Dear Britain: Letters From Elena Ferrante, Slavoj Zizek, and Other European Writers on Brexit

Elena Ferrante
Italy
Dear Britain,
I don’t have much sympathy for the current European Union. Its upper floors are elegantly furnished, with spacious halls for parties and banquets; there are abundant stores and provisions, rooms with panoramic views where building bylaws pertaining to those residing on the lower floors are discussed and drawn up, security services that design alarm systems and sturdy doors to keep out those who want to set up camp in the entrance hall or at least in the basement. It’s an ugly Europe, this one. Behind its facade, it safeguards the interests of those countries that are strongest, both economically and militarily. And yet, despite the rules and regulations, it has never stopped thinking that – when there is nothing further to be gained – it is best to throw off the union and make do with the old cocksure ways of the proud old nations.
This belief is the most wrongheaded of all. The single pieces of Europe have long lost their autonomy and centrality. Major financial crises cannot be faced by stewing in one’s own juice. Migrations cannot be controlled with traffic lights or barbed wire. Global terrorism is not a video game you play at home in your living room. The world’s climate cannot be fixed by opening an umbrella. The happy few are no longer enough, not even for themselves, but must confront the unhappy many.
And so, while it may be a union that has united little or nothing, it is necessary, in my opinion, to stay together at all costs. What we need now is not many small countries but a continent. Amid conflicts and confrontations, in defiance of the facts, we must try to move towards a community that instead of drawing up lists of objectives becomes actively political and puts an end to countless intolerable inequalities. Contained in the treasure chests of its sovereign states, Europe has many kinds of poison but also wonderful jewels. It is time to throw away the former and pull out the latter in preparation for our impassioned feast of common thought and action. We don’t need roots now: they make plants of us, splendid, yes, but bound to the ground, and nowadays everything is more mobile than ever, shifting quickly from one shape to the next. A broad, true identity must open itself up to all identities and absorb the best in them. Time is short. Many kinds of malaise and poverty are spreading, the streets are increasingly stained with blood, the worst intentions feed the worst kinds of politics. Staying together is no longer an option but an obligation and an urgent necessity. Women and men of Britain, please, let us stay together, and change Europe together.
Translated by Daniela Petracco. will be published in November by Europa Editions.

Javier Marías
Spain
Dear Britain,
As Spaniards born under the Franco dictatorship (especially those of us who belonged to families on the losing side of the civil war) we were always aware that we might one day have to leave our country and go into exile. Whenever I imagined this possibility, my chosen destination was never France or Italy or some Latin American country, but Britain. This was perhaps because, early on, I acquired a reasonably good knowledge of English, but it was doubtless also because I had read so much British literature and seen so many British films that Britain seemed to me a familiar place and as undeniably European as my home town of Madrid. Indeed, I partly owe my vocation as a writer to Richmal Crompton and her Just William (or Guillermo as we knew him) books. I was brought up reading Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling and GK Chesterton, J Meade Faulkner and Anthony Hope, Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. My childhood heroes were portrayed by actors such as John Mills, Stewart Granger, Jack Hawkins, David Niven and Trevor Howard. My first platonic love was Hayley Mills. Britain was not only a constant presence in my fantasies, it also seemed to me a country that would be sure to take me in if things took a turn for the worse in Spain; a place where I would not feel entirely foreign. For me, it is as much a part of Europe as Italy, Germany, France or Austria, possibly even more so.
I knew, too, that it was an invariably democratic country, respectful of individual freedoms and generous to those who took refuge there: from Joseph Baretti to Nikolaus Pevsner and from Elias Canetti to my friend Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who was exiled from Cuba in 1965, not to mention such Spanish writers as Blanco White, Luis Cernuda, Arturo Barea and Manuel Chaves Nogales. It seemed only natural that Britain should form part of the EU. True, the EU does not tend to arouse great passion – it more often provokes feelings of discontent – however, it is largely responsible for the fact that, since 1945, the various countries of this continent have not resorted to killing each other. That this fails to spark enthusiasm and, above all, gratitude, only demonstrates how ignorant and forgetful our present-day societies are.
Were Britain to leave the union, it’s unlikely that anyone would immediately start a war, but you never know. One thing I do know is that the rest of the continent would feel orphaned, amputated, empty and even defenceless. Let me explain that last word: those of us who do still remember ought to give thanks every day for the existence of that island separated from us only by a narrow strip of sea. Without it, it is probable that the entire continent would have suffered the consequences of a crushing victory by Hitler. Simply knowing that this small island spent years resisting tyranny and invasion is enough to make us all want to be able to count on its continuing presence, and always to be on the same side, whether in wartime or during long years of peace. We want to keep it as close to us as possible, even if only for purely selfish reasons and in order to save us from ourselves.
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. is published by Penguin.

