Requiem for a Dream (essay-29)
Friday, January 31, 2020
Word Count – 1184
Britain exits Europe. It will be poorer, above all in its shriveled heart.
By Roger Cohen
I have covered many stories that marked me over the past 40 years, in war zones and outside them, but none that has affected me as personally as Britain’s exit from the European Union. Brexit Day, now upon us, feels like the end of hope, a moral collapse, a self-amputation that will make the country where I grew up poorer in every sense.
Poorer materially, of course, but above all poorer in its shriveled soul, divorced from its neighborhood, internally fractured, smaller, meaner, more insular, more alone, no longer a protagonist in the great miracle of the postwar years — Europe’s journey toward borderless peace and union. Britain, in a fit of deluded jingoism, has opted for littleness.
The fiasco was captured this week when that pompous and pitiful British nationalist, Nigel Farage, waved a miniature Union Jack in the European Parliament as he bid farewell and was cut off by the vice-president of the Parliament, Mairead McGuinness. “Put your flags away, you’re leaving, and take them with you,” she said.
Farage looked like a sheepish schoolboy caught breaking rules. He blushed. An Irish woman from a country uplifted by European Union membership reprimanding the new breed of little-England male as he exits history in pursuit of an illusion: the symbolism was perfect. “Hip, hip hooray!” Farage’s flag-waving Brexit Party cohorts chanted. Save me, please, for I shall weep.
Speaking of symbolism, the fact that President Trump has been a fulsome supporter of this folly is apt. An ahistorical, amoral American leader cheering on a British abdication sums up the end of an era. The world was rebuilt after 1945 on something of more substance than British-American lies and bloviation; it took resolve. The torch has passed. To whom exactly is unclear, perhaps to a country slow to contain a plague. That is a problem.
Brexit belongs to this era in one quintessential way. It is an act of the imagination, inspired by an imaginary past, carried along by misdirected grievances, borne aloft by an imaginary future. The age of impunity is also the age of illusion turbocharged by social media.
Inequality, poor infrastructure, low investment, inadequate schools are real British problems but the take-back-your-country transference of blame for them onto “Brussels bureaucrats” proved that the imagination now overwhelms reality. Truth withers. The mob roars. This, too, is a problem.
Yes, Britain was undefeated in World War II and helped liberate Europe. But it could do so only with its allies; and it was precisely to secure what it is now turning its back on: a free Europe offering its people the “simple joys and hopes which make life worth living.” Those are Churchill’s words in 1946 in a speech that also contained this phrase: “We must build a kind of United States of Europe.” Unbowed Britain was once consequential Britain; no longer.
I used the word “abdication” advisedly. Europe needs the great tradition of British liberalism at a moment when Hungary and Poland have veered toward nationalism and, across the Continent, xenophobic hatred is resurgent. It is perverse for Britain to try to look away. Europe is part of Britain. Visit the great Norman monasteries in England and tell me this is not so. The British dead who lie in the Continent’s soil having given their lives for its liberty tell the same story of interlaced fate from a different perspective.
To be so orphaned is painful. The 47 years of British membership cover the entire arc of my adult life. Europa was our dream. I covered Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president, speaking to the European Parliament about hope and peace in 1981, eight months before his assassination. So much for dreams.
Yet they persist, for otherwise life is unlivable. I wandered from Brussels to Rome to Paris to Berlin to London and everywhere I lived I experienced some iteration of Europe’s beauty, as a physical thing, as a cultural bond and as a transformative idea.
The sensation was most acute in Germany, where the idea of the union was the most effective escape from postwar shame and the rubble of 1945, a form of atonement. But it was ubiquitous, the guarantor of our deliverance and the symbol of our capacity to reinvent the world and even make it better.
Every European country, through the goal of ever closer union, changed itself. They grew richer, no small thing. But they also reframed their self-image.
Italy and Spain left Mussolini and Franco behind to become stable, prosperous democracies. France found its tortuous way to truth after the humiliations and predations of Vichy and discovered a European avenue to express once more its universal message of human rights founded on human dignity.
Central European countries stabilized their escape from the deadening Soviet imperium to which Yalta had confined them. Britain ceased equating Europe with scourges like intellectuals, rabies and garlic, as it had in my childhood. Hyde Park became a babble of European tongues. The British economy surged. Britain had given up its colonies and found a new identity in association with Europe, or so it seemed, flickeringly.
Then I lived in Sarajevo covering the Bosnian war and I saw, in inert bodies torn by shrapnel, and in history revived as galvanizing myth of might and conquest, the horror from which the European Union had saved my generation. It had laid bad history to rest. That was enough to be forever a European patriot.
But not enough for the British a quarter-century later. In the words of my friend Ed Vulliamy, who also covered that war, Britain has become a country “that boards cheap flights for stag outings to piss all over Krakow.”
Hip, hip hooray!
When I lived in Berlin, I would cross the nearby Polish border and never failed to marvel that where millions had perished decades earlier a nonexistent frontier traced its invisible line across fields of wheat. I would pass from the German world to the lands of the Slavs and nobody asked me who I was, what papers I bore or what was my intent.
If German-Polish reconciliation has been possible, anything is possible, my only solace at this moment. A bunch of flag-waving fantasists, at the wrong end of actuarial tables, have robbed British youth of the Europe they embrace. They will be looking on as 450 million Europeans across the way forge their fate. Their automatic right to live and work anywhere from Lisbon to Stockholm will be lost.
I’ve lost a limb; more than a limb, my heart. Europe helped Britain grow bigger and more open and more prosperous. Now it will shrink. Another suffering friend, Patrick Wintour, the diplomatic editor of The Guardian, sent me these lines of Auden:
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.
A better epitaph for the aborted story of Britain in Europe and the tragedy of a disoriented nation’s willful infliction of enduring self-harm is impossible to imagine.