Amy Studdart is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
On Thursday, 52 percent of my British compatriots voted to leave the European Union. Politicians and pundits seemed shocked by the result, which caused markets to tumble and cost Prime Minister David Cameron his job. But the U.K.’s international ambivalence didn’t come out of the blue; it was built on decades of fears and fissures. Here are some great books, a binge-worthy political drama and some really rubbish TV to help you better understand Europe and Britain’s role within it.
“Jean Monnet: The First Statesman of Interdependence,” by François Duchêne
The founding father of the European project, Monnet was simultaneously French, British and American. Throughout the two world wars, he led the charge for a more collaborative approach among the world’s democratic leaders. In the aftermath, he traded on his contacts, reputation and intellect to build a European community that could secure permanent peace. Duchêne’s biography of Monnet is a masterpiece as relevant to America as it is to Europe.
“This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe From Churchill to Blair,” by Hugo Young
Britain and its leaders have long struggled with the country’s European identity. Do we have a closer affinity with America and the Anglosphere, or with France, Germany and Italy? How do we balance the pride at having been the world’s superpower with being one among equals in the European project? Those questions have never definitively been answered, leaving Britain to lurch back and forth in its commitment to the E.U. “This Blessed Plot,” written after the launch of the euro, traces this history from Winston Churchill through Tony Blair.
“Borgen” is the European equivalent of “House of Cards.” The show, which chronicles the rise of a fictional prime minister of Denmark, pulls off an incredible feat: It turns coalition building and compromise into political drama. Reportedly inspired by the current Danish commissioner in Brussels, Margrethe Vestager (well known in Silicon Valley for leading the E.U. crackdowns on Google and Apple), “Borgen” is a compelling snapshot of the art of modern European politics.
“European Spring,” Philippe Legrain
Even many fervent Europeanists believe that the European Union is a flawed attempt at realizing a worthwhile idea. The fear-mongering and sloganeering around the British referendum have detracted from the more substantive debate over whether the E.U. lives up to its own ideals. Legrain is a controversial figure in Brussels, having been unceremoniously banished from the corridors of the European Commission after one too many fights with his colleagues. Nonetheless, this book about Brussels’s response to the euro crisis is as well-informed a critique of E.U. decision-making and its impact on European citizens as you are likely to find.
Eurovision Song Contest, 1980-2008, as hosted by Terry Wogan
Break out your cheapest vodka, gather your closest friends, and turn up the volume. If you really want to understand Europe (and Britain’s place within it), there’s no better place to start than this competition hosted by British national hero Terry Wogan. Imagine that your entire extended family gets together once a year to sing karaoke. At the end you vote, more on the basis of long-held grudges and favor-trading than anything to do with one another’s musical gifts. That’s Eurovision. The last time we Brits won, back in 1997, Sir Terry was disappointed, as was the rest of the United Kingdom: “That’s the whole point of it, of course, to sneer at the foreigners.” To win was to have cared, and we’re above that. Honest.