Would the Brexit debate have played out differently in a calmer, less crisis-ridden Europe? Maybe the threat of the UK leaving the EU would have caused citizens and politicians across Europe to think about ‘ever closer union’ and what it actually means or should mean for them. It’s a nice thought, but in reality virtually nobody in the last ten years or so has been willing to talk about what used to be known as finalité, the purported end-state of European integration. The European elite hasn’t forgotten either the fear of a European super-state that the ill-fated ‘European Constitution’ aroused in 2004-5 or its failure to ignite any passion for Europe, as Euro-enthusiasts had hoped. Far from concentrating minds, Brexit has been treated as yet another distraction in an EU facing multiple threats of disintegration. At last autumn’s summit meetings, convened to address the refugee crisis, other member states made clear their view that dealing with the UK was like trying to manage a narcissistic child. Ten years ago, London might have had a different vision for Europe and been taken seriously, even rallied other member states. Now Britain is seen not just as inward-looking, but as selfish and sullen. The very fact that the Brexit debate is almost exclusively about Britain indicates the extent to which Cameron has removed the UK from the project of determining the Union’s future as a whole.
It is an irony that Britain is thinking of leaving after a quarter-century during which the EU has in many ways been reshaped in the image of the UK, has de facto become Breurope, even if that wasn’t always the UK’s doing. This change doesn’t seem so dramatic if one doesn’t fall for the illusion that European integration was once about realising social democratic ideals. The business of Europe has always been business, though it’s true that the single market was intended not just to increase prosperity, but also to promote peace and increase Europe’s power in the world. Postwar elites never believed that an abstract appeal to solidarity across national borders would achieve much; instead, they relied on the hard logic of making states dependent on each other. The declared purpose of the Coal and Steel Community established by the Treaty of Paris in 1951 was to make war between France and Germany impossible, on the basis that their industries would become completely interlocked. There was also a notion that German business and French farmers would acquire a vested interest in European integration – and that has remained the case to this day.
It was only in the 1980s, under the leadership of Jacques Delors, that a ‘Social Europe’ was first seriously canvassed. Delors’s speech at the Trade Union Congress in 1988 cheered up demoralised union leaders with vague talk of European social rights and lifelong education for workers. It crystallised Euroscepticism among British Conservatives, who never forgot how TUC delegates fêted Delors with a chorus of ‘Frère Jacques’ after a speech which they read as a promise to undo in Brussels what Thatcher had done to them in the UK. But Delors was also a champion of ‘completing the single market’, as the phrase went, and in this was enthusiastically supported by Thatcher. In practice, it meant getting states to recognise each other’s regulations so that trade and competition across the continent could be maximised – a goal to which the EU’s vaunted freedoms have always been subservient: freedom of movement was not the dream of cosmopolitan idealists, but of hard-headed neoliberals. Predictably, the UK initially opted out of anything to do with ‘Social Europe’, but then Tony Blair opted in; at first Cameron aimed to opt out again, but pulled back for fear of losing Labour’s support for Remain. But in any event, ‘Social Europe’ lost all traction after Delors’s exit, which is why social democrats like Wolfgang Streeck are so thoroughly disenchanted with the Union.Meanwhile, the single market is relentlessly ‘deepened’. The EU has the world’s strongest anti-monopoly policies: by comparison, the US, as even the Economist is prepared to admit these days, is the land of happy oligopolies for airlines and internet providers, among other industries. The EU does have important regulations and protections. These can seem paltry compared with the traditional ideals of social democracy, but they are by no means trivial, as British workers would surely discover after Brexit: laws against discrimination, for example, which aren’t nearly as strong as those in the US but are much better than most national laws in Europe. There are also – tabloid outrage notwithstanding – valuable health and safety regulations and many other areas where it simply isn’t true that Europeanisation has entailed a race to the bottom.
The continuing primacy of the single market hasn’t been the only de facto victory for the UK in recent decades. The other was enlargement. Helmut Kohl, concerned about political instability in Germany’s eastern backyard and tempted by the prospect of cheap labour for German industry, led the drive to include Central and Eastern European states. France had vociferously opposed the change, but Britain proved an indispensable ally. In London’s eyes, the EU notion that ‘deepening’ and ‘enlarging’ could be accomplished at the same time was obviously an illusion: enlargement would be at the expense of further integration. Having Eastern Europe in meant that the possibility of permanent Franco-German domination was out.
