“Continent Isolated”

Albeit apocryphal, this was the first English idiomatic expression I ever learned: The alleged 1930s newspaper headline “Heavy fog over the Channel: Continent Isolated.” – Not the British Isles, but Mainland Europe cut off. The person from whom I heard this was, of all people, my 5th grade English teacher, who professed to be an Anglophile and was trying very hard to convey to us that the Brits were a loveable people, a bit looney, certainly very idiosyncratic – one of their idosyncracies being their insistence on “splendid isolation,” on seeing Britain as the center of the world (or in fact, the only place that really mattered at all), and on keeping out those second-rate, unwanted aliens, European and otherwise (or at least, strenuously control their influx into Britain) – idiosyncratic, but loveable just because they were different than the rest of us and just because of their many oh-so loveable idiosyncracies. (And anyway, wasn’t national pride and the insistence on national sovereignty a good thing really?)

Now contrast that, if you will, with the America (first and foremost, the Western U.S.), the Land of Adventure that at this point, I had already grown up learning about from my family; the land of free-spirited boy heroes like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (who could easily hold a candle to my other, equally free-spirited literary childhood heroine, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking), the land of vast horizons and breathtaking geography, brought to life in the works of some of the first writers I ever read, or more precisely, gobbled up (American as well as German adventure writer Karl May), home to Native tribes that were fascinatingly different from Europeans one and all, and whose cultural symbols and arts and crafts products I had so often admired in my relatives’ home: elaborate silver and turquoise jewelry unlike anything I’d ever seen anywhere else, strange-looking Kachina dolls, intricately-woven Navajo rugs, and warm, earthy, beautifully decorated Indian pottery – all of which, from a very early age, had immersed me up to my eyebrows in the mind-expanding notion of diversity and taught me to be curious about other countries, nations, and ethnicities, not to mention creating a huge interest in travel and in learning foreign languages.

Contrast isolationism, in other words (coupled with, to top it off, shitty weather and awful food) with all of the above? No contest: America won. The reason why I wanted to learn English (and, courtesy in part of the aforementioned family connections, was able to make it into something akin to an adopted second mother tongue by the time I first actually set foot on American soil as a teenager) was because I wanted to get to know America; first and foremost, the Western U.S. England, and Great Britain as a whole, could get stuffed. – Oh, I learned about slavery, the American Civil War, and the American Indian genocide from early on, too. But nobody ever tried to sugarcoat any of these things around me, so my feeling was, OK, this is the baggage that America (or more precisely, the U.S.) has to confront and learn from, in a similar way as Germany will forever have to deal with the legacy of the Nazi atrocities. Whereas Britain, in my perception, was a nation of people taking themselves and the insistence on their own little ways far too seriously, who were consequently blind to whatever might actually not be so great about their history and their society, and who had, in fact, not yet even arrived in (what was then) the second half of the 20th century – not really, anyway. (It also didn’t particularly help that my mom, while painting the year she had spent in Paris after completing high school in glowing colors, seemed to have been decidedly less happy with the Cambridge family with whom she had stayed for a year before going to Paris; even though she loved Cambridge as a city and had met someone there who would remain one of her most valued friends all through the rest of their lives. (As coincidence – or not? – would have it, however, he is American, not British.))

The first dent in my less-than-flattering perception of Britain and the British was made, predictably, by literature. Again, it was an English teacher (this time, a true-blue Anglophile) who brought about that new layer of peception; first through the works of William Shakespeare, whose genius as a writer instantly won me over, and later by introducing me to the works of Jane Austen, with whose thoughts, as with those of Shakespeare, I felt an instant connection transcending the boundaries of time and society, while at the same time inordinately admiring her writing and literary genius. Add to that the works of the Brontës and of Charles Dickens that I had found on my mother’s bookshelves, the writings of the great Golden Age crime novelists (Conan Doyle, Sayers, Christie) which, by this time, I had discovered on my own, and the century-long soap opera of the Tudor reign, to which again my mother had introduced me (and which I still find endlessly fascinating), and a more layered image of Britain began to form in my mind. Yet, that was the Britain of the past; the Britain to which, I still felt, even in the second half of the 20th century, many British were still looking back (and with ever more loving eyes, the more it receded into the wings of history), instead of looking towards the future, or at least being firmly rooted in the present.

Still: From those somewhat improbable beginnings, a profound interest in Great Britain and eventually, love, began to grow; egged on in equal parts by multiple pilgrimages to the locations connected with the great works of British literature (past and present), as well as an immersion in British history (stemming, in turn, in part from my interest in history as such, in part from a desire to better understand the eras in which some of my by-then favorite historical novels were set, such as the medieval (= first) English Civil War, the War of the Roses, and Victorian England, and also stemming in part, from my interest in American history, out of the realization that there’s no proper understanding of colonial America without putting it into the context of its British origins) … and most importantly, the friends I made along the way. (Obviously, gaining a more complex understanding of America, France, and other parts of the world, also helped.)

