For Europe, lessons about identity in Britain’s exit vote

Europe’s long history in defining new collective identities will continue as it deals with the effects of Britain’s vote to ‘leave’ the European Union.

A woman holds a sign in Westminster, in central London, Britain June 24.

For centuries, Europe has provided lessons for the world on how to define a collective identity. Its people have gone from being medieval serfs to imperial subjects to citizens of nation-states to “members” of the European Union. They have gone from being the center of Christendom to an exporter of secular values enshrined as “human rights.” Now, after Britain’s June 23 vote to leave the union, Europe may once again show how diverse societies, beset with new challenges, discover the foundations to bind themselves around common ideals.

As Britain sorts out the terms of a new relationship with the Continent, its vote to “leave” the EU has opened debates elsewhere on what constitutes identity as a body politic. Will Scotland vote for independence from Britain in order to stay within the EU? Will Northern Ireland seek to join Ireland? Will other EU members follow Britain and drop out? Will Britain’s move dampen the interest of Ukraine, Turkey, and others to join the EU?

Within the EU itself, Britain’s vote will probably drive a debate on policies that were aimed at forming a European identity. Was it wise to open internal migration within Europe so quickly? Did the EU centralize too much unaccountable authority and step too harshly on national sovereignty?

Most of all, are the EU’s primary missions – to prevent wars like those in the 20th century and to create a giant single market – not grounded enough in shared moral ideals to form a continent-wide identity?

Much of Britain’s referendum debate focused on problems of immigration and whether EU membership brings economic benefits. While worthy issues, these only hint at issues of identity. In saying “No” to the EU, we can hope that Britain was saying “yes” to its hope of embracing and protecting its rich inheritance – its open system of parliamentary democracy, its historic pattern of absorbing foreigners, and its attractive legacies in culture and landscapes.

When entire peoples split apart – the American Revolution is one example – it means that conditions were not right for using the word “we,” as in “we” Europeans. For that to happen, a society must offer something that is worthy of sacrifice or that helps individuals find salvation.

Identity cannot be imposed. The fact that Britain decided to hold a popular referendum on EU membership was a reminder that only individuals, through such measures as voting, can seek a consensus on their bonds of attachment. Europe’s grand experiments in identity formation may now make history again.

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