How will we – thirty years from now – look back at this moment in European history? Hard to tell: the Brexit saga follows its own peculiar dynamics, and currently overshadows almost everything else. While everybody – apart from mrs. May – seems to think this is rapidly turning into a lose-lose situation: the Brexit train moves on!
Attempts to revisit the fundamental questions of whether the original choices around Brexit were smart in light of what we have come to know since, have systematically been countered by two objections: a) the British people have spoken and b) the UK wants its country and sovereignty back, and has all the right to wish so. Frequently, these arguments were accompanied by a series of promises of the glorious futures, which would open up for the UK, once it would have ‘freed itself from the tentacles of the European Union’. End of discussion. End of forty years of dialogue of how people could build something together, step by step.
The Brexit era offers no climate for real innovation either. If anything, Brexit has cost us all a lot of energy. The bulk of efforts have gone to unravelling, dismantling, disconnecting, not to the articulation of a better, common future.
Top-shot negotiators have made overtime in an unprecendented process of deconstruction, of which the end is not yet in sight. And if we are honest: nobody can really tell where this will lead in the coming years, despite the 500-plus ‘Witdrawal Deal’ and the Political declaration about the future of the UK-EU relations, which have now been sent on to the British and EU Parliaments.
The people have spoken’ has turned into a dogmatic mantra, with an unrelenting ‘once-and-for-all’ character. However, ‘the people’ have not contributed much real input into the negotiations since June 23, 2016, the day of the UK Brexit referendum. Nor have they as yet assumed much ownership of the consequences of the Brexit choice or of the collateral damage of turning their back on forty years of painstaking build-up of European relations. And few seem to feel any responsibility for the fact that all the time that has gone into the demolition of much previous work has not been invested into the urgently needed build-up of improved European collaboration.
And all this while time is running out for dealing with many of the big global challenges. Everywhere in Europe (and the world) people ask for a fairer economy, for actions to strengthen social security, for a better future for our younger generations. Everywhere in Europe people worry about the shifting social and physical climate, and are seeking some certainties in a turbulent world. Trust in established institutions is waning. Popular agression is mounting, and regressive movements are on the rise. In many places, people look for scapegoats (today turning on ‘migrants’), or just close off. All these trends are demanding much firmer, more creative responses, to turn the tide.
Therefore, on the day that the EU and UK have reached ‘the deal’, perhaps this is what is most annoying and saddening: that the big questions of our time, the major cross-border issues which require a stepping-up of international collaboration rather than an abandoning of it, have not been served at all by the Brexit process. It is clear that individual nations – however much under the delusion of grandeur – can no longer solve the major global issues single-handedly. Yet the Brexit moment has not been used to fundamentally renovate, to take a big leap forward in the development of better alternatives for the European project that seems under pressure from all sides. The Brexit process has predominantly fostered the distrust and the ‘everyone-for-themselves’ mentality.
The EBN has been focusing for years now on alternatives, on the innovative sides of Europe, manifest in many cross-continent social networks that focus on the big transitions of our time. We have linked to groups and associations of people across our continent (including in the UK) who do believe we need new forms of strong collaboration to face our current global challenges. Those people share a strong sense that more creativity is needed to overcome the current mess.
We live in fierce, fundamentally transformative times. Whoever still has faith in constructive forms of European collaboration (and we do) will have to speak out and act up now. Not tomorrow, but now! Beyond Brexit!
Godelieve van Heteren, EBN Board