All of which, somewhat circuitously, brings us to the outcome of this week’s Brexit vote.


To say that I am angry and disappointed would be an understatement:

The creation of the European Union (first in the shape of the European Economic Community, then the European Community and, in line with the Schengen accord and the Maastricht Treaty, a European Union which not only did away with trade barriers but more importantly, with barriers between its people(s)), was a project years in the making even before the initial EEC treaty (the 1957 Treaty of Rome) was signed. The project’s far-seeing architects lobbied hard for Britain’s inclusion, even if that became possible only after French President Charles de Gaulle, who had vetoed earlier attempts to permit Britain to join, had died: The last of my book reviews that I copied over from BookLikes to my new WordPress blog, Lioness at Large, just a few days ago, was my review of Willy Brandt’s memoirs: In these, ever the visionary, Brandt recounts in detail the efforts to not only bring the European Community off the ground in the first place (which was achieved, under the leadership of French diplomat Jean Monnet, before Brandt moved from Berlin to the national political stage: the Treaty of Rome was signed for West Germany by the country’s equally iconic first post-WWII chancellor, Konrad Adenauer), but also the efforts to secure Great Britain’s membership. Monnet, Adenauer, Brandt and their fellow architects always intended the European Community to be more than merely a pan-European trade partnership: Survivors of the devastation wrought by World War II and astute students of European history, they understood that there is no greater danger to peace than nationalism – not only when painted in the Nazi regime’s egregiously racist, xenophobic, and expansionist colors, but whenever nations or their leaders decide to put their own interests first, and either view any encroachment of those interests as a potentially hostile act that needs to be rebutted, or decide that territorial gain, even at the cost of war, is in the interest of building or fortifying their own nations. Even before WWII, this point had been driven home again and again over the course of the past centuries, in the wars fought by Europe’s absolutist monarchs just as much as by the nation states forming from the late 18th century onwards: the Seven Years’ War and the brutal division of its spoils (namely, every inch of Polish territory) between Prussia, Austria, and Russia; the Napoleonic Wars; the 1870-71 Prussian-Franco War establishing the [second] German Empire; and World War I, which the British used to call “the Great War” … until, well, there was World War II.

Left: 1957 Italian poster celebrating the signing of the Treaty of Rome as a major instrument of progress and peace.
Right: Willy Brandt arriving at the Hague Summit which paved the way for British EEC membership (December 1, 1969)

To the creators of the European Community, the only safeguard against another exercise in European (or even worldwide) self-mutilation by war was reconciliation and collaboration: Not merely on a bilateral level (though obviously a reconciliation between Germany and its neighbor states, first and foremost its historic arch-enemy France, was key), but by bringing as many European countries as possible – most importantly, however, the West European heartland (France, the BeNeLux countries, and Germany), as well as Britain and Germany’s former WWII ally Italy, together in one large community: a community of common values just as importantly as a community enabling free commerce and the free movement of its citizens. For near on 60 years, the European Community / now: European Union has been precisely that, and only a few years ago, the Nobel Prize Committee recognized precisely this peacemaking (and peacekeeping) role of the European Union by awarding it its highest honor, the Nobel Peace Prize.

EU President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, and European Parliament President Martin Schulz receive the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the European Union (Oslo, December 10, 2012)

And for 43 years, Britain has been a member of that Union; not just any member, but one of the most important ones. Yes, Euroscepticism has always been more prevalent in Britain than in any other European country, but the British people ratified European Community membership in a skillfully-conducted referendum in 1975, and every Prime Minister since then, even Margaret Thatcher (she of the “we want our own money back” attitude) has been wise enough to leave the membership question as such alone and rather negotiate for special rights, positions, and excemptions within the context and framework of the European Community, instead of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

PM Edward Heath signing Britain’s treaty with the EEC for ascession to the Common Market, Brussels, January 1, 1973

