Europe Unwell, yet Alive

Some Personal Reflections on the Brexit Referendum*

Christian Joerges, Berlin – Bremen

“What a disaster! Why did this happen and what does this mean?” – I had spent the days before the referendum in London, listened to a good number of intense, at times heated, debates – and left the “formerly United Kingdom” with both concerns and confidence – with the latter, however, remaining more weighty. The late evening news of 23 June 2016 confirmed my confidence. The awaking on the next morning, however, was all the more disturbing. Since then, we have all been continuously flooded with explanations, predictions, political signals. An essay-culture has been generated at turbo-speed both within the UK and “overseas”. There are highly informative high quality comments and blogs en masse which explore each and every aspect of post-Brexit constellations. The quality of these debates contrasts wonderfully with the emotionalised pre-Brexit “Leave” and “Remain” campaigns. We continentals learn about the complexities of the UK’s constitutional constellation, the ideational impact of historical experiences and traditions, the anxieties and anger of the dispossessed classes, and the downfall of the Labour party. These introspections are highly instructive for the non-British Union. They contribute to an improved awareness of Europe’s political and socio-economic diversity. Would it make sense to follow requests to join in these great and moving debates? Considering this query, I remembered Karl Valentin’s legendary barzelletta: “Everything has been said – but not by everybody.” Some uneasiness remained and grew, however. Within all these intellectual reflections on Brexit, I found little about the personal concerns which had generated my own spontaneous response to the result of the referendum. This is unsurprising in so far as my emotional confusion and conceptual irritations were that of a Doktorvater who had accompanied so many Ph.D students at the law department of the European University Institute in their research, and stayed in contact with a good number of them after they had embarked upon their academic careers. The students at the EUI come from all the Member States. For decades, the UK had welcomed them. British academia profited from this welcome culture – and so did our students. EUI graduates are, of course, a random sample of European citizens, but nevertheless one of exemplary importance. The EUI graduates have been Europeanised through their studies, through their co-operation with “foreigners” among their professors and fellow-students: they have become truly European academic citizens.

As a German professor, you are supposed to provide some theoretical framing for your intuitions and arguments. In the case in hand, a particularly ambitious framework suggests itself, namely, Jürgen Habermas’ theory of transnational democracy, which seeks to explain why the development of this new type of democracy is “Necessary and How it is Possible”. At the core of this explanation is Habermas’ theorem of the co-originality of the national and the European identities of the citizens of the EU, which he had first submitted in 2012. The innovative move that Habermas undertook is normatively fascinating. With his synthesising of national and European identities, the integration project becomes one of us, the citizens of the Union. Integration envisages our common future and a transnational political commitment. The anchoring of the project in the identities of Europe’s citizenry is a defence of its normative integrity, which seeks to liberate it from the merely economic or technocratic rational upon which the Monnet method of “integration by stealth” had relied. To appreciate the normative stringency and coherence of Habermas’ theorems, however, is not to believe in their political potential and socio-economic compatibility with the really existing state of the Union. The idea of a synthesis of national and European identities which would provide the basis for a transnational will-formation and solidarity contrasts sharply with the multitude of historical experiences, cultural traditions and political preferences, and, most importantly, with the ever deepening socio-economic diversity and the variety and institutionalised societal configurations which are generated by this background. The fragility of Habermas’ vision comes to the fore, albeit inadvertently, in  Habermas’ post-Brexit interview, published in DIE ZEIT on 9 July 2016 (see English translation): “It never entered my mind”, the philosopher submits in his reflections on the outcome of the referendum, “that populism would defeat capitalism in its country of origin. Given the existential importance of the banking sector for Great Britain and the media power and political clout of the City of London, it was unlikely that identity questions would prevail against interests.” What I find particularly remarkable here is Habermas’ apparent irritation. He not only recognises a mismatch between his visions and the actual conflict constellations as they were articulated in the “Remain” and “Leave” campaigns which was simply unforeseen in his theoretical framing of the development of a European transnational democracy, he is also prepared to draw drastic consequences. The “Development of the European Union into a Transnational Democracy”, he concludes, is only conceivable in a “properly functioning core Europe” composed of the members of the Eurozone – with the common currency operating as the empirical background of the reconciliation and merger of national and European identities. The tensions between Habermas’ normative vision and the political and socio-economic divergence of the Union in general, and of the eurozone in particular, seem as obvious as they are irresolvable within the Habermasian conceptualisation of the development of the integration project. Decades ago, in much more comforting times, Wolfgang Streeck criticised Habermas’ plea for a European constitution (see English translation) as all too voluntaristic. This seems more valid than ever.

