Visions of Europe and the Brexit Debate

Historians of King’s College London debated the referendum on Wednesday, June 8, 2016, 4:30-6:00 PM.

EU flag

In the run-up to the referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union, there has been no shortage of public debate about the possible consequences of the vote, including many forums sponsored by London’s universities.  The History Department at King’s wanted to make its own distinctive contribution to these discussions, playing to the strengths of the discipline.  The head of department, Adam Sutcliffe, therefore asked two colleagues, Jim Bjork and Anne Goldgar, to take the lead in organizing a forum that would take a step back from the immediate In/Out question and provide some broader and deeper context.  Under the title ‘Visions of Europe and the Brexit debate’, four historians were asked to discuss how understandings of Europe have evolved over time:  What ostensibly held Europe together?  What have been seen as Europe’s outer limits?  Two of the speakers (Richard Vinen and Jim Bjork) work primarily on the twentieth century, while the other two (Serena Ferente and Toby Green), as well as the chair, Anne Goldgar, specialize in earlier periods (late medieval to early modern).

 

The panel of historians included (from left to right) Professor Anne Goldgar, Dr Jim Bjork, Professor Richard Vinen, Dr Serena Ferente, and Dr Toby Green.

The panel of historians included (from left to right) Professor Anne Goldgar, Dr Jim Bjork, Professor Richard Vinen, Dr Serena Ferente, and Dr Toby Green.

A common theme of all of the talks was mutability in understandings of Europe and attitudes toward Europe.  The first speaker, Richard Vinen, focused on the evolution of British politicians’ views of European integration since the Second World War.  He noted that enthusiasm for British engagement in this project tended to be stronger on the Right than on the Left at the time of Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community in the 1970s, but then, as now, the attitudes of many individual politicians shifted with changing circumstances.   The next talk, by Serena Ferente, turned to the very different context of continental Europe in the fifteenth century.  She described how one familiar way of defining Europe—as a community united by Christianity—was consciously promoted by Pope Pius II in response to a contemporary challenge from the Ottoman Turks.  Dr. Ferente argued that such programmatic definitions should be seen as attempts to impose order on the continent’s underlying cultural and political pluralism and its frequent demographic disruptions, then, as now, manifested in flows of refugees from conflict zones.   Toby Green’s contribution also highlighted the historical contingency of definitions of Europe, in particular in relation to Africa.   Connections between Iberia and North Africa had been especially strong in the late medieval period, blurring the distinction between the two continents.  And in the twentieth century, attempts to disentangle (European) metropole and (African) colony in the process of de-colonization had also generated much debate and ambivalence.  Many residents of Cape Verde, for example, sought to remain part of Portugal and thus, by extension, part of Europe.  In the final set of remarks, Jim Bjork argued that uncertainty about Europe’s frontiers was paralleled by uncertainty about the continent’s centre.   Early and late modern commentators had noted the paradox of Europe’s geographic centre being marked by a sense of helplessness in the face of bids for hegemony arising on the continent’s margins (Spain, France, Britain, Russia).  This had given rise to rival twentieth-century visions of ‘Central Europe’ as either serving as the core of a robust new imperial power or, alternately, as modelling pluralistic co-existence among small nations, suggesting very different visions for the potential organization of the continent as a whole.

 

The initial presentations were followed by a half hour of questions and comments from the audience, composed of about 25 members of academic staff, postgraduate and undergraduate students.  In addition to following up on particular points made by individual speakers, several interventions from the audience understandably circled back to the issue of what implications these broader historical perspectives might have for the upcoming referendum.  It seemed fair to say that all speakers were sceptical of the view, advanced by at least some advocates of Britain’s exit from the EU, that the long-term histories of Britain and continental Europe ran on separate or divergent tracks.  The diversity and mutability of historical visions of Europe meant that there was no fundamental incompatibility with various visions of Britain.   But it was noted that the panel’s recurring references to contingency and flux in Europe’s past did also help to explain a widespread sense of uncertainty and anxiety about Europe’s possible futures.

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