For this course to now have been abandoned – and to have been abandoned merely for the short-term aim of gaining electoral votes, and at a time when nationalism and xenophobia are rearing their ugly heads again all over Europe, from countries that were only free to join the EU as a result of the fall of the Iron Wall in the first place (such as Poland and Hungary) right into the former EC heartland, including France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany (and on a related note, let’s not forget Austria, either) – is a course of action both incredibly callous and incredibly stupid and short-sighted. Not only will it isolate the United Kingdom vis-à-vis the rest of Europe, it may well bring about the end of the United Kingdom itself as we know it: Already the independence movements in Scotland and Northern Ireland are rapidly gaining ground, and if Scotland and Northern Ireland do break off (which at this point doesn’t look wholly unlikely), Mr. Cameron and the Tories of 2016 will have brought about, by a single stroke of the pen (in the year of the 100th anniversary of the Irish Easter Rising and exactly 270 years after the Battle of Culloden, to boot) what in the 400 years since the ascension of the Stuarts to the English throne no Scottish secession leader and no Scottish independence referendum has achieved, and what a century of IRA terrorism has failed to deliver to Ireland: A sovereign Scotland and a single, reunited, sovereign Irish state. To add insult to injury, Scotland and Northern Ireland would be breaking off from England to regain precisely what a majority of English voters have rejected: EU membership.

  lemming voters:

It seems that buyers’ remorse is already setting in in Britain (or should I say, England?). The immediate financial consequences of the vote are even more drastic than predicted: on the first day alone, the fallout of the Brexit reportedly wiped $2 trillion of values off the world markets, the British Pound hit a 31-year low, and pretty much every major international stock market went to hell, while investors instantly began to look towards other footholds in Europe (depending on market sector and industry, Ireland, France, Germany, and Switzerland would seem to come to mind first and foremost). Already, there are calls for a re-vote in Britain and a wail of “we were lied to” is going through the ranks of those who voted “leave.” And the number of Google searches about the consequences of the Brexit spiked in the hours after the vote, to the point that Google Trends now has created a special web page channeling the most important searches connected with the issue. (A shockingly large amount of searches were also conducted for the question “What is the EU?”)

Brexit impact Google searches
Google statistics: Post-Brexit vote Google searches for the consequences of the ‘Leave’ vote

But obviously there are lessons to be learned here by all of us, and not merely by our political leaders but by us voters as well. From a German (and dare I say it, European) point of view, the past two days’ response of the higher political echelons was interesting and seems to be pointing in the right direction, in that it was a mixture of stiffened backbones vis-à-vis Britain (“if you want to get out, don’t dally and don’t expect any clemency”) and a reaffirmation that Europe is about more than trade and being a bureaucratic monster, expressed in a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the six EEC founder states.

However, at length, a show of strength against Britain in the hope that this, along with the severely negative economic impact of the Brexit vote, will scare off other Eurosceptics isn’t going to be enough: You can’t build (or maintain) something positive and lasting on a basis of fear alone. Nor, however, are abstract reaffirmations of the goals and values at the heart of the creation of the European Community going to suffice. Xenophobia may have been a factor, even major factor in the Brexit vote, but it is by far not limited to Britain. More importantly, Euroscepticism is not limited to Britain, either, and in Continental Europe at least, that is first and foremost a result of wide-spread political disenfranchisement: People no longer even trust their own national political establishment, and even less so do they see anything worthwhile and trustworthy in the European Union.

German newspaper cartoon, May 2016:
He: “Soon there will be only opponents to the EU left in the EU.”
She: “Then why do we want to leave?”

So, the real task here on the part of the European political establishment would seem to regain the trust of their own voters, both Europe-wide and domestically, and to convey to them (or rather, us, since I’m one of those voters) that (1) the European Union is still every bit as important and worthwhile as it was at the time of the EEC’s 1957 creation; (2) the European Union is more than a bureaucratic monster whose principal activity consists in establishing uniform standards on how straight or bent a banana imported into the EU must be; (3) decision making in the EU isn’t a secret process occurring chiefly behind closed doors; (4) the EU not only allows for, but furthers diversity, not only in its population(s) and within its member states, but also in its political processes – even if that means giving up the cherished principle of uniform decisions in favor of a majority vote and a “Europe of diverse speeds,” where not every step decided on in Brussels must be implemented (or implemented equally soon and fully) by all of its members – and (5) most importantly, the EU governments and institutions actually care about the issues moving their people, from immigration to the economy and beyond.

The European Union has grown larger, and in less time, in the 26 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain than in its entire history until then, but its institutions and decision making processes have neither kept pace with the speed of that growth, nor with the issues that have arisen since the end of the Cold War: economic globalization, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and the ugly stepchildren of all of the above, mass displacement and migration, religious fundamentalism as a rallying cry against the spread of Western influence, and terrorism as a means of politics and of warfare alike.

A natural champion of globalization as a result of its very own economic raison d’être, the EU and its representatives – and the governments particularly of those EU member states that benefit most from international trade (Germany and France included) – have failed to see that too large parts of their populations were left behind by the speed of globalization and a rapidly changing world, left to grapple on their own with changes they are no longer able to understand, or frustrated by disastrous decisions (such as the invasion of Iraq) that, much like the Brexit vote campaign promise, are motivated more by short-term political calculation than by the sort of long-term political vision that brought us the European Union in the first place. Much as I personally would actually want to see the EU moving even closer together, particularly in terms of foreign policy (simply because a continent speaking with one single voice is bound to carry that much more weight internationally than a cacophony of individual voices), I can see that right now might not be the moment to push for this idea. First and foremost, trust in the European institutions must be re-established.

