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Would a smaller EU imperil European culture?

Thinking beyond the financial implications of a reduced EU

June 10, 2015 2:00AM ET

In Greece and Great Britain, the center-left is collapsing, austerity and immigration are of great concern to the general population, and despite seeing two ideologically opposed political parties voted into office, both governments are viewing the European Union with increasing suspicion.

Much has been made of the financial implications of a “Grexit.” But what would happen to Europe if Britain went off on its own?

At a time when the two countries are faced with imminent decisions on their European future, a “Grexit” would be a financial peril, but a “Brexit” would be a cultural catastrophe.

Interlinked destinies

Culturally, ancient Greece is the foundation of Europe. In fact, there is no such thing as Europe without Greece. It is a link to its past and a bridge between the West and the East, reminding us how interlinked our destinies are and how each country is an essential component of the European identity. It’s a tired cliché but one worth remembering: The values of democracy and the beginnings of most sciences and arts can be traced squarely to the people inhabiting the eastern side of the Mediterranean basin.

For Greece, leaving the euro would undoubtedly cause financial turmoil. The isolation it would face could force the country to reinvent itself culturally and drive it to seek out allies — Russia, for instance — that don’t necessarily share the values on which Europe was built.

For young Greeks, isolation from Europe is unthinkable. The last few generations of Greeks were brought up in European ideals and ways of life, in which traditional institutions such as the church and the army have little significance. They are used to living and working wherever they see fit, whether in neighboring Cyprus or France or the U.K. Becoming a more integrated part of Europe and growing more European were long overdue changes in a society that suffered several wars and political turbulence during the 20th century.

Along similar lines, this holds true for Britain, where a majority of young people (18–24 years old) favor staying in the EU because they recognize the benefits of free movement and cultural plurality. 

Whereas Greece represents Europe’s antiquity, Britain — fusty monarchy notwithstanding — is the face of European modernity. For better or worse, English is the lingua franca of our times. Through Britain, Europe speaks to the world. Those claiming a profoundly distinct cultural identity for the British are ignorant; they lack a real little understanding of how European cultures have merged into one another over thousands of years and of populations exchanged and intermingled through commerce, migration, war and displacement.

As Britain’s recent elections showed, there isn’t even a single, unified British culture to begin with. It’s not shocking that Scotland is trying hard to return to being a separate country. Wales and Ireland, with their own parliaments and languages, are demanding more attention too.

The UK is both an ambassador and a brand because it represents the European values of democracy, freedom and modernity.

An exit from the EU would trigger a cultural clash in Britain. Scotland is pro-EU to the core. Wales is essentially kept alive thanks to European subsidies. Leaving the EU would fortify the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. There are already strong demands for the various parts of the U.K. to vote separately on the issue. And if England elected to leave the EU, it’s almost certain Scotland would choose to go the other way.

For Britain — and for many other countries in Europe — this amalgam makes sense only if it is glued together by a complementary identity. It used to be empire, the idea of Britishness. Now it can be only Europe.

A symbiotic relationship

Britain’s relationship with the EU is a symbiotic one: The country gets as much out of the union as the union gains from having the U.K. as a member.

But because of how poorly the British economy is faring, this hasn’t been a politically viable position. Prime Minister David Cameron ran in May on a Euroskeptic, anti-welfare agenda, perhaps assuming that a coalition partner would force him to water down his proclamations after the electoral frenzy had worn off.

It’s not hard to see why Brits would blame the EU for their problems. EU restrictions put in place to protect the environment have worked against traditional occupations such as fishing in the south of England and elsewhere. The past few decades have taken a heavy toll on the white working class, which has seen its income, quality of life and political influence greatly diminish. Many point to the EU’s freedom of movement laws and cheaper imported labor as the causes of plummeting wages; they forget that the decline of the working class began well before the EU in its current form existed, under Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  

A false narrative that the U.K. is putting in more than it receives from Europe has taken hold. The Schrödinger immigrants, who the right-wing U.K. Independence Party believes live on benefits and take all the jobs the same time, have been shown to be of net benefit to the economy.

So while Europe needs the U.K. where it is, this need cuts both ways. When the U.K., which likes to think that it punches above its weight, goes out in the world, it rests on the massive platform of the EU — a market that, if unified, is the world’s largest economy. The U.K. is both an ambassador and a brand, a desirable destination for tourism and work exactly because it represents the European values of democracy, freedom and modernity. It’s unlikely that a parochial version of “little England” would ever achieve the same.

European ambassadors

Over the course of his new term, Cameron will probably attempt to renegotiate parts of treaties to allow the U.K. to make its own rules. And because Britain is not Greece, it is in a position to start this conversation.

But these kinds of concessions are antithetical to how the EU — a supranational body — works. If he tried to do so, he would face objections by the parliaments of other countries. Germany would flat out deny changes to the freedom of movement principle, for instance, because it serves its agenda of justifying high unemployment in other countries (People can always move to where the work is.) Greece, with a left-wing government devoted to internationalism and a no-borders policy, would block it too. And their votes count the same. 

So this would leave Cameron with little choice but to back a “Brexit,” all while hoping hard to lose. If by any chance the out side won, Britain could hope only for a future in which it becomes globally irrelevant.

The dire financial situation it would face after a “Brexit” would make it easier to break apart and privatize cherished institutions such as the National Health Service. The working class would fare no better.

In addition, the British cultural institutions and universities that are already seeing their funding slashed, such as the famous Arts Council, which has been a bedrock for independent artists, would be weakened further.

Everyone would ultimately lose if the U.K. stopped being an ambassador of European values. Its culture, language and economy would become irrelevant to the rest of Europe; alone, it would be a divided, weakened state.

Yiannis Baboulias is a journalist, writer and founding member of Precarious Europe. His work has been featured in The London Review of Books, The New Statesman, Vice, Open Democracy and The Guardian, among other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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