Amid all the hysterical reactions to Brexit, we should all take a step back and consider what the European Union is, what it implies, and why a nation like Britain might not want to be a part of it any longer. Sometimes, there are good reasons why the supposedly enlightened progress of history is stopped in its tracks now and then, and Britain has plenty of good reasons for turning away from Europe.
On the most basic level, Britain’s vote last week to leave the EU was an assertion of national sovereignty and democratic self-governance against a system designed to erode and undermine those things.
The prospect of an economically and politically integrated Europe isn’t new, of course. It reaches at least as far back as the First French Empire and the Napoleonic Wars. But in the modern era, the vision of European unity has always gone hand-in-hand with the erosion of national sovereignty and democratic rule. In order for it to work properly, it had to be imposed by force. That’s why the idea of an integrated European economy wasn’t taken seriously until the continent was at war.
Germany’s Mitteleuropa Was A Precursor To The EU
In September 1914, just weeks after the outbreak of World War I, German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg approved a secret document outlining Germany’s provisional war aims. The so-called Septemberprogramm stated the general aim of the war was “security for the German Reich in west and east for all imaginable time.” To achieve this security, a number of military measures were laid out, including vast annexations of territory in France and Belgium, and imposing a war indemnity upon France designed to prevent it from investing in rearmament for decades.
But it wasn’t just a military document. The truly innovative proposition of the Septemberprogramm was the creation of a “central European economic association through common customs treaties, to include France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Austria-Hungary, Poland, and perhaps Italy, Sweden, and Norway.” This was Hollweg’s modification to the decades-old concept of Mitteleuropa, which first emerged in 1848 and envisioned a European continent united by a series of interlocking trade agreements.
The goal of the German Mitteleuropa plan in 1914, however, was more menacing. Its purpose was, quite simply, German economic and cultural hegemony. The point wasn’t cooperation, but exploitation. If Germany won the war, it could impose an integrated trade block on Europe by force.
Germany lost the war and never got the chance to realize Hollweg’s Mitteleuropa scheme, but the idea didn’t just disappear. Indeed, after WWII, European economic integration became an imperative. It was thought that the only way to prevent future German aggression was to unite Europe under the twin aegis of France and Germany, and forge what Winston Churchill in 1946 called, “a kind of United States of Europe.”
The EU Is Nothing Like America
Over the ensuing half-century, this idea gradually became a reality, culminating in the formal creation of the EU with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which came into force the following year. A common European currency, the euro, was introduced in 1999, and in 2004 the EU enlargement admitted ten new countries, mostly from eastern Europe, in its single largest expansion in terms of population and number of states.
Europe became an economically integrated continent, but like Germany’s original vision for Mitteleuropa during WWI, the EU is not a democratic institution. It has only been able to function without resort to force because member states have denied their citizens any say in how the EU governs them.
Americans in particular misunderstand the EU if they think of it like a European version of the U.S. Congress. Unlike Congress, the EU is essentially a body of unelected bureaucrats wholly unaccountable to voters in EU-member countries. Instead, a small army of regulators in Brussels promulgate rules and regulations that govern not just trade policy but also immigration, welfare, and myriad other aspects of public life.
Because Europe is not a fully united political entity, the EU isn’t really a representative body in the way the U.S. Congress is. In fact, members of the European Commission (the executive branch of the EU), which is comprised of one commissioner per member state, are bound by their oath of office to represent the general interest of the EU, not the interest of their home state.
Over the years, the EU has encroached more and more on the sovereignty of its member states, especially in periods of crisis. The Eurozone crisis forced Greece to surrender its fiscal sovereignty in exchange for a German-led EU bailout. The ongoing migrant crisis has foisted huge numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers onto member states that have had little say on whether to admit unprecedented numbers of foreigners.
But of course this erosion of national sovereignty is necessary for something like the EU to work. A supranational institution like the EU was always going to require that individual member states relinquish their sovereignty—first on fiscal and trade policies, and eventually on a host of other matters.
Multinational Political Unity Requires Force
With Brexit, Britain has decided it doesn’t want to do this anymore. From an historical perspective, Britain was never comfortable integrating with Europe. When Churchill called for a “United States of Europe,” he never intended that Britain would be part of it. “We British have our own Commonwealth of Nations,” he said, and called for Europe to emulate Britain in that regard. In a letter to Charles de Gaulle in 1944, Churchill wrote, “This is something you ought to know: each time we have to choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea.”
If Britons are skeptical of the EU, perhaps it’s because Britain knows something about keeping together a multinational political entity. After all, the British Empire was forged and maintained through the force of arms. As Americans, we should understand this. Our own unity was purchased at the cost of war, first with Britain and then among ourselves.
As for Europe, Churchill understood what Chancellor Hollwegg understood in 1914, and what many Brexiteers understand today: that economic integration requires political unity, and multinational political unity requires something more than the promise of good trade deals. Eventually, it requires force.