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The case that Brexit is — and isn’t — the end of the European project

The European Union is a bit of an unlovable mess. It has an ugly flag, its institutions are confusing, its official documents are unintelligible, and its economic policies since the 2008 financial crisis have been disastrous.

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But the "European project" — the determination of French political and economic adviser Jean Monnet and his successors to knit a war-torn continent together through a network of overlapping political and economic institutions that would ensure generations of peace and prosperity — is incredibly noble. Abraham Lincoln spoke of the United States as "a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" and asked whether "any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

The EU is an even more ambitious outgrowth of those same liberal ideals. Not a new nation, but a political entity that transcends nation and insists that Poles and Brits and Spaniards and Swedes are all created equal and should all have the right to live and work and trade peacefully amongst themselves. This is a very big idea, and when you take its magnitude seriously you can see that it’s not particularly surprising that it’s run into a few problems along the way.

But an organization dedicated to "ever closer union" has never faced a setback as profound as the looming departure from the UK, and it’s natural to wonder if this doesn’t mark the beginning of a larger unraveling.

Many of the basic structural flaws of the EU, after all, apply equally forcefully elsewhere on the continent, and the severe problems of the eurozone mean that, to an extent, they apply even more forcefully beyond the UK. On the other hand, on both a symbolic and a practical level, the UK relationship with the EU has always differed from the mainstream European experience in ways that could allow it to take a very different trajectory without wider implications for the continent.

Rather than a prediction or a hot take, here’s a way to think through the different alternatives.

The case for europessimism

The EU is fundamentally a metaphysical quandary. It does far too much governing and has far too many governing institutions — a flag, a Constitution, a parliament, a permanent bureaucracy, a currency, a Politico spin-off, etc. — to be considered a mere treaty or international group like NATO or NAFTA.

At the same time, it’s not just a country or a nation. There’s no "imagined community" of the European Union. A unified EU soccer team would dominate the World Cup, but nobody would actually want to root for it. And by the same token, virtually everyone in Europe looks to their national parliament — the one whose debates proceed in their native language — as their primary outlet for democratic energy. Turnout for EU Parliament elections is low, and voters tend to use it to punish or reward the locally governing national party rather than voting based on EU issues. This, in turn, means that the best and most talented politicians tend not to enter the European Parliament and that the most important high-level issues are decided at meetings of heads of government, not through Europe’s democratic institutions.

This lack of democratic legitimacy makes the considerable powers that are wielded by Brussels seem like too much, even while it restrains Brussels from actually obtaining enough power to be workable.

Consider:

  • If sanctions are an important part of foreign policy and the EU is going to act as an economic unit, then the EU needs a coordinated foreign policy, which it doesn’t have.
  • If the EU is going to be an internal zone of open borders, then its members need a coordinated policy about immigrants from outside the EU, which it doesn’t have.
  • If the EU is going to be a single currency bloc, then it needs some form of integrated fiscal policy, which it doesn’t have.

Poor economic performance and inconsistent handling of the migration crisis have driven majorities in many countries — including France and Spain — to say they’d like a UK-style chance to vote on quitting the EU. On the merits, to work better the EU needs more integration. But to get more integration it probably needs more popularity and more legitimacy at a time when it has very little of neither.

Further breakup could be the only way out.

The case for euro-optimism

Britain was, in crucial ways, simply never on board for the ennobling elements of the European project. Britain was not one of the six countries who came together to form the original European Coal and Steel Community. British people in the pre-EU days were accustomed to referring to "Europe," geographically, as a continent to which Britain was adjacent, not a place that it was part of. Britain stayed aloof from the euro.

And for Britain, crucially, there’s no close connection between integration via the EU and consolidation of stable democracy domestically. For the French and the Germans but also the Spaniards and the Greeks and the Croats and the Poles, this vision of Europe as a stabilizing force that helped put an end to domestic and international strife gives it some extra emotional punch.

These factors driving a wedge between Britain and Europe apply equally well to Sweden but not really to anyone else.

And if Sweden had just voted to leave the EU, it’s unlikely that anyone would be panicking. Norway, after all, has never been in the EU — opting instead for a close form of economic integration from the outside. For Sweden to switch to a Norwegian-style affiliation would seem like a modest step, and while having Britain do it instead is a bigger deal in the sense that it’s a bigger country, it doesn’t necessarily have any bigger implications for Portugal or Italy or the whole European project.

Most of all, for all its problems, the project of integration — especially among the core members — does appear to be proceeding. The eurozone hasn’t grown the full slate of fiscal institutions that it probably needs in the long run, but over the past four years it has built a common bank regulatory apparatus and a set of fiscal monitoring procedures. The work of European unity is difficult, unfortunately, and it takes time. But time is on Europe’s side, and younger voters who’ve grown up under European institutions seem to be more enthusiastic about them than oldsters.

Indeed, you could imagine the European Union emerging stronger without half-hearted Britain spoiling the fun. With the UK out of the club, the EU and the eurozone can fully merge and plow ahead into constructing the institutions they really need to work.

The risk for Britain: an example for the others?

One big risk for Britain moving forward is that its own fate under Brexit is going to be a key input into these decisions.

Today, the British economy is healthier than the French economy, with lower unemployment and higher GDP per capita and an independent currency that lets it respond with more flexibility to shocks. If Britain comes out of a couple of months of economic volatility as a basically stable country with a labor market that is still healthier than France’s, then French voters — and those in even worse-off countries like Spain and Italy — are going to be sorely tempted to demand a shot at their own referendum.

That means Europe’s incumbent governments have a certain ugly incentive to make sure Brexit goes poorly for the UK. Married couples who get divorced would typically be better off handling it amicably and staying on good terms, but they often don’t pull it off. The emotions are running too high, and the cycle of recriminations is too powerful. For Europe there’s the added factor that generosity to Britain in the form of continued access to European markets could fuel the further unraveling of the Union.