During these years of effective ‘UK-ification’ of the EU, Britain gained allies across the continent. Eastern Europeans were grateful for its steadfast support of enlargement. Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands – all small, open economies – supported Britain’s bid to strengthen the single market (they remain the countries that most often vote with the UK in the Council of Ministers, the EU’s main legislative body). Many other countries concerned about being dominated by le couple franco-allemand were also happy to see the UK setting a precedent in negotiating opt-outs, in effect creating a ‘multi-speed’ Europe (with some members firmly committed never to gain any speed at all). Political philosophers were now celebrating the EU as precisely the opposite of a homogeneous super-state: the world’s first polity that was neither a state nor an empire, but a union of states and peoples whose policies were arrived at through consensus-seeking and compromise. In 2007, Angela Merkel announced to the European Parliament that she had discovered the ‘soul’ of Europe: it was not the euro, but ‘tolerance’. ‘Tolerance’ and ‘diversity’, supposedly the arch-European ‘values’: it sounded plausible enough in a Europe of opt-outs.
A multi-speed Europe might have proved permanently compatible with the single market, yet it couldn’t easily co-exist with what in theory should have been a one-size-fits-all monetary union, and turned out to be one-size-fits-none. In December 2011 Cameron’s veto of plans to salvage the euro effectively forced the other EU member states to set up a parallel universe of European integration. All countries except the UK and the Czech Republic – which has become ever more Eurosceptic – signed what is technically not an EU treaty specifying harsher rules and penalties for the Eurozone and making it mandatory to constitutionalise ‘debt brakes’ in the way that Germany had. Cameron went for the nuclear option of a veto after he had been denied an opt-out, but he allowed the 25 signatories of the treaty to use the EU institutions to implement the new provisions, promising at the time that he would watch further developments ‘like a hawk’. Smaller member states see this as having been a strategic blunder: they feel they were forced to make a choice and, in the end, had to opt for a Berlin no longer balanced by London or, for that matter, an ever weaker Paris and a Commission that has been sidelined over the last ten years. The episode also left many with the bitter sense that London cared more about its own financial industry than any larger European interest. Countries that used to feel close to the UK are now described as Europe’s new ‘orphans’.
This sense of abandonment has taken less obvious forms. Brexiters regularly present themselves as champions of ‘national sovereignty’ and ‘the rule of law’ (the excellence of which supposedly explains the attractiveness of London for global finance – never mind deregulation or the role of the City as a major hub for illicit financial transactions). In recent years countries like Hungary and Poland have started systematically to dismantle democracy and the rule of law within their own borders. They have weakened the judiciary, captured the media, and attacked all opposition as illegitimate and unpatriotic. Brussels isn’t the great threat to the rule of law in Europe, it is increasingly authoritarian individual governments that pose a real danger not just to their own citizens, but to anyone holding a European passport; as long as they are represented in the European Council, the decisions they make affect everyone in the EU. There are even some Tories who understand these perils perfectly well, but they would never speak up for fear that it might lead to ‘more powers for Brussels’. Instead, shamefully, they opted to stand with Poland’s deeply illiberal Law and Justice party when it came under severe criticism in the European Parliament earlier this year (Cameron took the Tories out of the European People’s Party grouping in 2014 and joined an alliance with Poland’s ruling party as well as right-wing populists such as the Danish People’s Party and the ‘True Finns’).
Brussels has very limited legal means of intervening to safeguard democracy and the rule of law in member states, though these are ‘values’ which, according to the Lisbon Treaty, all EU countries have to respect. And even those very limited means cannot be deployed if member states aren’t willing to name the culprits. The UK has effectively put ‘national sovereignty’ over ‘rule of law’. It is reasonable to assume that in the run-up to the referendum it has also done some sordid deal with Poland and Hungary along the lines of ‘we will pretend you are still real liberal democracies, if you don’t give us a hard time about cutting benefits for Poles and Hungarians working in Britain.’ The UK was once a shining light in Europe; it was the Tories under Thatcher in particular who pressed for democracy in Eastern Europe. No more.
