Brexit as myth: Exodus, Reckoning, or Sacrifice?
The best way to understand the UK’s departure from the EU may be through the prism of ancient mythology. But which story to choose?
Exodus: “The Egyptians Drown in the Sea”, 1866, by Gustave Doré
In the beginning was the word, and the word was Brexit. But nobody quite knew what that word meant.
And then the oracle spoke: Brexit means Brexit.
What does it say about the prospect of Britain’s exit from the EU that the word itself became the preferred contender for its elucidation? No matter that many different messages were received, in Britain or on the Continent: “We will not backtrack,” “no half-way house,” “we are ready to pay the price,” or “your choice,” “it’s all over,” “good riddance”. No matter that some heard the word with glee, others with despair, remorse, hurt or sadness, the one mantra stood: Brexit means Brexit.
Since the 2016 referendum, we each have had our own way of dealing with the ubiquitous tautology. We have turned to the past and asked why. We have gazed into the future, trying to predict what will happen or prescribe what should. Explanations and Implications. Sociology and Policy.
And everyone’s hopes and fears converged on an EU Article called Fifty. With the trigger, we were now supposed to know: Brexit really means Brexit.
To clarify her intentions, our oracle decreed that there should be a snap election in June: “If you want Brexit to mean Brexit, don’t make June the end of May!” But the “about Brexit” elections came and went but still left us with the original question: what does “mean” mean in “Brexit means Brexit”? Whatever happens next in the negotiation saga, we know that there will always be people, trucks, firms, diplomats, trains, diseases, fads or songs crossing the Channel. A bit more or a bit less. But meaning, of course, is more than that.
Meanings matter, for we have entered a battle of narratives whose protagonists will spare no crude short cuts. Which one dominates the next two years will help determine the nature of the Brexit deal and maybe of the EU itself. But they matter for less instrumental reasons too. They matter to our individual sense of identity and connectedness. Meanings process feelings but do not transcend them. And as Roland Barthes famously argued, when the hidden narratives which sustain our societies rise to the surface, they borrow from the qualities of past fantastic tales, which help determine what we see. They become mythology.
Now, it is clear to any casual observer that the great debate between Brexiteers and Remainers has been powered by different historical mythologies or at least different readings of history having to do with “the mother of parliaments”, Henry VIII’s first Brexit against the Vatican, Wellington beating Napoleon, the Great War and its lost generation. But behind and beyond collective memory and the lessons we pretend to extract from history, there are other kinds of myths, great archetypal myths, sacred narratives which may provide a less contested terrain for our conversation.
Could it help then to explore the meaning of Brexit as ancient mythology? To juxtapose parallel and incommensurable meanings under the shadow of great archetypes, and treat Brexit, like all such archetypes, as a dramatic pivot around a moment, with a before and an after, somehow connecting a feature of being — to be or not to be European — and a feature of doing — to stay or not to stay in the EU. It is in making this connection visible that myths acquires meaning, allowing for an infinite retelling in infinite circumstances and yet serving as stable beacons for our collective imagination.
In this spirit, let me suggest that the meaning of Brexit can be told through the prism of three archetypal myths, each connecting being and doing in a different way: stories of Exodus, stories of Reckoning, and stories of Sacrifice.
Whether these stories echo most faithfully the voice of the world itself as Francis Bacon would have it, or whether they simply constitute a common referent, we feel we know what they each mean. And yet, they did not emerge from the collective soul of humankind to provide easy answers to our predicament. Always ambiguous, they serve as ever-retreating truth-mirages to tickle our mind and force more questions.
My hope is that to adopt these dramatically different vantage points may help confront meanings dominant among various categories of people, as they clash, overlap or cross in the dark — Leavers and Remainers, EU citizens in the UK and elsewhere, so-called tribals and cosmopolitans, Europeans and non-Europeans. Or they can remind us that we usually hold several contradictory meanings in our minds at once. We may not quite manage to see from an enlarged Kantian vantage point but at least we can try to shed light kaleidoscopically on each other’s stories. And in the process, we may recognise that if Brexit were to unfold in a true spirit of mutual recognition and mutual respect, if a gentler Brexit was possible, we would all be better for it.
The most straightforward and widely shared meaning of Brexit both in the UK and on the European continent is simply that it is about Britain, red white and blue — Britain’s prerogative and thus Britain’s problem. Brexit simply means that the UK will leave.
For Brexiteers are unmistakably leading a people enslaved by the shackles of Brussels on a journey of escape, echoing the heroic tale of another people escaping slavery in Egypt, served by the strong-headedness of prophets bargaining with the Pharaoh over terms of departure, and complete with the parting of the seas. Egyptians, Europeans: let the people go!
And so the story goes. Brexit is a very British thing and British exceptionalism is overdetermined: by geography (the island nation); by history (the uninvaded nation); by politics (the parliamentary nation); or by class cultural inertia. In this story, the tabloids did not cook the British Eurosceptic brew but only stirred it. So say the UK’s new prophets, to defend British sovereignty against EU encroachment is to depart for a promised land of non-CAP stamped milk and honey where we are not governed by others but do the governing ourselves. The old Anglosphere will be our new Jerusalem which connects Great Britain’s future with its glorious past and the English heartland with its British parts. The great escape allows for a politically-correct Englishness which loves “our” Muslims and paints EU-centredness as parochial.
The Exodus story of an exceptional people is not only a heroic tale sung by Brexiteers. Eurofederalists admit that letting this people go is quite a relief, a people typically cut off from the continent by any bit of “fog in the Channel”, a continent whose aspiration to harmony they never really understood. De Gaulle was right, they say, even if for the wrong reasons: the Brits are simply not “European enough” to remain part of this EU. Let them delude themselves in their fantasyland. “Tired of the fog, try the frogs,” tease French recruiters with glee.
But our myths, of course, never quite mean what they seem.
If the Exodus of the Old Testament has inspired an infinite retelling, can we not imagine a modern kind of Exodus-lite where the Europeans are spared the ten plagues and the Brits the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness?
After all, many don’t want to leave at all. “Why hast thou done this to us?” complained the Israelites to Moses, “that thou hast led us out of Egypt?”
“The Lord himself will fight for you. Just stay calm,” replied their Prophet. Keep calm and carry on. But what if we do not believe in your version of milk and honey, exclaim the Scottish, the Northern Irish or London tribes who had elected to stay. How do you expect us willingly to get lost in a legal and political no-man’s land, to leave a Euroland governed in our language, literally as well as ideologically, whose achievements of the last three decades stand as markers of British influence? Will the rebel tribes elect to exit Brexit and embark on their own “Brexodus”? Or better for Brexiteers, will they come to see the light and understand that an Exodus is always an exercise in delayed gratification?
Political sociologists have explained the vote as a tale of two Britains, a cultural war between the more or less young, schooled or urban, and between sides who differ on everything from the death penalty to gay rights — we are even told that they have different sexual fantasies! Or perhaps it boils down to the opposite meanings of one word: bond. As bondage or servitude for some, as the ties that bind for others.
Seen from the continent, we try to blur our gaze for a sharper vision, tune out the hyperbolic expressions of nativist sentiment on John Lennon’s island and wonder at how un-British they have become, as if the decision to go meant letting themselves go.
More frustrating still, the Leavers themselves seem to have radically different ways of “not being European enough” à la De Gaulle. Some want to leave because they find Europe too big, others because they find it too small. For a promised land, the parochials dream of the shires, the globalists of the Antipodes. The former want more protection and to pull up the drawbridge, the latter less protectionism and to build bridges.
It is not clear what version other Europeans dislike more, each slightly alienating in a different way. If the Brits have left us because they find Europe too big, we can confine Brexit to all that is pathetic about British exceptionalism and “Little Britain”. But if they have left because they find Europe too small, but there is panache — however delusional — in their story of Cool Britannia goes global. You will even find grudging admiration in some EU quarters for those bloody-minded Brits — they dared!
For every European applauding the departure of these foot-draggers, another will miss their expert footwork. For Britain has been everyone’s great balancer — of the French on behalf of the Germans, of the Germans on behalf of the French, and of both on behalf of the periphery. It is not for nothing that the UK has been the most sought-after ally in Council negotiations after Germany. Bregret has many variants on the continent.
We find variants of ambivalence-writ-large beyond Europe itself. Commonwealth citizens may bemoan the closing of their gate to the EU but are also flattered to have been chosen as less problematic migrants than the close-by Poles. And in the rest of the world, the prospect of an unanchored global Britannia does leave puzzled observers wondering why the Brits would want to abandon a Euroland that still attracts so many nomads. But it does not hurt either to be desperately courted by the ex-imperialists.
Perhaps weary of such prospects, European leaders seem prone to enact a more self-aggrandising version of the story, where it is they who stand at the gate. This is not your Exodus but our banishing! You may have chosen to bite the apple and claim back control over your life, but we define the terms of departure. This story is not about freedom gained but paradise lost.
But what does banishment say about the banisher? Is it too early for Brussels to recognise that it could have given David Cameron a better deal to sex-up the Remainers’ dossier? Was more freedom within Egypt truly not an option?
And what does it say about the banished? That Eve “deserved it”? That she has fallen for the promise of fake knowledge outside Paradise? Who is to say?
Isn’t banishment anyway always on a knife’s edge, all-or-nothing but with little separating the two, a foolish gamble, a short moment of gluttony in Paradise? Who says that biting the apple was written in British DNA? How do we make sense of the very real possibility that the decision could have gone the other way? If only. No one would then be talking about British exceptionalism.
Failure to read the signs: “Oedipus and the Sphinx”, 1808, by Ingres
To be sure, there is nothing less exceptional in Europe than exceptionalism. Few countries fail to brandish their own proud traditions and finest hours. The EU is a machinery designed to turn exceptions into rules, and exceptional countries into rule-bound ones. British law-abiding exceptionalism lies both in taking the EU too literally and in its insistence on special treatment, in or out of the EU. As the French like to say, these guys want le beurre, l’argent du beurre et les baisers de la fermière.
But then again, which country in the EU does not have a so-called transactional view? Which does not ask “what’s in it for me”? The Brits are only exceptional in their belief that leaving the table altogether could strengthen their hand.
The insistence that “exodus means exodus” by the guardians of the faith on the continent cannot obscure the fundamentals — that Brexit means inventing a new category of country, namely the “former EU member-state”. The Hebrews toiled in Egypt for many centuries before they left — we can’t treat the Brits as if they had never been part of us, can we? Never ran our markets and filled our coffers — they deserve better than those who have never been our equals around the table, who do not know our grand strategies and dirty little secrets. Unless, of course, their self-righteousness manages to test the goodwill of even their more fervent supporters on the the Continent.
The other fundamental — as the Putin-Trump axis lays bare the old commonalities — is about that idea called Europe, which is not the EU and somehow remains the Promised Land, if we believe the Brexiteers. Majorities in Europe still equate Europeanness with support for EU membership, but perhaps we need to reinvent the idea of being European as actors in a web of networks of which the EU is only one. Ultimately, the Jews left Egypt but not the Middle East.
Which brings us to our second story. Brexit is not just about Britain, of course.
As we shift our gaze from the little island coyly retreating within its shores, to the continent as a whole, itself the small tip of the Asian landmass, we find lands submerged by one seismic wave after another, each stronger than the one before, with no time to absorb the aftershock of the preceding one. Chaos is upon us and the shockwave threatens to engulf the very foundation of our post-war order.
As meaning drifts towards stories of reckoning, we read Brexit as a revealer of uncomfortable truths. Brexit no longer just means the plain fact that Britain will leave, but instead implies an injunction: Brexit means that everyone should leave. It is about the fate that is awaiting the ever-smaller union. The Brits have only dared to make it visible.
Brexit may be a bombshell in the European landscape but the landscape had already been devastated by the policies and mindsets that betrayed its peoples. Denial is the only reason for EU leaders to hang on to the first exceptionalism story and pretend that British leavers are the only ones to feel left behind by economic growth, left out of politics, or left aghast by societal change.
Stories of reckoning tell us that this is not a tsunami coming from nowhere, or from Wall Street or Palmyra, but one of our own making, chastisement for past deeds. They tell us that the EU is being punished less for what is has done than for what it has failed to do: deal with unfair globalisation, uncontrolled migration, unfettered enrichment of the few.
With Brexit, the spectre of European disintegration has become real and institutionalised, in procedures, article numbers and summit agendas. Euroscepticism is now not only in power in some of the EU capitals but able to command the very boundaries of Europe, a core marker of our collective identity — if there is such a thing. And it is has transformed every domestic theatre, from Marine’s to Geert’s, into a local battle for the survival of Europe.
In short, Brexit as reckoning represents the triumph of Eurosceptic views of the world which have captured the public imagination across member states, the boldest expression of the new politics of anger, popular insurrection and tribal eruptions. It will not do to dismiss the prophecy as self-fulfilling. The Eurosphere will ignore it at its peril.
But stories of reckoning come in different shapes and forms. Which variant shall we heed?
For one, the uncomfortable truths that must be faced are a very elusive affair. Oedipus was always going to kill his dad, Laius, and marry his mum, Jocasta. But for what reason? Who failed to heed the prophecy? His parents who wavered at his birth, the shepherd who wavered at the river, Oedipus himself who failed to read the signs? As the paradigmatic seeker and avoider of truths, Oedipus both very deliberately solves the Sphinx’s riddle, and very accidentally fulfils the prophecy. Can Freud’s “what have I done?” ever be redeemed by acknowledging that the truth is blindingly obvious? On realising what he has brought about, Oedipus stabs out the eyes which could not see. He will be guided by his daughter to seek anew. Youth as redeemer.
What do we see? For whom does the bell toll? Some believe in indiscriminate judgment and others that it is all in the sorting out of the worthy from the sinners. In this story of popular wrath, there is little doubt that elites must be punished for the double sin of gluttony and contempt, those who happily revelled in their favourite game of casino capitalism, playing Russian roulette with the welfare and dignity of millions.
Yet reckoning in the real world can be impervious to the impartial “Eye in the Sky”. Perhaps and as always, the most vulnerable will pay, the periphery, the south, the east, the (still) left-behinds? After all, who among the powerful does not believe that they are the ones who belong on Noah’s Ark?
Depending on your eschatological bent, the story is about different ends: the end of our world, the end of the end of history; or end only as an interregnum, between one world and another. In the far reaches of the world, one hears the echoes of post-imperial schadenfreude — the very nation which invented the standards of civilisation incapable of being standardised by its neighbours.
Others believe that the last judgment will never happen, that Brexit means that both the EU and Britain will now live in its shadow, in a state of permanent ontological insecurity, a reckoning forever postponed, forever possible.
Where does redemption lie then? If Brexit is but the bluntest expression of the Eurosceptic verdict, there are many types of scepticism with different takes on kinds of chastisement.
To hugely simplify, there are those across Europe who vote or demonstrate against Brussels in favour of London, Budapest or Athens, and for whom the EU’s sin is its credo of taming nationalism through agreed constraints. Across Europe, fingers pointed at the other-within rotate towards a union bent on chipping away communities’ most fundamental collective instinct: the capacity to exclude.
And then there are those who vote or demonstrate against London, Rome or Paris through their no to Brussels — those for whom the true target of a “people’s Brexit” or Grexit or Frexit, is the insurgents’ own national establishment, the system nurtured by their own elites.
In short, redemption lies with recovering national or popular sovereignty. It would be a mistake for Europhiles to dismiss either variant of Euroscepticism.
We can try to dismiss cries of “EUSSR” heard from Warsaw to Budapest as unreconstructed transitional angst. But the powerful motto of “take back control” has long been heard in the streets of Paris, Amsterdam, Dublin and Athens during past EU referendum campaigns. Can we learn anew to disentangle the yearning for self-determination and local empowerment from xenophobia and my-country-firstism?
It is even harder to dismiss the second variant of Euroscepticism. Is hostility to the EU unfairly the collateral damage of the pathologies of national democracy tout court? Yes, when we recall that Brussels empowers people as consumers, activists, or confronters of corporate power. No, if we see the EU as an enabler of elite collusion, allowing the political class across Europe to strike a Faustian bargain, exchanging self-government at national level for liberal constitutionalism at EU level. Weber feared his beloved bureaucracy turning into his infamous iron cage — but this one is an iron cage in a bubble.
The elites cannot forever drift in their lifeboat in the belief that reckoning is simply part of the false consciousness that has beset the hoi polloi, the people who fail to acknowledge that technocrats are here to deliver “public goods” which, precisely because these are “public”, cannot be left to the public’s whims. It is their missionary zeal that is on trial, which has made the European project not only safe for but also safe from democracy.
In the myth of Er which concludes The Republic, Plato tells us that we might or might not learn from our past lives when choosing future ones, but that either way it is not an easy thing. Even the gods can be tricked by the pious but false “man of the people” (sic), who pretends to be righteous and is thus destined to eat his own children.
In this tale of equal-opportunity afterlife, only love of wisdom, justice, courage and moderation, not the pretence of these virtues, can break the cycle of reward and punishment.
Can the EU become wise and be saved?
If reckoning means re-knowing, rather than the very last judgement, we are in a world of second chances. Let us not trivialise this opportunity through “last chance” summits and reform plans. On the contrary, Oedipus’s fate is meant to remind us that truth-seeking comes not in a big bang but through successive initiations.
It might help to start by distinguishing between existential and transformative scepticism — scepticism about the EU’s raison d’être and scepticism about what it does. If we listen to the latter, and if the EU were to become the guardian of the long-term, much could be saved for future generations.
But perhaps Brexit does mean Bereshit, after all (the Torah’s “in the beginning”, that is). What if we told the story not as a signal for something that will or should happen, but rather as an event that in itself changes the world — a story of sacrifice on the altar of the greater good? Under this narrative, Britain takes the form of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, “the strong-born”, offered to the Gods for the winds to rise and the Greek flotilla to sail off to conquer Troy. Brexit means that you leave the EU in order to save it.
“The Sacrifice of Iphigenia”, 1632-33, by François Perrier
There is a simple — dare I say macho? — version of the story, which we can call heroic sacrifice. Leave for our sake not yours, implored a French columnist before the referendum. Boris Johnson and his allies concurred, reassuring their continental counterparts not to worry, since “Brexit will be good for you: with us out of the way you can at last fulfil your federalist dream.” Both sides have pointed to Britain’s history of heroic sacrifice on the battlefields of Europe as the buried evidence for Brexit — Are you kidding me? The mass graves of the Somme as proof of the virtue of absence?
Unless, of course, we understand the sacrifice narrative in a way which preserves its genuinely ambiguous nature, a sacrifice which we can all the more easily live with (literally), an ironic sacrifice: “Always look on the bright side of life.” Or as Boris says: “We are going to make a titanic success of it!”
Isn’t there irony in celebrating Britain’s decision to retreat to the cliffs of Dover as an echo of its historic landing on the shores of Normandy? Isn’t Europe, including Britain, better-off when the Brits stay involved in its affairs, mission never quite accomplished?
Theories of atonement offer us many ironic variants. For one, the victims of mythical sacrifices more often than not stay alive and well. Abraham’s son Isaac, just like Iphigenia, is replaced by a goat — literally by an (e)scape goat. At least in some versions of the myth she is not burnt at the stake but rises like the Phoenix ready to roam the world with her brother Orestes. With Britain free again to nurture the special relationship, can Theresa, if she survives, unabashedly embrace The Donald on behalf of British citizens? For a people who have made the art of civilised queuing a badge of national pride, it must feel disconcerting to so openly pursue the art of jumping trade queues.
On the other side, Brexiteers know full well that sacrifices, whether real or not, have a way of coming back to haunt the executioner. Clytemnestra saw to it that Agamemnon would pay for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia, and Stannis Baratheon (in the TV series Game of Thrones) is executed for sacrificing his daughter by none other than Lady Brienne of Tarth (whose fantasies are these difficult women with daggers?). The EU would be punished for trying to punish Britain. Brexit for them is predicated on a bet, a role reversal featuring the victim’s resurrection and the cursed hangman.
For ultimately, is sacrifice not always in vain? Yes, the wind did rise to carry Agamemnon’s ships to Troy after Iphigenia’s sacrifice, but there are precious few triumphant “welcome homes” in The Odyssey. Europe, what would Brexit as sacrifice do for you?
There is an ironic answer to this question which does not require pronouncing on any resurrection: Brexit means that you can leave the EU — and therefore you shouldn’t.
