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A meandering through our great archetypal myths and a plea for a kinder Brexit

In this saga through Brexit mythology, Kalypso Nicolaidis asks what 'means' means in “Brexit means Brexit.” She offers a plea for acknowledging each other’s stories, with their many variants, ambiguities and contradictions. And in this spirit of recognition, calls for a mutually respectful, do-no-harm Brexit  - the smarter, kinder and gentler Brexit possible in our hard-edged epoch of resentment and frustration.

She says:

The pamphlet offers a different kind of take on Brexit seen through the lens of archetypal myths. It was inspired by conversations with friends and strangers on all sides of the Brexit saga, with my British husband and my European children, as well as by echoes of a Parisian childhood steeped in Greek mythology. It developed as I was asked about the other side's views on each side of the Channel before and after the British “No”.  My friend Anne calls it ‘your three screams,’ perhaps because Brexit feels very personal to me (I know, I am not the only one!) as does the failure of the Europe project to live up to its stupendous promise (I know, they try hard!).

It takes the reader on a journey through three mythical themes to contrast different understandings of the whole affairs by different people in and outside Britain: leavers vs remainers, leavers vs other leavers, young vs old, cynics vs idealists, Europeans and non-Europeans. My hope is that these myths can be used as a shared language in which to conduct a conversation, short of the expectation that we can ever agree, but in the hope that we can at least enter a spirit of mutual recognition as we confront our experiences and visions of the world.

Exodus' makes Brexit a story about British exceptionalism, therefore both a British problem and a testimony to the EU’s incapacity to accommodate exceptions. 

‘Reckoning’ brings the story back to the EU’s shores, with Brexit a harbinger of terrible truths which we dump together under the easy label of euroscepticism.  Oedipus, who blinded himself to finally face his truth serves as the quintessential reference here.

And while the third story of ‘Sacrifice’ is often told in the classic idiom of heroic sacrifice I prefer the more ambiguous story of ironic sacrifice whereby Brexit demonstrates that it is precisely because you are free to leave that you should not. Here the ultimate irony would be that after and perhaps because of Brexit, the EU truly comes to live up to the pluralist ideals that define both the best of Britain and the best of Europe. Most importantly in our modern world, every version of these stories has variants and ambiguities which open up spaces for our democratic debates. And every version of these stories can be interpreted through the lenses of the do-no-harm imperative which I hope will come to pervade the future negotiations and relationship between sides which will always remain after all intimate partners.

As she puts the finishing touches on the book, Kalypso welcomes you to make comments and contributions (in the below Q&A section) that might inspire yet more variants and interrogations around the mysterious meanings of our collective myths and their relevance for our democratic conversation.

Kalypso is a French and Greek citizen married to a Brit, with German and Spanish origins. Her children are trans-channel. She lives and teaches in Britain (as a professor of International Relations and director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Oxford) but does not have the right to vote in the UK. She has felt passionately European since her multicultural childhood and this feeling was strengthened by spending fifteen years in the US, as a student and then a professor at Harvard. Nevertheless, as reflected in her many publications. she has long believed that the EU deserves very tough love.  During her career,  she has advised a number of EU governments and EU institutions including in 2008-2010, as a “wise man” in the Gonzales reflection group on the future of Europe 2030 set up by the European Council. Her last books are Echoes of Empire: Memory, Identity and Colonial Legacies (ed w/ Sebe and Maas, IB Tauris), Normative Power Europe Revisited (ed w/ Whitman, Journal Conflict and Cooperation) and European Stories: Intellectual Debates on Europe in National Context (ed w/ Lacroix, OUP, 2010).  She is a graduate of Sciences-Po (1982) and received her PhD from Harvard in 1993. More information –including publications- can be found on her website:

Published in Standpoint July-August 2017 issue.

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