Timur Vermes
Germany
Dear Britain,
Let’s keep it short: what is the EU? It’s the consequence of the second world war. It’s the attempt to make things better.
Even if you don’t always get the best result for yourself.
Many, throughout the whole of Europe, don’t share this ambition any more.
That’s understandable, for 60 million people had to die before most found it a worthwhile ambition.
And that was a long time ago.
Everyone has the right to wait until this view comes naturally to them.
But they should know this: next time they won’t get it so cheaply.
is available in paperback from MacLehose.

Anne Enright
Ireland
Dear Britain,
I have two of your children – at least, they might choose to be yours. Their father is British, born and reared. He likes cricket. His name is Murphy. His family moved from Ireland to London after the potato famine of the 1840s and five generations later, they are still called “Spud”. In 1980 he swapped the friendly racism of Surrey for the friendly racism that English people are subjected to in Dublin, which he finds a bit tiresome. The huge migration that unsettled his family and left them forever subject to cheerful insult involved more than a million refugees who left Ireland for the urban centres of Britain and America. When a population tips like that it is hard to rebalance. Ireland has been weakened by migration ever since, and Britain has been strengthened by it.

It must be tempting to shut the doors and pull the curtains, keep the money under the mattress and think about the past

I don’t think there will be a Brexit because people rarely vote against their clear economic interests (“Apart from working class Tories,” mutters Mr Murphy). But I would like Britain to stay in Europe for more positive reasons. I could talk about idealism. I could talk about the second world war, or other wars less glorious – ask why you don’t vote to leave Nato, for example, or the community of nations that went to Iraq – but the arguments for Brexit seem based on a fear of being contaminated by foreigners, and fear is never truly idealistic. It is tribal. It is the kind of atavistic thinking that makes me step back from my own nationalism, now and then. So it is easy for me to set aside my Irishness in order to say: I like Britain very much. I mean, I like whatever Britain is – a shifting thing, a landscape, a language, a library full of astonishing books, a mosaic of peoples stalled in one migration or another, from the raw Saxon faces you see in East Anglia, to the sari shops of Bradford, to the eyes of my two children, who came from God knows where.
They like the trees, by the way. Also, and in this order: curry, cousins, yorkshire pudding, “the way that everything is better funded”, the BBC, Bristol, sarcasm, the pub, AFC Wimbledon, Edgar Wright, Topshop and “how the politicians seem very polite but are really furious”. So now you know.
Of course as an Irishwoman I also have to be cheerfully insulting and say that I am really sorry that Britain lost her empire with all the money and the power that came with it, I know that must be hard for you all. But as you would say to any grand old lady, in her nostalgia and wounded pride, “Don’t isolate yourself.” It must be so tempting to shut the doors and pull the curtains, keep the money under the mattress until the value fades out of the old notes, and think about the past. Which was great, if a little bit unfair. But the world has changed, since Britain was last alone. Don’t go. You will not thrive, and we want you to thrive. You are still family to us all.
is published by Vintage.

Yanis Varoufakis
Greece
Dear Britain,
Last year I tried, and failed, to convince the EU top brass to behave humanely toward my long-suffering country. Now, I am writing to you with an odd plea: that you stay in this same EU – yes, the one that crushed our Athens spring and has been behaving abominably ever since.
AdvertisementSome will deploy tabloid logic to explain my plea (“Varoufakis wants the UK to stay in to pay for Greece’s bailouts”). Others will accuse me of abandoning the fight for restoring democracy. Yet I trust that your Pythonesque appreciation of paradox will pierce through the seeming contradiction.
The reason I want you to stay in is that voting to leave will not get you “out”. Rather than escaping the EU, Brexit will keep you tied to a Europe that is nastier, sadder and increasingly dangerous to itself, to you, indeed to the rest of the planet.
The masters of the City will never allow a new Boris Johnson government to even think of leaving the EU’s single market, despite Michael Gove’s musings. Which means that all the gadgets sold in your shops will have to abide by standards made in Brussels, your environmental protection rules will be drawn up in Brussels, and market regulation will be (yes you guessed it) determined in Brussels.
So, even after Brexit, the majority of your laws will be written in the same dreary Brussels corridors as now, except you will have no say in their shaping. With your democracy as truncated as it is now, you will remain stuck, albeit less powerful, in a Europe whose fragmentation Brexit will accelerate.
The EU is undoubtedly bureaucratic, opaque and contemptuous of the parliamentarianism that you and I cherish. You may, therefore, conclude that speeding up the EU’s fragmentation is not such a bad idea. Think again! Will its disintegration cause progressive democrats to rise up across Europe, empower their parliaments, usher in the forces of light and hope, and foster harmonious cooperation on the continent? Not likely.
The EU’s fragmentation will divide the continent in at least two parts, the major fault line running down the Rhine and across the Alps. In the north east, deflation will rule, with millions of working poor Germans, Poles and so on becoming unemployed. In the Latin part, the order of the day will be inflation with unemployment. Only political monsters will crawl out of this fault line, spreading xenophobic misanthropy everywhere and ensuring, through competitive devaluations, that you will also be drawn into the ensuing vortex.
This is why I am pleading with you to stay in our terrible EU. Europe’s democrats need you. And you need us. Together we have a chance of reviving democratic sovereignty across Europe. It won’t be easy. But it is worth a try.
When I was student, a close friend who hated parties nevertheless never missed one just so that he would have something to bitch about the day after. Please do not be like him. Please stay in the EU with enthusiasm for our common cause: to take arms against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them.
is published by Vintage.

