The EU Should Learn From Brexit, And Be Inspired By The Enlightenment


Of all the political and economic crises that the European Union has faced in recent years, the UK’s decision to leave  – for whatever reason – is the most challenging for the EU governing bodies. At least, it should be if the EU values its continued existence. The UK had a fair share of internal reasons for voting as it did. Added to this, the Brexit vote was extremely close and its validity can be questioned. More importantly, though, the Brexit vote should be analysed and acted on, in the context of a pan-European feeling of nationalism. The rise in popularity of extreme-right-wing parties cannot and must not be ignored.



The EU is a fragile cloth that is being stretched beyond its capacity to resist tensile forces.



The EU must change its ways of functioning, taking account of the growing frustration of millions of citizens who feel left out of the European project, or who do not abide to it in its present form. It seems, however, that the EU is not taking the lessons that should be learned from Brexit, with the degree of seriousness that they warrant. It is not only a question of defending the four freedoms that are a prerequisite to, and a foundation of, the free market. It is a question of whether the fundamental structure of the union should be reviewed and changed. If the present leaders fail to do this, they run the risk of a total implosion of the institutions they cherish. It will be an implosion, not due to nationalism or federalism, but both. The EU is a fragile cloth that is being stretched beyond its capacity to resist tensile forces.

A pamphlet signed by 30 European intellectuals, spear-headed by Bernard-Henri Levy, makes for compelling reading but provides no answers to a European problem that is being misdiagnosed by the intellectuals who signed the pamphlet, and completely ignored by the elites from Brussels 1.

It breaks my heart to see the UK, a country that I love, leave a union that I love even more. But the battle being fought between those defending deeper integration or outright federalism, and evil-minded nationalists who have not read any history books, will have one effect only – the destruction of the very battlefields they are all fighting for, or in the name of: namely, Europe and the European Union. The politicians who claim that they love Europe but not the union, ignore that one cannot survive without the other. The EU and Europe have become a single entity, and their combined strength is greater than that of their parts.

Europe will never cease to exist, with all its contradictions, shortcomings, and talents. But it now runs the risk of being disfigured for ever, because the union – an integral part of what Europe is – will be torn apart by a war of words and votes. It’s a war that is no way comparable to the wars of centuries ago, of course. What is occurring throughout the union and finding its present-day paroxysm in Westminster, is a war that has replaced canons, guns, and horses, with copious doses of psychology, economics, and demagogy.


Europe is being attacked by false prophets who are drunk on resentment, and delirious at their opportunity to seize the limelight. 2

I do not believe that most European citizens are intrinsically against the idea of a union, but many vote in a way that reflects local problems and regional hardships that have nothing to do with being part of a union of nations. What else can those who find themselves in acute hardship hang on to? They live in the hope that things will get better, and value nothing more than their neighbourhood and, on a larger scale, their nation. We all need to feel at home in surroundings that are familiar to us – our homes, our streets, our cities and, further afield, our nations. It is these identities and comfort zones that are being misunderstood and seemingly threatened, by a union that is becoming increasingly unable to help solve the political and social problems of its member states. Each nation must remain a nation, in order to apply specific remedies to each of its own chronic problems. Such is the diversity of problems faced by individual member states, that European federalism is not only undesirable, but also impossible to achieve, at least for the foreseeable future. Unity must not become uniformity.

The EU should learn the lessons of the Brexit vote, and take inspiration from the Enlightenment. Understanding the issues facing the union, and questioning its fundamental structure, are prerequisites to the continued well-being of a union of nations whose primary objective – the avoidance of armed conflicts between European states – has been an unprecedented success, for over 60 years.

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Selfincurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!”- that is the motto of enlightenment.   – Immanuel Kant, What Is Enlightenment, 1784

We must not fall into the trap of thinking that the only cure for the EU’s existential crisis, is a deeper union. In the same way that the advancement of science does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with the advancement of morality, so increased EU integration will not, per se, make European citizens any better than they are already. The Enlightenment was not only about scientific progress and reason, but also about doubt. It was the ability to pose questions, to challenge established dogmas, and to acknowledge that progress for the sake of progress, is not synonymous with the makings of a better world.

All the men and women of the Enlightenment had the ambition to understand the world, and make it a better place. They all had a sense of belonging to a common cause. It is this sense of belonging – being part of a Europe that is progressing – that must be rekindled in all the nations of the union. But we must be careful that a well-founded ambition for a better Europe does not become a misplaced obsession or, worse still, a dangerous fanaticism. 



(1) Upstairs, Downstairs – The Case For A Multi-Speed European Union (post in preparation)

(2) Fight for Europe – or the wreckers will destroy it (Guardian Opinion)