The West-West Divide

Article by Alina Bârgăoanu

Here is my quick reaction to Theresa May’s Brexit deal defeat, “defeat of all defeats”, as Politico aptly dubbed it. I keep on being stubborn in my reading of what is going on in Great Britain as being not solely of its own making and as having serious (huge?) implications for the European Union, for the Central and Eastern European part of it and for the Transatlantic world.

Despite the huge efforts to narrate the “Brexit mess” as a British thing, the public opinion shifts that lead to the results of the referendum and that has continued up to the present day are representative of trans-European and trans-Atlantic phenomena. Some of these shifts are quiet, some are disruptive, and, as the Brexit crisis shows, the former remain quiet until they become disruptive. Just as in Hemingway’s famous answer to the question: “How did you go bankrupt?. Two ways. Gradually, they suddenly”.

These public opinion movements have been largely ignored by the “global elite”, the “transnational class” as Mark Blyth calls it in a recent interview. It is this latter “elitist” group that was supposed, by “job description”, to understand, signal, predict and steer the dispositions of the “vast amount of the population”. The fact that, in different corners of the Transatlantic World, members of the “transnational group” continue to label those who do not vote according to their taste as “illiterate”, “unwashed”, “toothless”, “electorally incompetent” only adds a layer of complexity to an already complex situation. It always amazes me to notice that both groups – the “educated” and the “illiterate” one – share the same feelings of dispossession, nostalgia and wishful thinking that an “older state” will be restored (“made something great again”).

Before Christmas, when Theresa May avoided a vote on the deal knowing that she will suffer a terrible defeat (which, by the way, raises the question “didn’t she have the similar knowledge in the case of yesterday’s vote?”), Germany’s Europe Minister Michael Roth tweeted: “Brexit – a tragedy. Not even Shakespeare would have conceived that”. Indeed, Brexit is a tragedy for Great Britain, as it is plain to see, but I think it is a tragedy for the European Union, too, for the “European-Union-as-we-know-It”. See, I myself have the tendency to share this backward-looking feeling, “let’s make EU-as-we-know-it great again”.

It is a tragedy “not even Shakespeare would have conceived of” because it blew the chances of debating Europe without fearmongering. It created what I call “Brexitism”, meaning a maximalist tone in debating EU: if you do not agree with something, it means that you want to exit the EU “and look what happened to Great Britain – a tragedy”. It created polarization (as if we didn’t have enough of this Western phenomenon) in EU-related debates, postulating that criticism and reflection automatically lead to go-it-alone, national, “tragic” paths. Moral posturing, feelings of superiority, “black-and-white”, “us vs. them”, “good vs. bad” – the perfect ground for the continuation of the “epistemic war”: whose truth, whose story, whose narrative. These binary, moralistic frames create ample opportunities for disinformation and are an invitation to resentment and to what is loosely designated with the term populism.

Finally, the “Brexit tragedy” – for a tragedy it is for all the above reasons and the remaining one – creates opportunities under which “EU-as-not-America”, “EU-as-counterweight-to-US” narratives are likely to prevail. The tendency of “EU minus Great Britain” to give primacy to these claims and narratives further fuel disintegrative tendencies both inside the Transatlantic world and inside the European Union itself. It opens the sensitive debate – analysed by T. Garton Ash as early as early as 2004 in his book “The Free World. America, Europe and the Surprising Future of the West” – on the red thin line “between short-term, contingent (anti-Bushism, today’s anti-Trumpism, n.n) and the long-term, endemic (anti-Americanism) explanations”.

Is the West-West divide the surprising future of the West that T. Garton Ash had in mind?

About the Author

Alina Bârgăoanu

Alina Bârgăoanu, profesor universitar Jean Monnet la SNSPA, decan al Facultăţii de Comunicare şi Relaţii Publice; Președinte al Consiliului de Administrație al Institutului European din România; cele mai recente lucrări: „Why Europe? Narratives and Counter-Narratives of European Integration” (2017, Peter Lang), „United by or Against Euroscepticism. An Assessment of Public Attitudes Towards the EU in the Context of the Crisis (2015, Cambridge Scholars); bursier Fulbright (2001- 2002).