It is striking how little attention has been paid to the Brexit debate in the rest of Europe. European leaders were willing to engage in February’s summit kabuki, which allowed Cameron to declare victory at home, having secured some largely symbolic gains. But on the issues that really mattered – above all, free movement within the single market – other member states were uncompromising, making it impossible for Cameron to satisfy Ukip voters (or the right wing of his own party). And this time the UK’s usual allies didn’t see London forging a path they wanted to follow, in the way Sweden and Denmark once regarded Britain as creating possibilities for opt-outs of one kind or another. In theory, it might have been possible to build a coalition around a vision of Europe à la carte, but in practice, even those governments which worry that their own populations are becoming increasingly Eurosceptic realise that a Europe in which everyone can have it both ways would be utterly incoherent.
In many ways the EU is already incoherent. For the time being, it is in a situation where failing policies are neither reversed nor properly fixed. With the Eurozone, governments created a single currency; with Schengen, they created one border. But nobody has been willing fully to accept what has to follow from these major forms of integration: namely, one fiscal policy, with at least some modest redistribution to address imbalances across the Eurozone; and a shared asylum and border policy. This would not in itself create a federal state, but it could be a step in that direction.
Some have portrayed the UK as the major obstacle to making the Eurozone and Schengen work properly. But Britain is outside both and has no power to prevent fundamental changes to these schemes. Merkel and Hollande are both nominally committed to political union; indeed, Merkel at one point thought that a more coherent EU would be the major legacy of her third term. But Paris and Berlin mean very different things when they talk about gouvernement économique and Wirtschaftsregierung, and Brexit would not magically allow them to reconcile their differences. Both Hollande and Merkel face elections next year. The hapless Hollande, now confronted with open revolt in his own party, has little chance of winning; after the refugee crisis, Merkel’s political capital is also dramatically diminished. She is not in a position to take the country on another scary political journey where the best she can say is ‘Trust me’ or ‘We can do this,’ in the way she just about managed to do during the Syrian influx. But even if Merkel were still as powerful as she was before last summer, it is unlikely that Berlin would want to move on any major project of EU reform as long as France seems incapable of reforming itself.
Twenty years ago, there was still substantial support for something called ‘Core Europe’ in different political parties on both sides of the Rhine, the idea being that Bonn and Paris should be prepared to push ahead with integration on their own. Since then, the deep pro-French ‘Rhenish’ imprint left by figures such as Adenauer and Kohl has been fading among German Christian Democrats. In policy discussions and public debate in Berlin these days, France is an afterthought if it is mentioned at all. Wolfgang Schäuble is the only member of the government who retains the sense that one should have the courtesy to call Paris first. In France, Marine Le Pen has been openly playing up anti-German sentiment, and there has been little push-back from other parties. The sense of alienation is palpable: Hollande is ‘at war’ with terror and Germany isn’t really helping; Merkel has been dealing with the refugees while France is conspicuously absent when it comes to working towards a pan-European plan for settling them.
German leaders and thinkers have had to face up to a dilemma. Germany has not succeeded in exporting its vaunted Stabilitätskultur; indeed, as Hans Kundnani has pointed out, Berlin has created a Europe-wide culture of instability (both economic and political – witness the recent difficulties that Ireland and Spain have had in forming governments). At the same time, Germany is strong enough for France to feel decisively weakened. The EU was created to make the role of a ‘European hegemon’ impossible and to get rid of the ‘German problem’ once and for all. But at the moment Europe seems unable to function at all without at least a ‘half-hegemonic’ Germany. The trouble with half hegemons is that they don’t have the means to make a system of states work as a whole simply by supporting the weaker members; at the same time, they are powerful enough to leave everyone else feeling resentful. It’s a story that reminds historians of Germany’s position in Europe after 1871.
Even if political union were somehow to happen – with the countries willing to join Core Europe agreeing on a shared fiscal policy – it is unclear how it would be governed. In 2014, the elections to the European Parliament were sold to the public as a step in the direction of a supranational democracy. Spitzenkandidaten nominated by the different party groups offered competing programmes on the understanding that the candidate whose party prevailed in the vote in the European Parliament would become president of the European Commission. But after Jean-Claude Juncker emerged as the winner, there was some unseemly wrangling among national leaders. Cameron was adamantly opposed to Luxembourg’s former prime minister, but was eventually outvoted, along with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. The European Parliament declared the whole affair a triumph for European democracy. Evidently, on one level the individual governments agree because they have committed not to go through the process again. Instead, they will go back to choosing the president in backroom deals. It is clear that ‘democratising Europe’ is purely a cosmetic matter at this point. It also means that there won’t any longer be even the tiniest illusion that the decisions Europeans take at the ballot box will have any influence on the political programme carried out by Brussels.
