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Exodus, Reckoning, Sacrifice: Three Meanings of Brexit Kalypso Nicolaïdis

I don’t know about you, but in spite of three years of high Brexit intake nearing overdose, I am still a Brexit addict. As seen from Oxford, Europeans on the continent may have moved on from the fear of Exit contagion to the hope of Brexit-as-vaccination, but the Faragian cancer is back at the heart of Brussels! Perhaps Europeans now fear that the poison of Brexit is here to stay, infiltrating the nooks and crannies of EU’s social fabric, even if no other country is likely to elect to leave.

I believe that we must push back against this narrative. For one, British society and public opinion are as diverse and divided as its continental counterparts. If British exceptionalism exists, it is in the collective self-confidence and stubbornness which makes it the only country in the EU to be collectively capable of leaving it. Moreover, the real fear we should all share is not of Brexit contagion but, on the contrary, that of trans-Channel drift.

Perhaps such an opinion is to be expected from the mother of Franco-British kids, who has elected to live and work in and on Great Britain. Be that as it may, and since the fateful vote, I have been animated by one conviction: if Brexit is to happen, something I regret immensely, it needs to be a mutually respectful process, the smartest, kindest, most gentle Brexit possible in our hard-edged epoch of resentment.

Naïve? Utopian? Impossible? Yes, if we go by the spectacle we have witnessed in the last three years. What a grand democratic mess this has been! But let’s face it, figuring out how to sever the kind of ties that have bound the UK and the EU for more than four decades was never going to be easy. If Brexit is to happen, let us minimise its collateral damage, on both sides of the Channel, for our democracies need tender loving care. We must find shared languages in which to conduct our conversation across the many divides that both infuriate and enrich us.

This at least is what I tried to suggest in my recent book entitled Exodus, Reckoning, Sacrifice: Three Meanings of Brexit – a quest for one such language short of the expectation that we can ever agree, but in the hope that we can at least enter a spirit of mutual recognition as we confront our views across these ubiquitous divides: Leavers vs Remainers, young vs old, cynics vs idealists, Europeans vs non-Europeans.

The book was inspired by conversations with friends and strangers on all sides of the Brexit saga, with my British husband and my European children, as well as by echoes of a Parisian childhood steeped in Greek mythology. I believe that Greek and Biblical stories offer many variants, ambiguities and contradictions which open up spaces for our democratic debates. And so, in the book, I conjure up three archetypes to explore the competing visions that have clashed so dramatically over the meaning of Brexit, whether as the ultimate demonstration of British exceptionalism or as a harbinger of terrible truths or sacrifice on the altar of EU unity. The reader is invited on a journey through the imaginative worlds of the ancients to probe the mix of instinct, feeling and pride that inspires people’s yearning to be free, to bond with others or to reinvent politics. And while I castigate the European project for its failure to accommodate the longings of the continent in all their glorious variety, I contend with the ironic possibility that after and perhaps because of Brexit, the EU will live up to the pluralist ideals that define both the best of the United Kingdom and the best of Europe.

Ultimately, the book offers a plea for acknowledging each other’s stories, with their many variants, ambiguities and contradictions, in the hope that if we can do so, it may become easier to turn the tables against a common challenge rather than against each other on either side of the Channel.

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Kalypso Nicolaïdis is Professor of International Relations and Faculty Fellow, St Antony's College

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