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Brexit: Britain’s Identity as Europe’s Empty Space

Written by Oliver Daddow.

In 2009, visitors to the Justus Lipsius Building in Brussels, home to the Council of Ministers, were greeted in the expansive entry foyer by a huge 3-D art installation called Entropa (see Image 1). It was commissioned by the Czech government to mark its Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Image 1: Entropa (author photograph).

Devised and put together by Czech sculptor David Černý, Entropa was supposed to have been the work of a team of artists from around the member states. The plan was that Černý and 26 other artists would come together to celebrate diversity and difference in the EU by exhibiting famous, playful stereotypes about their respective nation-states, held together in an Airfix model kit.

Entropa caused serious controversy. On 14 January 2009, the Slovak National Party demanded the installation be removed, calling it an offence to the nation for its depiction of Slovakia as a Hungarian sausage. By far the most discontented, however, were the Bulgarians, whose country was depicted as a series of Turkish ‘squat’ toilets. Bulgaria’s Ambassador to the EU registered protest with the European Commission and Czech government alike, asking for Entropa to be taken down before it was officially unveiled. From 20 January 2009 until the installation was removed from the Justus Lipsius Building in May 2009, the Bulgarian piece of the Euro-Airfix kit was covered in a black shroud.

Elsewhere, Spain was a building site, the French were ‘on strike’, Sweden was flat-pack furniture and the Netherlands was drowning under the impact of global warming and immigration. Entropa certainly proved a provocative talking point: ‘A lavish combination of toilet jokes, jaded national stereotypes, mild offensiveness, post-colonial chippiness and jingoism presented in the form of an outdated schoolboy hobby’, as Michael Archer described it in the Guardian.

The joke was, however, on the EU itself. It transpired that Černý had faked the entire project. Černý did not curate the piece with 26 other artists: the entire thing was put together by him and just two friends. The accompanying brochure containing the artist profiles was a hoax: they were ‘elaborate biographies of invented artists’. Quickly and surreptitiously, the brochure was removed from the Czech government’s website.

The shockwaves Entropa caused across the EU did not reach the UK with the same force. If you look closely you might be able to spot the UK in the very top left-hand corner of the installation (see Image 2).

Image 2: The UK in Entropa (author photograph)

In Entropa, the UK is an empty space, an absence, a nothing. It seems that fake ‘British artist’ Khalid Asadi had it right: ‘What finer way to represent nearly four decades of whingeing, carping, fence-sitting and back-turning by our consistently insular political classes than to acknowledge the nation’s stubborn pretence that we’re not part of Europe at all’.

The UK was a latecomer to European integration, in the 1950s out of choice and in the 1960s at the hands of President Charles de Gaulle of France. As de Gaulle said during his first veto on UK membership in 1963, ‘England [for which read the UK] in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her interactions, her markets and her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has, in all her doings, very marked and very original habits and traditions’.

De Gaulle saw through the UK’s transparently tactical ‘conversion’ to the European ideal and twice vetoed its membership applications. The UK, said de Gaulle, was trying to have its cake and eat it too. It had exhausted all other options and was using Europe as a last throw of the dice to reverse decline and prop up its fading ambitions of global ‘greatness’. UK entry would not only change the ‘character’ of the European Community, said de Gaulle, the UK would act as a ‘Trojan Horse’ for US influence because of London’s obsession with the ‘special relationship’.

Only after de Gaulle departed the scene did the UK gain entry to Europe. Nevertheless, even while leaving its finger prints all over significant pieces of European legislation as a member from 1973, the UK was often seen – and indeed quite enjoyed presenting itself – as Europe’s ‘awkward partner’, to coin Stephen George’s famous phrase. The UK never seemed quite to ‘fit’ properly in Europe and policy-makers as well as the media made no secret of their dislike of many facets of the integration project.

Research into this pronounced ‘outsider’ tradition in UK European policy reveals numerous metaphors that have been used to describe the UK’s position on Europe over the years: ‘on the edge’, ‘consigned to the periphery’, ‘on the sidelines of integration’, ‘semi-detached’, ‘a stranger in Europe’ and ‘reluctant Europeans’ are just some of the most memorable. Tony Blair often opined, for example in 2006, that the UK was destined to be Europe’s ‘pebble in the shoe; the thing that made people stop and think; but not the one that did the walking’.

Blair went on in that speech to claim that he had put the UK ‘back at the centre of the European debate’. We now know that Blair was speaking only for British diplomacy in the EU. The UK people as a whole, fed by media scare stories about the evils of ‘Brussels’, remained sullenly apathetic and in many quarters hostile to the EU. Feelings of ‘we-ness’ with Europe were never that strong in British civil society even at the time the UK joined the club in the 1970s.

An already weak attachment to Europe was watered down even more over the years as the EU widened, deepened but seemingly hit the buffers after the global financial crash of 2008. Domestic loss of trust in politicians and the spread of Euroscepticism and Europhobia around the UK party system tarnished the EU’s image in the UK still further. The rise of UKIP was initially a signal, and latterly a major factor explaining, the popular turn from Europe in the UK. However, politicians from across the spectrum deserve their share of the blame for promoting European policy discourses that yoked negativity about the European project to a robust defence of the ‘national interest’ against further encroachments from ‘Brussels’.

Could these same politicians suddenly expect credibility as the faces of the Remain campaign? David Cameron’s ‘referendum gamble’ looks even more reckless now than it did at the time. One also wonders where the pro-EU marches and outpouring of Europhilia in civil society were for the past forty years. A shoddily organised, weakly led, half-hearted and, in messaging terms, hollowed out Remain referendum campaign was always going to struggle in the face of hard-hitting messages on the economy, identity and immigration on the Leave side.

Now, Entropa is gone and the UK is in the process of leaving the EU. Fake art, it seems, can be more real than life itself.

Oliver Daddow is Assistant Professor in British Politics and Security in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. He is the author of many books and articles on British European policy and Euroscepticism, as well as a textbook on International Relations Theory. He is currently writing a book called Brexit: The Conservative Party and the UK’s Withdrawal from Europe (Manchester University Press). His full list of publications is at and he is on Twitter @oliver_daddow. Image credit: CC by Number 10/Flickr.

Published inBrexitBritish PoliticsEastern EuropeEUEuropean Politics

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