SO, hell is coming for the Brexiteers. Doubtless in our secular age Donald Tusk didn’t mean that in quite the literal sense, though the use of such lurid phraseology seems disturbingly fitting to a Britain and Europe riven anew by fanatical, sectarian differences of belief as the former departs the orbit of the latter.
Protestant and Catholic, ‘anywheres’ and ‘somewheres’: it is always fun to play ‘The Reformation Game’ when it comes to Brexit and the rise of populism. As the contagion spreads across the continent, its actors play on an expanding yet ever more crowded stage, many clearly reprising roles from the original hit production five hundred years ago: the EU is the Roman Church, obviously, and Farage its Luther; the gilets jaunes are the revolting peasants and social media the printing press; the ultra-Remain People’s (i.e. Davos) Vote set are the sinister Jesuits.
Such analogies work only so far, of course. In Britain we have been spared, thankfully, a Bloody Mary figure (though doubtless Professor A C Grayling or Andrew Adonis would like a crack at the part) and also tragically as yet our own Elizabeth, permanently freeing us from the tyranny of Brussels whilst uniting our divided country afterwards.
What is also unknown is how Europe, currently at bay, will ultimately respond to its many travails. Will it really wither and die, as Brexiteers have been predicting (wrongly) for several decades now? Will it finally reform?
Or will it reprise another act from the Reformation drama and launch a stunning and effective Counter Reformation?
History never repeats itself exactly and prophesying on the basis it will do so is a risky business. However, there are ominous signs that the EU may be intending to keep to the Reformation script. Just as Pope Paul III refused all compromise with Protestantism, reaffirming core Catholic doctrine, we see in the EU’s obduracy – brought to life superbly in the BBC’s Inside Europe – that an already deep-rooted antipathy to directional change is becoming further entrenched. ‘More Europe’ is always the answer: plans are now being laid to create a common European army and the abandonment of autonomy on taxation. The door is shutting: for its remaining member states, there will be no escape.
Of course, that would be a total tragedy for a continental Europe that desperately needs a change in direction. Being trapped in the EU is plainly a recipe for remorseless decline. Perhaps the best historical parallel is provided by Spain, at the time of the Reformation the most powerful and successful country in Europe: as Claudio Véliz showed in his masterful The New World of the Gothic Fox, the success of the Counter Reformation and its precursor the Inquisition taught the Spaniards the fatal lesson that unbending ultra-conservatism was always the right approach. As a result, Spain applied a Baroque rigidity to every threat of change, slowly but agonisingly declining down the centuries until the country reached the nadir of the Spanish civil war whilst the flexibly ‘gothic’ Anglo-Saxons adapted and prospered.
Such obduracy is not confined to Catholics or Spaniards, of course. Indeed, in our own land Ulster Protestants learnt similar lessons from their history. Now the EU, backed and bankrolled as it is by the Teutonic iron will and neurotic need for control of its most powerful member, has embarked on the same doomed course. By quirk of fate the result is the current Brexit impasse: immovable object has met immovable object.
If we are lucky, time will prove the irresistible force that sweeps away the immovable EU object for the British. The clock continues to tick down, but not just for the British or the EU. As the foundations of the Baroque prison are built all around the continent’s enfeebled and entrapped states, Britain cannot falter in leaving, and becoming once again a light of freedom and hope towards Europe as a whole.