Article by Alina Bârgăoanu
On Tuesday, UK lawmakers in the House of Commons will vote on Theresa May’s Brexit proposal, which was signed off by the EU heads of state. According to media coverage, the quasi-consensual expectation is that the proposal will be voted down, and the only „surprise” left having to do with the margin of defeat. The deal has sparked fierce opposition from all parts of political spectrum, with „Tony Blairs” and „Boris Johnsons” united in condemning it as a „betrayal”.
We will see how the vote turns down in the House of Commons, and let’s not forget that, assuming the deal passes on Tuesday, it will have to be voted next in the Parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords. The outcome of the vote is, of course, important, the margin of defeat is important as well. Irrespective of the uncertainties surrounding the Tuesday vote, there are two things whose significance for the European political and geopolitical order can already be pointed out with some degree of certainty.
First, as I have underlined elsewhere, the significance of Brexit is mainly geopolitical. Brexit breaks the balance between the continental and maritime features of the EU and fractures the Transatlantic World right in the middle. It reinforces the continental features of an EU that, already after German reunification and the Eastward enlargement, turned into a different geopolitical entity. Brexit, 2-speed Europe (with the subsequent calls for the federalization of the Eurozone – the core of the EU), the return of the East-West divide and the political crises in CEE – are not unhappy coincidences; instead, they can be seen as wide reflections of the unwillingness or incapacity of the European core to hold to its two peripheries, the Western and the Eastern one. This core-periphery divide inside the EU is of utmost importance for the Trans-Atlantic world and the post-WWII liberal order. The reinforcement of the post-WWII order, which has represented the bedrock of the remarkable global stability that the world has experienced for the past 70 years – can hardly be imagined with US continuing its political and diplomatic retrenchment from EU affairs, one the one hand, and with EU being divided and allowing its margins to be ripped, on the other.
Second, the result of the 2016 Brexit refererendum and the ensuing discussions added a political, communication layer to the geopolitical one. These discussions – as they have unfolded both in UK and the rest of the UE – have blown the chances of debating the European Union without fearmongering, without priming the „exit” frame. I am not sure whether I stand the chance become as famous as the Euractiv journalist who came up with the term „Brexit” in the first place; but this fearmongering inspired me to come up with a new term – Brexitism. Meaning the tendency to frame any EU-related debate in maximalist, „Brexitist” tone. This frame is built on the fallacy that any criticism to the current EU order (economic, social, political), any disagreements with the official narratives or measures necessarily imply go-it-alone solutions, national solutions, exits, return to „Communism”, to „military dictatorship” and what not. This EU-related fallacy is compounded by another one, which permeates the discussion about the global order, too, and the reflection on the emergence of „my country first” narrative: the existence of global/ transnational risks does not mean that all risks are global or that the response to the portion of global risks there is necessarily and always require a global response; in the EU case, a “European” response. In a recent interview with Dr. Karl Kaiser from Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center (November 12), Henry Kissinger came up with the following insight: “how to relate the national culture of countries to the requirements of the world order is on the big tests ahead, and there is no good historic precedence for it yet”. Thus, Henry Kissinger underlines that the tension between regional/ national/ local conditions and the existence of global/ transnational trends, as encapsulated by the “my country first” frame, asks for an intellectual effort that goes beyond demonization, ridicule or downright blindness.
These binary frames – either you are completely in or completely out, my way or your way, exit or for ever be silent – shrink the public debate, feed polarisation and create the perfect environment for disinformation and information confusion. The public debate (in fact, debate taking place in public, or „official” sight) vacillates between „sweet nothings”, what Timothy Garton Ash once called the „Lego language” in EU affairs or dire indictments of the European Union, which may thus become an indiscriminate object of disatisfaction with globalization, the neoliberal order, or failure of local governing elites. Monologues in the national public spheres and monologues within the national public spheres along divisive and mutually exclusive terms and understandings (exit or submission, uncritically European or uncritically local, liberal or illiberal) do not bode well for the European political project of withstanding the current global/ transnational challenges.