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Brexit: leading the way to a Europe of nations

clean brexit
Written by Emmanuel Todd

I am interested in what is happening as a historian; I try to extract myself from the short-termism of agitated politicians. Brexit is part of a global phenomenon which touches all the most advanced societies, including the US, Canada, Australia, Japan

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The debate over Brexit in Britain has been lamentably narrow, provincial and short-sighted.  We on the Leave side have not managed to prevent the terms of the debate being set by Remainers, dominated by empty slogans about ‘crashing out’.  Crashing out of what?  Do they know?  Briefings for Brexit has several times looked overseas for broad-minded and independent analysis of where we and the EU are going in the longer term, and what our decision signifies for the wider world.

Emmanuel Todd is one of France’s most prominent public intellectuals.  An interview he gave soon after the 2016 Referendum seems to us so prescient and wide-ranging that we are making key points available to a British readership.

I am interested in what is happening as a historian; I try to extract myself from the short-termism of agitated politicians. Brexit is part of a global phenomenon which touches all the most advanced societies, including the US, Canada, Australia, Japan: divergence.

Globalization and the re-emergence of nations

What is presently happening, within the context of globalization, is that not only are national cultures resisting, but the stress and suffering of globalization are driving societies, not to open up more and to converge, but in the contrary, to find within themselves and in their anthropological foundations the strength to adapt and to rebuild themselves. This is what I am observing, way beyond the European context. 

Japan is in a period of re-centring upon itself. It is forces of the same order that have allowed the emergence of candidates such as Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump in the United States, and which demand an exit from the “Washington consensus” and from globalized discourse, together with the dream of an American re-foundation. 

In Europe, it is even more interesting because we are a system of old nations. Europe entered this process first because Germany took a head start. The problematics of a return to nationhood were imposed upon Germany by reunification. It was its duty, it had to rebuild its Eastern part. It had something of an advance which, almost by accident, led to its situation of pre-eminence on the European continent since around 2010. The second European country which re-centred itself upon a national ideal, after much turmoil, was Russia. The Soviet empire fell apart, Russia went through a period of terrible suffering between 1990 and 2000, but the accession of Putin has finally embodied this return of Russia, centred around a neo-gaullist notion of independence.

Brexit, if one follows this logic, is stage number 3: the re-emergence of the United Kingdom as a nation. 

An Anglo-American shift towards a national ideal is more important than the emergence of Germany or the stabilization of Russia. Since the 17th century, the world’s economic and political history has been propelled by the Anglo-American world.  The industrial revolution came from England and Scotland, and it transformed Europe. The French, German, Russian and other economic revolutions are consequences of it. But even before the economic transformation, the English invented our liberal and democratic modernity. The real point of departure is 1688, what the English call the “Glorious Revolution,” through which parliamentary monarchy was established. If you read Voltaire’s Lettres Anglaises of 1734, you will see his admiration for English modernity. In 1789, the dream and the aim of the French revolutionaries was to catch up with England, the model of political modernisation. England invented representative government.

In this context, it is logical that the first referendum that will really have consequences for the European Union — the historic referendum — took place in the United Kingdom. A referendum is an unusual procedure in England. But the meaning of this referendum, and this is very clear, is that the first motivation of the Brexit voters, according to exit polls, was, more than immigration, the reestablishment of the sovereignty of Parliament. Until Brexit, the British Parliament was no longer sovereign, when the absolute principle of political philosophy for the British is the sovereignty of Parliament.

To conclude: logically, stage number 4, after the reawakening of Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, must be the reawakening of France. Following the English is in conformity with our revolutionary tradition.

Towards a Europe of nations

There will be a Europe of nations. But in this Europe of nations — a peaceful one, I hope — there will always be the problem of the balance of power and, of course, Germany will remain for some time the predominant economic power. In the medium term, the demographic crisis and the migratory adventurism of the Germans lead one to foresee a serious political crisis in that country, and on the Continent – let’s say, within the next 20 years.

One of the major mistakes of French leaders is not to have understood that the proper means of balancing Germany was not the Euro, which is destroying us, but the Paris-London axis, which is inescapable in the medium-term, and which will not be a temporary alignment, because it follows the logics of power and culture.

