Despite polls showing an election too close to call, most observers, fooled by their own personal preferences, refused to even countenance the possibility that British voters, participating in a rare plebiscite, would prefer to leap into the unknown rather than to stay in the admittedly-flawed European Union. Yet as of June 24, 2016, Brexit is now an inescapable reality. If the reactions on Twitter as the results rolled in are anything to go by, the shock to the commentariat was profound.
That is because to many observers, the Brits’ decision seems completely irrational: The UK has what is easily the best deal in Europe of any member country. Britain gets a rebate on its budgetary contribution and gets to opt-out from key policy initiatives such as the euro and the Schengen passport free travel zone; at the same time, it gets to have a say in Europe’s collective decision-making. After its momentous vote, if the UK still wants to benefit from integration into the European common market, it will still have to comply with the Commission’s norms and regulations without having any say in their drafting. Some Brexiteers have argued that a lot of these incompatibilities can be easily addressed in the upcoming negotiations. They shouldn’t be so certain. It’s worth remembering that the EU’s common market counts for a larger percentage of the UK’s total trade flows than the reverse. Coupled with the fact that Paris and Berlin are keen not to create a bad precedent for other countries looking to leave the union, there is little reason for London to expect any leniency from its European partners: the talk of the town is to “punish” London and make the exit as swift as possible.
A popular narrative among the Leave contingent has made Britons out to be the victims of overreaching and overweening faceless technocrats in Brussels. The paradox is that some of the European Union’s main flaws are intrinsically linked to Britain’s own original vision for it: a vast and constantly expanding free market area with open immigration and little political muscle. It is grimly ironic, for example, that Turkey’s potential entry into the EU has been portrayed as a grave threat by the Brexit crowd, even though it has been the UK that has long been pushing Ankara’s candidacy through, despite continental misgivings. Furthermore, it is primarily the UK that has resisted further integration on defense, and it is primarily London that gutted budgets for a border patrol mission in the Mediterranean before the refugee crisis hit. As Charles de Gaulle, a man who opposed the UK’s entrance into the common market, knew well, Britain has always been uncomfortable with the European integration project. It emerged out of the crucible of WWII comparatively without the same experience of nationalism and war that has led its partners into this ambitious, and imperfect, endeavor.
Voters can go wrong and I think in this case they have. But they have spoken, and the their verdict is clear: Britain will now have to leave the European Union; it will have to renegotiate its trade deals; and we will all move on. How we move on, however, is the critical question. Can European leaders now salvage the European project?
The Responsibility of European Elites
It’s easy to vilify populist leaders, and to point to outright lies in the Leave campaign. But the truth is that the case for Brexit was simply the easier one to make. All over Europe, populists are exploiting the inability of the liberal side to give a convincing argument for their case, and are responding to voters’ lingering concerns over identity and power. Instead of articulating a viable political alternative to populism, Europe’s mainstream parties have been mostly reactive, unimaginative, and defensive. For a glaring case in point, one need not look further than David Cameron’s own ham-fisted pledge to hold the Brexit referendum in order to guard his party’s flank against a resurgent UKIP.
Europeanists can’t continue to simply gesture at cosmopolitanism as a way of life while denouncing populists as racists and fear-mongers. It might feel good, but it clearly is not getting good results. As our societies have opened up over the past few decades and with globalization the norm, large segments of Europe’s population feel left behind and have legitimate grievances. Furthermore, a generational divide appears to be overlaid on top of these material concerns: 68 percent of Brits under 30 voted for Remain, even though unemployment skews young across the continent. Young people continue to see salvation in the EU despite its many shortcomings. Yet instead of trying to figure out how Europe could adapt to address these complex challenges, European elites have too often decided to lecture their electorates, while opting to kick the can down the road.
Reconciling Europe and Politics
The European Union is going through a power crisis. Its authority and legitimacy are being questioned by a growing plurality voters whipped into discontent by populist leaders across the continent. It is an enormous cliché to proclaim that Britain’s vote should be a “wake up call”, but there aren’t many other ways to say it. European leaders can’t continue to muddle through. They have to conceive of a new way to connect with the silent majority of European citizens who are in the middle: not yet explicitly anti-European but worried and increasingly dissatisfied with the stagnation and dysfunction they see in Brussels.
