With the United Kingdom having voted to leave the European Union by a simple majority of 51.89%, this point in time seems an apposite juncture at which to examine Brexit’s origins: to be precise, the genesis of the psychological framework which could make this unthinkable development possible. And after some contemplation, we at Mediolana believe we have ascertained the source of this mental state: the 1996 UEFA European Football Championship (‘Euro 96’).
Euro 96 was held in England, and those of us who were in London at that time can attest to the eerie nature of the atmosphere surrounding that tournament. England’s games – all of them, weirdly enough – were held at Wembley; in the stands, the Union Jack – the flag of the entire UK and up until that point synonymous with the local national team – had been firmly and suddenly supplanted by the Cross of Saint George in a curious act of cultural engineering. Kitsch and retro nationalism – exhibit A, the Three Lions anthem featuring none other than David Baddiel and Frank Skinner – was increasingly in vogue.
But it was the febrile tension in the near-deserted streets whenever England played which stays with the observer the most. This was particularly pronounced in areas of London with substantial international populations: the contrast between those adherents of the delusion that Alan Shearer was equal to if not better than Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, and those who watched these same adherents with a mixture of bewilderment and pity, was about much more than football. It was a precursor of the non-dialogue between those who put their faith in empty fantasies and then seek to blame anyone but themselves when the inevitable meltdown ensues, and those who at least try and open their eyes to attempt to perceive what might actually be happening.
Fast forward two decades, and we have just witnessed a referendum of which the essence is that England has essentially voted not merely to leave the European Union, but to dissolve the United Kingdom and relegate itself into obscurity. This nation’s inability to compute the prestige and power that it gained from both the EU and the UK – a permanent and now probably untenable seat on the United Nations Security Council, soon-to-be-revoked tariff-free access to the world’s most valuable and equitable trading bloc – is at first glance incomprehensible. But it need not be so: a little knowledge of the tenth and most parochial edition of the European Nations Cup can tell us a lot about how a country – a purportedly civilised, open and tolerant entity – can come to define itself through relentless and baseless demonisation of a largely-fictional ‘other’.