However, it’s not all down to the political establishment. Reform, in a democracy, begins with each and everyone of us voters. “Democracy” means “government of the people.” We all make decisions about our own lives every single day, and most of us try to make as informed decisions as possible. In light of this, I quite frankly find it both astounding and unpardonable for anyone to simply change tack when it comes to political decision making, and either not vote (or bother about politics) at all, or blindly trust the slogans thrown at us, only to cry “foul” when something happens that we could have prevented had we bothered to get or facts straight from the start. And lest there be any misunderstandings, I am not merely referring to those Brexit voters who are experiencing buyer’s remorse now: What scares me just as much is the percentage of those people who are letting their own disenfranchisement get the better of them to such a point that they are willing to vote for far right wing parties such as AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) in Germany, the Front National in France, FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs) in Austria, and parties of similar color in other European countries (including those currently already in power in Poland and Hungary) – falling for the populist slogans of these pied pipers without ever bothering to read what’s in their programs, and what sort of politics the representatives of these parties aim to implement once they are put into power. In other words, don’t you dare tell me “oh no, I’m not a racist, I’m just sick and tired of all the other parties and I don’t feel represented by them any longer, so all I want to do is give them a bit of a kick in the butt, or payback for ignoring me and my needs.” The last time people thought (and acted) that way in Germany, it took their preferred candidate all of 12 years to plunge not merely Europe, but in fact the entire world, into the most catastrophic destruction and bloodshed of the history of mankind to date, not to mention mass-exterminating six million Jews and countless other “undesirables” along the way – and he, too, had spelled it all out in advance. However grave (or not) the consequences of a given vote, there is NO excuse for this sort of “why bother” and “it’s not my fault” attitude on the part of us voters: there never was, and in the information age, there is less so than ever.

Yes, our politicians have to be accountable, and they need to listen to us. And yes, political decision makers (even if they are not visionaries on the scale of a Jean Monnet or a Willy Brandt) ought to be able to think strategically and long-term, beyond the next election and the immediate gain (or securing) of power. And, yes, at the moment the European political landscape looks woefully short of that sort of politician. But in a democracy the buck doesn’t stop with the political establishment – voters’ responsibility is the very essence of democracy. Indeed, the American Founding Fathers and the leaders of the French Revolution fought hard to get rid of precisely those forms of government where the buck does stop with a non-elected leader, and much blood, sweat and tears have been expended all over Europe to secure democratic governments in all of its countries. The least that we, as today’s voters, can do is take an interest and prove ourselves worthy of that legacy.

It seems it was primarily the older generation that voted “leave” in this week’s Brexit vote: what a shame to think that Britain’s future may be held hostage, after all, by those looking backwards instead of towards the future. Doubtlessly, too, Britain’s (or as the case may be, England’s) path will be a rocky one from here on out. So, however, I believe, will be Europe’s as a whole. Ultimately, we all lost in the Brexit vote; economically and otherwise – to quote another recent British campaign slogan, I do believe we would have done decidedly better together, and I hope the day will come sooner rather than later when the fallout from last week’s vote will have been cleared away and a new joint path is possible.

And now I’m going to watch the Euro soccer championship for a bit and cheer on the German team against that of Slovakia …

The Dover Cliffs: no fog in sight.
(Photo mine.)

0 thoughts on ““Continent Isolated”

  1. I’m still dealing with the fact Britain will leave the EU. I’ve been an Anglophile due to my 10 years at the British Council at a very tender age. Those 10 years made me an Anglophile, for better or for worst. It was there that I discovered William Shakespeare, and “Victorian literature” (Wilkie Collins, Austen, D.H. Lawrence, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, J. Meade Falkner, Francis Palgrave, Samuel Butler, G. K. Chesterton, Brontë, M. R. James, etc.) Even If I wanted to “quit” being an Anglophile, I couldn’t. It’s in my bones. Having said this, I’m questioning myself whether there’s something intrinsically “wrong” with the British. Maybe “wrong” is not the right word for what I’m trying to convey. I’m must ponder on this a bit further, because your post made me thing about it. Wonderful piece of writing as usual.

    1. Thank you, and I think we feel alike about this. My instinctive reaction to the Brexit news was “OMG, am I going to feel different when I next go to Stratford now? Please, God, let me still be able to return to the Britain … or, well, England … that I’ve come to know and love. As for Scotland — I know I’ll always feel good about going there. Who knows, maybe more than ever now! 😀

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