Friday, 30 June 2017

Brexit: lessons from history

A subject of study I keep returning to is that of the collapse of Yugoslavia. A war of unimaginable horrors. I would venture that the story of that war is a macrocosm of all politics. If you do not know the story, then you do not know politics. It is a story of how political opportunism, cynicism and nationalist exploitation of narratives can reduce people to savagery.

What makes it especially fascinating is that it mirrors a lot of the Second World War and in some ways could be considered the closing chapter of it. If we look at twentieth century history then each major war was just unfinished business from the last. 

We can also note that the Yugoslav wars were unique in that it is the last major Western war to be played out exclusively through what we now define as mainstream media - captive audiences taking mass media on trust. This is the means by which respective aggressors could weave their nationalist narratives and stoke the fires of resentment. 

What makes it further interesting is that Yugoslavia was a relatively westernised country enjoying greater freedoms than their Soviet counterparts, where the Muslim population lived as political equals and not especially distinct as they are in the UK. It is interesting to see how war can turn the clocks back where people revert to tribal and ethnic divisions for no other reason than survival. Very soon the pack horse takes the place of the automobile and the one must-have accessory is the AK-47. 

From a historian's perspective there are few wars as well documented, where all the key people told their story to the cameras. In some respects it will be seen as the first complete record of any major conflict. The lessons are there to be learned if one cares to look.

To me, what the conflict shows is that for all our technological advancements, humanity has barely evolved and for all that we thought Europe had seen the last savagery of ethnic cleansing, Bosnia especially shows that when politics fails we revert to our most primal instincts.

The resistance in Bosnia reminds us that humans are deeply tribal and spiritually bound to the places where they live. A facet of mankind that will likely never change. This teaches us once again that artificial federalist constructs have failure in their DNA.

The federal construct of Yugoslavia was an exercise in self-deception and denial. The response to expressions of nationalism was denunciation. Denial became its preferred solution for nearly everything. Anyone seeking justice was told to wait their turn. Eventually though, the multifarious problems became insurmountable and the illusion of unity could not be upheld. Very rapidly things fell apart. 

There has never been an example of supranationalism that could contain the desire for sovereignty on the basis of identity. It just doesn't work. Even on a scale as small as Northern Ireland we see that the political constructs held together by fudge and denial fall apart when exposed to the light of day. There is no permanent solution. The best we can ever hope for is compromise built on the basis of trusted institutions - none of which ever withstand the test of time.

Herein lies the lesson for the European Union. A project flawed from inception. Again we see that history repeats. The EU has always a convenient umbrella under which hostilities and rivalries can be buried or suspended - but never resolved. 

Where the EU differs from the Yugoslav republic is that it has no army and favours soft power and coercion to bring member states into line. Having overextended into Eastern Europe, taking on board democracies still in their infancy, it has sought to impose its own vision of liberalism and equality, using the carrot of development aid to bring about further compliance. 

While the EU is not dominated by any single member state, it is dominated by a particular brand of secular liberalism it intends to export with no delay, using its soft power to bury opposition. Incapable of recognising its own hubris, it fails to recognise how it sows the seeds of its own demise. 

We presently subjected to a drip of favourable EU propaganda - that the European economy is recovering and the populism is on the wane by way of the election of Macron. Having taken a hit like Brexit, the EU is keen to brush off the stench of death. We are told that Brexit is but a distraction and not a mortal blow. 

To an extent the propaganda line is all true. Brexit does seem to have galvanised public opinion in favour of the EU, the Euro is no longer at death's door and the "far right" threat has, for the time being, abated. That though, is a particularly western European perception - and a self-deception at that. 

We should note that Macron was elected on a fairly meagre turnout, there was a very real chance that Le Pen could have been elected, and for all that Macron provides some immediate relief, the divisions in France still exist. They will not stay buried as Brexit has shown. We are told that Brexit has divided Britain, but Britain has chosen to expose and confront rather than bury and pretend. A French reckoning is similarly inevitable. 

