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Open Society in the Post-Brexit European Union

Demonstrator holding a sign
A demonstrator speaks with a pedestrian during a protest in London against the pro-Brexit outcome of the UK’s referendum on the European Union on June 25, 2016. © Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty

The result of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom last week surprised many of us, but the trends that propelled Brexit are not new and should not surprise anyone. Those trends—from anti-elitism to economic disenfranchisement—are listed in the countless pieces of commentary published over recent days. But perhaps the most decisive trend is the politics of fear: it is one of the greatest threats to open society. 

Living in an open society requires tolerating a degree of strain. Accepting our own fallibility and the need for continuous reconsideration of our political arrangements leads to what Karl Popper termed the constant strain of modern civilizations. It may be tempting to escape that strain in the apparent comfort of a more rigidly ordered society, where everyone’s place is fixed and social conventions are immutable. But once a society opens itself, the prospect of a return to certainty is at best a nostalgic fantasy, and a politics of fear can lead otherwise reasonable people to chase after that fantasy. Widespread fear quickly makes the strain inherent in open society unbearable.

The Brexit vote is about many things: the complicated and distant bureaucracy of Brussels, the EU’s inept management of the refugee crisis (and the euro crisis before it), and the failure of cosmopolitan elites to place the public interest over their own self-interest. Those who are committed to open society principles must address these failings if we are ever to realize the original ambitions of the European Union and its aspirations to democracy, rule of law, and rights. But it is the politics of fear that makes such reform doubly difficult today in Europe. Its deciding influence in the Brexit campaign has left open society supporters in the UK dispirited.

However deep its flaws, the European Union is too precious an achievement to abandon. We recognize the flaws of slow and deliberative decision making; poor internal EU public communication; no middle gear between bureaucracy and closed-door summitry. We hear the distrust from citizens and the populist opportunism that exploits it. We recognize that populists on the left and right now claim that they are speaking on behalf of citizens in a way that the EU and national political elites cannot. 

Even if further fragmentation of the EU project is inevitable, we at the Open Society Foundations must commit ourselves to the reconstruction of the EU in a more flexible, responsive, capable, and principled form. The future of the EU may be uncertain, but our commitment to it is not. We will bring to bear all of the tools at our disposal to assist in its radical reconstruction.

At the same time, we must seek to quell the politics of fear in every country where we work—not only in Britain; indeed, not only in Europe. We know the antidote to fear is solidarity in a common cause, and we know that civil society can be the crucible of such solidarity.

Solidarity in a cause is not consensus about means. Our vision is of civil society engaged in genuine debate and diverse democratic practice, bolstering fundamental rights while appealing to democratic majorities, engaged with governing institutions as well as political protest. We will keep faith with those who feel disenfranchised or excluded, and we will work with those at the forefront of intellectual debate. Our methods must connect, align, and build these diverse constituencies, not pit them against each other. This is how we quell the politics of fear.

Brexit is a turning point, but where we turn is up to us. We must work together. We must keep true to our commitments. Most of all, we must remain fearless.

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