European Empire, damaged

Shortly after the results of the Brexit referendum were announced and Mr Cameron resigned as Prime Minister, the French newspaper Le Figaro published a small cartoon. Two French farmers look across the Channel to England, and one says to the other (or to these words): “They do it differently there. They pay attention to the results of the referendum. “

Yes and no. There is no doubt that much of the political class, upper bureaucracy and the intelligentsia have done their best to prevent, or at least impede, Britain’s exit from the European Union. The Prime Minister who succeeded Mr Cameron, Mrs May, was herself in favor of staying and yet she was held responsible for the negotiations on the British side. It was like holding a passionate pacifist responsible for an army and in fact managed to negotiate a deal that was (from a British perspective) the worst of both worlds.

It should have been clear from the start that Brexit was an existential issue for both the European Union and the UK. If Britain had prospered after Brexit, or simply not suffered badly, it would have been a disaster for the European Union, where there was significant and growing skepticism or opposition to the “European project” (it is the only one) among its population whose end is never known, although I suspect that it is a superstate whose administrative policy in the normal sense of elections, appeals to public opinion, etc., must not be interfered with. An example had to be given, and indeed it was done. No other Member State will want to go through what the UK has been through for the past four years. The light must not be worth the candle.

Professor Bogdanor’s very clear and well-written report on the road to Brexit doesn’t mention this, although I should have thought it was obvious. However, he mentions that after the UK referendum, President Macron of France said that if a similar referendum had been held in France it might have produced the same or worse result. This, of course, only proved to him how urgent it was to go in the same direction: to what Thomas Sowell would no doubt call the vision of the anointed one to whom he belonged.

Whatever the European project should be, it should never be very democratic. His deus ex machina, Jean Monnet, was quite clear about this: the plebeian was neither intelligent nor informed enough to decide its own fate, at least in relation to high politics. It would be dishonest to say that such thoughts regarding the less intelligent never cross the minds of the more intelligent sector of the population; You just have to walk down the street to see that the voice of the people is hardly that of God. For example, how many people know what the interest rate should be (assuming there is a correct answer) or what factors should be considered in the valuation? But few highly intelligent people would put their nightly thoughts into practice and simply say, “We should rule because we are the most intelligent and know best.”

Professor Bogdanor describes very well the reasons why Great Britain joined the then European Economic Community and its relations with Great Britain and the successor to the European Union afterwards. At the end of World War II, the country was weakened, although it was victorious. It took the political class many years to realize how weakened it was. In fact, Britain’s decline had started long before that. Although it was not an agricultural country and imported half of its food, it was no longer an advanced industrial country for reasons no doubt complex, but the mention of which may have given depth to this book.

As Dean Acheson famously said, Britain had lost an empire and found no role. It was trying to hold onto a power it could no longer support. Joining the EEC was simply faute de mieux, an admission of slow defeat, perhaps the best analogy being that of Spain in the 17th century. De Gaulle had very good reasons to veto Britain’s first application for membership, and if the British had listened to him – he was clearer about the country’s conditions and interests than any of its own leaders – they would not have renewed their membership application. They just happened to join as the post-war boom years of reconstruction came to an end, partly due to the oil shock, and Europe was about to become the slowest growing region in the world. At an awful moment in what now appears to be the special gift of the British political class, after wasting four years in negotiations that lead nowhere, Britain is leaving the country in a time of maximum uncertainty and disruption.

Professor Bogdanor tells us that the European project was a peace project and, no doubt, after the second catastrophic war in half a century this is at least partially so. Nobody could have wished for a Franco-German conflict. However, this does not in the least mean that the later peace in Europe was caused by the European project. Other factors were certainly far more important, even decisive.

First, of course, was the fact that Europe was unable to wage another war. The continent was in ruins, the Germans were disarmed, the Americans would not have stood for it, and in any case the Germans had really changed. In Germany there was no noteworthy revanchism like after the first war. In the east, the looming Russian steamroller also loomed, which in the 19th century was only infinitely worse than that of the times of Alexander I and Nicholas I, with a barbaric ideology that attracted the allegiance of a sizable proportion of the population at the time Population, especially that part of it – the intelligentsia – that should have known better. Only American power prevented the steamroller from rolling west, thereby preserving peace in Europe.

Those in Britain who supported Brexit are often accused of nostalgia for a past when the country was powerful, but I don’t think that nostalgia, if it ever existed at all, was very common. One could certainly say that nostalgia on the part of France was and is a driving force in the European Union, since France can only strive for a semi-Napoleonic role in Europe through unification with Germany.

Even if keeping the peace was one of the original aims of the European project, that is a very quirky way of putting it. Even without the European Union, Estonia would not attack either Portugal or Belgium against Slovakia. Peacekeeping means that Germany will not attack France again (no one believes France would attack Germany): In other words, and to put it roughly, without the people in the European Union – even the Germans themselves – thinking of Germany would be up to his old tricks again. I do not believe that.

Those in Britain who supported Brexit are often accused of nostalgia for a past when the country was powerful, but I don’t think that nostalgia, if it ever existed at all, was very common. One could certainly say that nostalgia on the part of France was and is a driving force in the European Union, since France can only strive for a semi-Napoleonic role in Europe through unification with Germany.

The irony is, of course, that Germany is again by far the strongest power on the continent. Her interests are complex and undoubtedly contradictory: she wants the rest of Europe to keep importing its goods, but she does not want to finance or offset the debts that make this possible. The southern countries either want to denigrate one another’s debts or inflate them by devaluing the currency, but Germany will not allow any of these solutions to the imbalances within Europe. There is no better way to revive German nationalism than to follow the rules of the southern nations. On the other hand, resentment against Germany will increase if it is not followed.

The author acknowledges the problems within Europe in his final chapter, up to which he treated Europe as if it were one big happy family with a population happily marching in unison behind their leadership. The truth is very different, so an example must be made for Britain. However, it is likely that the more integration there is, the greater the tensions between and within countries. Within the countries there is a class that benefits greatly from the current regulations, which, in my opinion, explains the paradox of Catalan, Flemish and Scottish nationalism: all of these nationalisms cling to the ideal of the European Union, namely a dilution of national sovereignty greater than what their nations already have. To put it roughly, the leadership of these movements does not want their place in the sun, but at the trough. They are pied piper for their population.

The book ends with a quote from the old Mephistophelian François Mitterand, according to which “nationalism means war”. And of course this is true if nationalism means an exaggerated and militant love for one’s own country and a hatred or contempt for all other countries, especially for neighboring countries. At the same time, nation states – at least some of them – were the only large states that were able to permanently protect the freedom of their people. If nationalism means war, it does not follow that supranationalism means peace. The European Union may be a Yugoslavia in the making without a Tito holding it together. Like José Manuel Barroso, once president of the European Commission, former Maoist student leader and then executive director of Goldman Sachs (the thirst for power is the golden thread in this diverse career), Europe said that which is now more or less standard is an empire albeit of a new kind.

Maybe not all that new: a kind of Habsburg empire without charm and aesthetic sensitivity. From the right it is attacked as a socialist enterprise, from the left as a neoliberal one: corporatist is the word for this happy union between the regulatory bureaucracy and big companies.

Anyone who wants a brief introduction to the history of the European Union, Britain’s relationship with it, and its current problems cannot do better than reading this book, clearly, if not always as sharply defined as it may be . It is at least an antidote to utopianism from whatever direction.

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