The real tragedy is not Brexit's financial fallout, but the brutal blow it has dealt to internationalism
Published 01/07/2016 | 02:30
When Nigel Farage threw up his arms in the early hours of Friday morning - in a gesture very familiar from old newsreels of another person in another era - and announced that he now looked forward to the emergence of a European future of "sovereign nation states", it made the blood run cold. Or it should have.
Because he may well be right, and it will be a tragedy, not just for Britain, but for Europe. It will break down a philosophy that has taken more than three-quarters of a century to build: that internationalism serves all of us better than inward-looking nationalism, precludes antagonism, discourages rivalry, and creates a unity of tolerance and, yes, brotherhood.
It was the post-World War II realisation that Europe had come horribly close to annihilating itself in the six years of savagery between 1939 and 1945 that led to the founding of what is now the European Union. And it had come close because of one nation's determination that nationhood mattered "uber alles": above all else. It was nationalism that led to a logical, brutal conclusion, obvious and almost inevitable.
In turn, it had come about (and this may be a simplistic argument, but it is nonetheless true) because the nation state of Germany had been humiliated beyond acceptance by the Treaty of Versailles, which had ended the First World War.
In its humiliation and despair, Germany was ripe for nationalism, and it was a fertile breeding ground for a lunatic called Adolf Hitler to rant and rave his way to the ultimate of nationalism: brutal xenophobia, race hatred, blood 'purity' and genocide… all in the pursuance of the glory of the "sovereign nation state".
So barely a decade after Hitler's demise, the nations of Europe, which had suffered grievously under his assault on democracy, came together to try to ensure that it could never happen again.
That was the foundation of what is now the EU, then merely six countries that formed a free trade agreement, with a vision of developing further until the six should become many, and ultimately, yes, form a federal United States of Europe. That was always the plan.
And when the extreme right in any country, including our own, claims that a federal Europe is a new, dangerous power-grab by the EU, they are ignoring the ideals of the Treaty of Rome, which founded what is now the EU. It may have become unwieldy, top heavy in its bureaucracy - few people would deny that. But it remains Europe's most noble hope for the future and for prosperity.
And ironically, it is the country to which Europe owes most that has voted to threaten its existence. A number of years ago, a popular poll in the United Kingdom voted Winston Churchill the greatest Briton of the 20th century. We Irish do not like him, and did not like him in his lifetime. Perhaps our dislike, like so many other things, is rooted in our own nationalism, which likes only those who pat us on the back when we are good little children. Then we are encouraged to stamp our feet and demand what we want because we are a safe distance away from those who are indulging us. It's no skin off their backs if we decide to murder each other in the name of "sovereignty".
Just as it was no skin off their backs when Hitler threatened Europe. It was Churchill who stood, alone in Europe, against fascism, telling his people the truth: that the stand would mean only pain. They took the pain, and they prevailed.
And now their grandchildren have spat upon those sacrifices, and betrayed those hopes for a better future of less suspicion and back-stabbing between nations.
Those grandchildren have voted for "the sovereign nation state", that ugly phrase and entity that has been the trigger for two world wars, and indeed for our own long century of internecine murder and distrust.
In the economic turmoil the vote has caused, the far right, and even some right centrists in European countries, are seizing their opportunity, as Hitler once seized the opportunity of economic recession and humiliation in Germany. They are calling for referendums similar to the one that just took place in Britain.
We already have an example in more recent times of what the rise of nationalism in Europe can do. The former Yugoslavia was ruled with a fairly iron fist by Marshal Tito. But he kept tribalism at bay in the Balkans. After his death, "national pride" re-asserted itself, and the result was murderous tribal warfare, with the countries of the Balkans still suffering its effects. And while the majority opinion in Ireland is horrified by the result of the referendum, it seems to be almost entirely for the selfish reasons of the trading difficulty and market turmoil, rather than from a wish to defend the noble founding principles of the EU.
We are rushing to defend the nationalist opportunists in Scotland in their call for "national status" within the EU, totally ignoring the fact that Scotland voted very recently to remain part of the United Kingdom, for good or ill. That it is now for ill is the fault of the nationalism they are using as an argument for special status. We are not defending England's nationalism, of course…because it doesn't suit us to. We are accustomed to benefiting from the open-minded tolerance of English people, even though we are fond of denying it. Now that it has changed, we don't have the honesty to accept that what English people have done in the past week is what we have been doing for the past century. Except that at least they haven't done it by slaughtering each other.
But if Farage and his right-wing populist fellow travellers around Europe have their way and succeed in breaking Europe into a series of fractured "sovereign nation states" we will be back in the scenario that culminated in the near-triumph of fascism. That is why the British vote to leave the EU is so internationally disastrous. If democracy is to rule, we are looking at something far more fundamentally tragic than the issue of borders and trade tariffs.