Brexit and Lost Meaning

When politics and organizations are reduced to economic and financial affairs, something else will inevitably fill the vacuum

Essay by Matthias Spitzmuller

The European Union (EU) was founded after the Second World War, an event that was responsible for more than 60 million casualties. After that, many European countries, especially France and many young people in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, asked, “What can we do as a continent to ensure that such a devastating war will not happen again?” This led to the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community and the Schuman Declaration.

If we read some of the statements issued at that time, we see that the European Union originally had a very strong focus on political meaning: integrating European countries and ensuring peace on the continent. For example, French Foreign Minister Robert Schumann said that the pooling of coal and steel production would change the destinies of those regions, which had long been devoted to the manufacturing of munitions of war.

What we see here is a strong emphasis on meaning that European integration was supposed to provide to its member countries. This meaning still influences the lives of millions of Europeans. Just one example: every year, approximately 270,000 students go on student exchange to other EU countries. As part of this process, they learn the languages of other countries, start to appreciate other cultures, and, often, develop bonds with people that last a lifetime. What this shows is that European integration really fills the lives of many Europeans with personal meaning.

The UK's entry into the Common Market did not have as much meaning for the British as the foundation of the EU had for other member countries

The United Kingdom is a special case. The UK wanted to join the European Economic Community in the 1960s but was refused by French President Charles de Gaulle, who doubted the UK had the serious political will to become a member of this community of values.

Eventually, in 1973, the UK was admitted to the Common Market. A very strong focus on economic imperatives drove this decision. When British Prime Minister Edward Heath commentated on the move, he said, “It will enable us to be more efficient and more competitive in gaining more markets not only in Europe, but in the rest of the world.”

Notice how political motives took a backseat to economic motives. The celebrations that were supposed to take place after Britain joined the Common Market didn’t really take off, which also showed that the event simply did not have as much meaning for the British as the foundation of the EU had for other member countries.

For many years, the arrangement worked well. Margaret Thatcher’s government, in particular, was a strong supporter of the EU. But the excitement in Britain for Europe lessened over the years, which ultimately culminated in the Brexit referendum in June 2016, in which almost 52 percent of the UK population voted in favour of leaving the EU.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “A leader is a dealer in hope”

What can we learn from this episode? What we see is that the EU has stopped providing meaning to its member countries and citizens. It started out with a strong message: we should never again have war on European soil. Ultimately, it became simply a community of nations that shared economic interests. Nowadays, it is perceived as a giant monster that eats into national autonomy, and countries have failed to fill this vacuum by reminding citizens of the original meaning of the European project.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “A leader is a dealer in hope.” This hope is no longer being offered to European citizens any longer. Instead, Boris Johnson, who is now Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, gave meaning to his followers who wanted to leave the EU. In a televised interview before the Brexit referendum, he said, “The jailer has accidentally left the door open and the prisoner can see the sun outside. It would be a huge weight lifted off Britain.” Suddenly, the decision to leave the EU was filled with meaning, meaning that the Remain side could never discover for itself.

What can organizations learn from this? Peter Drucker, one of the world’s foremost authorities in the field of leadership, once said, “Organizations are over managed and under led.” Management refers to the allocation of responsibilities to individuals and groups in an organization; we have become pretty good at that over the years. But organizations are creating a vacuum when it comes to giving meaning to followers. Why are we here as an organization? What is the societal purpose that we serve? What are the needs that we satisfy for our stakeholders? Those are questions that organizations often struggle to answer.

We are living in a world of turbulence. Many citizens around the world feel lost because they fail to see the meaning that politics has for them in their societies, but also the meaning that leadership in their respective organizations has for them as well. It becomes even more important to confront the question: why are we doing this?


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