This current narrative, however, centres on the more visible and dominant states of Europe. We should not lose sight of the fact that there are a number of forgotten members increasingly fragmenting politically and being told to wait their turn. We are seeing some considerable social upheaval in Hungary and the EU is beginning to ask questions about the rule of law in Poland. We get only drips of news - and as for the rest, they may as well not exist so far as Western Europe is concerned. Recent unrest in Romania barely registered.

In this we can expect the eventual break up of the EU. Brexiteers have always pushed the line that the EU cannot survive and that break up is a matter of when rather than if. Largely because the model is flawed and the one power able to bring to bear any kind of leverage, Germany, is one that is spiritually and historically unwilling.

We have also seen the EU's true colours. Though we can debate the events leading up to the war in Ukraine, the association agreement was a very deliberate attempt to snatch Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence without much regard to the political consequences. As bad as that is, the EU showed no willingness to defend Ukrainian territory or even supply military deterrence. Now that the EU has met with the consequences, Ukraine has dropped off the agenda and the war that rages on the borders has slipped from our collective memory. 

In that respect we should note that Britain's influence was largely illusory. The underlying technocratic agenda of the EU has always been toward expansion and regional coercion. It suits the British egotism to pretend we were steering that agenda but at the height of the Ukraine crisis Britain was as impotent as remainers say we are going to be by way of leaving the EU.

In that respect the hardcore remainers share many of the same delusions as the hardline leavers. The latter believes Britain is still a major power exerting influence over former commonwealth states while the Europhiles believe that the EU is an instrument of influence over the the European empire. Nether is true. The expansion of the EU is a symbiotic self deception between the EU which sees itself as an exporter of liberal progressivism while later accession states, or rather their ruling classes belief the EU is a stepping stone to becoming a liberal democracy.

Reality, though, paints another picture. Liberal democracy is not something which can be installed like a piece of software. It has to be developed in house - fought for and won. An honest appraisal tells you that even more developed states like like Poland are still not there yet. We might also note that even our own "liberal democracy" is but an illusion. Politics is making a comeback in the UK and we will soon learn that issues we thought were settled are anything but.

In some ways this mirrors the Yugoslav experience where the federalism served only as a pause on politics. Within a year or so of its collapse the politics resumed as though the years in between never happened. We can expect much the same in Northern Ireland. Political sticking plasters eventually lose their adhesiveness.

What Bosnia shows us is that it is ultimately the determination of the people to fight for the peace that brings about a lasting settlement. We are told that Bosnia is a rare example of post-conflict state building but the success lies largely with the determination of its peoples to preserve what was won in battle. This is why civil wars have to be fought to their conclusions without intervention. 

In the end, the peace that Western Europe has enjoyed has been thanks to what was won in war. The shock of the Holocaust and the brutality that swept the continent was a wake up call. There could be no going back. We remember. No such construct like the EU was needed. We did not need a federal Europe to pause politics because we had resolved the politics in World War Two. That is a process we went through, and it is ultimately part of the cycle of history. 

History is replete with examples of lofty idealistic constructs designed to quell the tempers of democracy. Some of them, for a time, have worked. But what they all share is is a swift and violent democratic correction. Unless people are free to define their own borders, customs and values then the centre cannot hold. The longer such vital powers are denied the more tempestuous the unravelling.

One can argue that had Yugoslavia reformed along the lines of liberal democracy and quelled rival nationalisms it could very well have been a model European country. Ultimately though it was always incapable of addressing the fractures within. To deal with a problem requires that it is recognised. Political hubris and and self-deception always stands in the way. Such entities are seldom ever capable of responding until it's too late. This is a pattern we see repeated time and again. There is no reason to expect the EU will be any different.

When the EU does eventually fold there will be little warning. The collapse of the common currency will make it far more painful then ever it should have been. It may even see a balkanisation of its own. Britain came close to losing Scotland and if that can happen then Spain or Germany are just as likely to break up. We cannot say how or when, all we know is that there is no possibility of the EU succeeding. It is not defined by its peoples, its values are alien to its citizens and the politics on pause will eventually reawaken. We should be thankful that Britain is getting out while it can.

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