Flawed as it might have turned out in practice, the idea behind the Spitzenkandidaten proposal was to reconcile the current losers with their fate, on the understanding that democracy is a system in which you can lose, but you will not always lose. The premise was that the EU would have a significant budget with which to respond to economic imbalances across the continent (for instance by introducing a financial transactions tax) and thus be in a position to implement a recognisably partisan programme. The UK was always adamantly opposed to this notion; now, it seems, virtually all leaders are agreed that national executives have to continue to dominate the Union while at the same time they keep complaining about an ‘undemocratic’ – or, in Donald Trump’s words, ‘very, very bureaucratic’ and ‘very, very difficult’ – Europe.
So, even without the UK, Europe will not be rushing ahead with integration. Will it fragment instead, as some are predicting? There is no doubt that Brexit would be a major boost for right-wing populists across the continent. It is important to understand what parties like the Front National, the Austrian Freedom Party and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz have in common. They have all successfully usurped the language of democracy and, in the case of Marine Le Pen, French Republicanism. They claim faithfully to represent the people’s will and to uphold the ideal of national sovereignty. Le Pen has been particularly skilful, as part of her strategy of dédiabolisation, in appropriating the souverainiste discourse of parts of the French left. Not only has the FN (supposedly) bid farewell to Le Pen père’s racism; Marine is now defending France against Europe in terms of republican, democratic values (as opposed to invoking crude nationalism). Brexit, she said, would be like the breach of the Berlin Wall: a moment of liberation, a triumph for democracy.
The impression that right-wing populists like to give of themselves as defenders of democracy is, needless to say, deceptive. For one thing, the EU states have not ‘lost sovereignty’. That the UK can hold a referendum on whether or not to leave, while at the same time treaties can be amended only by a unanimous decision of all states together, is enough to demonstrate this point (which is not to say that individual states haven’t ceded many powers or that they aren’t, on a day-to-day basis, subject to bureaucratic decision-making in Brussels and rulings by the European Court that can go strongly against their national preferences). More important, what the populists say represents the authentic will of the people comes down to a largely symbolic rendering of who the ‘real people’ supposedly are. Empirically, ‘the people’ want many different things, and no election result will yield an unambiguous ‘general will’. Populists claim that they and only they represent le pays réel and then attribute whatever attitudes they wish to that entity. The Remain campaign is conventionally held to be ‘Project Fear’, but populists – and a large number of Brexiters happen to be populists – are engaged in what one might call ‘Project Victimhood’. As the sociologist Kim Lane Scheppele has pointed out, in many parts of Europe today political community-building consists in people coming together around shared grievances. The multicultural left used to be associated with a ‘culture of complaint’; now it is often right-leaning majorities, as in Poland and Hungary, and possibly Austria and France, that behave like victimised minorities.
Populists always need enemies and conspiracies to explain why they aren’t already in power, or, when they do get to rule, why they aren’t succeeding and why there can’t be such a thing as a legitimate opposition. The EU has served them well in this regard. But it is naive to think that, even after getting rid of the supposed dictatorship of Brussels (and Germany), they would rest content. As we have seen, populist identity politics have been simultaneously directed against supranational elites and migrants. As migration will not magically disappear after an exit from the Union, it’s easy to imagine the vile ways in which populists will mobilise their supporters once they are outside the EU.
Populists would not be Brexit’s only winners. Putin has long sought to divide the EU, if for no reason other than to undermine its ‘soft power’ and to show that in a tough world it takes tough men like him to make things happen (as Putin observers have argued, many Russians actually like Europe, but they do not respect it). Orbán, whose government has benefited from a major loan from Moscow, has been quietly doing Putin’s bidding (and dividing) inside the Union. Another Russian state bank loan, to the Front National, a €9 million investment in a kind of business plan for European disintegration, has not yet yielded the desired return. So far as Russia is concerned, Brexit would be a valuable, globally visible sign that the dream of integration is finished; most important, the EU’s capacity to impose and renew sanctions on Russia, which so far it has managed surprisingly well, would be weakened.
