Bernard-Henri Lévy may not be well known in Britain, but in his native France he is something of an intellectual celebrity. The author of innumerable books, articles and essays, he is courted by both the media and politicians (most notably Nicolas Sarkozy) for his views on a wide range of subjects. Probably the best way to think of him is as a French version of the late Christopher Hitchens with a much larger public profile. So it is no surprise that the one-off performance of his anti-Brexit play Last Exit Before Brexit (directed by Maria de França) at Cadogan Hall was sold out.
Last Exit Before Brexit is an updated version of his 2014 play Hotel Europe; part one-man drama, part monologue and part lecture. In it, Lévy visits Sarajevo to deliver a lecture commemorating the 25th anniversary of the city’s siege during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia (Lévy was a prominent supporter for intervention to defend Bosnia). The problem is that he hasn’t got a clue what he is actually going to say. So, throughout the play, Lévy struggles to clarify his thoughts about Europe in the age of Trump, Putin and Orban, and why Britain’s departure is such a blow for the European ideal.
There is some humour: comic relief is provided by a stream of emails that interrupt his thoughts at certain moments, and by his attempts to use a variety of means (including bottles of whisky) to get the creative juices flowing. But Lévy is not a professional actor and his very strong accent means that the dramatic elements of the play are pushed to one side during its near two-hour running time.
Like many pundits, Lévy argues that Brexit is part of a general trend that includes the success of populist politicians across the world, the rise of Vladimir Putin, and a general surge in extremism. Arguing that the European ideal has been subverted by both nationalism and an undue emphasis on austerity, he wants some sort of grand project that can in his words “make Europe Great again”. He also argues that Europe has a unique role in nurturing liberal democracy in the Balkans and the Middle East, a project that Britain has a key role to play.
That’s well and good, and it certainly got a positive reaction from the audience (which seemed to consist almost entirely of French expats). But as a manifesto for persuading Britain to think again, it doesn’t convince. His concrete proposals, which include Bosnia immediately being admitted to the EU, the direct election of a European president and a Europe-wide welfare fund, are exactly the sort of things so many people voted against in the first place. Lévy’s lack of understanding of British politics is so great, that at one point he congratulates members of Renew, the fringe political party that was effectively wound up a month ago.
Lévy is correct that the actions of “Gerhard the Banker” – his personification of the hardline economic policies of the European Central Bank, Berlin and the European Commission – didn’t help matters. But he overlooks the real problem, which is the disastrous decision to create a single currency uniting a large number of ill-matched countries with widely varying attitudes to inflation, government debt and corruption.
Lévy is certainly an interesting philosopher, but his arguments are unlikely to shift the debate on Brexit or the future of the EU to any significant degree.