Kalypso Aude Nicolaidis is Professor of International Relations and director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Oxford. The below article is based on an interview following her 26 October Max Weber Lecture at the EUI ‘The Three Meanings of Brexit’.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was Brexit. But nobody quite knew what that word meant.
Brexit means something different to everyone, but most analysis has become limited to three opposing explanations, each of which claims ultimate authority. Whilst each of these explanations offers some truth, they also come with a hefty measure of opinion. As politics seems ever more drawn to acrimony and division, Oxford Professor Kalypso Nicolaidis calls for a re-imagining of the Brexit debate and makes a case for compromise, warning that ‘whichever narrative dominates will determine the Brexit deal and the future of the EU itself.’
In the post-Brexit politics of friends and enemies three explanations battle for dominance in a classic case of the tyranny of trichotomies. First, the exceptionalist argument says that Britain was never European, so the decision to leave the EU was only a matter of time. Second, the sceptical view claims Brexit is a result of the Europe’s failure to deal with specific issues like immigration. Third, the pluralist interpretation of Brexit argues that the departure of the UK from the EU is in fact beneficial for Europe, which can now get on with the programme of integration it always wanted.
Each view has its supporters and each view has its truth. Yet limiting analysis of the UK’s decision to leave the EU to these three explanations has created an acrimonious world of political camps. Kalypso Nicolaidis pleads for a little perspective. She suggests that we need to be in a position where we can ‘have a democratic conversation where we disagree and have different intuitions, but we don’t think the other side is so wrong as to be shunned’. The starting point, she argues, is ‘developing a common vocabulary about what this thing is, without having to agree about it itself.’
Surprisingly, Nicolaidis argues that myth could provide that common language. An appeal to ancient stories of heroism and tragedy may initially appear as a strange way to mend the wounds of Brexit Britain or give optimism to the European project. Yet myth has a number of virtues. First, it ‘appeals to something very primordial in us,’ Nicolaidis says. It ‘doesn’t pretend to be fact…it’s honest.’ It is highly debatable whether Eve ate of an apple in a very nice garden somewhere. And there probably wasn’t a girl called Pandora, or such an interesting box. Yet there is value in myth, not because of its truth, but in the reflection it elicits. One of the Enlightenment’s most divisive social critics, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, understood this well. In the mythologised life of the Spartan citizen he found a model which, as Judith Shklar says, he used as ‘a mirror that could always be raised to reveal modern man at his worst’. Rousseau did not believe that the strict hierarchy of Spartan life was a practical model for an eighteenth century state. It represented the polar opposite of Rousseau’s present, and was as close to fiction as historical truth. Yet in tales of Spartan rigour and self-sacrifice the Genevan philosopher found a valuable tool of self-assessment. Nicolaidis agrees in the reflective virtue of myth. As ‘moderns looking at this myths with an ironic smile, we have a distance that gives room for some tension, leaving things open to the ambiguous,’ she says.
Nobody literally believes the stories myths tell. Yet unlike myth, the stories of Brexit are taken as categorical truths. Such faith in the fundamental right or wrong of the meaning of Brexit is creating a dangerous discourse of friends and enemies. Perhaps a more conciliatory politics can be found if the various explanations of Brexit can be understood as stories, tales or sagas, rather than as categorical truths.
The exceptionalist understanding of Brexit can be understood as a tale of Exodus – the heroic people leaving for the promised land – an insight that EUI colleagues helped bring to the fore. The sceptical understanding of Brexit as a result of the EU’s failings can be understood as a tale of reckoning. The UK passed a biblical Last Judgement upon the EU’s virtues, and found it wanting. The pluralist interpretation of Brexit could be understood as a myth of sacrifice. In the view favoured by politicians like Boris Johnson, the UK has done Europe a favour. Now the integration they always wanted can go ahead unhindered. This view is not one to which Nicolaidis subscribes: ‘Britain kept Europe balanced and pragmatic,’ she says. Yet she still seeks a silver lining. If the UK thought that the EU was ‘some great leviathan, clipping its wings,’ the very fact the UK will be able to leave will, she hopes, prove that it is not. It will prove that it is a union by choice, which is perhaps its greatest virtue.
Finally, it is fascinating to observe that while the British people themselves decided on their “exodus” from Europe, some on the continent are trying to turn the story into one of Banishment. Like the story Eve, Great Britain’s exceptionalist tendancy deserves to be banished for wondering if there might be a better world beyond paradise. Britain has been cast out of the European Eden because of an inability to resist the temptation of national identity. Britain was never European, just as Eve would always be tempted to eat the forbidden fruit. And yet the value of myth is its fiction – who knows, in another telling, whether Eve would have been enticed to eat. In truth, it is reasonable to assume that there was no Eve, no Eden and no apple at all. ‘I believe exceptionalism is there – it is with us,’ Nicolaidis says. ‘But that one interpretation can provide only ‘bits and pieces of reality.’
Nicolaidis isn’t one for placing bets, but she is tentatively hopeful that Europe will find its way through the post-Brexit turmoil. ‘At least for the next few decades Europe is here to stay – there is too much at stake,’ she says. But as post-Brexit emotions run high, an appeal to myth lends a removed calm to divisive decisions which is otherwise worryingly absent. ‘Across our ideologies, countries and languages, myths are something common we can hang onto,’ she says. So whilst Brexit may have been ‘a cataclysmic event for the European Union – an earthquake,’ as Nicolaidis argues, ‘we should try to make sense of Brexit in our European life, as European citizens.’
According to philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler, ‘to tell the story of oneself is already to act, since telling is a kind of action.’ To tell the story of Brexit is no different. It is an action, the consequences of which will be felt for decades. We are sustained by the stories we share, so we must choose carefully the words we use to tell them. Talk of banishment breeds banishment and talk of enemies breeds enemies. And in a time when, as Nicolaidis notes, ‘othering’ become the ‘bread and butter’ of political discourse, it is worth remembering that though our opinions may differ, we share a very real present and a very real a future. So we might as well try to get along.