Book launch

BREXIT as farce and tragedy.

Brexit: Farce und Tragödie
Thursday, 21 November 2019, 6:00pm - 7:30pm, IWM library

The June 2016 referendum result plunged the United Kingdom into a political crisis that continues unresolved until this very moment three and a half years later. It has been defined in many different ways by authors, experts and journalists as the most profound and most complex political crisis in the United Kingdom since 1945. As the United Kingdom faces a general election on December 12, 2019 we present/launch an IWM edited volume Brexit: Farce und Tragödie with 9 prominent authors (Wien: Passagen Verlag, 2019).

One of the authors Mary Kaldor of the London School of Economic and Political Science will be speaking with the editor of the volume, Permanent Fellow Ivan Vejvoda.

Description of the publication:

Brexit as farce and tragedy Brexit. Farce und Tragödie

Brexit can be viewed as an attempt to re-establish insularity in a globalized world, as a claim to selectively appropriate globalization. Is this risky undertaking a result of the recklessness and frivolity of current British politics, or are recurring patterns of British history at play? And is in these developments the notorious “insularity” of the English (Orwell) at work, or do structural problems of the European governance lie at its heart? Nine prominent authors analyze what Brexit tells us about political elites, growing inequalities and, not least, England's relations with the Celtic periphery of the UK and with the European integration project.

This volume, published as part of the project Europe’s Futures at the Institute for Human Sciences, seeks to address some of the most pressing and explosive questions Brexit poses to contemporary politics, democracy, and Europe. The book rests on the fundamental presumption that a proper understanding of Brexit requires an approach that greatly expands the temporal and spatial context in which it emerged. Thus, it foregrounds historically evolved structures and patterns. Its contextualization makes Brexit appear neither as an accident of British politics nor as the result of an alleged English peculiarity/insularity, but rather as the product of England’s complex entanglement with the world. Therefore, though Brexit is closely linked to English nationalism, the volume does not focus exclusively on England. In order to understand Brexit, one must consider England’s relationship to the Celtic regions of the Kingdom, to its imperial past, to Europe, and to the European project. As contributions to this volume intend to show, the significance of Brexit goes beyond and also raises important questions about European governance and the future of Europe.


The first text of the book is a very personal essay by Gáspár Miklós Tamás, written from the perspective of an Eastern European dissident, a European and an Anglophile. He laments the end of an era marked by the vanishing of a type of person and political actor, who embodied the central values that have been linked to British politics throughout the last centuries: moderation, pluralism, tolerance, and maturity.

While Tamás points to a break and a discontinuity in British politics, Misha Glenny, Fintan O'Toole and Pankaj Mishra emphasize its continuities. Tracking the history of current tensions within the UK, Glenny takes us through a breathtaking history of the Isles and of the peoples that compose it, which helps us to understand the deep roots of many of the issues that have surfaced today. He refers to recurring patterns in England's dealings with the Celtic fringe and emphasizes the fragility of the Union.

O'Toole and Mishra refer to continuities from the perspective of the periphery/colonies. Pankaj Mishra looks at the “calamitous exit” of the British from their Indian empire in 1947 and what it tells us about today’s possibly no-deal calamitous Brexit and describes the “Oxford chumocracy” that has led the country down this path. Fintan O’Toole addresses most vividly the all-important question of England’s relations with Ireland, the Irish border and the question of English nationalism. Both texts criticize the United Kingdom and its politics harshly. Disinterest, ignorance and incompetence of the English political class are at the core of the arguments.

Tessa Szyszkowitz’ and Mary Kaldor’s chapters deal with two prominent foci of the Brexit debate: nationalism and democracy. Szyszkowitz discusses English nationalism as the main driving force behind Brexit and focuses in particular on aspects of nationalist self- conception. Mary Kaldor, in her essay, takes us to the heartlands of the leave vote and helps us understand the sense of loss and disempowerment of people/voters, which led them to seek solutions to their vows by a vote to “take-back-control”. It deals with the degradation of politics, the limiting framework of the nation-state in a globalized environment and with essential questions of democracy raised by Brexit.

Finally, the last three chapters address the question of Europe. Kalypso Nicolaïdis treats Brexit as a problem of European governance. The Brexit slogan “take control back” in her view refers to a systemic problem of European politics and therefore expresses a fundamental unease about control everywhere in Europe. Therefore, Nicolaïdis considers an analysis of the deep structures of Brexit as crucial for understanding the present situation and for the future of the European Union. She asserts that the possibility to leave the Union should be considered an essential part of the European project rather than an anomaly. Timothy Garton Ash's and Timothy Snyder's rich essays deliver a strong message about the desirability of the European project. While Garton Ash traces its emergence back to the experience of the cruelties of nationalism, Snyder sees it as a result of, and an alternative to, the end of Empire. Both are also statements on the future of Europe and consider the European Union as the best political project that exists today.