^ the last political person to come close to achieving — peacefully — the political and economic unification of Europe : Frederick Barbarossa (and his wife Beatrice of Burgundy)
—- —- —-
You may be wondering why I have chosen Frederick Barbarossa, German emperor from 1154 to 1189, as my lead photograph for a 2016 story. I will explain it all, but later. First, the shocking news from yesterday :
About 2 AM, we knew the amazing result: a slim majority of United Kingdom voters chose the wrong path for their nation. Leaving the European Union would, were it actually to happen, benefit no one and harm almost everyone. Economic unity is only half the unity needed by advanced nations, but half is better than nothing.
Fortunately, the actual leaving is unlikely to happen. Scotland voted 60-40 against; were an “exit” to take place, Scotland would leave the United Kingdom and remain in the European Union (EU). Northern Ireland, too, voted not to separate from the EU. If an exit takes place, it will likely join the Irish Republic. Most seriously of all, however, is that London, the Kingdom’s capital city and by far its economic dynamo, voted strongly against leaving the EU. Londoners are now talking of separating from the rest of England. Were an exit to happen, without London exiting, the exit would be a fizzle as well as a failure.
We’ve seen this before. Twice, Quebec held referendums on leaving Canada. Each time, the vote failed (albeit narrowly) because Montreal voted almost two to one against and made clear that if Quebec were to “leave,’ Montreal would leave it.
The Quebec separatist vote was ugly tribal. Supporters of separation railed against the racial and nationality melting pot of Montreal, blaming “minorities:” for the failure of the province’s”native French” to secure their own state. Yesterday’s vote was tribal too. “Leave” spokespeople decried immigration, especially immigration into England by Muslims and other dark-skinned peoples. But for such immigration, aggravated by the swarms of refugees escaping the Middle East, there would probably have been no “Exit” referendum at all.
As we in America are seeing, the Western world is awash right now in anti-immigrant ugliness, a gutter fascism of hate, scapegoating, and tribal intoxicants in which all the old, long dissipated totem poles of identity have been resurrected and legitimized by demagogues. Anybody who has read the ravings of the “Leave” interest’s Nigel Farage has had to put up with ugliness scarcely less vulgar than that of Donald Trump, our own nation’s scourge of tribal venom.
It should be quite clear, in the 21st Century, that tribal politics is a false fantasm. There IS no “tribe.” The people who inhabit a nation are constantly a changing mix. This has always been true., As far back as we can record human history, the people of any area other than those in utter, extended isolation have been a mix of DNAs. Today’s “other”: is tomorrow’s family and the day after tomorrow’s ancestor. As for scapegoating the “other,” it is always a con by which con men fool us. Our troubles are not caused by scapegoats but by our own decisions. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, writing in the 2nd Century, noted that “first we blame others for our troubles; then we blame ourselves; then we do something about them.” We would be weak fools to stay fixed at the first pole.
There is weakness in the EU but not that which the “Leave” demagogues want British people to believe. The EU needs be stronger, not weaker. It has economic power but scant political power. In America, in 1787, our leaders realized that they could not have economic prosperity — nor political strength — without forming a union both political and economic. We forget, today, just how close run a thing Ratification of the Constitution was. Ceding political economic power to a central government was not popular. Yet once in place, the Constitution and its government began to forge its own, unified political and economic interest, a following that grew both economically and politically as did the nation, strong enough, and loyal enough that, 84 years later, it was able to absorb and defeat the shock of secession.
Secession among the EU nations hasn’t the same air of treason because it is not treasonous to leave a union purely economic, not political at all. The EU’s founders shrank from confronting the political question. Often, since, observers have remarked that the EU’s reluctance to embrace political union would damage it, even destroy it. Now, with yesterday’s “leave” vote, one of the EU’s political adherents has put the precise question.
Will the exit actually happen ? One wonders if and how. If Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Greater London (and its satellites, Oxford and Cambridge, which also spurned “Leave” by huge margins) plus Manchester (another city that voted “remain” by better than two to one) leave the leavers, who exactly will be doing the EU leaving ? I think the crisis will pass.
Still, the warning has ben sounded. Unless the EU’s component nations bite the bullet of political union, as we in America did in 1787, their economic sharing will henceforth suffer loss of confidence by businesses and investors; will be less and less able to impose economic rules on its components; will bit by bit fade away as nations decide it’s best to chance the economic tides alone than in company. Unfortunately, we know that story’s outcome only too well : conflict, distrust, nationalism, war. Ever since the break up of the Roman Empire, these were the larger story of Europe; not always, but always next. A major difficulty was the predominance of one European nation over all the others. Mostly, since about the year 925, that has been Germany. If not Germany, it has been France. Whichever nation ruled, however, its dominance always ended in tragedy for everybody.
The EU, like its smaller predecessor the Common market, has tamed the beast — but not snuffed it. Germany rules today, every bit as strongly as it did in 1870, 1910, and — yes — 925 to about 1200. Curiously, the converse argument can be sustained : that Germany even at its strongest was never quite strong enough. Germany under the Salian emperors, from about 925 to 1200, almost dominated Europe’s culture and trade : but not quite. France was outside, as was the Papacy (then a major economic and political power). Germany’s dominance was cracked in the 1070’s — the famous “investiture conflict” — and then broken for good, in the period 1220 to 1275, by a centralizing, well-led France and the newly powerful Papacy. Never since (except briefly during terrible wars) has any European nation come close to the political and economic unification of Europe that was lost then; and all of European history until today has been plagued by that failure.
Will the men and women of the EU, and of its various component nations, now take the only steps that can make the EU lasting and strong, a living political thing ? I do not know. I do think, however, that this is their chance. Maybe their last chance.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere