London—Last night at the security check at JFK I inadvertently got between a German man and his wife. “You go ahead,” I told him. “But you are first,” he replied with Prussian punctiliousness. So I played my trump card: “We Europeans must stick together.”
He smiled. “Let’s hope we do. We all want you to stay.” That was the last conversation I had as a European, an identity I’d acquired officially along with a British passport a year ago, but one which felt at least as precious as any piece of paper. My Europe was a continent with a bloody past but a brilliant future, where language and literature and food and wine and film and theater were all enriched by a culture that looked confidently outward, and a political settlement that not only kept the peace for over half a century, but acted as a powerful magnet pulling countries on the periphery toward the European political norms of democracy and civility. I landed this morning in London, capital of a nation that voted to turn its back on its neighbors.
Of course, the European reality wasn’t always so pretty. As faithful readers will know, the other half of the London bureau is Greek, and knew better than anyone the torments inflicted on her country by Europe’s political failures and Germany’s blind obsession with austerity. Since I was going to be out of the country, she insisted on making arrangements to cast my proxy, and our daughter’s, for Remain—a vote we all saw as a moral imperative in the face of a fraudulent, racist, xenophobic Leave campaign.
And now that campaign has won. Though Scotland, Northern Ireland, London, Liverpool, Manchester, and Leeds all voted strongly for Britain to remain part of the European Union, the Leave campaign won overall by a margin of 1.2 million votes. From George Orwell’s Wigan to Wordsworth’s Cumbria to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon, the English people have decided they do not want to be European any more.
There are people who will tell you the reasons for that rejection are complex; two weeks ago, I would have been one of them. For decades, the press here have used Brussels as shorthand for an overweening undemocratic bureaucracy. And there has always been plenty of truth in that depiction, from fruit-and-veg stands penalized for selling their wares in pounds and ounces to a recent European court decision barring Scotland from imposing a minimum price on alcohol as a way of deterring binge drinking. Nor did German Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, the European Central Bank, or the European Commission cover themselves in glory during the financial crisis. It was also horribly clear that whatever lessons might have been learned watching the burning of Sarajevo and the slaughter in Srebrenica were long forgotten by the time Syria’s refugees came knocking at the gates.