The EU has itself been spectacularly successful at diminishing its soft or what is sometimes called its ‘normative’ power. Inaction over Hungary and Poland has undermined the elite’s ability to preach ‘shared European values’, and it has been less than edifying to watch Germany and France falling over themselves to get contracts from Egypt’s dictatorship. After Siemens secured an agreement to build the world’s largest gas and steam turbine power plant, Sigmar Gabriel, the German vice-chancellor (a Social Democrat), went on record calling Sisi an ‘impressive president’. This isn’t even to mention the Union’s recent sordid deal with Turkey. The preamble of the doomed ‘European Constitution’ described Europe as a ‘special area of human hope’. For many refugees, it evidently still is; but the EU’s self-appointed role in the vanguard of the fight for universal values has become doubtful, to say the least.
There are others who might secretly be hoping for Brexit. The financial industry on the Continent calculates that it might get London’s business. Southern countries would reason that the balance of power had shifted in their favour and might make another attempt to escape German half-hegemony. Renzi is already rehearsing the role of leader, after Hollande’s miserable failure in 2012. The Italian prime minister stresses growth and even has ambitious plans for further integration, including a common European unemployment scheme. More important still, Renzi has been trying to argue that Europe’s multiple crises also present opportunities for trade-offs: Italy could help Germany with refugees, for example, if Germany were to relax its relentless demand for strict adherence to the rules on national deficits. So far, Berlin has flatly refused deals of this sort; if it were to give in a little, the question would soon arise whether other ‘Northerners’ might want to follow the example of Brexit. Polls indicate that if the UK goes, a majority of Swedes would want to leave as well. Jimmie Akesson, the leader of the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats, is already calling for a referendum on EU membership. If nothing else, it is clear that the EU cannot afford to give a post-Brexit UK a good deal.
The proponents of secessionism, another major form of identity politics in Europe today, probably also expect to gain from Brexit. One has to imagine that Brexit would be followed by another referendum on Scottish independence, which in turn could be the prelude to the break-up of Spain, Belgium and possibly Italy. However, even if an independent Scotland were quickly admitted to the EU, that wouldn’t solve the problem of the secession of Catalonia and the chances are even slimmer that the Lega Nord would finally seek an actual separation of its fantasy creation, ‘Padania’, from the rest of Italy. Belgium has its problems, but break-up would mean at least one party losing the capital of Europe – an unacceptable downside on which even all Belgians can probably agree.
Europe hasn’t yet found an institutional architecture that would create stability. The euro has brought about the very conflicts European integration had been intended to prevent. One of the Union’s founding fathers, the French foreign minister Robert Schuman, once spoke of the need to ‘detoxify the relationship between France and Germany’; now, the nationalist toxin is back virtually everywhere in Europe. Nobody at this point can or, for that matter, even really wants to move forward with ‘ever closer union’; Cameron secured an opt-out from something that for most Europeans has become meaningless. But in no country is there a majority for leaving (or dissolving the club) either.
A UK that goes it alone, and especially a former UK, will not necessarily lose two of the things that the EU achieved in the postwar period: peace and prosperity – even if most economists agree that the latter will be significantly diminished. But it certainly will lose power. It won’t have a seat at the table when the EU, the world’s largest economy, makes its deals with China and the US. Merkel has tried hard to keep Cameron invested, or even just interested, in a Europe where Britain has enormous clout because of its economy and, not least, its military. A UK that stays in will not solve the EU’s problems with Schengen and the Eurozone; but securing the former and strengthening the latter are not necessarily threats to Britain. The UK isn’t condemned to be a spoilsport for ever, let alone the solipsistic nation into which Cameron’s ill-timed referendum has turned it. Brexit would make Germany even more powerful, and Germany’s continued attempts to keep Europe British without Britain would create even more conflict and resentment. A UK that remained and co-operated selectively with Berlin might just make the EU more stable, better able to project power, and less toxic. Eventually, after what is likely to go down in history as a lost decade for Europe, the EU might even become an area of hope again.