Brexit and Europe’s Angry Old Men

I was born in 1973, the year Britain entered the European Economic Community. And like Britain, I have always been skeptical about the quasi-religious, ever-closer-union ideology that gripped so many proponents of the European Union, especially the anxious old men of my parents’ generation, who swore that the only alternative to unification was a relapse into nationalism.

And now this. Just as Europeans of my generation were being relieved of those anxious old men, another type stepped onstage: the angry old men.

These politicians — men and women, to be sure — are young enough not to have experienced world war, but they are old enough to idealize the pre-1989 era and a simpler, pre-globalization world. At the same time, they are obviously too sclerotic to imagine how democratic institutions can adjust to the new realities. With their aggressive posturing, these Nigel Farages, Marine Le Pens, Geert Wilderses and Donald J. Trumps are driving the debate — and possibly driving the West off a cliff.

“It’s a victory for ordinary, decent people who have taken on the establishment,” declared Nigel Farage, the head of the U.K. Independence Party. Rubbish. It was a victory for people who have neither the guts nor the imagination to take on the downsides of globalization. Yes, globalization and Europeanization have taken their tolls, both on traditional forms of democracy and on traditional job security. But instead of tackling these problems, the Farages of the world have started the next ideological war.

There was a time when I thought the pro-European ideologues were the ones who were out of touch. I remember, not too long ago, watching one of them in full flight. It was Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, giving a speech at a German university. He started by asking the students in the lecture hall to imagine how many of them would actually be sitting there if this were the year 1945. About half of you would be dead, Mr. Schulz said, as his index finger drew a line across our heads, and many others would be crippled and wounded. Wow, I thought, what a splendid opening for a debate on the shortcomings of the European Union.

Even though Europeans of my age do believe in Europe, the righteous theatrics of the integrationists were hard to endure. But now our future is in danger of being taken away by the other extreme, by the maniacs of disintegration.

A YouGov poll conducted in the run-up to the British referendum showed that the vote for Brexit was very much one of the old against the young. The older the voter, the more he or she was inclined to leave. Some 64 percent of the age group from 18 to 24 said they would vote for Remain; just 35 percent of those between 50 and 64 wanted to stay.

We — the young, optimistic millions across Europe — cannot lose the West to Mr. Farage and his ilk, to demagogues who have actually much more in common with the scapegoating culture of the Arab world they so despise than with the enlightened, rational tradition of Europe.

We can still repair the damage done to democracy in our rush to move beyond national borders by admitting to the problems. If, for instance, European internal migrants really have lowered the wages in Britain, this is a serious problem. But it can be dealt with through, say, stricter control of the labor market — not abandonment of the entire framework for European cooperation.

Instead, migrants and refugees have become the vessel for the charge that the mighty at the top have unleashed a form of uncontrolled globalization whose effects will hit the people at the bottom hardest.

Predictably, the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcome-mat policy to refugees, and her insistence that Europe follow her lead, will be blamed for much of the momentum behind the Leave vote. And that’s fair. As principally right as her message was, the chancellor did little to correct the impression that Europe was suddenly welcoming everyone, and that elites like her didn’t understand the consequences of their actions.

Yet it is dangerously foolish to believe that, with or without Ms. Merkel’s policies, Europe can somehow shut its doors and ignore the pressing weight of the developing world on its borders — or that European countries are better positioned to respond individually, rather than as a unified whole.

The British vote feels momentous, but we will most likely look back at it as merely the first in a series of fights for the soul of Europe. The outpouring of anger and anti-establishment aggression in Europe has only begun. The next countries where the political bulldozers see their chances to act out their long-kept lust for demolition are the Netherlands and France.

We can no longer think of reconciliation between the opposing views of destruction and progress. The angry old men will not be mollified, their xenophobia cannot be controlled or channeled into constructive cooperation. We, the young, the future of Europe, must push back. Too much time has been lost already.

Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.

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