This version of the sacrifice story starts with the idea that the essence of a union is defined by the way one may leave it. This is the intuition that led to the drafting of Article 50 during the 2002 European Convention, vehemently opposed by those Eurofederalists who saw the exit clause as a sovereignist ploy. In their minds, proper states generally do not have pre-nups: introducing an exit clause in European treaties meant that the EU would never cross the Rubicon to become a state, as did the United States in 1865 when “secession” was redefined as “civil war”.
As a member of the Convention, I belonged to another brand of Europhiles who passionately defended the very idea of exit as the key to articulating a third way for an EU that is not a federal state but a (federal) union, a “demoi-cracy” in the making, a union of peoples who govern together but not as one, and who remain together by choice.
Obviously, something that makes sense in theory we may not support in practice.
If Brexit demonstrates that this is a union that you can leave it is this very freedom to leave that ought to entice you to stay. This is the obvious contradiction in the pro-Leave rhetoric: if the EU is a terrible supranational Leviathan clipping Britain’s sovereign wings, how can it be so easy to detach ourselves from it? Welcome to the Brexit paradox.
So Brexit as sacrifice has offered the world the Brexit paradox and the ironies of the current saga. “Taking back control” is the ultimate goal of human sacrifices — taking back control of the winds, rain and thunder. Agamemnon shall sail. But what control is to be had when all we face are tragic choices? Isn’t there some irony in a “clean” Brexit predicated on a great Retain Act cloaked as a Great Repeal Act, which will keep everything as it is, the EU rules on the books and the EU citizens in their bunks? For everything to change, everything must remain the same.
Isn’t there some irony in asking Westminster and Whitehall, the two most pro-European bodies in the country, to sanction and conduct the deed themselves, all along having to explain to the three Brexiteers at the top what it all entails? Here is the old British aristocratic oath of obedience at its best, the sacrifice of their own views to the “will of the people”. It is hard for their friends on the Continent not to admire a whole political class and civil service mobilising with such ingenuity to produce an outcome which it deplores.
And it is hard to deny the sense of humour of a British “people” who instructed the same Westminster and Whitehall to restore British authority on UK matters, and then turn around to brand judges their enemies for requiring exactly that.
But perhaps the greater irony is on us, EU expats in the UK, who might have to become British citizens precisely when we are no longer encouraged to call home the country where we chose to raise our children.
It would be ironic for her EU partners to insist on denying Theresa May the smoke and mirrors which will make this sacrifice bearable for all involved. She warns of her readiness to put on her jogging shoes in a race to the bottom on taxes and standards. Allow for the thought that she does see the irony in presenting self-mutilation as a threat, on the part of a country so proud to have offered the highest standards of civilisation to the rest of the world. She is simply speaking the language of ironic sacrifice.
The irony of this British sacrifice, then, is that in order to succeed it needs to avail itself of all that is good about British exceptionalism, to precisely remind us of why it should not have happened in the first place.
Like the enlightenment turn in Christian theology which privileged the idea of sacrifice for the sake of greater “moral influence” — or “moral government” for Grotius — the UK could aspire to demonstrate its worthiness in the manner it withdraws. It could remind its fellow Europeans of those bits of British exceptionalism which make good on such “moral influence”, having to do with the right of the ruled to limit power, a stubborn adherence to legal commitment, the ethos of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition or a history of restraint from arbitrary interference with people’s lives, otherwise known as the rule of law.
After four decades of co-creation of its legal and political order, this EU is not what it would have been without the UK. But in an EU addicted to consensus, the British footprint has not extended to shouting across the aisles. We will know that the sacrifice story was taken too literally if the two sides fail to picture themselves on the same side of the Commons facing a common challenge called Brexit. Are the Brits up to this Copernican challenge? Are the Europeans?
The age-old practice of doing something terrible for the sake of a higher purpose is supposed to be the mark of our superior species. But in his great wisdom, Maimonides argued that God’s decision to allow sacrifices was a concession to the psychological limitations of humans.
Do we need scapegoats? If we believe René Girard’s brilliant demonstration, the difference between the scapegoating of Jesus and others before him is that in the Resurrection Jesus is shown to be an innocent victim: humanity is thus made aware of its violent tendencies, and the cycle is broken. The self-reflexive sacrifice serves as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Can Brexit live up to the category of self-reflexive sacrifice? Can its protagonists jettison the blame game?