The European Union’s failures have its roots in the stillborn European Defense Community, a 1950s-era military project supported by the United States designed to harness Germany’s rearmament. Rejected by the French parliament in 1954, the ECD’s failure led to a change of strategy by proponents of European integration. Instead of starting with something that is at the heart of national sovereignty—defense—the construction of a unified Europe would start with technical and economic integration. The European Coal and Steel Community, established in 1951, was chosen as the workhorse institution. The belief was that as Europeans got into the habit of working together, a sense of belonging to a community would emerge: technical cooperation would lead to political solidarity. This was known as the “functionalist” approach, advocated by the likes of Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann.
It’s important to remember that for most of its history, the European Union, with strong support and military protection from the United States, has been an incredible success story. Europe is living through the most peaceful time in its existence. Military rivalries that have wracked the continent for centuries have been replaced with boring bureaucratic wrangling. Recent setbacks in Poland and Hungary aside, the prospect of EU accession has been a formidable force for anchoring democratic transitions after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The euro is the second most important reserve currency in the world, and Europe is the world’s largest integrated trading bloc. But the functionalist approach, by avoiding politics, has run headlong into a wall.
Mocking “Brussels bureaucrats” and their democratically unaccountable decisions is a hackneyed sport. It also misses the point. Europe’s problems lie with the fact that important decisions are not being made, precisely because they can’t be the responsibility of civil servants. Believing that a common European vision and identity would arise in due time, European leaders have designed institutional arrangements with little executive authority (presumably to be filled in at a later date): a common currency with no fiscal coordination and budgetary oversight, for example, or open borders with little means for common border security. Most of the challenges facing Europeans today are not of a technocratic nature, and they are emphatically not value-free: they strike at the heart of Europe’s political and identity choices.
Saving a country from bankruptcy despite the inane economic decisions (and lies) of its leaders is not (only) an economic decision. Confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine, balancing the humanitarian duty to accept refugees with countries’ social cohesion, finding a common position on the Syrian civil war: all these issues can’t be solved merely through the heuristic of what works or doesn’t, or what can or cannot be quantified by experts. Facing a lingering economic crisis (born largely of member states’ inability to reform their own economies), combined with an influx of migrants (the consequence of an arc of geopolitical crises on the continent’s southern and eastern borders), Europe’s leaders have proved inept. It’s not that Brussels is in charge instead of nation states; it’s that citizens have the feeling that no one is in charge.
If European elites want to save the European project, they have to overcome their distrust of the very concepts they have tried to transcend for decades. Notions like “borders”, “identity”, and “power”, on the contrary, need to be promoted at a European level. To put it another way, a new breed of European leader must prove that the European Union can stand up for, and represent, all its citizens. On many issues, from immigration control to trade to counter-terrorism, these new Europeanists should define a common European interest and argue forcefully that they are stronger together. An interesting Politco report on the inner workings of the Remain campaign showed that one of its main flaws was to ignore immigration and identity issues, believing a message focused on bread and butter pragmatism would sway voters. The mistake has proven costly.
Taking this road, however, entails admitting that Europeans have a cohesive identity which is by definition distinct from that of their neighbors, some of whom may not (yet) have a vocation to join their club. Europe has borders, these bold new leaders should proclaim, and it will strive to defend them. They will proclaim a lasting pause in EU enlargement, and will probably definitively have to close the door on candidacies like Turkey’s. Similarly, on the question of immigration, our new Europeanists will have to admit that economic and demographic benefits are not the whole story by a long shot. European societies’ ability (and willingness) to integrate new populations must be taken into account.
“European when necessary, national when possible”
It is also time to abandon the obsolete debate between “sovereignists” and “federalists”. The EU will probably never become a federal power that subsumes national differences. (The United States has always a terrible point of comparison—and end goal—for Europe.) Furthermore, there is no zero-sum competition ongoing between the EU’s collective institutions and its constituent member states; on the contrary the weakness of the European Union today is due largely to the weakness of its member states, and vice versa. As Jacques Delors, the former president of the European Commission put it, the EU is best understood as a “federation of Nation-States”, a sui generis political construct.