This critique of Habermas’ visions is not meant to downplay the deep impact of the integration process on our identities as European citizens. Even the more mundane implications and effects can be valuable and are politically significant. To start with the seemingly mundane: European freedoms have granted us much more than the right to travel freely, to go shopping abroad, to profit from price differentials and to do all this without constantly changing our money. We, the academics, have instead been exposed to a host of new experiences, could learn from the encounters with “the others”, their academic cultures and practices; we could become aware of the specifics of our own traditions, contrast them with our new experiences, re-evaluate what we had grown up with and re-orient our work. These are gains and benefits which are highly contingent, often inextricably linked with periods of insecurity and recurring anxieties about individual futures. The Europeanisation of our identities neither occurred uniformly, nor can we easily identify their accumulated societal benefits and burdens. How will Brexit impact on what has happened to us and what has been accomplished by the concerned academic communities. Can the UK count on protective effects for their own young academics? Should the continentals be happy that they no longer subsidise the education of the British Isles? Should they be grateful for the diminution of the brain drain that they have endured thanks to the openness of British academia? Is it at all adequate to evaluate the effects of Brexit in such terms? What we can be sure of is that Brexit is also exposing us to cultural shocks and effects on academic biographies which even hard core economic analysts will hesitate to decipher. We should also be on guard for the ensuing collateral political damages. Threats which individuals feel exposed to – whether rightly or wrongly = have the potential to contaminate social relations. How confident can we be about the resistance of Europeanised academic communities against narrow-minded re-nationalisation, the rebirth of animosities and the return of stereotypes?

The latter considerations concern our privileged status. The Europeanisation of Europe’s citizens did not occur uniformly, but is characterised by deep asymmetries. Neil Fligstein, in his seminal, if widely neglected, study, estimates that only a small élite of 10-15 per cent has derived considerable gains from the integration process, whereas a middle group of 40-50 per cent has profited only occasionally, and a final set of 40-50 per cent of Europeans experience Europeanisation as an existential threat. Fligstein has correlated these findings with the differentiated support of the Integration project. In the light of his figures and findings, the erosion of the Union’s legitimacy, the rise of European populism, and the outcome of the British referendum do not come as such a big surprise. We, the European academics in general, and those affiliated with the European University Institute in particular, are certainly among the cluster of European élites who have, on the whole, profited very considerably. But how stable is our privileged status? How firmly established are the values which the Europeanisation of our academic lives has promoted? How autonomous is the academic system in a political environment which changes dramatically? Will we be sensitive to the threats of Brexit and strong enough to build up resistance?

These queries reach beyond the immediate concerns which the essays assembled in this working paper address. They mirror a great variety of individual biographies, political views and personal ambitions. What they have in common is the sorrow about European cultural accomplishments, which are not merely economic benefits but cultural enrichments experienced and realised in the encounters with and recognition of European citizens from other nations. We hope to raise awareness for processes which are looming with a disquieting potential.


*     This essay is from a Working Paper of the European University Institute, Department of Law, entitled “Brexit and Academic Citizenship” (LAW 2016.20, San Domenico di Fiesole 2016, available here. The paper, edited by Christian Joerges, collects a series of personal reflections on the outcome of the Brexit referendum. The essays do not engage with the legal and constitutional issues that arise from this event – these aspects have received comment elsewhere. Rather, the editor has solicited personal reflections from a group whose scholarly journey included the European University Institute, a hub for transforming, and integrating Europe. Aware of this privileged position, the authors shed light on how the result of the referendum and its aftermath may impact on the UK and the European Union.

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