Perhaps European citizens as well as their leaders can mobilise the narratives of Exodus and Reckoning as primary material in a story of Sacrifice made good — or at least they can if they hone a very British value: pluralism. But a radical kind of pluralism, mediated by democratic contestation as much as by technocratic rationality.
If Brexit means that the freedom to leave defines the very essence of the EU, then the irony would be to let the sacrificial victim escape unscathed and make exit less palatable at the same time — call it exit interruptus.
Exit interruptus is about refining the various proxies for EU exit that our creative legal and political minds can offer, and opening spaces for pluralists of all countries to fight over what this means.
We could start by asking how to better use the dramatic increase in political engagement that Brexit represents. Instead of castigating direct democracy and referenda, let us create the conditions for them to work. For the sake of our digital native children, we should embrace what Helen Margetts calls chaotic pluralism, under sexy labels such as network effects, distributed intelligence and high interconnectivity. We should explore new forms of differentiated integration to deal with Euroland’s countless diversities, allow for much wider derogations from EU edicts as long as this is done in the public interest, an interest defined not by populists or elites but through democratic canvassing. And we should consider as loyal opposition all those Euroagnostics who are not simply xenophobes or demagogues.
As for the rest of the world, the EU’s unlikely embrace of a philosophy of radical pluralism would be good news, leading it to abandon once and for all talk of Europe as a gentle civiliser of others, the obsession with speaking with one voice, and the resort to othering and Euronationalism to make up for our insecurities. If we do so, others are more likely to receive the British sacrifice not as a sign of European weakness, but as a sign of Europe’s welcome maturity at 60, and its continued relevance as a fascinating, if flawed, experiment in pluralist transnational governance.
To conclude: Brexit “mythologising” can be one of many ways for us to reinvent how we conduct our democratic conversation and break through the walls of our infamous echo chambers. By invoking archetypal myths, I could easily be accused of ignoring 2,000 years of political philosophy, which developed precisely as anti-myth, from Plato to Popper. But if words are the currency of politics, myths are the currency of our political imaginaries and resources for connecting diverse democratic praxis. By appealing to our fundamental intuitions they can counter or at least supplement the Habermasian idea of democracy as deliberative rationality, not because we cannot be rational but because to be so together we need common languages, across disciplines, ideologies and national cultures, languages in which we can disagree with greater civility.
At the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, thinking through the prism of myths may help us recover the ironic distance of modernity, by supporting a critical distance, and placing smiles and question marks around our collective self-righteousness. For if agonistic (as opposed to antagonistic) politics remind us that conflict must be handled rather than denied, and that values can remain incommensurable and thus unamenable to liberal compromises, then myths appear as better templates for the conversation than technocratic blueprints. By flirting with tragic choices, the absurd and the desperate ironies entangling human beings, myths contain their own epistemic limits, at least in our contemporary eyes. And they remind us that ambivalence is our birthright not just as individuals but also as collectives.
As with an M.C. Escher drawing, we can simultaneously see the meaning of Brexit through many prisms. And yet, none of the three stories I have told offers us incontrovertible facts that we can hang on to in order to claim later that we were betrayed or vindicated. We must accept the incompleteness of our narratives and open them up to each other.
For my part, I admit to being partial to some variants more than others. I dream of the adoption of a “do no harm” principle in the way Britain and the EU deal with each other in the coming years. I prefer an Exodus-lite in the hope that the bright side of British exceptionalism will continue to enliven our European debates. I believe neither in salvation nor that this moment is the EU’s last judgment, especially if it embraces the transformative potential offered by its detractors. If enough people on both sides of the Channel contest the meanings of Brexit with gracious humility and self-deprecation, the British sacrifice will not have been in vain. Perhaps it will not be forever, either.
In the end, if we heed the ultimate message of our tragic stories — that we must choose hope against optimism — we may find solace from another mythical figure, Penelope, who unwove at night her day’s labour to placate her suitors while awaiting Ulysses. In our 21st-century version of the story, we can count on our heroic Brexiteers to frantically unweave the ties that bind in broad daylight. But perhaps, just perhaps, the spirit of pan-European mutual recognition will linger forcefully enough here, there and everywhere, so that in the dark, when they are not looking, we will continue to weave and reweave the fabric of our shared future.