This week, the French philosopher and cultural historian Bernard-Henri Lévy played to an audience of nearly 1,000 in London. It was a one-off performance of his one-man play, in which he pleads with Britain to remain in Europe. His friend, Douglas Murray, was in the audience…
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Mon cher Bernard,
It was a great pleasure to see you in your one-man play, Last Exit Before Brexit this week. Some members of the audience in London expressed surprise at seeing me there, and hearing you mention me. I like to support my friends, I told them. And more than that, I like the intellectual and moral courage which you deliver by the tub-full – and which is all too absent in public discourse today.
Monday evening was no exception. You were not on the frontline of an actual conflict – as you have been so many times before. But by coming to a country which has voted to leave the EU to tell us that we are wrong, and to urge us to change our minds, you were definitely treading a virtual one. I admire that. Even though – as you know – we disagree on the subject.
But there is too much hermetic sealing these days. Everywhere we turn, people are locking themselves away with people who already agree with them. So it was an unusual pleasure to sit among an audience of 1,000 ardent ‘Remain’ voters. I was entirely comfortable with that. And I would hope that if a pro-Brexit play were performed in London, anyone in the audience who disagreed would feel equally comfortable.
I enjoyed the two-hour monologue, and I agreed with vast swathes of it. I appreciated it when you said that if Europe’s economy is German and its politics French, then its liberalism is English. Specifically, that this English political liberalism is – as you put it – “the software of Europe”. One of the ugly things about actual nationalism is the pretence that your entire past, present and future are entirely self-reliant and self-created. We know that this is not the case, and that the achievements of Europe are in debt to all of these traditions and more.
The section on Heidegger and Husserl was magnificent. But it was the passage on ‘faces’ (the people who you would want to run the ministries of Europe) that stood out for me. Yes, you are right: the EU project has had a deficit of faces. Or – to put it more crudely than you might care to – nobody would die for Jean-Claude Juncker. And I liked many of your suggestions for whom should be put in charge of the ministries of state: John Locke for human rights; Goethe at culture; Simone Weil was also to hold an office.
It was a beautiful and resonant plea. So it seems almost too crass to raise the obvious downside. Which is that all of these people – even our late friend Christopher Hitchens (whom you nominated for the department of secularism) – are dead. Many long gone. None has stood for election to the European Parliament or stands any chance of being on the Commission in Brussels. If this is a tragedy, it is also a reality that we must accept.
There is another stark reality which didn’t feature on Monday. You were in Sarajevo during the war in Yugoslavia, when I was still in school. While you have memories from the front, I only have memories of front-pages. But one page – no, one line – sticks with me above all else. And it’s one that you didn’t mention. It was Jacques Poos who uttered it – the Luxembourgian Foreign Minister whose country held the Presidency of the Council of the European Union at the outset of that war.
I was thinking of his promise, at the start of that slaughter that “the hour of Europe” had come. Perhaps it had. But it came and passed. And thousands of people were killed (including thousands in the worst ethnic massacre in post-1945 European history at Srebrenica) before Europe conceded it could do little on its own and required American air-power to stop the genocide on its own continent.
Perhaps it is wrong to judge the EU on that failure. But if we are not to judge a political entity on such a failure, it is hard to know on what we could judge it.
I had other quibbles, as you know. Twice I was deeply disturbed – indeed even grimaced. The first was at your dismissal of certain parties and governments across Europe as inevitably being funded by Vladimir Putin. This charge is now so loosely applied that I worry that soon nobody will believe that the Kremlin is interested in anything much at all.
Those of us who see some reds under some beds are now challenged by two extremes. By those who believe (or claim to believe) that they see no reds under any beds. And by those who pretend that every bed is filled with reds. To persuade the world that the FSB is active should not be a challenge. But it has become a challenge – a dangerous one.
The other time I grimaced was when (during your passage on xenophobia) your technical support displayed on the screen behind you the images of a number of people you believe to be opposed to outsiders. Among them was Anders Brevik who carried out the massacre of young Norwegians on Utoya island seven years ago. But you flashed the image of Breivik doing a fascist salute onto the screen immediately after an image of Nigel Farage smiling. This is beneath the level at which these facts must be considered.
Whatever anyone thinks of Farage, to put him on a screen in the same company as a fascist who murdered 77 young Norwegians is to make life unusually easy for yourself and unfairly hard for an opponent.
I really admire what you have sought to achieve by coming to London with your show – much as I admire anybody who puts their case so sincerely and seriously. Nonetheless, the UK is still going to leave the European Union. Brexit will happen. If it does not (if the political class, the House of Lords or anyone else somehow manages to reverse the public vote), then I suspect that Britain may yet go through events that, I am sorry to say, we have historically thought of as French.
So assuming that the British people do not listen to you (because they have already made up their minds and answered their assigned question), all of us who care about our continent must find an answer to a testing question.
It is the question that, as I told you on Monday night, another late friend of ours – George Weidenfeld, the publisher – would have asked. If George (the embodiment of Europe if anyone ever was) had lived to see Brexit, he would have spent five minutes analysing why it had happened. And then, tour d’horizon concluded, he would have asked: “Now, how do we save Europe?”
As you and I know, this is not an abstract question. Nor is it a question that we can only answer if we are in a political union. Indeed, since Britain will soon no longer be in that union, it must be a question we think about – and answer – outside of it.
In starting that process, we must first carve out some red-lines. One of which is that nobody should ever jeopardise or weaponise the security of our brothers. There has, until now, been a cordon sanitaire around even hinting that the Security Service or CCHQ might withhold information from our family on the continent unless the UK gets a better deal on one aspect or other of the divorce proceedings.
Which is quite right. It would be odious, to suggest that the UK might withhold information that could protect the lives of citizens in Paris – above all, Paris.
Nonetheless, the week before your show, it became plain that the government in Paris was planning to block the UK, after Brexit, from access to the database of criminals’ DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration records known as the Prüm Convention. This sort of threat – the weaponisation of the security of the European publics – is an ugly threat. It is beneath any government. It is the sort of threat which, if allowed to fester, would shift opinion in an appalling way. It needs to be a red line.
Then how can we ensure that our countries and our continent get on better after political separation than they did before? How can Britain be a better player and supporter of our true friends than it was when it was inside the EU being something of a pain?
Much as I admired what you did on Monday night, I fear – and assume – that your play will not work. Brexit will happen. So as our late friend (who should also be appointed a minister of culture) would have put it: “How do we save Europe?” And to answer it, we must start from where we now are – whether we have arrived there sadly or otherwise.