French elites are telling a huge lie when they pretend to distrust England. It is in fact the only country in Europe that we trust absolutely, and this is why it is the only country with which we can effectively collaborate on military security. It’s not merely technical, it reveals an extremely strong relationship of trust. Let’s look at other realities. There are only a few tens of thousands of Frenchmen in Berlin, when there are hundreds of thousands of them in London. Just as there are Englishmen in France. There are two twin metropolises in Europe, London and Paris.

How Europe will transition to a continent of nation-states.

To begin with, on the Continent, it will unfortunately see an acceleration and reinforcement of the antidemocratic drift. From now on, with liberal England having left us in order to re-create itself, orders will come even more brutally from Berlin. No more masks. The French ruling – excuse-me, ruled – classes must expect to be publicly humiliated. Let’s not forget that with the departure of the British, the United States too is definitely losing control of Germany. Through Brexit, the Germanosphere is officially gaining its independence. The level of control of the Americans has been considerably weakened by the strategic German “Nein” to the Iraq war. We have again been made to witness the powerlessness of the United States in the categorical refusal of Germany to obey their economic injunctions, when they were beseeching them to contribute to world economic recovery by increasing their expenditure. Brexit is the end of the notion of a Western system. All realignments become now possible. It’s the true end of the Cold War. And Putin has understood this.

It’s true, we are holding on to the security that comes from the fact that nobody wants war, that our populations are old, and still rich, for some time to come. But there are violent elements of national assertion. There is the violence of the take-over of economic control of the continent by Germany.  

The EU and a “hard line” towards Brexit

France has a 10% unemployment rate, it has a trade deficit with all the countries in Europe except the UK, where its financial and industrial investments are considerable. In the case of an economic conflict with the UK, because of the intensity of our links with our sister across the Channel, France is the country which has most to lose.

To try to take on Britain would be senseless. Britain is an island, but it is not isolated. The anglosphere comprises the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, and its total population is already greater than that of Europe from Brest to Warsaw.

The situation is exactly the opposite of what the anglophobic Europeanists are telling us. They fool themselves with the notion that the exit of the UK will reinforce the role of France with regard to Germany. That’s evidently false. The awful truth is that there was a balance of power in Europe between the Germans, the dominant power, and then the British and the French. The whole game of the Germans was to play on the opposition between the French and the British to maintain the balance which insured their overall control. Now they are rid of the British power, which was liberal in political terms, and which necessarily put the brake on the authoritarian temptations already powerful in Germany and on the Continent. Now that the French are no longer protected by the British, they find themselves in a totally unequal tête-à-tête with Germany and we are going to move from the voluntary servitude into which our elites have put us to a servitude that’s less and less voluntary. The orders from Berlin risk becoming less and less polite.

I am optimistic over the long term. Of a re-emergence of nations I have no doubt and I think that the final outcome will be a peaceful return to a Europe of nations. Because of the age structures of our populations, because the main power on the continent, Germany, hardly has any army and is not a nuclear power, because the Europeans remain a peaceful and civilized people, a war is unimaginable. But in the transitory phase, the position of France will be tough. We are going to lose our status as Germany’s pet, the spoilt child to whom financial deficits are permitted. On our way to 15% unemployment?

Brexit and democracy

The British are leaving because they don’t like the Brussels bureaucracy, of course, but most of all because liberty is part of their nature. They perceive the Eurozone not only as an economic catastrophe, as a zone of austerity and stagnation – as everybody else does, by the way – but also as the source of an authoritarian, antidemocratic drift. And it goes without saying, the retreat of Britain away from the central European space is a harbinger, in the short term, of an increase in that authoritarian drift

According to exit polls, the first motivation of the British is to bring back the power of decision-making to London: it’s a democratic demand. The second motivation is indeed the question of immigration. But I can and must now say that unbridled immigrationism, which is turning into a European ideology, which puts the rights of strangers on the move – be they Polish or from the Middle-East – above those of nationals, and therefore puts populations in a state of insecurity is, under the appearance of benevolence, a form of anti-humanism. Within the rights of man, within the very foundations of democracy — which, in order to work can only be national — there is, implicitly, a right to territorial security, a right to regulate immigration. It is irresponsible to say that wanting to regulate immigration is being xenophobic. Here, too, the British are right.

