It’s now official, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will be imminently triggered. According to official government sources, the UK has 2 years from March 29th, to either leave the EU as friends, or be kicked out. I’ve got the distinct feeling that it’s going to be the latter, but in either case, it hurts. I, and people like me, are what we are because of the EU, because of the UK. Because of the EU and the UK.
In 1898, the French writer Emile Zola wrote a letter to the newspaper “L’Aurore” accusing the French government of antisemitism during the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer accused of treason. The tittle of the letter was “J’Accuse” (“I Accuse”). Whilst I do not, for one moment, pretend to have the talent Emile Zola had, I feel the need to write my own letter of accusation, the day Brexit seems to be officially upon us. I accuse the UK of leaving the EU for the wrong reasons.
I cried on 24th June 2016. I’m not ashamed to say so, and I doubt that I was the only grown up man in the European Union to do so. On both sides of the Channel. I feel as though something deep in my soul has left. My United Kingdom has left, or at least, is leaving. I feel like a child whose parents are starting divorce proceedings that have the potential to get nasty and leave bruises on everyone concerned. I feel as though people are asking me to choose between two entities, two ideals, each with its own qualities and shortcomings, but each of which has taken up roots in my DNA, in my psyche. In the same way that a child cannot choose between the love of his father or the love of his mother, I cannot choose between the UK and the EU.
The Belgian singer, Jacques Brel, wrote one of the most moving songs that I have had the privilege to be able to listen to. Its title is “Ne me quitte pas” ( Don’t leave me). One of the most beautiful verses of the song goes as follows:
Moi je t’offrirai
Des perles de pluie
Venues de pays où il ne pleut pas
Je creuserai la terre jusqu’après ma mort
Pour couvrir ton corps d’or et de lumière
Je ferai un domaine
Où l’amour sera roi, où l’amour sera loi
Où tu seras reine
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
The English translation would be: “I will offer you rain pearls coming from countries where it doesn’t rain, I will dig the ground up until after my death, To cover you body with gold and light, I will make a domain where love will be king, where love will be law, where you will be queen, Don’t leave me…”
The song sums up beautifully what most sensible people in continental Europe feel about the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Yes, there are a few idiots who will be glad to see the back of the UK. Let’s face it, back in the 80’s, Margaret Thatcher, bless her, wasn’t the most loved leader sitting around the European Union’s coffee table. Be that as it may (if you’ll excuse the unintentional pun), the EU knows only too well that without the UK, its world economic strength and political influence are greatly diminished. The Dutch newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, fittingly had a Union Jack filling the whole of the front page, with a caption that basically said that the British can be a real nuisance, but we cannot do without them, nor do we want to. Kind and sincere feelings they are too and, as consolation, that’s surely one up on the French.
A few months ago, I wrote an email addressed to Theresa May and sent it through the official channels, via the website of number 10. I got an email back saying that my message had been received and would be duly answered. I am still waiting for that to happen. This is what I wrote:
I would like to draw the UK government’s attention to its attitude concerning British citizens who have lived for more than 15 years in another EU member state. I have had the good fortune to be able to practice as a dentist in France from 1984 to 1999, before moving to the Netherlands. This was possible due to mutual recognition of university dental degrees by each of the EU member states. In the Netherlands I have to register every 5 years in a national healthcare worker register. My next registration date will be sometime in 2021. I find it inconceivable that, due to the UK leaving the EU, there is a possibility, however small, that I will no longer be able to re-register as a dental practitioner. Since I have dual British/French citizenship, there can be no administrative problems due to my nationality. My dental degree, however, is from the UK, and subject to new deals being struck. Not being able to vote on June 23 was one thing. Casting doubts over my future is quite another.
My situation reflects the feelings of hundreds of thousands of British nationals living in other EU member countries, and millions of EU nationals living in the UK. Guaranteeing the rights of citizens already enjoying the benefits of freedom of movement should not only be a priority, as Theresa May has said, but should be settled on the very first day of the official discussions. If Theresa May is right about some EU members not wishing to discuss the fate of expats before the official Brexit negotiations had begun, these countries should have been ashamed of themselves. There is not one single day that I do not have at least a fleeting thought about our current situation as UK expats working and living in the EU.
It is quite clear that the EU referendum campaign revolved around immigration and nothing else. The main priority of Theresa May’s Brexit plan (if she can call it that) is to significantly decrease immigration from the EU to the UK. This is why the UK will not be able to stay in the single market, and why the future of EU migrants is in the balance. Even those migrants already settled in the UK are not 100% certain of retaining their rights. The same applies, of course, to anything British in the EU.
The fact that the EU, via the commission, or the UK government have not been unilaterally willing to guarantee the rights of all EU and UK expats is in sharp contradiction with what the German enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant described in his “categorical imperative”. For Kant, if an act was morally right, it had to be carried out no matter what the consequences. It is quite clear that Theresa May is under the impression that in not guaranteeing unilaterally the rights of current EU nationals in the UK, she is “keeping up her sleeve” some sort of powerful negotiating weapon should she be in need of it. As for the EU, they probably are thinking along the same lines. EU nationals and UK expats are the victims of this twisted form of thinking and are literally caught between the lines of a machiavellic confrontation between Theresa May’s UK and Jean-Claude Junker’s EU. If the tension between the conflict lines causes the battleground to cave in, I and others like me risk falling into a big black hole.
