Juuso Järviniemi calls for new British leader who will guide the country out of its current period of indecision.  

European integration often deepens through crisis. The prime example is how Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and others rose from the ashes of World War II and set their sights on a new kind of Europe. Chauvinism had failed Europe; it was time to try unity instead.

The only big European country that wasn’t trampled under soldiers’ boots was the United Kingdom. But now, eighty years after the war, it’s the UK that is being demolished by jingoism. The UK needs resolute advocates of European unity to emerge out of the ruins of Brexit.

Throughout the history of the European project, British leaders have been distinctly lukewarm about, or even combative towards, the EU. Though all countries’ leaders have their own disagreements – compromise is what Europe is about – it’s the UK whose leaders have characteristically been banging the table in Brussels, asking for their money back.

One suggested explanation for this is the fact that the UK never faced a nation-shattering disaster that would force it to rethink its relationship to international cooperation and national sovereignty. Until now.

The unwritten UK constitution is facing its toughest challenge in centuries. The risk of Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving the UK has increased. There’s no military conflict (except in Northern Ireland, if things truly go awry) but living with food and medicine shortages is almost as close to the fabled WWII as you can get in peacetime.

The moment of closure

You cannot rebuild before the war is over, but unfortunately the Brexit conflict is still fiercer than ever. However, sooner or later there must be a closure.

If the UK is to stay, the grand closure will be when Article 50 is revoked. It is hard to imagine even the Conservatives fighting an election on a platform to go through Brexit all over again. Therefore, if Brexit is stopped, it will be over on the next day – save for the grumblings of Eurosceptic politicians and some violent far-right clashes with the police that should subside with time.

If Brexit is to happen, it will not be as straightforward to define a clear moment when the mess is over. After the apocalyptic start, Brexit is likely to look like a gradual, seemingly endless decline as a weakened UK goes around the world striking one bad deal after another when seeking to replace the ones it had as a part of the EU.

Nonetheless, if Brexit is to happen, one option for such a closure is when the UK – inevitably – gets a Prime Minister who admits Brexit was a bad idea. Whether the UK leaves or remains, the next Prime Minister who dares look facts in the face will have to take on a mission to reheal the deep wounds cutting through British society.

Once the active conflict over Brexit is over, the prevailing sentiment will be bitterness that is slowly being replaced by a creeping emptiness. Brits will feel aghast at what happened to their country. Some will carry the defeated and bankrupt Brexit ideology all the way to their graves, but there will nonetheless be a consensus that the UK should avoid repeating the mistakes it made.

In a word, the UK won’t be too different from Germany in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Moving on

Among the pro-European establishment in the UK, campaigning has focused rather more on the negatives of Brexit than on the positives of Europe, which is something that has consistently irked grassroots activists. The rationale of strategists on the Remain side seems to be that an overly pro-EU message could alienate the crucial swing voters who will decide whether a majority support or oppose Brexit.

Not many have noticed how auspicious a starting point this is for a British campaign to call for EU reform. Never before have a million people gathered in London waving European flags. Three years of pro-Remain campaigning have made many Brits more pro-EU than before. The Guardian talks about “the radicalisation of Remain”. ‘Revoke, remain, reform’ is an already existing slogan whose spirit is ready to be embraced by a willing politician.

As for the waverers, and the hopelessly divided British society, it’s worth remembering that the Germans and the Frenchmen of the early 1950s weren’t exactly best friends either, yet their respective leaders managed to pull together. Mutual suspicion between the peoples of the two countries only vanished slowly, and thanks to hard work and political leadership.

Healing the wounds with a better EU

As mentioned above, closure won’t truly be reached before the UK admits that life outside the EU is nasty and brutish. If the UK was uneasy hanging halfway out of an imperfect EU, and miserable outside it, there’s only one more option left to try: being a proud member of the European family, whilst trying to improve the EU. In the spirit of national reconciliation, focus should be on addressing the concerns that prompted people to vote to leave the EU.

If the feeling of being left behind by the government and by the EU explains the desire to ‘take back control’, then strengthening the social protections offered by the EU could help. And before you get started about ‘British taxpayers sending their money to elsewhere’, it’s worth remembering that many of Western Europe’s most deprived areas are in the UK.

If it’s about democratic deficit in the EU, a British leader should present ideas for developing European democracy. There certainly isn’t a shortage of ideas to advance. To name a few, a ‘more democratic EU’ could mean improved coordination between the EU’s national parliaments, citizens’ assemblies on the future of Europe, or better-functioning European elections. A leader that picks any of these ideas will do better than politicians of the current generation who resort to complaining without giving alternatives.

For now, Britain’s pro-European establishment can get away with just repeating that Brexit is a bad idea. At one point, however, people will be answering with “yes, but where do we go from here?”. That’s when the moment has come for a leader who can give new ideas, and articulate a fresh vision of the UK as a European country.

If no-one can offer that hope and inspiration, who knows how long a post-Brexit Britain will be left wailing in bitterness, emptiness and despair.

Juuso Järviniemi
Juuso Järviniemi studies International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. A member of the Young European Federalists, he has been the Editor-in-Chief of The New Federalist in 2017–2019. Juuso is also a former President of the British JEF section.

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