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July 12, 2016

Event Summary: ‘The Aftermath of Brexit: Could the EU and UK both die?’

by
Henry Jackson Society

By Ruta Valaityte

By the kind invitation of Bob Stewart MP and the Hexagon Institute on the 12th of July the Henry Jackson Society hosted an event with Bernard-Henri Lévy. Bernard-Henri Levy, in France referred to as simply BHL, is a renowned French philosopher, journalist and writer. In his speech Mr Levy focused on the possible implications of Brexit for the UK, Europe and democracy.

While discussing the negative consequences for the UK, Mr Levy focused not so much on the pressing need for negotiation with Scotland and Northern Ireland, but on the broader societal implications. In comparing Britain to France he expressed disappointment that in both of these nations narrow-minded nationalism is growing. Mr Levy argued that by choosing the leave vote and giving in to nationalist demagogues the British people abandoned the legacy of such great political leaders and thinkers as Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli. Mr Levy has perceived the UK’s identity as rooted in its openness to the other, therefore, in his view, the nationalist rhetoric prevalent in the ‘Leave’ campaign discourse has led to what he called the ‘regressexit’ and the betrayal of true Britishness.

The Brexit implications to Europe, according to Mr Levy, are even more pressing. He claimed that by losing the UK Europe lost a cornerstone of the core triangle consisting of France, Germany and Britain. He emphasised that the spirit and roots of Europe come from the British Isles and therefore, for him a pan-European project is unimaginable without Britain as a part of it. As regards to democracy Mr Levy expressed scepticism about treating referendums as the ultimate form of democracy. He also reminded that sovereignty consists not only in replying to the question, but also in making and shaping the question and, according to Mr Levy, in the recent referendum this latter part has been disregarded.

Mr Levy stressed that not only those who voted and those who lied during their campaign are to blame for the outcome of the British referendum, but also the inactive foreign statesmen, who failed to make Europe desirable enough. Mr Levy criticised, firstly, the almost providential progressivism and complacency of European politicians who seemed to believe that the European project is bound to develop by itself. In addition, he pointed out the lack global scale pro-European arguments. Similarly to the 2005 referendum debate over the European Constitution treaty in France the main debate circulated over the issue of how good or bad it would be for us, understood narrowly as only France or England.

The lack of spirit and faith in the idea of Europe was of key concern for Mr Levy. The bureaucrats in Brussels sadly were much closer to the dull Habsburg bureaucracy described in novels of Robert Musil than to the truly European spirit of Goethe, Dante, Voltaire or Churchill. Mr Levy warned that such lack of spirit and motivation would eventually lead more and more people to the hands of populists.

After Mr Levy outlined his position the floor was open to questions. Douglas Murray of the Henry Jackson Society pointed out to the lack of the romantic argument on the ‘remain’ side, its inability to mobilise people and the complexity of defining populism. Other questions from the audience touched upon the issue of common currency and the problems of bureaucracy and migration in Europe. Regarding the future political action Mr Levy emphasised that Britain should not be punished for its decision to leave the EU. Instead, he hoped that the British referendum will allow the EU countries and Britain to reinvent Europe together.