Quo Vadis?

When even anti-EU tabloids say the Government's official position on Brexit is insincere, it is time to take it seriously. On Tuesday last week, The Sun reported that the European heads of government had concluded that Johnson's latest genius plan to create a "double border" on the island of Ireland wasn't a serious attempt to negotiate a Brexit deal. "They believe his insistence the dossier be kept secret is an effort to disguise the fact it is designed to set up a “blame game” with Brussels," it said.

An hour after The Sun published its article, Sky News released a briefing from an unnamed "No. 10 source" on a phone call between Boris Johnson and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel:
"The call with Merkel shows the EU has adopted a new position. She made clear a deal is overwhelmingly unlikely and she thinks the EU has a veto on us leaving the Customs Union. Merkel said that if Germany wanted to leave the EU they could do it no problem but the UK cannot leave without leaving Northern Ireland behind in a customs union and in full alignment forever. She said that Ireland is the government's special problem and that Ireland must at least have a veto on NI leaving. Merkel said that the PM should tell NI that it must stay in full alignment forever, but that even this would not eliminate customs issues.

It was a very useful clarifying moment in all sorts of ways. If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible not just now but ever. It also means they are willing to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement."
This was the second briefing in two days from an unnamed "No.10 source" that said talks were about to break down and it was all the fault of EU countries. The first, reported in the Spectator, accused the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, of "reneging" on a promised compromise, and it warned that if talks failed and Johnson was forced to ask for an extension to Article 50 under the Benn Act, the UK would "withhold cooperation" from any EU countries that backed the extension. The brusque tone and inflammatory language of both briefings suggest that the source is the same person.

 Shortly after Sky News's report, Leave.EU issued an incendiary tweet showing a picture of Angela Merkel and saying "we didn't win two world wars to be pushed around by a Kraut." I was struck by the similarity between this tweet and what my Leave-voting neighbour told me over the garden fence the day after the referendum: "We didn't fight two world wars to be run by Germany," she said.

The ensuing Twitter storm forced Leave.EU to delete the tweet and issue an apology. But Leave.EU know their base well. That tweet will have resonated with people like my neighbour. And the apology was more than slightly insincere, anyway. "The real outrage is the German suggestion that Northern Ireland be separated from the UK," said Leave.EU's co-founder, Arron Banks. That amounts to "we're sorry for saying that it's the Germans' fault, but it's still the Germans' fault". Of course, some in Northern Ireland might think the real outrage was the UK government separating Northern Ireland from Ireland in the first place. Sometimes I wonder if hardline Brexiters know anything at all about Britain's shared - and extremely bloody - history with Ireland.

Anyway, The Sun is right. The European heads of state do indeed think the UK Government is trying to pin the blame for the Brexit mess on European countries. And they are furious about it. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, issued this angry tweet:
The British press made valiant attempts to understand what "quo vadis" meant. Most got the translation right - "where are you going?" Some suggested that using a Latin phrase was intended to appeal to Johnson's classical education. To its credit, the Express did better: it recognised the origin of the phrase in the legend of St. Peter's attempted flight from Rome during the Emperor Nero's persecution of the early Christians. The story goes that St. Peter met Jesus on the road. "Quo vadis, Domine?" he asked, to which Jesus answered "Ad Romam, iterum crucifigi" - "To Rome, to be crucified again". St. Peter took this to mean that Jesus was intending to take his place on the cross he was running away from. Horrified that he was about to betray Jesus again, he turned around and returned to Rome to face certain death.

That's the legend as I learned it as a child at a Catholic primary school. But I don't think Tusk is directly referring to this legend. Tusk is Polish. I think his use of the term "quo vadis", and the comment about a "stupid blame game", channels the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel Quo Vadis, which I first read in Joseph Curtin's translation as a teenager, and have just re-read to refresh my memory.

Quo Vadis establishes the roots of the Catholic Church firmly in the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Nero. The weak, vain Nero, suspected of having burned down Rome to clear the way for building a new, grandiose capital called "Neropolis", shifts the blame from himself by launching a pogrom against Christians, who are already popularly believed to be "enemies of the state". Thousands are publicly killed, in ever more creative and entertaining ways. But this only serves to strengthen the nascent Church. Towards the end of the book, the simultaneous martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul, attended by hundreds of their own followers, marks the beginning of the end of the Roman state and its god-emperors:
But Peter, surrounded by soldiers, looked at the city as a ruler and king looks at his inheritance. And he said to it, "Thou art redeemed and mine!" And no-one, not merely among the soldiers digging the hole in which to plant the cross, but even among believers, could divine that standing there among them was the true ruler of that moving life; that Caesars would pass away, waves of barbarians go by, and ages vanish, but that old man would be lord there unbrokenly.
Given this, Tusk's inference is clear. Persecution only strengthens the persecuted. Johnson's attempt to pin the blame for the Brexit mess on Europeans could perversely strengthen the EU and hasten the demise of Britain as a global power.