In the same way that Jacques Brel sung about love being King and his loved one being Queen, I dreamed about royalty. In my dream, I entered a museum, and went back in time, strolling through the history and legends of our Old Continent. In one of the rooms I came across a small ceramic doll. Her eyes, full of wisdom and light, stared at me. She was standing next to a white bull and, underneath that fragile exterior, I could feel her strength and determination that few could resist. The doll was a princess, and her name, “Europa”. Seduced by Zeus disguised as a white bull, she touched him, attracted by the sweet aroma of the crocuses he was eating. He flew with her to Crete, in the company of sea nymphs and dolphins. They had children, and when he eventually left her, she married the King of Crete, and became queen of the island.
So, it all began in Ancient Greece. Let us go back in time then, and seek the wisdom of the ancient philosophers, Aristotle’s logic and, foremost, Plato’s dreams. Not forgetting Socrates, of course, who brought philosophy back down from the Heavens to the Earth.
Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner
natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils—nor the human race, as I believe—and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.
Plato – The Republic
Philosopher king, you alone can transcend one’s freedom to appease desires, and act in the name of others. Make sure that your country, member of the Union lives only for the Union. It is only through you that the continent we love, Europa’s distant daughter, will become wise, courageous and just. But to reach this wisdom, this courage and this justice, each member of the Union must first find a balance in his own constitution. These diabolical demagogues keep shouting “Give the power back to the people”, without ever specifying what “power” actually means, and who exactly are the “people”. “It’s in the name of democracy”, they add. But, as Plato suggests, an absolute democracy where the personal freedom is unlimited, can quickly turn into tyranny.
What would Plato say to help us, if he were alive today? He would see a social divide whose two components, rich and poor, were so remote from each other, that the wound would have no chance of healing. This divide results, it would seem, from too much freedom. This seems paradoxical, but freedom, so cherished by democracy and developing with such strength, could cause the collapse of the very system that cherishes it.
Well, isn’t it precisely the insatiable appetite of what the democracy does regard as its good which will lead to its loss? – Plato, The Republic
Admittedly, we do not have the tyranny that Plato had described as the result of a broken democracy, but we live more and more like slaves, under the influence of a demon who isolates each individual and, more recently, each state. This individualism begins in the family and crosses the districts, to finish its race in the most remote city which nobody can give a name to. At the level of the state, individualism takes the form of an economic and cultural isolationism, more and more justified by political leaders. Like a man dominating a gigantic animal, the demagogues can convince and make the masses dream, without knowing for certain if their rhetoric is right or even desirable. Sophists of Ancient Greece and demagogues of today, all have the right words to falsify the truth of a world that escapes them.
… after having shared the existence of the animal and having devoted much time to observe it, our man gives the name of wisdom to his experience, he systematises it to make an art of it and starts to teach it without truly knowing, in these doctrines as in these instinctive behaviours, which is beautiful or ugly, good or bad, just or unjust. – Plato, The Republic
Cities and states can be regarded as ships moving towards a selected destination. The choice remains in the hands of the captain helped by his sailors. Only the captain has the responsibility for the direction in which the ship will navigate, because he, and only he, has necessary knowledge to keep the ship on good course during the voyage. But the sailors want to take his place. They want the captaincy. Every sailor is crafty and violent, ready to kill if need be. For them, navigation is not learned, and the captain, whose gaze is always turned towards the stars, has no value in their eyes.
I will do everything I can as Prime Minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months, but I don’t think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our
country to its next destination. – David Cameron, June 2016
Captain of the ship, in wanting to affirm your power, you made your ship stray. You did not know how to look at stars, so essential for navigation. By gazing at the stars, you would have understood that the destiny of your country and the Union go hand in hand and take precedence over your own destiny. True philosophers only observe the stars. Forgetting to look at the ground, they are unable to counter the abuses and foul play of their worst enemies, as Socrates experienced during his trial. As for politicians, they do not know that the stars exist, being too preoccupied with their quest for power. You should have looked at stars, like the philosophers, but also at the ground, like the politicians, in order to see your enemies. You did neither. You looked at yourself and your own destiny, forgetting to observe the sick stars of Europe, and your famished land.
But you will not be wrong by comparing our political leaders with these sailors over whom we have just spoken and those which the sailors treat as useless and dreamers lost in the clouds with those who are true pilots. – Plato, the Republic
We have a choice to make concerning a populist decision of a Member State of the EU. Like Socrates, it is necessary for us to find a way in which life is worth living. Socrates had the choice between exile and death.
But already the time to leave is here, I to die and you to live. Of my fate or yours which is the best? The answer remains uncertain for everyone, except for the divinity. – Plato, The Apology of Socrates
Now it’s our turn. We must choose, and the choice is simple: or we must profoundly modify the EU, learning the lessons of Brexit, or end it. I believe the UK should have stayed within the EU to be able to transform it from the inside. Smashing the EU door is certainly not the political answer to the UK’s philosophical dream. However, the real answer to the choice we face remains uncertain for all Europe except, of course, for its beautiful princess.
George is a British/French national. He has a passion for oral microbiology (obtained a PhD in Lyon, France) and a passion for philosophy and politics.