The woman on the TV was explaining why she had voted for Britain to leave the European Union: “My parents fought the Second World War for our freedom.” Alas, my own parents died when I was younger, so I can’t ask them, but I suspect they would not share this view of the war. I suspect their war was less about British sovereignty than about freeing Europe and the world from fascism, right-wing populism, and racism.
European integration was a response to the war. On May 9, 1950, Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister, declared that the sharing of resources might make “war not only unthinkable but materially impossible.” In 1951, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany signed the Treaty of Paris, leading to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community. In 1957, the same states signed the Treaty of Rome, thereby creating the European Economic Community. The United Kingdom joined the community in 1973 along with Denmark and Ireland.
Changing the EU
Although European integration sought to prevent war by promoting democratic cooperation, social openness and international solidarity, the European Union has not always lived up to those ideals. The EU has often let its citizens down. The people who voted for Britain to leave the EU had real grievances.
The EU needs to do more to engage its citizens, giving them opportunities for democratic participation. Its leaders and institutions seem remote. Its citizens have few chances to participate beyond elections for a parliament that many of them do not understand.
The EU also needs to revive the ideal of a social Europe. Today, its principle concern often seems to be to impose austerity. Even if we grant the necessity of austerity — and I for one would not — the EU cannot afford to appear to be pursuing the interests of wealthy financiers at the expense of its citizens.
Finally, the EU needs to provide more robust leadership when facing the humanitarian crises that have arisen from Bosnia to Syria. It cannot allow refugees to be presented as welfare-scroungers, terrorists or beyond our care. It should insist, in word and action, that Europe’s humanist culture is a cosmopolitan one that includes a duty of care for others.
The EU has its problems. These problems should perhaps have been reasons to reform the EU, not to leave it. They certainly should not be reasons to give up the post-war ideals of cooperation, openness, and solidarity, and to return instead to borders, insularity, and fear, especially when the latter are being promoted by right-wing populists who are unlikely to address economic inequalities but are guaranteed to pander to racism.
At a crossroads
So, what is to be done? Britain now faces a choice about its future at least as important as that of the referendum. On the one hand, Britain might fall prey to right-wing populism. Britain might retreat within its own borders, mistaking nationalism and demagoguery for participation and democracy. Britain might become inward-looking, uninterested in the immigrants it blames for growing inequalities. Britain might turn its back on refugees, fearing that people who do not look like us must be out to hurt us.
On the other hand, Britain might reassert its commitment to the ideals of cooperation, openness, and solidarity. For a start, Britain might promote new forms of democratic cooperation. It might experiment with various democratic innovations such as deliberative polls, participatory budgeting, and community governance. It will surely have to develop more devolved (and hopefully more pluralistic) institutions. Perhaps Britain might also work with other states, NGOs, and transnational and international organizations to establish novel forms of public action.
In addition, Britain might introduce more open forms of, and fluid pathways to, citizenship. It will surely have to find ways of accommodating those Europeans who have made their homes on its soil. Perhaps Britain might also come to welcome diverse migrants for the energy, dynamism, and innovation they so often bring to cultures and economies.
Finally, Britain might express solidarity with the victims of conflict, natural disasters, and human rights violations. Its government and its individual citizens will surely continue to provide humanitarian aid to those in need. Perhaps Britain might also do more to welcome and integrate those fleeing persecution and violence.
Britain — like much of the world — is at a crossroads. Economic inequalities have grown, and political institutions are failing. Some people will be tempted to retreat into the false security of a right-wing populism. We should resist this temptation. We should reassert the democratic, social, and international ideals of the post-war era as guides by which to rebuild our economies and our politics.