After several months of waiting, Article 50 has been triggered. Britain is leaving the EU and the reaction has been exactly as you’d expect. Celebration among those who voted to leave, acceptance from Remain backers who are now comfortable with the result, and a strange mixture of negative emotions among intransigent Hard Remainers, who’ve expressed anger, despair, and a significant amount of bitterness.
A deeper sentiment expressed by some in the pro-EU camp is a feeling of loss because they feel not simply British, but more like citizens of Europe. This really indicates how profoundly the EU succeeded in influencing self-perception, to the point where people feel aligned with a nation that doesn’t exist.
That isn’t normal. Feeling like a citizen of your own country is essential for society to function well. Without citizenship and shared community, we’re not a nation. That doesn’t mean being jingoistic, holding street parties for the queen, or wrapping yourself in the Union Jack, although you can do those things if you want. It also doesn’t mean stopping other people from entering. It simply means respecting a sense of community and shared values, and expecting newcomers to do the same.
It means, if you live in the UK, being liberal in the classical sense of the word. That means respecting the results of elections and referendums, whether they go for or against you. It means accepting other points of view, valuing diversity of opinion, and not projecting the worst of motives onto those with whom you disagree. It means recognising that progressivism falls apart without a sporting respect for the conservative counterbalance. And it means valuing the freedom of the press, and understanding that the Daily Mail has as much right to be provocative, rabble rousing, and right wing as the Guardian does to be sanctimonious, breathless, and Blairite.
These liberal values are an area where the EU falls conspicuously short. It’s demonstrably less democratic than its member countries. It introduces an extra layer of governance, which is more distant and less accessible. It re-runs referendums, until it gets the result it wants. And it’s obstinately unwilling to offer concessions, as we saw when David Cameron was unable to secure the reform deal he wanted a few months before the referendum. This latter flaw was surely fresh in many voters’ minds when Britain went to the polls.
Considering these things, we have a problem if you’ve been made to feel less a citizen of your own unique, respected, and heritage-laden country, and more a member of, well, what exactly? We can’t accurately define the EU. It’s not a nation. It’s both supra-national and inter-governmental. It might have federal ambitions. It’s certainly far from a simple trade bloc. But whatever it was, is, or wants to be, it’s subsuming sovereignty, and incrementally replacing real nations with itself.
If you love all the countries and colours of Europe, then the EU is anathema. The EU, for all its pompous statements of peace and goodwill, has little respect for the cultures and people of Europe. In fact, it’s worse than that: the EU has come to believe that it is Europe, and that is an act of unacceptable conceit. The EU has sought to water down and undermine everything that defines a nation. It operates a deliberate process of homogenization, rounding the granite edges of regional identity until there is nothing left but the featureless corporate platitudes of the EU enterprise.
Those who take pleasure from cultural differences, and can celebrate diversity with a proper grasp of what such a principle entails, showed two fingers to the self-serving philistines of Brussels last June, and let out a cheer with the triggering of Article 50. And let’s hope that spirit spreads across our familial, shared continent, causing our neighbours to remember that Europe is not the EU, and that the EU must not be allowed to pretend otherwise.
For an example of how this mixing up of terms has taken hold, look at the various ‘Marches for Europe’ that have taken place since the referendum. They weren’t Marches for Europe at all. They were Marches for the EU. Marches for the Commission. Marches for Jean Claude Juncker and his meticulous technocrats.
After Theresa May’s Article 50 triggering letter had been delivered, Donald Tusk spoke to the media, and his final words were ordinary and yet touchingly sentimental.
“What can I add to this? We already miss you.”
It was unexpectedly moving. But don’t worry Mr Tusk, we’re not going anywhere. We’re just over there on the other side of that thin stretch of water, where we’ve always been.
Because, sincere and regretful as Tusk might have been, the fact remains that the EU and Europe are two different things. Europe is beautiful, resilient, diverse, and will, of course, long outlive the EU project. In the United Kingdom, we’re all just as European now as we were on the eve of the referendum last year, whether we like to think so or not.
Brexit isn’t about turning our backs on the rest of the continent, it’s about restoring the best possible relations with our closest friends and neighbours, and none of us, in any nation, should need a rubber stamp from Brussels to do that.
At the same time, as citizens of this distinctive, disruptive island off the rainy north west coast of our shared continent, we can celebrate that we’re finally, rightly, taking a more optimistic, globally connected path.
The future might not be smooth, but it’s wide open now, so Happy Brexit.
This article can also be read at Country Squire Magazine