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Analysis #8

Phoney Cosmopolitanism versus Genuine Internationalism

Philip Cunliffe

11 June 2018

For many Remainers, the EU stands for internationalism and openness, while Brexit can only mean nationalism and a turning-inwards. This is misguided. The EU does not offer genuine internationalism but a thin, phoney cosmopolitanism. Jetissoning the myths around the EU is required to rebuild the national solidarity upon which genuine internationalism can be refounded.

Despite the focus of the mainstream Brexit debate on mundane matters of trade and borders, the wider debate over Europe runs far deeper. Two years after the referendum, disagreements over the EU and the continuing friction between Leavers and Remainers show that this dispute concerns people’s personal identities – how they think of themselves and their relation to the world.


For those who identify with the EU, the ideal is an attractive one. The EU is held to stand for a cooperative vision of a harmonious future between different peoples. To Europhiles, the EU is an institution that helps to create solidarity and peace across borders. To be for the EU is to signal a willingness to be open to the world, to be welcoming, hospitable and broad-minded, forbearing and accepting of people’s differences, open to the possibility of mutual improvement. By implication, opposition to the EU has to be narrow and parochial, adopting a restricted, limited view of the world bound by pettiness and meanness, looking inward rather than outward, adopting a defensive and hostile posture to other peoples and ultimately to change itself. Accordingly, Leavers are castigated as being at best irrational and misguided patriots and at worst as xenophobic racists and nationalists.


It is this cosmopolitan identity associated with the EU that helps to explain why the political debate in Britain remains so stuck, and why so many still refuse to accept the outcome of the 2016 Brexit vote. “Remain” is a powerful cultural identity and one moreover that is deeply entrenched in numerically small but highly influential sections of the elite and the liberal professional classes. Such Remainers experience the prospect of leaving the EU as a personal affront, a violation of their individual identity. By contrast, Leavers feel that the issue is first and foremost a political one – the most significant political question, that of control: who is in charge? “Taking back control” means the re-assertion of national sovereignty as against transnational regulatory regimes.


The Remain identity and its powerful grip on the intellectuals and the middle classes needs some explanation, since it is easy to demonstrate that the EU is none of the things that are projected onto it by cosmopolitans. Its vaunted internal freedom of movement comes at the cost of its bloody external borders, with Brussels paying Libyan warlords to imprison migrants and bribing the Turkish government to host refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. Even within the EU itself, freedom of movement is not a right of citizenship but the by-product of inter-state agreement to facilitate the movement of factors of production within the Eurozone. It is not seen as a right of citizenship but as supporting the interests of business; hence, EU “citizens” are only entitled to vote in European and local elections, not national ones. Even this limited “freedom” has been consistently qualified, regulated and restricted, heavily stratified by nationality. Free movement has always been subject to temporary “breaks” at the whim of national authorities, and French governments have launched campaigns to deport east European citizens.

Moreover, this neoliberal vision of “freedom” – manifest in the dysfunctional Eurozone –has produced the opposite of solidarity. It has pitted northern and southern Europe against each other and has even amplified regional disparities within countries (think of Catalan secession from Spain as Catalans are no longer willing to support EU-backed austerity from Madrid).  The EU has been also been complicit in a more fundamental re-division of Europe, its policies having stoked conflict in Ukraine and renewed geopolitical tensions with Russia.


Yet, despite this catalogue of hypocrisy and cruelty, puncturing the EU’s cosmopolitan pretensions rarely seems to dislodge the idealism that attaches itself to the Union, or the stubbornness with which certain Remainers cling to their cosmopolitan identity. The EU remains in their eyes a flawed ideal, which, despite the horrors of the mass drownings in the Mediterranean, or the economic torment inflicted on Greece, Italy and Spain, can nonetheless be improved and redeemed. Why?


