Ten seconds summarized the steep decline in the status of a great nation in its self-destructive sleepwalk towards Brexit. That was when Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, standing tall next to a crumpled Boris Johnson, described the endless negotiations, from a position of weakness, awaiting the UK. In the Herculean task of negotiating free trade deals “we will be the UK’s friend and ally, your Athena,” said Varadkar. The allusion was not lost on the classically educated Johnson. The mythological hero Hercules, having lost his mind at the hands of Hera, killed his children and was only prevented from killing his father thanks to Athena’s intervention, which knocked him unconscious.
Many have pointed out the “impossible trinity” of a single market and customs union exit, no hard border with Ireland, and an all-UK approach to Brexit. It should be no surprise then that Johnson’s Britain seems incapable of regaining control. A political system famous for its pragmatism seems mired in confusion and irrationality. (Boris Johnson is clearly familiar with Aite, the ancient Greek goddess of folly and mischief.) Populist nationalism, the narrow-minded delusion of sovereignty in a world of profound interdependence and international challenges, leads countries to a place where their global standing is much diminished. And with parliamentary democracy in disarray, to boot. The heterogony of ends, as they would put it at Eton.
Similar forces are driving politics across the Atlantic, and that’s another reason why Britain’s painful experience is so emblematic. The first alarm bell concerns the very endurance of parliamentary institutions against the tsunami of populism. A political faction of fanatics, in collusion with the tabloid press, has accused the British courts and a plurality of MPs of being the “enemies of the people.” A poll reveals that 54 percent of Britons think that, most of all, the country needs a strong leader determined to defy rules and restrictions. The Putin (and Trump) model is an affront to Europe’s oldest parliamentary democracy.
The sense of humiliation, anger and paralysis that millions of Britons today feel reminds us Greeks of the first half of 2015. But in Britain the happy end is nowhere in sight, the crisis will last for many years until post-Brexit Britain is able to reach a new equilibrium. The societal rift, which Greece narrowly eschewed, is deeper in Britain, going back decades. Brexit is not about people who have ideas, but about an idea that owns people, as Carl Jung would say. And hard Brexiteers hypocritically portray the inevitable deadlock of their politics as a result of Europe’s vindictiveness, supposedly proving how right they were, thus further inciting political divisiveness.
Decades- and centuries-old norms are being violated, and mature societies are acting like spoilt infants. Elite politicians who were born with silver spoons in their mouths (and thus ought to be more generous to society) are gripping on to power like a toy, oblivious of the mess they leave behind.
In this fluid world, the European Union remains the only stable point of geopolitical reference. In the face of British drama, Europe, in a sense, is living an exalted experience. In her confrontation with her enemies (nationalists and populists) she has rediscovered herself. Small Ireland is proud to have 26 member-states on its side. For the first time since 1171, Ireland has more power than England, the Spectator lamented. That is because the EU has always been, above all, a project of peace and unity that would never allow the Northern Ireland peace to be jeopardized.
The day after Brexit, the UK will have to adjust to the norms of the global trade superpower that is the EU, and not the other way around. The EU will remain the most advanced model of a voluntary pooling of sovereignties among democratic nation-states, while the UK will be left striving to maintain its own integrity.
By good fortune, Greece once again finds itself on the right side of history. Having only recently escaped its own devastating crisis, it can observe the Brexit drama from a distance – though certainly not immune to the mutually assured damage it is bound to generate. Minerva’s owl flies at dusk.
George Pagoulatos is professor of European politics and economics at the Athens University of Economics and Business, a visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges, and vice president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).