Jonas Jonasson
Sweden

Dear Britain,
You have many talents. Playing football springs to mind. Brewing decent beer. Speaking a language that people understand. On the other hand, you seem to be having trouble driving. It is the wrong side, you know. But it seems to work, as long as you all make the same mistake.
AdvertisementAnd you were more than brave during the war. Churchill said all he had to offer was blood, toil, tears and sweat. But he left out self-esteem. You taught the world and yourselves that a Brit is a Brit is a Brit. Meanwhile, Swedes let the Nazis pass through our country, cap in hand.
War is bad. And still Europe engaged in war for a long time in the first half of the 20th century. More than 50 million Europeans died. And we came to sensible conclusions: we decided to work together, across the borders, in such a way that attacking your neighbour would be like attacking yourself. We called it the European Coal and Steel Community, a rather ingenious construction presented by a French politician of German descent. As more countries joined, this community eventually turned into the European Union, and it was quite something. Fifty million died during the first half of the last century. Fifty thousand in the second half. Were it not for the downfall of Yugoslavia, there would be no official number at all.
But then there is this thing called memory. We tend to forget a lot. Like England not being able to beat Sweden in football for 24 straight years (you were just as surprised every time we won). Or like the EU, and what it is really for. In Sweden, people tend to write about how the UK would be worse off leaving the union. The fact that it would be a disaster for the rest of us is given less attention. I think Brexit would be the beginning of the end of an unprecedented period of peace at the heart of Europe. Without you, the EU will crack at its very seams. I wish you would stay, and that all of us together – in toil, tears and sweat but not blood – will steer the peace project that is the European Union in the right direction. If you accept, you may drive on whichever side of the road you prefer. We will even let you win Euro 2016 this summer. After all, the manager of the England team is practically half Swedish.
by Jonas Jonasson is published by 4th Estate.

Kapka Kassabova
Bulgaria
Dear Britain,
The country I come from is where Europe technically ends today, or begins, depending on your journey. But only technically: recently, in European Turkey, I met people who feel proudly European, just minus the passports. To them, Europeanness, like the secular republic, is a hard-won value, worlds away from Brussels, where beautiful Europa has been nibbled to a drab word. The Turks on the west side of the Bosphorus are perhaps the last European idealists.
Let us not be fooled there is some better place, once we drift away. There isn’t. There is only the cold Atlantic Ocean.
It was the Ottomans who gave Europe – via the Balkans – the word komshulak, neighbourliness, the spirit of living next door convivially, sharing joys and sorrows as the tides of history turn. Komshulak is the highest, if humblest, form of civility. When it breaks down, everything breaks down. Komshulak is at the heart of the battered European project. Battered but not beaten. Let us not be fooled, on these most westerly isles, that there is some better place, once we drift away. There isn’t. There is only the cold Atlantic Ocean.
I settled in Edinburgh a decade ago, after a decade in New Zealand: I had returned to Europe, and one of its great cities too. When I moved to the Highlands, I lost none of this essential Scottish Europeanness, with its unfussy love of eccentricity, diversity, and live-and-let-live attitude, this sense of continuity with the continent even in remote glens. And though I love Scotland with an almost unseemly passion, I feel like an adopted Brit. Is that a paradox? Then so is the fact that I feel Balkan and European, in the sense that the Balkans are (whisper it) only partly “European”. And here’s the wonderful rub: Europe is not a monoculture. It is a place where people ride reindeer, grow vines, eat Turkish delight, and call themselves Shetlanders. I’ll keep my subscription to that.
Border will be published by Granta in 2017.