It is not enough to retort that “Europe is democracy”, as if by nature. Let’s be serious: without the British, Europe is no longer the cradle of democracy. Look at the 1930s: Salazar, Franco, Mussolini, Hitler, and even in Eastern Europe, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, dictatorships and more dictatorships. Denial leads to a brutal collision with reality. If problems are not treated, there will certainly be a return of conflicts.

Evidently Brexit has opened a cultural, political, social and ideological crisis in Britain. It is true that the upper classes and the establishment have massively voted Remain. The Leave vote is becoming majoritarian in the “lower middle classes”, category C1, our intermediary categories, 30% of the electorate.

The result of the referendum was a shock for the majority of the British upper classes. Class differences, which express themselves through accents, are much stronger in England than in France. There exists in some circles a quite extraordinary anti-popular rage. The Labour Party has entered a crisis. But on the other hand — and this is a big difference with France — one part of the British elite, inside the Conservative Party, has been able to make itself the leader of popular opposition.

They have found Boris Johnson, a quite astonishing man, indisputably a member of the British upper classes, through his parentage as well as through his education. The British have what’s needed: a section of the elite to manage national re-emergence. Now, democratic debate is taking place within the folds of the Conservative Party, with the Left being side-lined.

There is therefore no question of Nigel Farage taking the reins of government. Government in Britain is to remain within part of the traditional establishment. This is a ruling class which manages to renew itself: I envy them. 

The true tragedy in France is that we do not see emerging at the heart of our establishment this surge of dignity which would motivate a minority of the elite to take responsibility for the interests of the population.  I have always been anti-populist, I have always tried to make the French elite see reason.  Why is it so defeatist?

The fundamental difference between France and England is not in their relationship to Europe, an abstract and outdated concept, but in their relationship to Germany. Obedience to Germany is not a British tendency; in France, it’s more complicated.  There is a lie which the French media and political establishment tell themselves and which must be exposed. They speak of the “Franco-German couple”, of Franco-German friendship etc. But, personally, I know only one Frenchman who is truly friendly towards Germany – me! The true feeling of the French elites towards Germany is fear. There used to be a joke going the rounds in Brussels: “What is Europe ? Europe is the association of all the people who are afraid of Germany… and this definition includes the Germans themselves.” The true problem in Europe now, is that the Germans are no longer afraid of Germany, because of American errors and of France’s cowardice.

Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, London: is Brexit splitting up the UK?

The historical truth is that it was the UK’s membership of “Europe” which set this process of disintegration in motion. Everywhere, belonging to the EU has brought about an emergence of regions and signs of territorial tensions. Belonging to the EU has separated London from its English hinterland, it has drawn London away from the Scots. The same thing in France, Spain, Italy. What we are seeing today in the UK is the furthest point of this centrifugal drift. A new reality will dawn on the Scots. Scotland has 5.4 million inhabitants, but 800,000 people living in England were born in Scotland. The forces of dislocation from the European Union will subside, and, more than anything, the Scots will be confronted with the reality of the new Europe that is emerging. It’s not a matter of leaving the UK to enter Europe. The choice will be: must we stop obeying London to go and obey Berlin? I find it very difficult to imagine the Scots choosing Berlin. Scotland too is a very great nation.

In the electoral geography of Brexit, what struck me was not so much the “Remain” vote of Scotland or London, which we expected, but the abolition of the North-South cleavage which seemed to be destroying England. England has voted “Leave” homogeneously in the Conservative regions of the South and in the Labour regions of the North. Rather as if the referendum had already started to reunify British society.

If we remain with the hypothesis that Brexit will actually happen, which is the most probable, it is perfectly normal that there should be a transition. But what has struck me most these past days, was not the disorder, but the qualities of national loyalty and of resistance to shock which are in the very being of the British.

Original interview in French, 8 July 2016, on Atlantico. Extracts edited by Robert Tombs. With thanks to Anne-Marie de Grazia. 

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About the author

Emmanuel Todd

Emmanuel Todd is a French historian, social scientist and demographer at the Institut National des Études Démographiques, Paris.  His most recent book in English is Lineages of Modernity: A History of Humanity from the Stone Age to Homo Americanus (2019)