The future of the left since 1884

A heart for Europe after Brexit

From across the English Channel (soon to become a new European frontier) it was perhaps easier to see that something big was missing from the Brexit debate: a positive idea about European civilization, and of Britain’s part in it. The...


From across the English Channel (soon to become a new European frontier) it was perhaps easier to see that something big was missing from the Brexit debate: a positive idea about European civilization, and of Britain’s part in it. The standoff was effectively one between a party of moderates and one of more radical eurosceptics who traded only negative arguments and mutually escalated their favourite scare stories. Brexit would destroy economic security and risk new European wars, while Bremain meant surrendering our beloved homeland to mass immigration and our sovereignty to a superstate which was pursuing the same goals as Hitler.

With few exceptions (Gordon Brown, Compass, some Libdems and Greens), both camps betted on negative emotions and the politics of fear. The Remainers conspicuously failed to make a more principled, value-based, indeed nobler case for Britain in Europe as well as for a more European Britain. The Conservatives either wanted out or wanted a more British, i.e. more neoliberal, Europe. Labour fatally hesitated between social nationalism and a lukewarm advocacy of a reformable, more social EU. A great opportunity was thus missed to imagine both a better Britain and a better EU: more liberal-minded, tolerant, democratic, socially protective and green.

In A Heart for Europe. The Case for Europatriotism I argue that we cannot cede the field of political emotion to populists who successfully monopolize people’s passions against the EU by playing on frustration and fear. We need new inspirational stories about who we are and want to be, both as nationals and as European citizens. This also implies that we cannot populists monopolise the idea of patriotism, of the love of country and the feeling of home. Like Gordon Brown, I favour a lighter, more generous, outward-looking and self-critical patriotism, both for our individual nations and for Europe as our future aspirational homeland.

Now I am sadly aware, particularly after the Brexit vote, that Europatriotism is somewhat of a tall order, given the state of disarray, disintegration, moral weakness and political incompetence the EU finds itself in. The European ‘idea’ is currently loved more by outsiders, such as the millions of war refugees and economic migrants, or the majority of Ukrainians, than from within (with Brexiters and other insiders wanting to get out). This makes it all the more urgent to try to recover some of the original emotional idealism which was invested in the European project.

‘Europe’ still represents the most momentous civilizational ideal of our time. Civilization means that violence, cruelty, harassment and humiliation are as much as possible banned from society. It demands that the power of the strong cedes before the right of the weak, and that fear gives way to trust. European civilization is the never-ending quest for a more gentle, more relaxed, less dangerous, more trustful society. This indeed is the grandest imagination and the grandest political ambition: to create a society in which people are no longer afraid of each other, of their institutions, and of themselves.

‘Freedom from fear’ was the fourth and most important one of the ‘Four Freedoms’ enumerated by Roosevelt in his famous 1941 speech. A decade earlier, the Belgian socialist thinker Hendrik de Man already identified ‘the conquest of social fear’ as the primary mission of his brand of liberal (or what he called ‘cultural’) socialism. In his conception, fear of the state had to a large extent subsided following the establishment of liberal democracy. Economic fears were expected to recede by putting social restraints on capitalism. As a result, he thought that cultural and psychological fears would also tend to diminish: fears of the unknown, of strangers, deviants and dissenters.

De Man’s cultural socialism may inspire the New Deal for Europe which has become even more urgent after the Brexit vote. First, both Britain and the EU need to become much more democratic, not by restoring a chimerical sovereignty to the nation-states, but by realising that ‘taking back control’ requires more political cooperation but also radical system change both at home and in Brussels. Secondly, we need to develop a much more powerful counterforce to neoliberal capitalism and austerity policies both at home and in Europe, in order to manage the bads of global competition and economic transition and better protect its victims. Instead of ‘socialism in one country’ we need ‘socialisation in one continent’.

Last but not least, we must begin a civilization drive which is based on a proud idealism with regard to the open, pluralist, gentle and tolerant lifestyle we embrace and defend. The nationalist demagogy of the ‘merchants of fear’ can only be neutralised by offering an alternative vision of our collective identity, of the civilization we share and love, both as patriots of our nation and patriots of Europe. At its heart stands the European spirit of moderation, of balance and self-critique. Being civilized now requires us to stand up and fight for it, since the bad people are winning.


Dick Pels

Dick Pels is a Dutch sociologist and freelance political writer. He has taught at various Dutch and English universities, and was director of the research foundation of the Dutch Green Party until 2013. He is author of the new book A Heart for Europe: The Case for Europatriotism.

Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.