Brexit and the ambivalence about belonging to something bigger

For both Europeans and outside observers, the European Union represents a remarkable human achievement in integration and governance with subsidiarity. The EU is an arrangement that seeks a continual balance between what is decided at its nerve center and what gets resolved at the national and local levels. Integration efforts on other continents have yet to come this far. Despite Brexit and the rumblings of growing nationalism across the Union, many observers elsewhere still see the EU as a model to emulate. It is a model that provides for free movement of goods, services and labor, common economic and social policies or norms in specific areas, a common currency for those states adhering to it, and common political positions towards the rest of the world. The present tensions in the UK underlying Brexit, which is set to go into effect in March 2019, reflect no more than the classic dilemma of seeking to belong to something bigger for material and political gain while maintaining an acceptable degree of autonomy in issues close to home. For the slim majority that voted for Brexit, considerations of autonomy — initially at least — outweighed the urge to belong to a larger collective.

The dilemma inherent in Brexit is an ancient one — a challenge that has confronted the princely states of India, the Greek city-states, the Italian city-states, the Germanic states of the Holy Roman Empire, and many other collections of autonomous or semi-autonomous political entities. Banding together — voluntarily or forcibly through empire-building — brings benefits in economies of scale, increased prosperity and, if extended to the political realm, some accrued measure of security in facing outside challenges and threats.

 Throughout time, many other societies have faced the choice of either integrating with other nations or preserving full autonomy or achieving some combination of the two. As groupings such as the EU face increasing challenges from nationalism, it makes sense to look at instances in the past where member states of larger collections of states have found the togetherness unbearable and have broken off from the collective. Good historical novels bring the past alive and deftly convert abstract concepts such as integration and autonomy into sights and sounds and the feelings and dialogues of flesh-and-blood people. Reading carefully crafted historical fiction can provide insights into how individuals might react and behave in response to these overarching challenges facing their societies and how they might resolve the universal tension between belonging and being totally free.

 The Indus Valley of the Second Millennium B.C.E., as portrayed in the novel The Endless Dawn, is a confederation of seven autonomous provinces each headed by a ruler called an arasunki – (from the Proto-Dravidian word arasan or prince and the Elamite term sunki, or king) who meet regularly in a council headed by an overlord called a korravan. For generations, the commonwealth of Melukkha has provided security and prosperity for its diverse inhabitants. The benefits of this integration include a flourishing trade with Mesopotamia, Elam (Iran) and Khemet (Egypt), uniformly planned cities with piped water and sanitation, good roads, and, above all, harmony between the ethnic groups with a mutual respect for religions and races. And then something happens to change it all and upsets this unique idyllic setting.

A large horde of mounted migrants from the steppes of Central Asia, who call themselves the Eirya, converge on Melukkha through a pass in the western mountains and seize the capital city of Ashurapur by force, with great loss of life. The defeat of the Melukkhan confederation leads to a new governance structure where the mutual respect and balance among the communities is replaced by the supremacy of one group — the Eirya — above all the others. While six of the seven communities adapt to the new situation, one group, the wealthy trading community of the Pānis, who have commercial enclaves stretching all the way to the Gulf of Elam and Mesopotamia, decide to perform a kind of Brexit of their own, one that will have devastating consequences for the commonwealth of Melukkha. The Endless Dawn is a must read for those interested in issues of political and economic integration versus autonomy and can even provide food for thought for those pondering Brexit today.