In many ways, Brexit represents the most profound break with European identity, one that is not only politically, legally and economically significant but emotionally so as well. It evokes deep anxiety on all sides as to the nature of Britain’s relationship to Europe moving forward. Will the peoples of the UK in a post-Brexit context continue to define the essence of their political and cultural values as broadly ‘European’ or will more territorially bound ideas now dominate? How will the present be represented in new cultural memory narratives in relation to long-standing alliances in the struggle against Nazism, fascism and the forging of a long-standing European peace? All of these are questions for the future and perhaps even the stuff of necessary sociological investigation. There is one issue that concerns a growing number of people and that is whether the Brexit choice is an anti-cosmopolitan one? It is perhaps important to reflect on the degree to which cosmopolitanism, legally, politically and culturally, is embedded in the institutional frameworks of British society. Like the other founding allied states, Britain committed itself wholeheartedly in the post-World War II period to the idea of an international community of peoples and a project of enduring peace that would legitimate itself democratically through a process of reciprocal self-determination and international cooperation. This period marked the beginning of a new era of cosmopolitan state sovereignty founded on the battlefields of World War II where struggles for freedom were fought in the name of all, when a new universal emphasis on human rights law would be established and internationally agreed normative constraints would be incorporated into domestic law. Britain’s commitment to this form of legal cosmopolitanism remains solid. In social and cultural terms, also, cosmopolitanism has continued to evolve to the point where, today, youth are almost instinctively world open and inter-culturally engaged.
In political terms, cosmopolitanism fares less well. The rise of right-wing populism across Europe today threatens to undermine the achievements of cosmopolitanism in these other spheres. The claims of Theresa May at the 2016 Conservative Party conference that being a citizen of the world makes one a citizen of nowhere, are indicative of this collective assault on the universal subject of rights. Presented as a grand and insular rejection of European cosmopolitanism, May’s comments make no sense in historical legal terms. When post-War communities set out to establish certain human rights protections that abstract from the privileges that accrue to citizens of particular states, they did so to minimize the likelihood of peoples becoming citizens of nowhere (what international law refers to as protecting the elementary considerations of humanity). Not only is world citizenship an essential, even if minimal legal protection of those dislocated by the effects of war, famine, humanitarian disaster and increasingly, climate change, it is also an essential for political life more generally. Britain’s young activate their world citizenship when they rise in solidarity with youth everywhere against climate inaction, or when London airs its contempt for Trump and all he represents (e.g., ‘Orange Baby’, July 2018). They do so in ways that the cosmopolitan identity and politics of Britons are vividly displayed. The principles and values they struggle to defend know no territorial boundaries or politically constructed ideas of belonging. Youth aim to unblock the generative capacities of a transnational democratic response to climate destruction and the loss of rights to a safe, healthy and democratic future. At the same time, political leaders and populist movements flirt with anti-cosmopolitan nationalist tendencies and attempt to restrict issues of justice to a narrow range of co-patriots. With politics becoming increasingly divided along cosmopolitan/anti-cosmopolitan lines, Britain and Europe share these tendencies in common but as societies, they also share another common feature – a failure to address historical legacies of imperial violence. The latter continue to mark how identity politics is played out in these settings not only in relation to environmental concerns but also border control, migration, terrorism, ongoing class, religious-ethnic, and gender divisions. Both struggle with issues of liability for historical episodes of atrocity, including slavery, the mass displacement of indigenous peoples and natural resource plundering on a grand global scale. Imperial logics have not been made the subject of a necessary ‘decolonization process’ chiefly because the social and economic conditions that traditionally sustained them have never been truly challenged. It is not too difficult to see how Europe and Britain share a certain talent for remembering imperial histories in ways that refuse to cognize parallel histories of violence or confront openly questions of guilt, prejudice, intolerance and collective responsibility for wrongdoing. As a consequence, the influence of this violence is still pervasive today. It energizes notions of closing borders to certain peoples, ‘taking back control’ and restoring the ‘greatness’ of nations which, in an era of globally expanding economic inequalities and ecological decline make little sense. For youth, these issues are self-evident and do not evoke the type of border neurosis that plagues their elders. The question, however, is whether theirs is a politics capable of moving beyond the limitations of imperialist thinking and activating a better model of social historicity? The problems we confront today require a more forward-looking system of societal action where Britain and Europe do not define themselves or each other in a post-Brexit world in terms of their differences but, rather, in terms of common histories and common futures.
Dr Tracey Skillington is Lecturer in Sociology at University College Cork.