For once, John Gray has got it spectacularly wrong on Europe

When in 2016 Michael Caine said he was all for Britain coming out of the EU, I hoped he was just joking. The 85-year-old actor from Camberwell with a penchant for European directors could rebalance the scales with great Euro-stories – but alas no, writes Italian translator and European affairs commentator Alessio Colonnelli.

When in 2016 Michael Caine said he was all for Britain coming out of the EU, I hoped he was just joking. The 85-year-old actor from Camberwell with a penchant for European directors could rebalance the scales with great Euro-stories – but alas no, writes Alessio Colonnelli.

Having completely failed to convince The Italian Job actor, Remainers doggedly continued to underpin their arguments with economic data. They kept banging on about dry stuff with no narrative quality whatsoever; and couldn’t weave a captivating fantasia that engaged a critical mass of sceptical voters. This is how bad pro-Europe rhetoric has been in the UK – totally unimaginative. Almost too politically correct for its own good.

Voices from beyond our continent have showed much clearer thinking – being in the thick of a crisis signifies you can’t see properly, you lacking the broader vista required to appreciate Europe as a cohesive organism in all its relevance.

“I would like to take a wider perspective and argue that Brexit reflects a deeper weakness in the EU: the failure of Europe’s political class to create a narrative of a truly meaningful European identity and common destiny,” Tel Aviv University professor Carlo Strenger wrote in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.

“There were hardly any voices that claimed that there could be deeper reasons for being part of the EU connected to history, core-values and a vision of the future,” the Israeli thinker added, whilst also arguing that “the elites failed to convince the majority of Brits that staying in the EU had any deeper meaning. If anybody was speaking about meaning it was Boris Johnson who kept reiterating that Brexit would be Britain’s declaration of freedom and independence.”

Intellectuals have generally kept silent on Brexit, and that’s part of the problem with a dysfunctional pro-Europe narrative. Swamped by ineffective numbers on one side and bamboozled by rabble-rousing words on the other, we’ve finally heard a more-than-welcome poised comment from the great British philosopher John Gray.

But much to Europe enthusiasts’ dismay, Gray’s argument – as exposed recently in the programme A Point of View by BBC Radio 4 and lately relayed by the international press – is in favour of Brexit.

Gray propped up his interesting take with considerations specific to determined countries, those currently more in the limelight. Italy was one; its government is regarded as being heavily influenced by neo-fascists.

Germany was another. The highly successful Alternative for Germany party resorts to neo-Nazi sloganeering. All this goes to show, Gray maintained, that the EU brings the worse out of Europeans.

Britain, by wanting out of it, has proved more democratic than any other nation – there are no far-right parties of any prominence in his country, his argument went. Britain is a liberal beacon, not the EU; it doesn’t generate extremist, unspeakable resentment like Brussels does.

The philosopher’s take is no doubt compelling. Gripping as it is – in a way pro-Europe activists can never deliver – Gray’s reasoning is also based on wrong assumptions. And it doesn’t really matter: they don’t dent his enthralling prose. Remainers unwittingly achieve the opposite: their data are right, but can’t do anything meaningful with them. Worse, the harder they try, the more they get it wrong.

What are the distorted truths Gray used? In Rome’s coalition executive, the bigger party (Five Star) has a manifesto that is leftist in many parts, in line with European treaties’ principles (workers protection, equality and environment). Gray also seems to ignore that their junior government partner is smaller for a reason: led by Matteo Salvini, Lega Nord (still its official name by statute) received 17 per cent in the recent general election. Salvini is a very mediatic character, but a majority of Italians do not support him; he does not speak for the whole country, although you might get that impression from non-Italian media.

Besides, linking Austria and Italy together about the stopping of Schengen makes little sense: the Italian perspective, right across the political spectrum, is all pro-freedom of movement within the EU. If immigrants come from the Mediterranean, surely it’s in the interest of Rome to allow some to move on; hence Austria’s opposition to this. The two are far from being a united front on immigration. Instead Vienna’s tight border controls are more akin to Britain’s. When talking about Europe as a whole, it is important to be aware of day-to-day politics. The devil is in the detail. To remain in central Europe: Gray also argued that Angela Merkel’s position is weakening. Wouldn’t anyone’s, after four mandates?

Lastly, there is actually a mainstream hard-right in Britain; and it roars, bites and snarls from the Commons benches, every day. Half of the Conservative party is made up of it. Gray’s fundamental mistake, then, is to compare European political organisations to those of the UK, a country dominated by two take-it-all parties exploiting the most illiberal of voting systems – the first-past-the-post one.

I also wonder whether my all-time favourite actor has ever considered this too.


  • Alessio Colonnelli is an Italian freelance translator, writer and commentator on European political and social affairs, and a contributor to publications that include The New Statesman, The Independent, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post (UK), Foreign Policy and Politico Europe. His regularly updated blog, Thoughts on Europe, can be found here.


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