By Dan Morrison
In his 1936 collection of essays With Love and Irony– I cannot think of a better title for anything- Lin Yutang writes in The English and The Chinese that:
“[w]e cannot help asking why Europe is in such a mess…We are forced to ask ourselves, “What are the psychological limitations of the European which make peace so difficult in Europe?” What are the peculiarities of the European’s mental make-up? And, by mental make-up [I mean]…all the psychological reactions to things.”
Lin was writing during the speedy procession to World War Two, when wickedly arrogant and wickedly evil berks “with big and powerful jaws- Signor Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin” turned ‘never again’ into ‘again’.
Europe today is not in a mess like pre or post war Europe was, but it is in decline. Particularly, the EU, comprised of 28 European nations, is declining. Its supremacy over Europe wanes as Russia challenges and agitates in the east, whilst there is internal strife with the rising costs of the refugee crisis, sluggish productivity, high youth unemployment and the rise of the far-right.
Relatively, power is redistributing away from the EU.
This is the context in which we plucky Brits with our stiff upper lips and silly self-parody stereotypes must decide whether to remain in or leave the EU. It is both a question of practical politics and identity, of the head and of the heart.
Supposedly we must choose between being Europeans or Brits, between outward-facing, inward-facing or just not inward facing.
Because the EU is in decline, the UK should Remain.
* * *
Europe is in the midst of its most peaceful period. Long gone are the Thirty Years Wars, Napoleonic Wars and the two world wars of the 20th century. Barring the brutal conflicts that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia, the continent has been untroubled and peaceful.
Two alliances are at the heart of this peace.
One is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisations (NATO), the other is the EU.
A U.S. led military alliance of states, NATO exists as a mechanism of collective security, against the Soviet Union throughout the second-half of the 20th Century and Russia in the present one. It has also brought Western powers together in the alliance.
NATO’s intervention in Kosovo underscores both its effectiveness and detractions. There was undeniable virtue in a bombing campaign to stop Slobodan Milosevic’s goons as they pillaged, cleansed and attacked Kosovars, but the hollowed shells of buildings that scatter Belgrade attest to a remit beyond defence.
My stomach churned the first time I realised that the Belgrade building I was staring at had been gutted by the NATO campaign some 17 years earlier. Outside the Serbian parliament, a banners list the hundreds dead from bombing raids. Serbians could be forgiven a little more than the FUCK NATO their graffiti offers.
Those preaching NATO’s case should be reminded that during that intervention, NATO bombed a radio station and the Chinese embassy. And don’t forget all those pesky civilians that got in the way of NATO bombs.
Rather than forming in the shadow of Cold War competition, the EU owes its origins to designs for European unity. Writing in the New Statesman, Amartya Sen notes that this movement began as a political crusade free from self-destructive wars. This began with the Ventotene Declaration of 1941, and Milan of 1943, and this would begin to be realised in the 50s with the founding of the Steel and Coal Community.
This would eventually evolve into the lumbering, imperfect dinosaur that is the EU.
The EU referendum comes years after Britain ceased to be a superpower and at a time when outside threats and internal strife are titling the balance of power away from Europe. It is still dominant, but Europe is challenged.
In the realm of global superpower relations, Robert Gilpin describes this kind of situation as one of Hegemonic War. The traditional power experiences a challenge to its dominance by a rising state: the former’s relative ability to maintain the current system is declining, while the latter’s is increasing.
Though imperfect, this is a useful lens through which to view Russia’s challenge to the EU’s European supremacy.
Overwhelmingly the challenge is occurring in Eastern Europe following war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, as well as Russian agitation towards Eastern states. There are strong suggestions that many of the far-right parties rising throughout Europe have gained significant assistance from Moscow.
While Russia is able to affect events to its own whim, Europe is struggling. Unable to successfully deal with refugee crisis, it seeks to expand its reach (to Turkey) in order to maintain equilibrium.
The Russian threat will not go away any time soon. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Fyodor Lukyanov describes that the West has consistently failed to understand Russia’s view of the world. Russia is intent on restoring its “status as a major international player”, having never accepted the Western view that it is “a mere regional power”. In Europe, Ukraine is only one such place where Russia will seek to spread its power.
In Ukraine, Russia and the EU clashed over proposed Ukraine accession to the EU. Gilpin would recognise this as a closing in of space- both physically and politically- that occurs in the sphere of influences between a dominant and challenger state, symptomatic of hegemonic challenge.
Re-invigorated by forays into Ukraine and Syria, it is unlikely that this will be the last clash, with NATO warnings about Russian designs on Eastern European states and increased militarisation.
Writing in The Times, Jenni Russell describes the risk to our values that Brexit would bring. By retreating from Europe, we don’t just avoid all the bad stuff out there, we empower groups “like Le Pen’s National Front- funded by a Russia that wants to see the EU fall apart”- a Russia where, as Russell points out, “three quarters of Russians find homosexuality unacceptable”.
Gilpin describes a dominant power’s retreat as an indication of waning power and inviting to the challenger. The UK’s potential exit isn’t just any old county leaving the union- it is one of the union’s foremost powers, historic superpower and few net contributors that is exiting.
This has the potential to both effectively invite Putin further into Europe and unravel the union (an invitation in itself).
The vote may well be about Britain’s relationship with the EU, but it has profound effects beyond our borders that not only should we bear some moral responsibility for, but from a purely self-interested view it can come back to haunt us.
Voting to Remain affirms some sort of Europeanness. One that does not care whom you love nor what you think, in fact it has fairly little interest in what you say or do, against a Putin who could not be more different.
For the head, this means a Europe united against Putin’s incursions and the dickheads on the far-right.
For the heart, it seems defining, in some way.
In answer to Lin’s “What are the peculiarities of the European’s mental make-up?”, European scholar John McCormick would offer that it is our tendency to define ourselves in relation to another, in terms of what we are not.
We may not know what we are, but affirming that we are “not Putin” is not the worst place to start.