Robert Seddon discusses how, to some, the European Union has emerged as a guiding light of moral values.
A notable feature of the Brexit referendum, both before and especially after the vote, is its moralism. Some came from Leave, championing an ethos of democratic self-governance, but a great deal has emanated from Remain. Would there be similar outbursts over membership of the World Trade Organisation? Would the same protestors turn out to defend the International Organisation for Standardisation? In this remarkable new epoch, a body known for regulating toasters and vacuum cleaners is practically vying with the Vatican for devotion.
Of course, the European Union has absorbed many of the functions and trappings of a nation-state, and there is nothing unusual about love of one’s country. Yet Europhiles have not tended to consider themselves patriots, any more than they consider themselves nationalists; the ‘patriotic Europeans’ are a very different group. The E.U. often acts like a nation, e.g. in trying to work out what to do about its external borders, but in its mythos it embodies an enlightened post-national order, or at any rate exists to keep France and Germany from each other’s throats.
Unlike other international bodies (except perhaps the United Nations), the European Union exists in a dualist state: there is the worldly, bureaucratic E.U., the byzantine and protectionist one that regulates bananas and light bulbs, and then there is the spiritual and transcendental E.U., the one symbolising cosmopolitan values and the quelling of jingoism.
How did this come about? Not in isolation. The impulse to be associated with something spiritually ideal and unsullied exists in our domestic politics too: recall how the Liberal Democrats haemorrhaged support after they got involved in the grubby compromises of actual governance. The great impossible dream is to belong to the Lovely Party, the party of omelettes for all without breaking eggs. Some dream of Corbyn, some the Greens, and some of faraway Brussels.
Some of this is politics as fashion statement: ‘virtue signalling’ has become the term du jour. Yet some Remainers really do seem quite at sea, disoriented and distrustful of a country ready to jettison the E.U. in favour of—who knows what? That question has usually been given a practical bent: what are the exact terms of our withdrawal? Yet it’s possible that some people really do feel they’re about to be cast out of the Garden of Eden, exiled from the only source of spiritual nourishment they’ve known in terms of geopolitical identity, with no guidance but schoolbook memories of the 1832 Reform Act and ‘If I should die, think only this of me’.
No wonder Boris Johnson (one of those Leavers for whom the protectionist E.U. isn’t cosmopolitan enough) has been so keen to emphasise that Britain will always be culturally and geographically European.
So that’s how the E.U. has become a moral totem; and that’s why, if you voted Remain on more pragmatic grounds, you may have spent recent days in toe-curling embarrassment.