LONDON — I have been overcome by gloom since Britain voted to leave the European Union. It’s not just the stupidity of the decision. It’s not merely the lies of the charlatans who led the “Leave” campaign. It’s not only the absence, now so evident, of any “Nextit.” It’s not even the betrayal of British youth. It’s far more: a personal loss. Europa, however flawed, was the dream of my generation. The European Union was an entity, a bloodless noun, yet it had a beating heart.
Riding a European train, gazing at the lines of swaying poplars, the villages huddled around their church spires, it was often impossible, at least for me, not to look past the tranquility to the blood-seeped soil and the tens of millions who gave their lives in Europe’s collective suicides. Well, as the Germans say, we had the blessing of late birth; and the duty inherent in that blessing was to build a united Europe.
Covering the European Parliament from 1980 to 1982, I would drive down from Brussels to Strasbourg. The Parliament was a bit of a farce. Unwieldy bundles of documents translated into Europe’s many languages were carted back and forth. Yet, in its cumbersome way, the Parliament embodied something important: the hard trade-offs of European construction, union conjured from Babel.
When I moved to Italy, with its large Communist Party and spasms of political violence, I would hear how “scaling the Alps” into the core of Europe was critical to the country’s stability. The E.U. was insurance against the worst. For Mediterranean countries like Spain and Portugal that emerged from dictatorship in the 1970s it was something close to salvation.
Memories: feckless Europe at the time of the Bosnian war and the thirst, nonetheless, of the small nations reborn in Yugoslavia’s death to join the European Union and escape the bloody Balkan gyre. Watching Germany move its capital back to Berlin from Bonn in 1999 and thinking, the German question is solved and Europe is home free! Driving, when I lived in Berlin, into Poland and pinching myself to recall the unspeakable suffering overcome by German-Polish reconciliation as Poland prepared for E.U. membership.
No miracle was ever so dull. Britain tended to see the E.U. in prosaic terms: It had not been delivered from ignominy or tyranny by European integration. Still, it gave the union heft, a free-market prod, a universal language and its second-largest economy. It was that recalcitrant member any good club needs.
Sure, the challenges mounted. The 30-year postwar economic miracle ended — and with it full employment. The Franco-German balance at the heart of the union collapsed. German dominance stirred unease. The creation of a single currency, the euro, was bungled. The admission of former Communist states spurred large migrant movements. The European welfare state was strained. Resentments multiplied.
Technology accelerated globalization, pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in Asia but also offshoring millions of European jobs. Societies disaggregated. For each City honcho getting a daily Christmas delivery from Amazon Prime there was some poor sod out there in Nowheresville working a precarious warehouse night shift packaging stuff.
Britain, too, now has its “flyover country,” a nationalist heartland distant from the metropolis. This is how globalization divides the world.
Boris Johnson understood, in his scurrilous way, that the E.U. had become a perfect scapegoat for Western societies beset by the dilemmas of modernity. Opposed to Brexit early this year, he became its chief advocate, playing on every base instinct. Brexit was a tool, a plaything, never a principle. If he looks so glum in triumph it is because the adrenalin has run out.
There will be no extra $470 million for the National Health Service from European Union savings, after all. Immigration is not about to fall. Some of the regions that voted for Brexit are also those that get the most funds from Brussels. “There is now no need for haste,” Johnson says. Oh, really? “We are part of Europe, our children and our grandchildren will continue to have a wonderful future as Europeans,” he says. Oh, please!
If Johnson becomes prime minister in the fall, he will be an unelected leader, just like all those “unaccountable” high rollers in Brussels. When he tries to extricate Britain from the union, he will face a hostile Parliament. Last time I checked, Britain was a parliamentary, not direct, democracy. So perhaps there is still hope. If words mean their opposite, as they do in Johnson’s mouth, anything is possible. Europa is worth a fight.
The union, for all its failings, did not deserve to be betrayed by a huckster. It will not die because of this imbecilic vote, but something broke — a form of optimism about humankind, the promise of 1989.
My children will not inherit the Europe I hoped for. I look at my hands and see my father’s emerging, the veins now more pronounced. Life feels diminished. Some things are unavoidable. This was not.