Admetus and Brexit


As the March 29 deadline for an agreement on Britain’s exit from the European Union approaches, it becomes ever more incomprehensible that a people with such a great history can persist with such a destructive course without anyone else imposing it upon them. Not even the most fervent Brexit supporter can deny that in the best of circumstances, with the conclusion of a deal, the consequences will be very far from those promised by the exodus’s propagandists.

In his “Alcestis,” Euripides argues that sometimes when we seek thoughtlessly to maintain what we have we may destroy the very thing that we cling to. When the god Apollo gives King Admetus the opportunity to find someone to die in his place, the king first approaches his father and mother to sacrifice themselves; when they refuse, he turns to his wife, Alcestis. She agrees to in his place. But Admetus soon understands that getting his wife to die for him strips him of personal prestige; he also mourns the loss of so remarkable a companion. His life has lost what made it worth living.

Something similar is happening in Britain today. Grasping between a grandiose past and a fantastic future, the country is no longer what it was. “From the day after the referendum I felt that something had changed,” says a close relative who has lived in an English village since 2002 and had never felt herself a stranger there. Two years later, the feeling is widely shared. A friend from Latin America with a brilliant career in medicine in London, whose textbooks are known across the world, also finds that things have soured. For the first time, he feels a stranger. The division between Britons, the harsh words against immigrants, affect millions of people who chose to live in Britain and contribute to its growth. Uncertainty over the day after Brexit has set off an exodus of companies and professionals toward firmer ground in the EU. Investments and growth are sharply down; the weekly cost of Brexit is estimated at 800 million pounds (according to a Bank of England official). The whole world looks upon the chaos in Britain’s political scene and wonders how this nation achieved so much in the past.

Neither glory nor riches nor the old empire come from Brexit. Repentant Admetus won a reprieve of sorts: His friend Heracles went down to Hades and brought back Alcestis. The British do not have this choice. They must save themselves. Yet they continue on their catastrophic course, despite seeing that they are losing much of what made their country hospitable and great.