The Italian Writer Who Predicted Brexit

While the vote in June came as a shock to many, decades ago a famous Italian journalist documented the currents working to tear Europe apart.

Contrast these two statements:

The first, written by British diplomat, author and politician Harold Nicolson, appeared at the end of his book Why Britain Is At War, hastily published at the start of World War II. This slim volume, which sought to explain to his countrymen why they had no choice but to oppose Hitler’s Third Reich, ended on an optimistic note, already envisaging a postwar order where the victors and the vanquished in Europe would finally put an end to their divisions and conflicts.

“It is because I am convinced that this war, as it develops, will assume gigantic proportions that the final settlement will be gigantic,” he wrote. And who would make such a gigantic final settlement that would unite the continent? “It is Britain alone that can create the United States of Europe,” he declared.

Then there are these more recent statements by another European political observer. “The diplomats know, of course, that the original hope to see the Continent united rapidly from above by far-seeing statesmen acting like gods from Olympus has been proved a failure.”

And who deserves a large part of the blame for that failure? “The apparent disappearance of the British knack for greatness is one of the keys to understanding not only their decadence and their weakness, but also the disarray and impotence of Europe.”

Magnificent when faced with the challenge of Hitler’s aggression, the British had allowed their belief in their “historic mission” to wane, never really embracing the alternative mission of a unified Europe. They grumbled about the price they paid for EU membership but failed to admit “that their departure would cost them even more.”

If you just jumped to the conclusion that this is an embittered comment sparked by the British Brexit vote, think again.

Those biting observations were penned by the late Italian author and journalist Luigi Barzini in his book The Europeans, which was published back in 1983. Barzini was known for his trenchant commentary, ironic wit—and, very often, uncanny prescience. When it comes to analyzing the post-Brexit world, his words still ring true.

If Barzini were alive today, he would find nothing astonishing in the result of the Brexit referendum. But he would find little satisfaction in that fact. He viewed the goal of a more integrated Europe as a noble one, but he understood all too well that it was impossible to banish old rivalries and fears.

It was the Frenchman Jean Monnet, a founding father of the European Union, who was one of the earliest proponents of European unification. But French political leaders had a far less idealistic notion of the postwar order. In 1960, President Charles De Gaulle invited West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to discuss a new era in relations between their countries. According to Barzini, the French leader told his aides afterwards what he really had in mind: “The unification of Europe will be performed by France and Germany, France being the coachman and Germany the horse.”

Some horse, it turned out. Germany is now the undisputed leader of Europe—and, its critics would argue, at times acting like the coachman that DeGaulle aspired to be. By arguing incessantly for a “deeper” Europe, brushing aside all national and local concerns as a product of outdated provincialism, Berlin—as much as Brussels—became a symbol of political overreach.

Exhibit A was Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open what appeared to be the floodgates for mostly Muslim refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, which triggered much of the backlash that made itself felt in the Brexit referendum.

In humanitarian terms, Merkel’s decision was commendable; it also reflected her desire to demonstrate that Germany understood its moral obligation to help those fleeing war and persecution, given the horrors it unleashed during the Nazi era. But it was politically tone deaf to do so in such sweeping fashion, conveying the impression that no EU country could count on controlling the influx.

Writing more than three decades ago, Barzini concluded: “In spite of the verbiage, the rhetoric, and the elegant euphemisms, Europe is no nearer integration today than it was, say, after 1815, when it was somehow held together first by the Holy Alliance; later by the blood ties among sovereigns, most of whom were cousins; and by what was then known as the ‘the European concert.’”

That concert turned into a full-blown symphony as the EU not only kept on deepening but also widening to now encompass 28 countries. Yet some of the most applauded measures, like the elimination of travel restrictions within the EU, were not as novel as they seemed. “On the eve of Sarajevo [the trigger for World War I], no passport was needed to go from one European nation to another,” Barzini wrote, noting that the only exceptions were Turkey and Russia—once again, a perfectly accurate description of today’s situation as well.

The biggest accomplishment of the current European symphony is that it is no longer punctuated by world wars and it has appreciably decreased the likelihood of future violence. But it is punctuated by more and more discordant notes, with Brexit the loudest one yet. The more the EU aspires to make everyone follow the lead of Brussels or Berlin on matters both big and small, the more resistance it encounters.

A Barzini-like word to the wise: the key to making European unity work is accepting the continent’s diversity of countries. That means rethinking the overreach of Brussels, while salvaging whatever it can from an experiment that still deserves a chance at more modest success.