Post-Brexit Britain is changing fast as key Leave campaigners scurry off the stage, political parties start the tortuous process of selecting new leaders and ordinary citizens grapple with the myriad ramifications of the June 23 decision.
The Leave vote is also impacting on the European Union in many, complicated and yet-to-be identified, ways. The separation or divorce is going to be long and painful. There may even be a last-chance attempt at reconciliation.
Some things, however, look set to stay the same.
Britain’s historic decision to leave the EU has not changed European leaders’ chronic inability to respond to crises with grace and dignity. Britain’s political class has sullied its reputation even further while EU leaders have become entangled — once again — in power struggles and premature battles over the future of an EU of 27 states.
Brexit has not prompted much-needed soul-searching on the EU’s failure to connect, respond and interact with citizens, especially younger ones. And, sadly, as illustrated by the failure of the Remain campaign, it has not yet sparked a serious reflection on crafting a positive EU story for the 21st Century.
Old habits die hard. But now more than ever, if it is to thrive, flourish and exert influence in an increasingly cut-throat world, the EU urgently needs an inspirational new narrative in step with the changing times.
The truth is that Europe does have a convincing story to tell. But it has no one to tell it.
The massive pro-EU demonstration in London on July 2 is proof that Europe resonates and matters. It matters not just to the vocal segment of the 48 per cent of Britons who voted to stay in the EU but also to those who were misled by the lies and myths propagated by the Leave camp and are now having second thoughts.
It matters to young people who feel betrayed by an older generation which voted to withdraw from the EU — and to the others who may not have cast their ballot but now wish they had. It matters to ethnic minorities who face an unacceptable increase in racial and religious abuse in the wake of the referendum.
Most importantly, Europe matters to millions of other European voters who will be going to the polls in the coming months in France, Germany and elsewhere and who may be enticed into voting for Frexit or Nexit if referendums are called in France and the Netherlands by far right leaders Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, respectively.
Crafting a new EU story requires more than just countering the lies, misinformation and toxic myths being disseminated by far right and populist politicians. Relying on facts and figures to get the message across is important — but not enough. The success of the Leave campaigners shows that in the midst of fear and hate, facts don’t matter — until it is too late.
What counts are leaders with passion who can get others to listen to them and stay on message. Interestingly, rare but convincing and passionate calls for Remain were made in the last three days ahead of the UK referendum by Scottish Conservative Ruth Davidson and London Mayor Sadiq Khan in a televised debate with Leave’s leading campaigner Boris Johnson.
The EU story needs to be recounted by those who believe in what they are “selling” and know how to discuss, engage and connect with people. A European narrative disseminated half-heartedly as it was by many, including outgoing British Prime Minister David Cameron, just cannot do the trick.
Drafting a new EU narrative also requires a shift away from listening exclusively to the shrill clamour of the populists to also paying attention to the calmer voice and the aspirations of those Europeans who want — and are working to create — a more tolerant, open and inclusive Europe.
The pro-EU banners and placards carried at the recent massive rally in London should provide inspiration for writers of the new EU story. So should the actions of the many ordinary people, non-governmental organisations, businesses and mayors who are going out of their way in many parts of Europe to welcome refugees and migrants with food, shelter and jobs. Their stories are hardly ever told. And yet they — not just the far right that all politicians pander to — are also part of Europe’s “reality”.
Populists are certainly a threat to Europe’s values and to European democracy. But so are mainstream political parties which have embraced their message. The EU’s so-far fractious and incoherent response to Brexit is not going to endear it to citizens.
As it heads into uncharted waters, the EU needs to highlight what is good, constructive and positive about Europe. And it needs to do so with courage, conviction and self-confidence — and with leaders who show grace under fire. Nothing else will work.