The FT's Izabella Kaminska reached the same conclusion:

But she then pointed out that it could of course be interpreted to mean exactly the opposite:
In fact this is the more obvious interpretation, at least to British eyes. The Christians in Quo Vadis embraced martyrdom willingly, because they believed that after death there would be a far better life. Similarly, conversations I have had with Brexiters indicate that they are fully prepared for short-term pain, because they believe that "in the long term we will be richer". There is no more evidence for this than there is for the Christians' belief in life after death. But faith isn't founded on evidence, it is founded on emotion. Thus it is the nebulous concepts of "sovereignty," "self-government" and "democracy" that attract people to the Brexit cause, not facts and figures. Indeed people believe in Brexit despite the preponderance of facts and figures that show it will do them harm.

Those promoting Brexit claim the EU is the cause of all the ills suffered by British people. They promise that freeing the British people from the yoke of this "evil empire" will bring them prosperity - eventually. Though as Keynes observed, in the long run we are all dead, and unlike Christianity, Brexit does not promise a better life after death. If Brexit does not deliver the promised "sunlit uplands", at some point there will be a reckoning. No wonder those who peddle the most damaging forms of Brexit are readying an array of culprits on whom to pin the blame. Brussels, obviously, but also the Germans, the Irish, the French, the UK Parliament, British judges, Remainers.....

But this is not just about Brexit. Nigel Farage's response to Donald Tusk's tweet indicates a larger ambition:
Farage and his party are part of a pan-European movement whose intention is to "kill off" the EU. This is why Farage opposes any deal with the EU. Why do a deal with an organisation you intend to destroy?

Farage's call for "a Europe of peaceful, democratic nations", while maybe not snake oil, is certainly a pipe dream. It has never existed. Europe's history is one of perpetual conflict, both between nations and within them. Many of today's European nations did not even exist in their present form until the 20th century: Central Europe, particularly, has been a melting pot for over a thousand years. Many countries have disputed borders. And many in Eastern Europe are threatened by the Russian bear, which makes no secret of the fact that it wants its empire back. The most recent war in Europe started not in 1939, but in 2014. EU member states enjoy peace at the moment - but for how long, if the EU dies? And maybe I am cynical, but I question Farage's motives. If the EU is destroyed, cui bono?

If there is one thing that the history of the Christian church teaches us, it is that to build a lasting empire, you must win the battle for hearts and minds. Institutions that rely for their strength on facts and evidence, but to which people have no emotional attachment, ultimately fail. This is why religions last longer than any secular state. The Catholic church born of Nero's persecution still dominates the world today. But the outlook for the EU, held together as it is by treaties and rules, is much less certain.

Tusk could be right about Johnson's blame game potentially strengthening the EU, at least in Europe. Many Europeans, both in the East and the West, have extremely painful memories of war and are under no illusions about the fragility of peace. For that reason alone, they may respond to Johnson's attacks by closing ranks. Though fear of the alternative is not really a recipe for long-term survival of the EU. There needs to be a positive aim - a promise of a better life for everyone. To my (admittedly jaundiced) British eyes, the fractured EU currently appears unable to offer that.

But I think it is much less likely that Johnson's blame game will increase support for the EU in the UK, even in the short term. As I have noted before, Britain;'s experience of war is rather different from that of people in Europe, and it is not comfortable in a partnership of equals. Perhaps because of this, the Remain side is - to say the least - lukewarm about the EU project. Many Remainers support EU membership not out of conviction but because they fear the economic consequences of leaving. And many, though convinced that the principle of a "european union" is right and good, are distinctly unimpressed with the way it is being implemented. There is little similarity between the sclerotic, bureaucratic and at times cruel European Union, and the young, vibrant, and above all gentle Christian church portrayed in Sienkiewicz's novel. I'm not sure Remainers care enough about the EU to be strengthened by Johnson's attacks.

However, Tusk's warning about security is absolutely right. Johnson's blame game is undoubtedly a threat to peace and security, not least because it makes cooperation between European powers over matters such as Turkish belligerence in Syria much more difficult. And Farage's ambition is even more dangerous. At least Nero intended to build Neropolis. Farage doesn't appear to intend to build anything. But we know the consequences of destroying something with no idea what you will build in its place. Just look at Iraq. Or the former Soviet Union, for that matter. Is that really the future we want for Europe?

We should remember too that the UK's history is far from stable. Over the last four hundred years there have been repeated civil wars in the UK, though only one of them is officially called a "civil war". The wars were sectarian, but as with all sectarian wars, the fight was really over territorial control and sovereignty. From the moment Henry VIII rejected the Pope's authority in England (hey-ho, "foreign interference in British affairs"), the fundamental dispute was always about "who governs the British Isles": Spanish- and French-backed Catholics versus all but one of the Tudors, then the Catholic Jacobites versus first Cromwell then the Protestant Hanoverians. Catholics, suspected of being "enemies of the state", were repressed and at times persecuted for about two hundred years. And long after the Battle of Culloden had ended the last Jacobite's claim to the British throne, discrimination against Catholics still continued, particularly in Ireland and, after Irish independence, Northern Ireland.

