As the United Kingdom has hurtled ever closer to the Brexit cliff, once-abstract notions of a transcendent European identity have gained substance, and millions of people who still believe in the European project have come out in support of it. The question now is whether the European idea can win out over resurgent nationalism.
More often than not, Europe is invoked in abstract terms, such as when politicians argue that European sovereignty is the only path to security in a world dominated by great powers. But as the original Brexit deadline (29 March) drew nearer these past few weeks, the idea of a European identity became more concrete; the political suddenly became personal. Behind the cacophony of parliamentary arguments over “backstops” and “indicative” and “meaningful” votes, there are some 16 million British “Remain” voters who are in deep fear of losing their EU citizenship.
The challenge will be to ensure that this European identity is inclusive and forward-looking, rather than hopelessly nostalgic
Some of those Remainers no doubt participated in the march in London for a “People’s Vote” last weekend, which drew more than one million people and represented the greatest public outpouring of pro-EU sentiment that Europe has witnessed in years. I, for one, have only ever seen EU flags waved with that much passionate intensity in Ukraine’s Maidan Square in 2014 and in central and eastern Europe after the collapse of communism. But whereas those pro-democracy protesters were dreaming of a return to their European past, today’s Remainers are dreading a post-European future.
I share their dread. Having grown up in Brussels with a British father and a German-Jewish mother who was born in France, it is my European identity that brought unity and meaning to my family’s history. My relatives were peppered across Manchester, Luxembourg, Paris, and Bonn, and one of the most influential people in my early life was my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who was orphaned at the age of ten. To escape the claustrophobia of her conservative upbringing in Würzburg, Germany, she taught herself seven European languages. And later in life, she resisted the crippling pains of old age by reciting from memory poems by Dante, Heine, Keats, Kipling, and Wordsworth.
When I returned to the United Kingdom as a student in 1992, I embraced my British identity and immersed myself in the country’s history and culture. By reading historians such as Linda Colley, Eric Hobsbawm, and Norman Davies, I learned that British history actually has little to do with “splendid isolation.” It can be understood only as part of a European story.
The British elite have always been European – in terms of both identity and heritage. Belonging to the House of Windsor, Queen Elizabeth II is partly of German descent. Moreover, Britain’s language derives from Latinate and Germanic influences, just as some of its greatest literature is set in Italy, Denmark, and Greece. And in the modern era, British leaders have always embraced a European identity when the chips were down. Even Winston Churchill, that great imperialist, was willing to sacrifice the trappings of global empire for the sake of Europe by declaring war on Nazi Germany and proposing a union with France.
More recently, Europeanisation has been transformed from an elite privilege into a mass cultural phenomenon. Thanks to falling travel costs, tens of millions of people on both sides of the English Channel go back and forth in each direction every year. Even in the remotest parts of the UK, supermarkets are stocked with Italian pasta, Greek olive oil, French cheese, Danish butter, and Spanish wine. Some two million Britons have settled in other EU countries, while three million Europeans have taken up residence in the UK.
Back in the 1990s, I led an initiative exploring how Britain could rebrand itself for the modern era. The idea was to frame Britishness as a forward-looking civic identity rather than the atavistic ethnic chauvinism that former prime minister Margaret Thatcher had championed.
By emphasising Britain’s creativity, dynamism, and deep historical connections to Europe and the world, I hoped that marginalised Britons – the young, ethnic minorities, Londoners, Scots, the Welsh, and the Northern Irish – might begin to see it as their home, too. To my surprise, the findings from the project were picked up by the governments of both Tony Blair and David Cameron. But 20 years later, the same groups of British citizens who were belatedly brought into the national story now fear that they will be excluded once again. Brexit Britain has become a place of narrowly defined exclusive identities.
After the referendum in 2016, my own fear of losing European citizenship led me to apply for German citizenship. Some of my Jewish friends have pointed out the irony of seeking refuge in the country that tried to exterminate my ancestors. But reclaiming a birthright that had been stolen from my family turned out to be a deeply moving experience. It was as natural for me as it was for my grandmother, mother, and aunt, who made the extraordinary decision to return to Germany in the 1950s.
My mother was a professor of German literature, so I learned early on about Germany’s painful reckoning with its past and its journey back toward European civilisation. This, too, informed my European identity, which rests not just on the pillars of British and German history, but on a synthesis of hope and fear. When my grandmother taught me about the Enlightenment ideal of prizing reason above all else, she was drawing not from a distinctly British or German tradition, but from a European one. She also taught me to appreciate the idea of Europe as a refuge from our own family’s tragic history.
That, in fact, has been the motive of the European project: to engender shared ideals and prevent a return to the continent’s murderous past. The EU was created to transcend national histories of Nazism, fascism, and communism. But today many people are so afraid of the future that they seek to recreate a national past that never was.
Still, one can find hope in the fact that the upsurge in pro-European sentiment in the UK is proving contagious. In the run-up to the European Parliament elections this May, record numbers of people are proclaiming a European identity. But as the political becomes personal for more people, the challenge will be to ensure that this European identity is inclusive and forward-looking, rather than hopelessly nostalgic.
This article originally appeared on 29 March in Project Syndicate.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.