A new, more functional European bureaucracy could be forged by giving both means and executive authority to already extant instruments and institutions, such as the Eurozone and Schengen, that have been in a sense left orphaned by the well-meaning functionalists. It doesn’t make sense to have open borders without a strong border agency and Frontex has been left underfunded for too long before the refugee crisis. At the same time, some European Commission competencies need to be transferred back to member states. Though initially the principle of subsidiarity—that authority should be left as close to the citizenry as possible—was the preferred principle for organizing the EU, more recently the idea that centralization in Brussels is always best has come to dominate. « Ever closer Union » should not have to entail ever-increasing centralization. A serious discussion, that may or may not yield a new treaty, would seek to clarify more explicitly how subsidiarity should be implemented. This could be left to individual states to decide. The Netherlands proceeded to a subsidiarity review in 2013 for example that led to a report titled “European when necessary, national when possible”.
A Europe that protect its citizens also means a Europe that can defend itself. Common military institutions, such as the Brussels security headquarters and the European Defense Agency can move forward—now, importantly, without a British veto complicating things. While the UK is one of the rare European countries spending 2% of GDP on defense, it was famously reluctant to move ahead on common projects in this sphere.
The crisis of authority is accompanied by a severe crisis in legitimacy. Democratic institutions, such as the Council and Parliament, should be reinforced at the expense of the Commission, while other ways to get voters closer to decision-making need to be dreamed up. Eurosceptics often point to a lack of democratic accountability in Europe. While these accusations are not exactly true (after all, the Commission President is appointed by elected heads of States according to the majority elected in Parliament), EU institutions appear distant, complex and opaque. (Just writing those lines stirs up memories of sitting through stunningly boring and complicated classes on European law, mandatory for any French student of political science.)
Can Europeans create a public space for debate at the continental level? Paradoxically, the ones who have managed this the best are… populists. Arguments mustered by anti-austerity movements from the Left (Spain’s Podemos) or nationalist and xenophobic ones from the Right (Austria’s Freedom Party, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom) have resonated with publics beyond the borders of any single European country. Decision-making is famously arduous with Parliament playing little role in drafting legislation. The Commission has a near monopoly on legislative initiatives, and voters are no fools. Every single European parliamentary election since 1979 has yielded a lower turnout than the previous one, with the latest one, in 2014, stirring the interest of only 42.6% voters. Reinforcing the role of Parliament at the expense of the Commission would go a long way to reinforce the democratic nature of institutions, and hopefully boost enthusiasm for them.
One other possibility sometimes mentioned would be the creation of a European “Senate” composed of national parliamentarians of each state sharing their time between their national legislature and Brussels (NATO has such an institutional arrangement, but it is largely irrelevant as NATO is a military alliance and not a political organization.)
Can Europeans manage to do this? It’s hard to be completely sanguine. Given what we know of ongoing European dysfunction, it’s hard to see even a shock like Brexit startling the elites out of their torpor. The most likely scenario is a gradual erosion of European institutions, more national independence referenda, and the continued rise of populists. An alternative arrangement requires a historic new compromise between France and Germany. As a former French foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, recently suggested such a compromise in Le Monde: “monetary and economic management of the Euro, pragmatic but rigorous. (…) The deal could be: real structural reforms in France, expansion of the mission of the European Central bank” to grant it more flexibility to defend growth and employment.
Europeans Can’t Do It Alone
Most importantly, Europeans cannot do this alone. The United States has an overwhelming national interest in guaranteeing the resilience of the European Union. The EU is flawed, and its elitist defenders can sound deluded or exasperating. But even American critics of the EU shouldn’t rejoice in yesterday’s result. Divisions within Europe—and the West writ large—mainly benefit its revisionist adversaries (like Russia, China and Iran). It is no coincidence that eurosceptic voices are generally also the most boisterously anti-American and pro-Russian.
Ensuring European peaceful unity has always been a major pillar of post-WWII American foreign policy. The next American administration will have to come to terms with the fact that its disengagement from Europe and the Middle East, rather than empowering Europeans, has thus far exacerbated distrust and divisions. Besides, the rise of populism in the United States proves western democracies are confronted to a larger backlash against elites, globalization, liberalism. The West should find ways to face these challenges together; others will be watching and waiting.