The most recent sectarian war in the UK was the so-called "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, which ended in 1998 when the Belfast Agreement, often known as the "Good Friday Agreement", was signed. This is the agreement that is threatened by Brexit. And no-one seems to have noticed No.10's inconsistent briefing about it. First we are told that France and Germany's ability to compromise with the UK is being "held back" by their solidarity with Ireland. Then, a day later, we are told that Germany is prepared to "torpedo" the Good Friday Agreement. But torpedoing the Good Friday Agreement is the last thing Ireland wants. It is, however, what Johnson's allies in the DUP want. They hated it from the start. If the Good Friday Agreement is destroyed, cui bono?

Quo Vadis tells us that love conquers hate. For a myriad of reasons that have little to do with economics and much to do with faith and emotion, Brexiters hate the EU. But Remainers don't love the EU enough to counter the Brexiters' hate, and they don't love Northern Ireland enough to want to protect it from the consequences of that hatred. And that is why, even though Brexit is a threat to peace in the UK, Britain is leaving the EU. The question is, do Europeans love the EU enough to overcome those who want to destroy it? Do they care enough about peace in Europe? It remains to be seen.

Related reading:

Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz (translated by Joseph Curtin)
Austerity and the rise of populism
Grieving for a lost empire

Image "Domine, quo vadis" by Annibale Carracci, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


  1. Well written. reads easily.

  2. I've only one wee point to make here about Turkey. You say that a divided EU makes it harder to deal with Turkish helligerence. 1st, Turkey has been behaving belligerently towards Cyprus and Greece for decades with not a peep of concern from EU. Daily fighter jet incursions are simply ignored. 2ndly, one reason Erdogan has got massively cocky is down to all the cash Merkel unilaterally decided the EU should give him for outsourcing the refugee problem. And while Erdogan was treated with velvet gloves the EU was still kicking holy crap out of both Greece and Cyprus economically.
    So I do not accept it is the UK who are at any fault for Erdogan going totally rogue. That lies firmly with Germany.

  3. People who are complicit in a disaster are especially apt to look for scapegoats: you mentioned the example of Nero (who is believed to be the true culprit in the Great Fire of Rome) but I'm also thinking of how in 1941 the Nazis exploited the double occupation of the Baltic States in order to start the Holocaust. The Nazis recruited former Soviet collaborators (who were perhaps looking to atone for their treachery in 1939) in order to help them kill the Jews.

    I wonder how much a similar dynamic is being used to firm support for Brexit in two areas?

    The first of these is specific to the fishing industry: while one reason for the precipitous decline of Britain's fishing industry was defeat in the Cod Wars with Iceland, another factor is that Thatcher's government allowed British fishing boat owners to sell their EU quotas to foreigners (which wasn't possible in most other EU countries where the quotas were assigned to ports rather than to boats). Perhaps those boat owners who got rich quick at the expense of their communities are now looking to divert attention from their own treachery?

    The second of these is related to the fact that two of the tabloid newspapers which propagandized for Brexit (the Daily Mail and the Express) were also notorious for cheering on house price inflation. One factor in the deindustrialization of Britain was the destruction of British industrial firms by asset strippers who made big profits by converting their sites to residential use: as council tax is much lower than business rates, conversion to residential allowed more ground rent to be privately collected (and thus available to be capitalized into the land's selling price).

    Perhaps the readers of these newspapers (many of whom were boomers who profited from house price inflation) felt complicit and looked for a scapegoat -- the EU -- against which they could lash out?

  4. If we can burn down one union at time....

  5. "the sclerotic, bureaucratic and at times cruel European Union," So true, I have seen the economic disaster caused by membership of the euro and the EU's attempts to hold it together in Ireland and in Spain. Only the naive could love the EU and believe it working for the common good. Most people in Spain and Ireland only support it on the basis that their own governments are worse.
    The British hatred of the EU has specific roots.
    The UK's democracy, unwritten constitution and common law system are completely different from other countries in Europe. De Gaulle rejected our membership of the EU project because he knew after he spent the years in the UK that we were too different and he was right.
    We have just seen a change of the President and the Commissioners of The EU Commission. We were not allowed to vote for them and no one attempts to explain to the average voter that these people have been democratically chosen because they haven't been democratically chosen. Why are the President and Commissoners not members of the EU parliament and chosen by the EU parliament? In the UK House of Commons only MPs and the clerks from Hansard are allowed to enter, not even the sovereign is allowed. Why are mere functionaries like Barnier and Junckers/Van der Leyen allowed to sit in the EU Parliament? Why isn't the EU parliament allowed to initiate legislation, so as to make it powerless? Many Remainers feel that the obvious democratic deficit of the EU is tolerable because the people in Brussels are "people like them". Well they are not people like me and I strongly object to being ruled by them without the opportunity to vote against them and vote them out of power. Brussels and the Remainer establishment want to make voting meaningless but our vote and the knowledge that it gives ordinary people power is the only thing preventing serious political and civil unrest. We all saw what happened in Northern Ireland when the Catholics felt powerless.
    The bitterness caused by Remainers openly despising "people not like them" - Leavers, and fighting a rearguard action for three years to stop Brexit or take control of it and make it Brino has formed the basis for a fine civil war.


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