Opinion and Politics

Would a Brexit be Good for Europe? A Schadenfreude Letter from Berlin


BERLIN, 18 JUNE 2016

Fellow Europeans, let me offer you yet a cup of Brexit poison, one laced with Schadenfreude. And, if you drink it, I promise an antidote.

First the poison

When you see Brexit polls increasingly lean towards ‘leave’, don’t you sometimes think it would be a relief to see them go? If a majority of Brits want to leave Europe, why not let them: these football hooligans, these consumers of infotainment and trash tabloids, these nostalgists for the brutal centuries of colonial exploitation? Haven’t the Brits, after all, been the ones putting the brake on our ‘ever-closer’ union: the ones who ask for exemptions, who stall social protections, who aren’t team players, who are the Trojan Horse of neoliberalism?

And here’s the real Schadenfreude: by choosing to ‘leave’, is there not an in-built punishment for the British decision? Racist populism would be rewarded with isolation on a rain-swept island that has long lost its Imperial lustre. A former power that hangs on the coattails of America––but, in the words of Obama, will be forced to the ‘back of the queue’ for transatlantic trade talks––would become a minor country. England would enter the end-game of its managed decline, despite its delusional self-importance. It would no longer be able to punch above its weight. It would go it alone in the brutal economic conditions it created for itself, predicted by the IMF and every reputable study ever produced on the ramifications of Brexit. Britain would be a basket-case: like Greece without the Aegean, the feta, or the sun. Are these not just desserts?

And what of all those reasonable Brits? The better half of those 65 million? Well, won’t we take at least some of them with us, because the Scots will eventually remain with a referendum of their own? Plenty of my English friends have said they will leave the small island if the ‘fascists’ take over. Although there is that problem of whether these migrants would be allowed asylum in a Europe that has already taken so many.

Now the Symptoms

Some calming down is in order for those already furious with me, and haven’t taken the above in the spirit of ‘for argument’s sake’. Let me reiterate: the logic of the above argument is poisonous precisely because its arguments are so similar to that of the ‘leave’ campaign. They fall into the trap of thinking all the problems are ‘over there’, that they are not shared. For what is more pan-European these days than racism, nationalism and populism? Just look at France (Le Pen’s Front National), Hungary (Orbán’s Fidesz), Poland (Duda’s Law and Order). In these respects, Britain is more European than ever. But it is embracing a kind of historic ethnic nationalism that the EU was built not just to attenuate, but to combat.

I sometimes wonder what it would have been like had Britain had gone through the same Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or ‘coming-to-terms-with-the-past’, as West Germany in the 20th century. Germany has raged against populism and nationalism within its borders, precisely because of the horrific Nazi experience. What if Britain had examined its colonial experience with the same intensity, instead of exalting in post-war triumphalism? Certainly, nostalgia for Britain’s ‘finest hour’ is deeply embedded in the mythology of the Brexit crowd. Yet, the Brexiters have not hesitated to use propaganda photographs reminiscent of the Nazis in their campaign material. Nor do they waver––again taking a page-book from fascist ideologies––in blaming foreigners (in this case immigrants) for problems produced by inequities in the economic system. How is it that immigrants fleeing war become the target of austerity-weary taxpayers instead of City of London bankers and their enormous bonuses? One ignores the real cause of discontent and it becomes easy––as the historic victor––to point constantly at the continent and say that only ‘over there’ are the Nazis, fascists, collaborators, the ones that we rightly defeated. The unjust could not possibly be here in the Land of Hope and Glory. Germany has had its inoculation (let’s hope it has a long validity) against fascism, but Britain has not. Why else would opportunistic British lawmakers risk playing with the fire of populism, by calling the referendum in the first place, harnessing its dangerous elements for political gain (and paradoxically, later campaigning against their own strategic move)? German patricians invited the Nazis in because they thought they were controllable.

There are dangers as Britain descends into provincialism, digging ever deeper into the island mentality. Europe here has a stake. You might think we only have Little Britain with which to contend. No, there would be more than tea-cozies, hot cross buns, and fusty chintz interiors to worry about. Britain––as its economic troubles worsen post-Brexit––is more likely to become more, not less, authoritarian and jingoistic. Oligarchs will collectivise debt, and privatise the remaining wealth into an existing class structure. Does this sound like Little Britain? No, more like 19th-century Britain. Or, even more likely, a Little Putin’s Russia, and with nukes.

We all risk the fallout of a Brexit. The Leave campaign is lying when it says that Britain will easily negotiate a free-trade deal with Europe, that they can have their cake and eat it too ‘like Norway or Iceland’. It’s clear that the EU Commission will be obliged, instead, to punish Britain for leaving the free-trade zone. How else will they send a clear message to other potential leavers, like Poland or France, of the consequences of exiting? The elephant in the room is, of course, the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA), and whether Britain could simply join that organisation and still participate in the EU free-trade zone. We are likely to see incredible leverage on EFTA by the EU to prevent Britain from joining it. And should the EU fail, we may see a domino effect from Britain to other Eurosceptic member states also wishing to hold referenda.

Meanwhile, the financial sector is already making contingency plans to pick up from London and go to Paris, Luxembourg, Frankfurt or Dubai. But considering what this industry has done to costs in London, Brexit might turn London into a poorer but better city. I can’t imagine how, though, it would be good for other cities. Britain would lose an enormous source of income, but also of inequality. Meanwhile, if the failure of Lehman Brothers shook the world economy in 2008, imagine what a crisis involving an entire country, that is an international seat of finance, might do? There are devastating and transformative times potentially ahead… maybe even the revolution we’ve all been waiting for.

A Cure

The cure has always been there, and it is for Britain to remain in the EU. And while I hate how undemocratic the EU has become, how badly managed, how overpaid, how removed from citizens, how implicated in neoliberalism, it has nonetheless brought peace to a continent that was for decades at war. You might argue there is a correlation / causation problem here. Perhaps Europe has been at peace for other reasons (the détente of the Cold War freezing micro-conflicts), but I am not willing to gamble. A logical way to prevent countries from destroying each other is to make them inter-dependent: this economic and political integration was a rationale for peace at the Union’s inception, and it holds today.

What better cure for populism, ethnic nationalism, and accompanying racism, than the opportunity to partake in the trans-national identity that is European? This might not sound very exciting, but internationalism and cosmopolitanism is the cure that the better half of the EU provides. And I say the better half of Europe, because every country in Europe-–even inoculated Germany with the rise of the AfD (Alternative for Germany)––suffers from the illness from which Britain now suffers, and whose symptoms are expressed so strongly in a campaign that has left one MP dead.

The Schadenfreude expressed in the first half of this essay risks becoming the dominant narrative about Britain in the EU, should Britain leave. It could replace a more reflective position that understands that Britain should not be punished for something it does not suffer alone. Rather, Britain needs the support of the best of the 450 million other citizens of the EU, and also the support of reasonable governments in the Union, to go beyond the nation-state and create something that better reflects the realities of a globalised, multicultural, and post-national world. Next week, Britain has that choice, and it could change all of us.


by Joseph Pearson


*This is the first of three articles in a series on the Brexit, the others are:

-Post-Referendum: A Love Letter to my Brexit Lover

-Post-Referendum: What will the Brexit Bring?

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

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