As Brexit vote begins, reconsidering the troubled dream of Europe

For a little over a month now I’ve been working in Europe, and the threat that the United Kingdom will vote to leave the European Union today has hung over many conversations.

It’s not just about the economic and migration issues, how the change might affect the euro or the border crossing (or residency) of Europeans; in fact, most conversations focus far more on what a “Brexit” might mean for the idea of Europe altogether. As an American I guess I’ve come to think of the European Union as sort of a loose analogy to the United States, a nascent future nation; but in fact it is far bolder experiment, dozens of different countries with unique languages, cultures and histories (including even recent histories of conflict with each other), trying to form a meaningful political and social community that respects each member’s individuality.  

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Like any such endeavor the E.U. has many problems in its practice. The decision to abandon national currencies has put Europe through wave upon wave of monetary challenges since the financial crisis of 2008, and it looks very likely that a final reckoning of the crisis in Greece will have to be made sooner rather than later. Likewise, the community’s open borders policy has gradually produced a growing anxiety that the unique cultures of each country is being eroded by the sheer number and variety of immigrants within and into Europe. The surge of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa has been for some the last straw in a long struggle; not only in Great Britain but in many places in Europe political groups crying out for control and closed borders have resonated with large swathes of the population.

Sometimes the rhetoric on these issues is similarly xenophobic to what we hear of late from some members of the Republican Party in the United States. But the underlying concern is hard to deny. If Great Britain, Croatia or Hungary are not allowed to determine how many people may migrate from within the E.U., how can anyone say with any certainty that things that are meaningful and essential to the culture of those countries will not be lost?  And we’re not talking about skin color here or even necessarily language, but the style and customs of life. It’s one thing to add to new traditions to a nation; a wander through the streets (or television networks) of London demonstrates just how much Indian migrants and others have added to the community. But without any meaningful control over one’s borders, it’s impossible to know with certainty what the future identity of any of the E.U.’s countries will be. Feeling overwhelmed or afraid in that situation would seem to be sensible, not xenophobic.

And yet, as an outsider I find myself terribly inspired by this attempt at a community of nations. It is a powerful testament of hope in humanity, a belief in the ability of people to overcome even the most painful of histories—could anyone have imagined in 1940 that Great Britain, Germany and France would be at the heart of such a project?—and build a community that celebrates not only what they have in common, but their differences. Europe is the greater both because it has this union and because that union is made up of so many different cultures and worlds.  

I’d be arrogant to think I know enough to say with any certainty whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. (Our own Dave Stewart has far more interesting and meaningful things to say on this.) There seems little doubt, though, that it would be an enormous blow to the rest of the E.U., all the more so in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Brussels and Paris that continue to cast a pall and the struggle to negotiate the needs of so many displaced people. “All of Europe is depressed,” one Berliner told me recently.

But as a dreamer myself, I can’t but hope that the dream of Europe at the heart of its very messy and problematic reality will continue. Like the torch that used to greet immigrants as they come to our shores, even unfinished it is a light of hope for us all.

Jim McDermott, S.J., is America's Los Angeles correspondent.

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