The Italian writer who predicted Brexit


Compare these two statements:

The first, written by British diplomat, author and politician Harold Nicolson, appeared at the end of his book Why Britain is at war, hastily released at the start of World War II. This slim volume, which sought to explain to his compatriots why they had no choice but to oppose Hitler’s Third Reich, ended on an optimistic note, already envisioning a post-war order where the victors and the vanquished in Europe would finally put an end to their divisions. and conflicts.

“It is because I am convinced that this war, as it develops, will take on gigantic proportions that the final settlement will be gigantic,” he writes. And who would make such a gigantic final settlement that would unify the continent? “It is Britain alone that can create the United States of Europe,” he said.

Then there are those more recent statements from another European political observer. “Diplomats know, of course, that the initial hope of seeing the continent quickly united from above by far-sighted statesmen acting like Olympian gods has turned out to be a failure.”

And who deserves much of the responsibility for this failure? “The apparent disappearance of the British talent for greatness is one of the keys to understanding not only their decadence and weakness, but also the helplessness and helplessness of Europe.”

Magnificent in the face of the challenge of Hitler’s aggression, the British had allowed their belief in their “historic mission” to vanish, never really embracing the alternate mission of a unified Europe. They complained about the price they paid for EU membership but did not admit “it will cost them even more to leave”.

These biting observations were written by the late Italian author and journalist Luigi Barzini in his book Europeans, which was published in 1983. Barzini was known for his sharp commentaries, his ironic wit and, very often, his supernatural foreknowledge. When it comes to analyzing the post-Brexit world, his words still ring true.

If Barzini were alive today, he would find nothing surprising about the outcome of the Brexit referendum. But he would find little satisfaction in it. He saw the goal of a more integrated Europe as a noble goal, but he understood too well that it was impossible to banish old rivalries and fears.

It was the French Jean Monnet, founding father of the European Union, who was one of the first supporters of European unification. But French political leaders had a much less idealistic conception of the post-war order. In 1960, President Charles De Gaulle invited West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to discuss a new era in relations between their countries. According to Barzini, the French leader then told his staff what he really had in mind: “The unification of Europe will be achieved by France and Germany, France being the coachman and Germany the horse. “.

Some horses, it turned out. Germany is now the undisputed leader of Europe and, its critics would say, sometimes acting like the coachman DeGaulle aspired to be. By constantly pleading for a “deeper” Europe, by dismissing all national and local concerns as the product of an outdated provincialism, Berlin – as much as Brussels – has become a symbol of political overtaking.

Exhibit A was Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open what appeared to be the floodgates for most Muslim refugees in the Middle East and North Africa, which sparked much of the backlash that unfolded. felt during the Brexit referendum.

On a humanitarian level, Merkel’s decision was laudable; it also reflected her desire to demonstrate that Germany understood her moral obligation to help those fleeing war and persecution, given the horrors she unleashed during the Nazi era. But it was politically deaf to do it in such a drastic way, giving the impression that no country in the EU could count on controlling the influx.

Writing over three decades ago, Barzini concluded: “Despite verbiage, rhetoric and elegant euphemisms, Europe is no closer to integration today than it was. , say, after 1815, when it was somehow held together first by the Holy Alliance; later by blood ties between rulers, most of whom were cousins; and by what was then called the “European concert”.

This concert has evolved into a symphony in its own right as the EU has not only continued to deepen but also to expand to now encompass 28 countries. Yet some of the most applauded measures, like the elimination of travel restrictions within the EU, were not as new as they appeared. “On the eve of Sarajevo [the trigger for World War I], no passport was needed to go from one European nation to another, ”Barzini wrote, noting that the only exceptions were Turkey and Russia – again, a perfectly accurate description of the current situation.

The greatest achievement of the current European symphony is that it is no longer punctuated by world wars and that it has significantly reduced the likelihood of future violence. But it is punctuated by increasingly jarring notes, with Brexit being the strongest to date. The more the EU aspires to get everyone to follow the lead of Brussels or Berlin on issues both big and small, the more resistance it meets.

A word à la Barzini for the wise: the key to making European unity work is to accept the diversity of the countries of the continent. It is a question of rethinking the exaggeration of Brussels, while recovering all it can from an experience which still deserves a more modest chance of success.


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