European frustration towards Brexit is not aimed at the British establishment alone, but British citizens. I know this as I’ve had to Brexitsplain. The phenomenon of ‘Brexitsplaining’, the understated request to explain the manifold socio-economic, historical and political considerations behind the Brexit vote, its outcome, and whichever situation the U.K. finds itself in at any given moment since, is something which many Brits abroad have been subject to since the fateful morning of July 24 2016.
You may know that I am quite a Europhile, and a multilingual one at that. Prior to the Brexit vote that triggered this entire polemic, I was able to reconcile a complex relationship with my home country and my spiritual connection with Europe, specifically Germany, by identifying myself, as Ulrich Beck would typify, as a citizen of the U.K. first, the EU second. This proposed dual identity peacefully reconciled my nascent identity crisis. But that was then, and Brexit is now.
Throughout the course of the Brexit negotiations, political actors and media outlets have framed developments however their sensibilities dictate. Across the political spectrum, Nigel Farage and the eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party call for a clean-break from the EU, while centrist Brexit-respecting MPs have thus far either rallied around Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit interpretations. On the other hand, there are those who, as Remainers or People’s Vote supporters, are adamantly opposed to both party leaders’ Brexit plans and plan to vote down any such deal, and / or table a second referendum. These myriad political camps have been emboldened in the process of May’s negotiations. Whether acting (un-)reasonably, (un-)pragmatically, or (non-)ideologically, they are legitimate political groupings which are representative of the U.K. electorate, and one should not attempt to underplay the democratic forces which are at work in our country.
While British broad-sheets and their editors attempt to deliver reports on the day-to-day developments in a reluctantly (semi-)informative tone, the same cannot be said on the continent. Along with vehement Remainers, commentators sympathetic to the EU and its membership frame the U.K. as finding itself in political chaos with more than a smack of schadenfreude. In my experience, the Francophone and Germanophone commentators argue, in black and white terms, that Brexit is an inevitable product of colonial decline and an almost deserved outcome of British ignorance towards the EU project and brazen, arrogant self-interest. But a recent visit to Brussels symbolically illustrated not just EU members’ puzzlement with Brexit, but their outright disdain for a British collective. There is often no attempt on their part to qualify the political quagmire as a product of an unprecedented democratic process which seeks to deliver the divided voting preferences towards an advisory – de facto legally binding – referendum within an adversarial, party-based representative democracy. Liberal EU member states’ oversimplification of Brexit as an existential affront to the European project seems to necessitate a swift othering, discarding and absconding of the latest Sick Man of Europe.
As I approached a news agent in Brussels and asked for a recommendation for a Belgian daily, they immediately seized the opportunity to ask me to Brexitsplain. When I failed to take the bait, they condescendingly spluttered, “There’s 27 of us and only one of you. It’s gonna effect you way more than it will us.” Left with an imprint of his wry smile, I took in the vindictive tone of the Belgian man and processed the meaning behind it. I couldn’t help but consider the use of this loose affinity that EU citizens have with the notion of the Union. Belgian first, and EU second, the jeune homme was overcome by a need to distance himself from his ostensibly cultural other. Such Eurocitizenry, van Houtum and Pijpers (2006) argue, is usually defined at the behest of the EU Commission, dependent on political expediency one year to the next, as the binary of ‘Us vs. Them’ serves to construct, or in the instance of Eurocitizens in the face of Brexit, reemphasise a social identity. As the U.K. is about to leave the European Union, the embittered tone reflected the reality of our impending departure: the U.K. would be cast out as a third-party country. It was as though we had never enjoyed a shared history, endeavouring to deliver peace in Europe and a rules-based international order. For political expediency, the United Kingdom’s forty-three year membership is being airbrushed from history before our very eyes.
European repulsion to Brexit is no coincidence. Believe it or not, Brexit Britain is not the only body politic in the midst of an identity crisis. In the era of post-truth and populism, the EU core, i.e. the founding six, are wracked by the threat of an illiberal, sovereign nation state orthodoxy usurping EU omnipresence. The previous threat of a ’Grexit’ may have subsided, but central and eastern EU members have meanwhile succumbed to an authoritarian political culture which was not properly addressed in the aftermath of Soviet dictatorship. Camps have formed within the EU, with Hungary and Poland’s governments sparring most often with the Commission by subverting its diktats. As the diplomatic cold war emerges on the eastern flank, the EU must be firm with the U.K. on its western flank in order to set an example. The Brexit theatre playing out before Europeans should intend to underscore the tumult of going it alone beyond ‘Europe’ and hastens EU slap downs to any ambitions to exit the EU from states flirting with populist euroscepticism.
The tragic consequence of Brexit is in fact the discord between the EU and the U.K. which both parties sought to avoid. Much to Europhiles’ chagrin, alienation from the Eurocitizenry is an inevitable effect, in turn much to Brexit’s beneficiaries’ gain. This bitter fallout has impacted somewhat on my own relationship with Europe. My experience is not dissimilar from others’, and is part and parcel of the Brexit process. Both parties should ensure, however, that they are not shortsighted in the Brexit process and look beyond EU membership to a shared cultural and historical heritage and our countries’ commitments to peace and prosperity prior to and beyond the EU.