live for 60 seconds in every minute; and we will struggle like everyone else with the impact of global warming, ageing populations, consumerism, and unbalanced market economies. All of us in this old continent face the prospect of being shunted off to a future as a museum of nostalgia – while being manipulated and controlled by American and Chinese giant corporations and ruthless state machines.
Brexit may prove to be a new chapter in a long and very slow national suicide by a country in which Dean Acheson’s words from 1963 are still pertinent: ‘Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.’
But the bigger picture is that the future of the UK – or whatever is left of the UK after a potential Scoxit – is in Europe. The past is unalterable, the geography is fixed, and the big issues are all continent-wide. On a personal level, there is nowhere else I would rather be than right here in this British patch of Europe.
Fotos de Minnie Freudenthal e Manuel Rosário
Visto de Portugal, quem pensa que foram os ingleses que nos protegeram do Napoleão, dos Habsburgos e do Hitler, fica com aquela espécie de sentimento estranho de que havíamos de prestar mais atenção ao que se está a passar na Grã Bretanha nestes dias. É que já vão mais