I recently posed this question to some acquaintances. We discussed Brexit and the long-term risks it creates for Europe.
The res publica have never been more dangerous for us.
We are less than two months away from the 29th of March, when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will exit our European Union. Although the short-term risks point to economic slowdown for Britain, the long-term risks fall mainly on Europe. That is both because we are much less united and because in crucial areas, we are weaker than the British. First of all, the balance of power in the United Kingdom is much more skewed.
In the title, I spoke of England rather than the United Kingdom for a number of reasons.
It would be remiss of us to underestimate the enduring strength of England. It has been a long time since the Scottish/Welsh/Irish tail has managed to wag the English dog. Their combined population is ten million, while that of England is fifty-five million. And Brexit is a properly English project, with the other parts of the UK not feeling quite the same animosity towards Europe, which was reflected in their voting patterns and the tone of the debate there. We must remember the cover of the Daily Mail (2nd best selling newspaper in the UK) on the day of the referendum. It asked its readers “Who will speak for England?”.
What we must prevent ourselves from doing, as Europeans, is to ignore the long-term risks Brexit poses for us. We may be more economically powerful. But it is not only Europe that has centres of excellence such as universities and research centres. England also has enduring institutions such as the BBC, Oxbridge and the NHS. They are buoyed by the global dominance of English and the far-reaching English-language press.
And it is the second of those that should worry us.
We lack soft power
One of our major problems is that many Europeans see Europe through the lens of how the English see it. This is less of a problem in the older member-states, which have a tradition of their own in their press, and more importantly a population that knows more European languages, compared to some of the newer member states. Nevertheless, a lot of the messaging to us comes from England, and is originally meant for its domestic audience. For example, the adulation of Yanis Varoufakis in the Guardian, which is in stark contrast to the Greek-speaking press’ view of him. Varoufakis was once presented as Corbyn-on-the-Med. Similarly, in the English right-wing press the President of our European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker is repeatedly demonised. He is one of the major figures of loathing.
And these domestic messages reverberate across Europe unfortunately. Journalists pick up stories from the British press, because it is one of the few European presses they can read. The same for online fora, memes etc. This doubly goes for the new member-states where there is no tradition of learning French or German and thus people can access fewer channels of information.
A halfway-decent Brexit will be spun by the most-read newspapers of England, The Sun and the Daily Mail, into a British success story. As these newspapers set the narrative due to their reach, they force other newspapers such as the Guardian to respond – directly or indirectly – to them. Even if they respond by critiquing their point of view, that still exposes the main argument to a wider audience.
They don’t lack soft power
It will then percolate through Europe’s newsrooms and into our hearts and minds.
Inevitably, the nuances of Britain’s unique circumstances will be lost. And this narrative can be picked up by internal political forces in European member-states. Michel Barnier, our chief negotiator with the UK, has warned of us risking “a Farage in every country”. That should be a major concern for us.
This is amplified by the fact that hostile powers are closing in. In the online group My Country? Europe there have been a lot of discussions on Chinese trading practices against Europe. People have mentioned how China is trying to “divide-and-rule” the member-states by going directly to them instead of through the Commission. Similarly, the US right-wing establishment (including the current US Secretary of State) is increasingly hostile to the European Union. Some have openly expressed desire to break up the EU. Promoting a Brexit narrative of success, or investing in the UK may be in their interests.
This article is meant to act as a warning. As M. Barnier said, we should not underestimate the risks. Do we have in my opinion, any feasible way to counter them? No, the institutions are not there. There aren’t any far-reaching vessels to carry a pro-European message, undistorted. An actionable point would be to try to develop them. It may be too late to develop them in the limited time that is left. What may be left to us is to chronicle the fall of Europe.