Slavoj Žižek
Slovenia
Dear Britain,
When Stalin was asked in the late 1920s which is worse, the right or the left, he snapped back: “They are both worse!” And this is my first reaction to the question of whether or not to leave the EU.
AdvertisementI am not interested in sending love letters to the British public with the sentimental message: “Please stay in Europe!” What interests me is ultimately only one question. Europe is now caught in a vicious cycle, oscillating between the false opposites of surrender to global capitalism and surrender to anti-immigrant populism – which politics has a chance of enabling us to step out of this mad dance?
The symbols of global capitalism are secretly negotiated trade agreements such as the Trade in Services Agreement (Tisa) or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The social impact of TTIP is clear enough: it stands for nothing less than a brutal assault on democracy. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Investor-State Dispute Settlements (ISDS), which allow companies to sue governments if their policies cause a loss of profits. Simply put, this means that unelected transnational corporations can dictate the policies of democratically elected governments.
So how would Brexit fare in this context? From a leftwing standpoint, there are some good reasons to support Brexit: a strong nation state exempted from the control of Brussels technocrats can protect the welfare state and counteract austerity politics. However, I am worried about the ideological and political background of this option. From Greece to France, a new trend is arising in what remains of the “radical left”: the rediscovery of nationalism. All of a sudden, universalism is out, dismissed as a lifeless political and cultural counterpart of “rootless” global capital.
The reason for this is obvious: the rise of rightwing nationalist populism in western Europe, which is now the strongest political force advocating the protection of working class interests, and simultaneously the strongest political force able to give rise to proper political passions. So the reasoning goes: why should the left leave this field of nationalist passions to the radical right, why should it not “reclaim la patrie from the Front National”?
In this leftwing populism, the logic of Us against Them remains, however here “they” are not poor refugees or immigrants, but financial capital and technocratic state bureaucracy. This populism moves beyond the old working class anticapitalism; it tries to bring together a multiplicity of struggles from ecology to feminism, from the right to employment to free education and healthcare.
The recurrent story of the contemporary left is that of a leader or party elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a “new world” (Mandela, Lula) – but sooner or later, usually after a couple of years, they stumble upon the key dilemma: does one dare to touch the capitalist mechanisms, or does one decide to “play the game”? If one disturbs the mechanisms, one is very swiftly punished by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest. So how can we push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over?
I remain convinced that our only hope is to act trans-nationally – only in this way do we have a chance to constrain global capitalism. The nation-state is not the right instrument to confront the refugee crisis, global warming, and other truly pressing issues. So instead of opposing Eurocrats on behalf of national interests, let’s try to form an all-European left. And it is because of this margin of hope that I am tempted to say: vote against Brexit, but do it as a devout Christian who supports a sinner while secretly cursing him. Don’t compete with the rightwing populists, don’t allow them to define the terms of the struggle. Socialist nationalism is not the right way to fight the threat of national socialism.
is published by Allen Lane.

Cees Nooteboom
The Netherlands
Dear Britain,
Imagine for one moment a peculiar kind of parlour game. Take the famous picture by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, The Congress of Vienna, from 1815. Look at the gentlemen involved, Alexander I, tsar of Russia, the Duke of Wellington, the devious and eternal Talleyrand, accompanied by a poet and a writer, De Lamartine and Chateaubriand. Then of course Metternich, the Bavarians, the Saxons and the Prussians, Karl August Fürst von Hardenberg, Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt. There is even a Dutchman with a German name, Hans Christoph Ernst von Gagern.
Now take out Viscount Castlereagh, the Duke of Wellington, the Earl of Aberdeen and the rest of the British delegation. Remember it is only a game. Make them leave their seats, that means five empty chairs. Look at the intense amazement on the faces of Metternich and Talleyrand. Where are the British? Have they really left the table?
Imagine the famous picture, The Congress of Vienna by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, without the British delegation. Have they really left the table?
These last few months we have been reading and hearing daily about Brexit. Economists, politicians, commentators have inundated us with arguments for and against. We have lost our innocence. There is no escape. We must have an opinion. Even me. I am not an economist. I am a poet, like Lamartine. And I have written a book on Germany. Does that make me an expert? I was a child during the second world war. My father died in the British aerial bombardment of the Hague in February 1945. But the British did not start the war. Germany did. And the Germans have understood better than most they were on the wrong side of history. Therefore they are now convinced that they do not want a German Europe but a European Germany.
But what if a British absence will force them to fill the European vacuum? Simply, by their specific weight in the middle, by their industrial strength, and by their history, which will determine the history of Europe, because they are there? And how does that affect the other countries of Europe?
I am a European, convinced, against all odds, and amid the sad turbulence of separatists and populists. The Europeans outside Britain cannot decide their fate this time. Now I read that the bosses of hedge funds are supporting the campaign to leave the EU. These are the people who were called not so long ago the dandies of the apocalypse in a French publication … but who reads the French newspapers in the UK? David Cameron has spoken about the possibility of a world war. That seems far-fetched rhetoric, and has been ridiculed.
And yet, who dares to bet that if Britain opts out, later historians might not see this as a Versailles moment? Castlereagh and Wellington never left the congress in Vienna, and as far as I am concerned Cameron – or Johnson, or Corbyn – should stay seated at the tables of Europe. Our problems are manifold, but 50 years of peace is too precious to gamble with.

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