Brexit Reflects EU's Failure to Create a European Identity - and Israel Should Take Heed

The dream of a unified Europe was born from a bloody history that culminated in the horrors of two World Wars. But today's Europeans are still mired in nationalism.

June 23, 2016 may well become a historical date of major importance in the history of Europe, and indeed, in the history of the Free world. Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti-EU party UKIP said this morning "The EU is falling, the EU is dying, I hope we got the first brick out of the wall," and in a few years we might come to the conclusion that Farage’s gleeful prophecy was correct: As was to be expected Marine le Pen, leader of France’s extreme right wing Front National and Netherland’s Geert Wilders called for similar referenda in their respective countries, and such calls voiced in Italy as well.

The reasons for Cameron’s stunning upset are being analyzed by the terabytes, and many factors are being presented insightfully. I would like to take a wider perspective and argue that Brexit reflects a deeper weakness in the EU: the failure of Europe’s political class to create a narrative of a truly meaningful European identity and common destiny. So let me start with Cameron and the British elites.

Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), speaks during a news conference for the EU referendum "Leave" campaign in London, U.K., on Wednesday, June 22, 2016.
Chris Ratcliffe, Bloomberg

As the Guardian’s Martin Kettle argued in an insightful piece from Friday morning, Cameron never really made a strong case for Britain’s staying in the EU; he saw it as a management issue only, and he just tried to muddle by day by day, never truly confronting the growing number of Euro-skeptics in his own party, never mind in British citizenry.

Only in the very last days did he start to make a stronger positive case for the ‘Stay’ position - practically all of it put in purely economic terms. And this indeed had been the main argument of the ‘Stay’ proponents throughout: The Pound would fall (which has duly happened), Britain’s GDP would shrink immediately with corresponding loss of income and jobs for all classes. This is also what the overwhelming majority of economists, businesspeople and financial experts kept arguing: Brexit would have catastrophic consequences for the British economy. There were hardly any voices that claimed that there could be deeper reasons for being part of the EU connected to history, core-values and a vision of the future.

We now know the result: the elites failed to convince the majority of Brits that staying in the EU had any deeper meaning. If anybody was speaking about meaning it was Boris Johnson who kept reiterating that Brexit would be Britain’s declaration of freedom and independence.

The failure of the EU to create meaning and identity

Here we come to the most glaring failure of Europe’s political elites. They are very busy with managing complex problems from the debt crisis to the refugee crisis; and when they are not, Brussels is notoriously bogged down in administrative, legal and economic minutiae. The only thing the average citizen knows about the European Union is that it suddenly intrudes by telling them how to produce or label cheese or wine they produce, or forces new standards on their products.

This was by no means the case at the onset of the European project, for the original motivation for the unification of Europe was an exalted one indeed: Europe, for most of its history had been ridden with war and conflict, culminating in the horrors of WWI and WWII. The visionaries like Schuman, Adenauer and de Gaulle already towards the end of WWII wanted to create a unified Europe that would no longer be torn by wars.

But today’s voters have only known a Europe in peace; the original purpose of Europe’s unification no longer means anything to them. And there has been no Churchill, Adenauer or de Gaulle capable of rising above day-to-day politics and formulate a new vision for a unified Europe.

Such a vision can formulated, as is demonstrated eloquently by eminent thinkers like the and German historian Heinrich August Winkler in his monumental History of the West. Europe could stand for a unique combination of the protection of individual freedom and rights, and the possibility to realize one’s potential – values which it shares with the US – combined with the solidarity embodied in social-democratic values and institutions. German-American historian Peter Gay in his classic The Enlightenment has also shown that there is a European cultural history and identity over and above that of particular national narratives.

But none of this has played any role in recent political discourse in and about the EU, and the chance to work towards a distinctly European meaningful identity was missed. As a result, a large proportion of Europe’s population does not experience itself as European, but as French, Dutch, Italian or British, and see the EU as soulless administrative apparatus that has no meaning and does not contribute to their sense of pride and identity.

The result has been growing dissatisfaction with the EU, and the writing has been on the wall for a while: fully a quarter of the members of the European Parliament is composed of Euro-skeptics. Brexit may just be the first result of the failure to imbue the European project with deeper meaning.

And what does it mean for the Jews?

There is a lesson to be learned for Israel from what might well be the beginning of Europe’s tragedy. The original raison d’tre for the Zionist project was twofold: first, to ensure that every Jew would have a place where he or she could be safe from persecution and humiliation. Second, to turn the Jewish people into a nation with political self-determination.

Both of these were exalted goals indeed, and they have been achieved grandly. Israel is a powerful, thriving state with enormous human potential and impressive cultural, technological, scientific and military achievements.

But if you listen to the rhetoric of Israel’s political right that has been in power for most of the last forty years, you might think that we still live in the shtetl, endangered in our survival, humiliated and hated by the world, never sure whether we would survive to see the next day.

I do not claim that Israel does not face great security challenges. But there is not a single major figure in the security establishment - whether the IDF, the Mossad or the Shin Bet - who thinks that Israel is existentially endangered today. A whole phalanx of former IDF chiefs of staff and generals keep reiterating that Israel’s existence has never been as safe as in our times.

So why on earth does Israel’s political right led by Benjamin Netanyahu drone on about Israel’s imminent demise? Why, once the Iranian threat has ceased to be a good reason for fear of extinction (if it ever really was), does it now invent new existential dangers ranging from BDS and Israel’s Arab citizens to Israel’s own “radical left” that, so they say, undermine Israel’s foundations?

The answer, I believe, is quite similar to the failure of the EU leadership. Israel’s political right has never come up with a meaningful narrative over and above Jewish dignity and safety. As a result, it suffers from a vacuum of meaning, and all it can do is to invent existential dangers to keep the original narrative alive and to act in ways that indeed alienates Israel’s friends around the world.

The results are grievous: the level of hatred inside Israel between different groups has never been as high as it is now; and Israel’s deepening international isolation is indeed a fact – again used by the political right to fan the flames of fear.

And indeed I think that Israel’s lack of vision is already creating the analogue of Brexit: As Peter Beinart has been arguing for years, the younger generation of American Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal and cosmopolitan in outlook, are progressively disengaging from an Israel, with which they cannot identify, and whose values they do not share.