What is Europe? In one sense the question is painfully obvious — a geographical location, a collection of borders and cultures and nations. Europe is a place, a distinct over-there that all too often for the United Kingdom at least exists in travel magazines, idyllic photographs and some idealized notion of culture designed to appeal to middle class sensibilities. Europe is a morass of history, of culture, of rivalries and often bloody conflict, historically speaking, it is a sometimes ally, a sometimes enemy, a sometimes occupied territory and on occasion a force that threatened invasion. However, in the run up to the vote at the end of this month over the UK’s membership of the European Union, a new aspect of Europe has become much more explicit; Europe is political. To talk of ‘Europe’ in British politics is not to talk of a place or even the mere sense of one — rather it is to articulate a sense of something larger, more nebulous and much more explicitly political in difficult to define. It is, in the words of Benedict Anderson, a certain kind of “imagined community.” It stands in stark contrast to Raymond Williams idea of “knowable communities,” whereby communities hold together through face-to-face knowledge of all participants, Europe is held together through imagined and constructed means. Quite what that imaged community is seen to be like will typically depend upon one’s position upon the ideological and political axes which dominate how and where political discussion can occur in the UK, although, somewhat uniquely in politics in the UK the topology of the debate is somewhat less stable than might be expected. Both left and right have their problems with the EU. For those on certain parts of the political right, “Europe” is a powerful Shibboleth. It represents bureaucracy, waste, lack of accountability and a worrying supra-national threat to the dignity and sovereignty of the smaller imaginary community that is the UK. In this case the argument for leaving it is taken to be not a cowardly retreat, but a grand restoration — of British politics, of British rights. Not for nothing is the slogan of the leave faction a call to ‘take back control.’ “Europe” for the British right wing is a parasitic vampire, leeching off the greatness of the United Kingdom, a country being bled dry by the dictates of un-elected officials and rapacious migrants. The call to leave from the right is a continuation of the discourses of Empire back in the nineteenth century, where the greatness of Britain was taken as nothing less than the natural state of things — alone, not through a lack of allies, but through a lack of equals.
For certain sections of the left “Europe” is more vague — for much of the British left, Europe was, for a time, something which provoked mostly ambivalence. The vicious debate and vitriol was something that consumed the right, whilst the left was divided between a mild Euroscepticism and a mild pro-European strand of thinking. Europe never inspired huge passions after the 1970s as the left slid intone of its regular bouts of factionalism, before heading to the so called “post-ideological” ground of centrist politics. Once there, Europe-as-political-project was reframed as essentially a good idea. An integrated market that we could all have access to, allowing the free movements of both capital and labour. The right-wing’s Euro-phobia settled into a tacit, deep seated prejudice that shaped the political outlook of many of the post-Thatcher generation but to seize power the Conservatives were told to stop “banging on about Europe all the time.” And for a time they did. The right decided to grumble and mutter rather than rant and rave, while the left preferred to be relaxed about the very rich and enjoyed the perks of the seemingly ever more profitable single market. Post-2008 however, the left position on Europe shifted. The left began to see Europe as an undemocratic bulwark of neoliberalism, a technocratic regime that imposed “fiscal waterboarding” and a place in which Britain could no longer see itself. The right sees a British move away from Europe as the restoration of the natural state of things, whereas the left (in somewhat typically Utopian mode) sees the move away from the political place of Europe as a chance to construct a new vision of a nation. Unencumbered by regulation, red tape and opaque procedure, the nation could be free.
Faced with the possibility of this great political moving away, one of the common themes emerging in polling is that those who are undecided need more facts. Specifically, people are asking for facts which are unbiased, free from the ideological posturing that has marked so much of the political debate. The call for facts as if information could ever be separated from its means of transmission is perhaps understandable but one that misses the nature of the debate over Europe. As Foucault well knew knowledge, in and of itself, cannot confer any kind of secure access to a real condition — truth is a “thing of this world,” less a knowledge of facts, but a matter of know-how (savoir) as he put it, a force that is powerful but one that cannot be ultimately decisive. Forms of knowledge cannot be separated from the mechanisms of power which make use of them and which reproduce them.
This debate is not necessarily about what we know, but about the British membership of the imagined community of Europe. Facts will in all likelihood not settle this debate, or whatever influence they do have will be secondary to the narrative that wins the day. Does the United Kingdom still see itself as a participant within the daily unfolding history of wider Europe? Does it want to? If this political debate has revealed anything it is that Europe is fragile, as all imagined communities tend to be. The nationalism of those who wish for Britain to be apart from Europe reveals the fear that often underpins the imagined community. If the question of whether British people still see themselves as participants within a community called Europe is answered affirmatively then perhaps there is a chance, however slim, to continue in the process of refining and reforming Europe into a new, more inclusive community beyond the concerns and fears of nationalist division. However, if British people decide that Europe, that vague and nebulous region that is over there is now something which no longer concerns them, no longer matters to them, or meaningfully involves them, then the European imagined community may not hold together.