I have read quite a lot about Brexit in the last week. The referendum on Great Britain’s exit from the European Union has brought forth opinions from everywhere in the world. I have read many of them, including some very eloquent and well reasoned arguments from both the pro-Brexit and for the Remain positions.
This issue, it seemed to me, was sort of the opposite of the Presidential campaign going on here in the US right now. Where I read arguments in favor of Trump and in favor of Clinton, neither one of them makes much sense to me. The Brexit arguments, however, each made a good case and up until the end, I could understand the case for both sides and had difficulty deciding how I might have voted had I been asked to do so.
Here in the US, the opinions seem to hew more along the increasingly tiresome left-right divide, with progressives impugning the motives of the Brexiteers as bigoted losers who want to wall themselves off from Europe and (at least some) conservatives trying to make it a Trump parallel in which the angry forgotten people are going to stick it to the establishment. Where politics exists, there we shall forever find demagoguery.
I will admit to being as surprised by the result as most people. I had believed that the pro-Brexit faction would make lots of noise but would ultimately fall to the status quo. But I also believed that the first Chrysler minivan was an answer to a question that nobody was really asking in 1984. Oops.
In all of the ink and pixels spilled since the surprise result, two strains of thought predominate. Those who were against the whole thing are predicting what a disaster the vote will become. The other predominating opinion is that Britain now has the opportunity to forge ahead and improve its situation both with countries remaining in the EU and with others.
I write this because there is one idea that I have really not seen addressed to any significant extent: All of these arguments presuppose that the EU maintains some sort of long term stability, something on the order of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), which dates to 1949. But is this a valid presupposition?
History shows that the relationship between the UK and the former EU (previously called the European Economic Community) has been a balky one from the start. The UK was not allowed to join until the 1970s, and even after that, it held back from certain parts of the relationship as it existed in most other member countries. In sum, the British were keen on the ability to trade within a single market, but were quite uncertain of many other facets of the Agreement. Of particular note was in Britain’s marked refusal to jettison its own money (the Pound) in favor of a joint monetary system that became the coin of the rest of the realm (the Euro).
Putting the question more succinctly, is the EU as it exists today (or as it existed up until last Friday, anyway) a stable foundation, one that could be expected to chug along for the next several decades much in its current form? Or was it destined to break apart sooner rather than later, by some other cause if not this one?
As an amateur history geek, it seems to me that power and culture are the only two things that have ever held the widely disparate countries of Europe together. The Roman Empire held the continent together by power and the Catholic Church followed it by providing a common faith and culture in the era of Christendom. Even then, that common religion often failed to override politics as one ostensibly Catholic country took up arms against another, or even against the Church. In the end, Christendom’s imperfect kind of unity came to a crashing halt with the advent of the Protestant Reformation, which may have been as responsible for Europe’s fragmentation as anything before or since.
The only unifying influences which have come even remotely close to Rome (whether government or church) have been treaties negotiated between individual countries for their mutual benefit. The original EEC was perhaps the most ambitious and successful of those treaties, certainly in modern times. In fact, I have read that the original six member countries had either Catholic leaders or significant (if not outright majority) Catholic populations, which makes one wonder if Christendom’s better points might have been in the back of some minds.
Today, there is little in the way of shared religious or political culture among the EU’s countries, and there is certainly no source of power sufficient to force these varying cultures into a single entity. Treaty, it seems to me, is the only possible way forward. Sadly, the EU seems to me to have overplayed its hand. Whether the EU’s course over the past twenty years has been a gentle attempt to move beyond treaty towards power, or simply a display of what bureaucratic institutions do when left unchecked, is best left to speculation.
It is hardly contestable that in the last twenty years or so, the essence of the EU has changed quite a lot from what it had been before the 1992 Maastricht treaty. That treaty, which was only ratified after great difficulty in several member countries, started (or perhaps accelerated is the better term) the EU down a road which has always seemed to me the worst of two worlds.
First, member countries have ceded much governmental power to a central European bureaucracy which is not elected and which has displayed a tendency towards high levels of regulation while preempting the ability of member countries to act in several traditional areas of governance.
But at the same time, the EU has had little actual power to correct the policies of member countries which have failed to maintain responsible management of their finances. How many stories have we read about bailouts of Greece and other have-nots within the Union, who share a common currency yet maintain individual economic systems of widely varying quality? So, there is a system that is at once all powerful yet powerless. And the result has been a lethargic economy that has appeared in reasonable shape only because the US and Japan have had such lethargic growth of their own during much of the same period. Is the EU’s situation at all analogous with America’s (pre-Constitution) Articles of Confederation?
It seems to me (who views the situation safely from across a very wide ocean) that for the concept of a European Union to work, it needs to make a decision: is it a big trade treaty? Or is it a federal government which binds together individual sovereign governments? As it has been configured, it is too complex and controlling to be the former, but without sufficient authority or structure or accountability (particularly in the democratic sense) to be the latter.
As this was being written, it appears that some within the EU are moving to force a Superstate solution in order to cement the political alliance once and for all, essentially by each member country ceding most if not all of its sovereignty, at least on most practical issues. Other commentators note that a Brexit-style referendum would have significant traction in several European countries if one were held now. In other words, the Union may get stronger, or it may break apart. And of course, the financial issues of Greece and some of the other less successful countries are still a factor.
For a continent whose civilization(s) spans well over than a millennium, what has been more or less of a status quo of thirty or forty years is a very short period of time. The Brexit vote may or may not be the best way to move the EU to a more stable platform, but it does appear to be the beginnings of an attempt. Whether the attempt will be successful is another question, and one which I am not foolish enough to try to answer.