Leave may be ahead for the moment in the polls. But Remain is still likely to win the British referendum. Like a dodgy accountant the government in London has cooked the electoral books and will get the result it wanted. That’s how it goes, although I must say spending nine and half million pounds of the taxpayers money on pro EU propaganda just before the spending limits came into operation was rather pushing it even by the relaxed standards of the Bullington Club!
All is fair, though, in love and war, and the United Kingdom will stay within the European Union- for now. This, of course, is not the end of the story. Although Remain is going to win, British politics has been changed. Boris Johnson has emerged as a serious and important figure. His emergence as the leader of “Leave,” and potentially too leader of the Conservative Party is as important as Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule in December 1885. Mr. Johnson’s break with the establishment raises the possibility that Britain will elect a government explicitly committed to leaving the EU. And at that point the serious action will begin. ( There will, of course, always be a few pro- European Tories, just as there were Liberal Unionists in late nineteenth century Britain.)
In the meantime the scene of the action has moved to the rest of Europe, where ( except in Ireland ) “populism” is advancing. Of this three things should be noted. Firstly some of its exponents do have roots in the darker recesses of the European right. Secondly, that freely confessed, they have shown themselves adaptable, politically astute, and appealing to moderate voters concerned about uncontrolled immigration. Other less emotionally charged forms of Euro- scepticism are also on the rise. Thirdly, important as these developments are, the anti European right is still on the margin. The liberal need not be unduly frightened by the True Finns. In France, Germany, and Italy, the Europeanist establishment is still in power and in control of events. There is then no immediate crisis of legitimacy in Europe. For this at least the supporters of the European idea ( among which I am not numbered ) can be thankful. Their project still has some popular appeal. The establishment can still win on a good day.
However the fact that the system is not in immediate danger should not delude us into believing that it is stable, or that the model cooked up after the war is still an appropriate architecture for Europe. The peoples of Europe value their individuality and their various identities far more than can be accommodated by a single state; just as their economies are too different to flourish within one currency. This much, at least, would surely be obvious to an observer whose vision had not been moulded by Europeanist propaganda, and the memory of the very unusual conditions that prevailed in Europe in 1945 when much of the continent was a gigantic bomb site, and what was left of the railway stations were packed with refugees.
On the other hand there are real difficulties with European nationalism. As the “Europeans” never cease to point out it can be and often is very unattractive. In Ireland we have recently been reminded of this by the blood soaked language of Patrick Pearse. But he, of course, was far from being alone. There were Jingoes all over Europe in the nineteenth century. And their activities played a part in forming the conditions which led to the first world war and to the subsequent disasters all over Europe. The ugly right remains ugly, despite being ( sometimes ) correct about the European “project.” The far right’s offer of protectionism and prejudice is far from attractive or realistic. Nor is it in any serious sense conservative.
Unattractive as the far European nationalism can sometimes be we should never forget that it is to some extent it derives from the reaction to Napoleon’s attempt to create what was in effect a super state in the form of French client kingdoms. ( Indeed some of the silly talk from Germany about excluding Britain from the single market reminds me of Napoleon’s Continental System ) In this “take” Europeanism and nationalism are images embossed on different sides of the same coin. The one brought forth the other. Neither take account of the complexity of the reality with which are faced, and consequently both are certain to give rise to grave errors.
The Europeanists are right ( or at least half right ) when they depict nationalists as being narrow minded bigots who cannot see the big picture who risk plunging Europe into another war . The Nationalists are right ( or at least half right) when they depict the Europeans as being fanatics prepared to sacrifice everything including democracy and the economies of countries such as Greece in pursuit of their delusions.
Are these though in truth the only alternatives? Are things rally so bad that we have to choose between Norbert Hofer and Jean- Claud Juncker? The real problem with post war Europe was that those who founded the Community were so frightened of nationalism that they failed to understand that love of the local can be a honourable emotion, and one that is quite compatible with liberalism. Above all they did not realise that it is the seemingly endless bureaucratic meddling from the centre which provides the explosive fuel for the very xenophobia that they wished to eradicate.
How then should we now proceed? It seems to me that the choice we now face is clear. The result of the vote in Britain means that we now have the time to build a more modest and institutionally restrained Europe that respects national divergencies. If the elite ignores the message from the leave voters and continues along the path of continued integration, multiplied regulation, increased centralization, all disguised beneath a smokescreen of Euro waffle, then, frankly this is going to get ugly.
Mr. Hofer may have been defeated in Austria. Mr. Johnson may have been thwarted in Britain. Mrs Le Pen may yet be defeated in France. But the finger is writing on the wall. It will only take one nation to break free, for the instability of whole structure to become clear. The choice is between genuine reform and a horrifying crack up crisis driven by xenophobia. We then have no alternative but to begin the laborious process of rethinking what it means to be Europeans, what it means to be a members of a nation, and to work out ways that properly reflect both poles of our identity. We have time. But not much time.