Because it is their cosmopolitan ideal itself that is phoney. The cosmopolitanism of the EU is a thin form of solidarity, the “cosmopolitanism of the front of the aircraft”, in the words of sociologist Craig Calhoun. It is a petty cosmopolitanism, whose grandest political and institutional vision is the bureaucratic convenience of not being stopped at the passport barrier while travelling for a holiday or an academic conference. For the cosmopolitan, travel is inconceivable without the EU, as if mass tourism and travel in Europe only started in 1992. Purporting to celebrate difference, the cosmopolitanism of the EU is in fact the embrace of sameness – the same middle classes and elites interacting seamlessly across Europe. It is the cosmopolitanism of subsidised gap years and university partnership schemes with people of similar backgrounds, the cosmopolitanism of identical hipster quarters of cities throughout Europe and holiday villas in Tuscany and Provence.

The last few years of populist insurrections at the ballot boxes across Europe have exposed this cosmopolitan identity as a thin crust of middle class affinity that is layered over a mass of popular discontent and anger. What really gives impetus and form to this thin cosmopolitanism is not the strength of attachment to foreigners or other peoples, but rather the desire to differentiate oneself from the people of your own country, to flaunt one’s cultural and moral superiority. It is a cosmopolitanism built on a distaste for mass democracy and the plebs, on snooty contempt for the popular classes. This cosmopolitanism is a narrow, petty, middle class vision of what it means to be open-minded, tolerant and to express solidarity with the people of other nations. To working class East Europeans, by contrast, this cosmopolitanism looks very different: the “freedom” to avoid penury in economically depressed areas in search of poorly paid, dangerous, difficult and dirty work that no one else wants to do, in construction, agriculture, and menial service work. The Remainers complaining that no one will be around to make their Costa coffee merely highlight their own class-limited perspective.


Across Britain, the majority of workers have been economically abandoned by neoliberal policies pursued by a cosmopolitan elite that no longer identifies with the majority of citizens in any way. The Leave slogan of “take back control” expresses the desire for a revival of national solidarity and a protest against decades-long political disenfranchisement. It offers a basis for real political change in opposition to the conservative cosmopolitans clinging to the status quo. And this reclaiming of national sovereignty also offers the basis for creating a real internationalism in Europe.


Genuine internationalism is, as the name suggests, solidarity between nations. But there has to be some basis for solidarity within the nation for solidarity between nations to be possible. Internationalism can only be built on the cooperation of sovereign independent, democratically-integrated nations built on the popular support and assent of their citizens. The EU is the opposite of this. The EU has been built on the decline of political solidarity within the nations that form its member-states. The democratic guarantees that once constituted those states social contracts have been abandoned and political elites have withdrawn from mass support, preferring to do their political business in, and derive their cultural identity from, supranational institutions. That so many intellectuals should mistake the EU for its opposite is a classic example of an ideological fantasy. That they should claim to find solidarity in the international sphere when they have been unable to uphold it in the national sphere suggests their profound ignorance of the interests and experiences of the majority of their fellow citizens. Instead of castigating their fellow citizens and retreating further into the rapidly evaporating cosmopolitan ether, genuine internationalists must build on the search for an open and democratic solidarity within and between nations.


Populist rage against the EU is breaking out all over Europe. In much of Europe this is often inspired by nationalist rhetoric. A truly internationalist Britain would not be clinging on to the failed supranationalism of the EU, its Single Market and its Customs Union. It would instead be seeking to address the problems that are leading to the Europe-wide rejection of the old order. This requires a massive effort of political, economic and cultural imagination. An internationalist policy would start by reaching out to Britain’s own population to find out what they need and want, and then incentivising Britain’s economists, its political scientists and its sociologists to start thinking about how that might be delivered. But British internationalism also needs to reach out to all those in Europe who are looking for a way out of the divisive, technocratic dead end that the EU has become. British internationalists need to turn Brexit into a Europe-wide debate about developing a true international solidarity against the EU.


About the author


Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent.

This work represents the views of the authors only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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