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Looking at the Origins of Brexit with 'Europe in Chaos' on Smithsonian
March 28, 2019  | By David Hinckley

It could either compound America’s own sense of deep unease or provide some odd consolation to look across the pond and remember things are more than a bit dodgy in Europe these days as well.

Either way, the Smithsonian and the BBC have teamed up for a documentary series bluntly titled Europe in Chaos, which premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on the Smithsonian Channel.

The first night features back-to-back hour-long episodes on the most immediate crisis and perhaps the most serious crisis, which respectively would be Brexit and immigration policies.

Filmmaker Norma Percy, whose past documentaries have covered Yugoslavia, Ireland, and the Obama White House, among other topics, finds both Europe and Britain as resolutely divided on issues there as America is on issues here.

Unlike many documentaries on contentious social and political matters, the Europe in Chaos series doesn’t end with hopeful words from those who are trying to find common ground and best possible solutions.

On the contrary, the final notes of Thursday’s episodes ring with as much or more uncertainty than the opening chords, for the unsettling reason that neither Brexit nor migrant policies seem to have evolved into any viable consensus.

In the time it takes to read this review, never mind watch Europe in Chaos, there’s an excellent chance some new twist will have developed in Britain’s Brexit debate.

Already this week, Parliament has failed to muster a majority for any alternative to Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed agreement on how the U.K. should leave the European Union.

May’s painstakingly negotiated plan, already rejected twice in Parliament by huge margins, appears likely to come up for a third vote on Friday.

To sweeten the deal, May has offered to resign if her deal passes – nominally giving fresh voices a chance to lead the process, but realistically acknowledging she has run out of other cards to play.

Europe In Chaos obviously doesn’t incorporate this week’s news. Rather, it’s the latest step-by-step analysis of just how the 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to leave the EU came about, with some suggestions on why it turned out as it did.

Perhaps most importantly, Percy notes that anti-EU sentiment had been simmering and growing in the U.K. for decades, almost from the day Britain joined.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who favored staying in the EU, called the referendum because of pressure inside his own Conservative Party, hoping that by calling it and then winning it he could put the issue behind him.

Percy seems to agree with other analysts that the wild card Cameron either did not foresee or underappreciated was resentment in Britain over immigration policies.

As an EU member, Britain had to abide by limits on how much it could restrict immigrant entry. An independent U.K., many Brits felt, could enforce harder standards.

Whatever the reasons for the referendum’s result, Cameron resigned in its wake, leaving May to negotiate the fine points of Britain’s withdrawal.

European leaders gave her few concessions, reflecting their reluctance to have other members think they could leave the Union with a sweetheart deal.

The result is the stalemate we see in Britain as we speak, with a deadlock that swings between deeply worrisome and strangely farcical.

The second hour of Europe in Chaos tackles the migrant crisis itself, which will resonate long after Britain has one way or the other resolved Brexit.

Everyone agrees more migrants are coming, particularly from the war-devastated Middle East. There’s less agreement on how to receive them, with several countries near the Middle East often taking a harder line than those further removed.

Trouble is, the Middle East has been so dangerous that even the hard, uncertain life of a distrusted migrant often seems preferable to the risks of trying to remain at home.  

Percy notes the deep moral and humanitarian questions woven through the immigration issue, and how they play off against social, cultural and political realities.

It’s not like Americans have to look abroad to find a world seemingly enveloped in turmoil. Percy’s films remind us that when we do look, sometimes what we see is worse.

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