The trouble with Brexit – and with acceding to the so-called ‘will of the people’ to leave the achievements of the European Union – is that it is not really the ‘will of the people’ at all; but worse, it misses the point of knowing something about and valuing our shared history; it also misses the point of the importance of neighbourliness and the delightful phenomenon of charm. (In fact, it misses several points.) As far as I can tell the European Union was born out of a vision, held specifically by two Italian thinkers – and the rubble of the second world war – a vision that translated into words which basically said: ‘Look, we can do better than this’ – and, overall, the result is that ‘we’ really have done better than before. The countries of Europe are doing their best to do well and to fare well. They offer their citizens a great deal; in return, they ask: ‘Please can you play the game?’ (and play it fairly.)
The cultures and societies and political systems that make up Europe are extraordinary achievements. And, it is not true to say that the United Kingdom doesn’t owe Europe ‘anything.’ In fact, it owes almost everything to ideas and examples born and manifested in Europe – from the Greeks, the Romans and the continental Philosophers of the Enlightenment. In the United Kingdom, we – the people – benefit from a culture of dissent – and this culture has its roots in both the heat-haze and the clear skies of the Mediterranean and the salons of the capital cities of Europe.
I am very disappointed that so little regard is given to the history of Europe and the relationship of that history to United Kingdom culture. What particularly disappoints me is the rejection of the framework that unites our friends and colleagues who live, work and think about ‘things’ on the continent of Europe.
I’d like to take one simple example that tells me something valuable – and which is something that anyone can ‘come across’ in Europe. It’s taken from a recent visit to Berlin. In Berlin, not only did I have the wonderful luck to stay in a flat with three young German women who spoke three languages perfectly and who were plainly good people (studying medicine and political science and social psychology respectively) but I also had a good conversation and a great exchange of ideas in a place called Hard Wax.
Here’s an outline of the Hard Wax experience:
Well, I don’t really know much about ‘Techno’ music; but my guide book – the Lonely Planet book on Berlin – included a short reference to a record store at the end of Gotbusser Strasse in Kreuzberg . So I went there. And it was wonderful because even before entering the store I discovered that all-about were workshops and tiny businesses doing good things. In Hard Wax itself I met a young woman. She helped me navigate through the records and selected ones that someone in England might like. And she took her time doing this. Then we had a discussion about elite art – the kind of art that gets to be shown in exclusive galleries. And I said that I was uneasy about the fact that the elite circuit of art seemed to be full of works that criticised the media and consumption, production and capitalism – but at the very same time this elite establishment and its clients participated in and fed off the very system that the art (apparently) criticised.
‘I don’t like that,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I know what you mean: it’s shit.’
But it was the way she said it: serious, long-suffering, aware of the hypocrisy and of the irony. She was studying philosophy and was about to embark on a year of study specialising in aesthetics; so we talked about that, too. And when I said that a philosopher I knew had asserted that the aesthetic dimension is absolutely central to human life and existence and to all our perception – to the fundamentals of our being – she said:
‘Yeah – but I’m going to have to think about that.’
And I knew that she would.
That’s the kind of lovely exchange that anyone can enjoy as they travel through the cultures of Europe. It’s worth being an engaged participant in those cultures and not just a casual visitor. That – and the promise of peace – is the point of the European Union.