The Brexit Shock If We Don't Love Europe, We Will Lose It

The Brits have voted to leave the EU. It was a democratic decision and we have no choice but to come to terms with the loss. But it's lso time for a reckoning: If we don't become more passionate about the European Union, we will lose it.
The EU must become more democratic, transparent and less bureaucratic -- that much is obvious.

The EU must become more democratic, transparent and less bureaucratic -- that much is obvious.

Foto: Olivier Hoslet/ dpa

In the end, perhaps the rain proved to be the decisive factor. Whereas the highly emotional Brexiteers didn't shy away from the polling stations in even the most adverse of conditions, some EU supporters instead chose to stay home, in accordance with their passive campaign slogan: "Remain."

After all, while the vote promised to be close, it looked as though the Remain campaign would emerge victorious -- as though one didn't necessarily need to get wet to avoid Brexit. That, at least, would be a remarkable punch line for this bitter day in Europe: That the most British off all weather washed the country right out of the EU.

'A Victory of Emotion over the Facts'

As irrational as this explanation might sound, it could be true. "It is a victory of emotion over facts," Elmar Brok a prominent German conservative in European Parliament, said after the vote. That may be. But the future of what remains of the European Union is also dependent on how it addresses that realization.

From the very beginning, there was an emotional imbalance in this battle for Britain. The Brexiteers had a big story to tell -- one of a proud people that must finally recognize it was high time to haul back its sovereignty from a faceless, bureaucratic Brussels apparatus that was undemocratic and spent its time passing regulations in opaque rounds of wheeling and dealing.

What did the Remain campaign have at its disposal to counter these arguments? Prosaic facts. Britain would suffer economically. Only a unified Europe could compete globally. The message was not wrong, but it was cool and abstract by comparison.

Will the European Union be able to recover from this loss? EU opponents in other countries are already sensing a tailwind. Early on Friday, calls began growing in the Netherlands and France for their own referenda on future membership. They surely won't be the only such calls.

To thwart such intentions, many are calling for an example to be made of Britain: no more concessions and the end of special treatment. Everything should be done, they are saying, to ensure that nobody feels emboldened by the British example.

But punitive measures to deter others would not be productive. An EU straightjacket in which countries only stay in out of fear would also be untenable.

No, this isn't the time to be firing huffy vows of vengeance across the English Channel. The British are gone and that is a bitter realization. But the decision to leave the European Union was also a democratic one and must be respected. As of today, Britain is no longer important to the future of the EU.

European Unity Is the Only Guarantee for Lasting Peace

Europe's focus should now be squarely on the remaining EU member states and their citizens. They must now be convinced deep in their hearts that the EU is the best possible form of self-determination for them. But this conviction is only attainable if the EU becomes more democratic, more transparent and less bureaucratic -- that much is clear.

More importantly, a European spirit must be created that is stronger than any national narrative. In Europe, and in Germany, people have abandoned pathos when speaking about the EU. Stories of war from the EU's founding generation, it is often said, are no longer sufficient as the rationale for a united continent. Free trade isn't enough either, apparently. There is little love in an economic community. No one is willing to wait hours in the rain for it.

Still, if there is a single justification for the European Union's continued existence, then it is the original one: European unification, with ever deeper integration of these so diverse and yet closely related nations, is the only guarantee for lasting peace. We have become so accustomed to the prosperity born out of this stability that we are no longer capable of imagining that the outcome could actually be a lot different. By forgetting the war, we have in no way exorcised the possibility of it happening again. On the contrary: The resurgence of nationalist sentiments is the first step towards the kind of fragmentation that would make conflicts conceivable once again.

Keep calm and carry on? No. Britain's withdrawal must serve as the moment at which we make those remaining in the European Union aware of why it is so important that we stand together -- despite, indeed because, it is so difficult to constantly be coordinating and taking the interests of others into account. If we can succeed in this change of consciousness, then Brexit will turn out to be no more than a bothersome yet benificial shock.

If that doesn't happen, then this Friday will go down as a dark date in history: It will be remembered as the day that Europe began to break apart.

Stefan Kuzmany is the head of the opinion and debates at SPIEGEL ONLINE.
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