After Brexit: What Remains of the European Project?

AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File

A European Union flag, right, and a Union Jack are displayed outside Europe House, the European Parliament's British offices in London, June 22, 2016. 

On the night of June 23, I went to bed anxious about the results of Britain’s referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union. On the morning of June 24, upon learning of the British people’s decision to go, I became a European patriot.

I discovered that I had an emotional attachment to the European Union that went beyond my reasons for thinking it on the whole, despite certain manifest shortcomings and failures, a good thing. I am well-versed in the critical literature that has grown up around the European project since its inception in the aftermath of World War II. I am aware of the EU’s ungainly, opaque, and often dysfunctional institutional structure. I recognize the force of chronic complaints that its decision-making structures suffer from both a “democratic deficit” and the undue influence of lobbyists, as well as of more recent complaints that unelected Eurocrats have brought the power of the Union to bear to thwart the will of democratic electorates in Greece, Italy, and elsewhere. I know that the European Court of Justice has at times handed down decisions that privilege certain fundamental principles over others in ways that appear to favor capital over labor. I know that the euro, the common currency adopted by a subset of EU member countries (not including the UK), is managed by a central bank that has seemed at times perversely indifferent to the suffering inflicted by its policies and at other times prepared to reach for emergency powers whose legal basis is open to question. I know all this, and yet “the heart has reasons that reason does not know” (Pascal).

The heart’s reasons, though partly instinctive, are not altogether inarticulate, however. They are prompted by a more robust consciousness of the history of European institution-building than some post-referendum critics appear to possess. I share the feelings that economist Dani Rodrik expressed on Twitter: “My first reaction … is immense sadness, for the EU. Was the most impressive piece of institutional engineering of 20th century.”

Even full-fledged states that have been around for a very long time exhibit numerous flaws and incoherencies at least as debilitating as those of the EU. The United States, for example, has been ensnared in partisan gridlock for two decades—gridlock enabled by structural defects dating back to the founding. Yet the EU came into being in circumstances much less favorable than the United States, on a continent left prostrate by global war and beset by lingering enmities born of age-old conflict. To overcome such enmities required vision and leadership. In short, it could not have happened without its elite.

The EU is and always has been “an elite project.” Indeed, without experts capable of imagining and articulating the advantages of international cooperation, there would have been no European Coal and Steel Community, Euratom, European Economic Community, European Community, or, ultimately, European Union. There would have been no Single Market, which has enhanced the competitiveness of certain European firms by allowing them to scale up to meet the challenge of global competitors.

But critics say that Europe’s once indispensable elites have grown arrogant and lost touch with the people, who have therefore risen up in a series of revolts, with the British insurgency only the most recent of many. Michael Gove, one of the leaders of the Leave campaign, asserted that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” And there is no denying that experts can and do make mistakes. To have launched the euro on a political and fiscal infrastructure too flimsy to support it was arguably one of them, yet Greece, the country hardest hit by the weaknesses of the common currency, has thus far declined to abandon it.

Writing for The American Prospect, the astute financial writer David Dayen arraigns “the arrogance of the elites, both in London and Brussels.” They “broke the world” in 2008, he claims, and then refused to repent for their failure. This paints with a rather broad brush the diversity of expert opinion and conflates the distinct roles of political and expert elites.

On the Continent, it was German and French politicians who pushed the “expansionary austerity” program that Dayen specifically excoriates, and they did so because they felt—wrongly in my estimation as in Dayen’s—bound by commitments made by their predecessors. One can believe that there are times, especially times of financial emergency, when wisdom demands that commitments be broken, but one can also appreciate the desire to be cautious about doing so, especially in the context of a union of states that retain a large measure of sovereignty and are bound more by mutual pledges than by explicit constitutional or treaty constraints.

Indeed, one of the shocking aspects of the Brexit decision, as Kenneth Rogoff notes, is that it could have been taken so cavalierly, with the low bar of a mere majority vote. Constitutional amendments in many systems require super-majorities, and for good reason: Because constitutional engagements are so profound, affecting countless individual and corporate commitments with durable implications, they should not be altered lightly. And to abandon the European Union is to effect a change in the global order far more profound than a mere constitutional amendment.

Think, for instance, of the long-term plans of many Europeans that have now been disrupted if not ruined by the Brexit vote. People from all over Europe, taking Britain’s commitment to the Union to be irrevocable, had uprooted themselves in order to study and work and establish businesses in the U.K. Not all of these were the low-wage workers from Eastern and Southern Europe often blamed for the stagnation of the median wage.

In addition, the English themselves have become less insular. As Peter Hall has noted, younger Britons exhibit a much more favorable attitude toward the EU than their elders: 53 percent of those between 18 and 34 voted to remain, while the comparable figure for those over 55 was only 39 percent. Younger people who had thought of spending at least a part of their life outside the U.K. must now reconsider.

This generational divide might seem paradoxical. After all, it was the older generation that witnessed the EU’s success in binding up the wounds of a war-torn continent and orchestrating industrial and commercial cooperation among former rivals for empire. Yet the elders seem preoccupied by the world they have lost: “Within their breast lurks … I know not what … vague souvenir of past glory, which, though not connected with anything in particular, is enough to arouse conservative impulses when needed” (Tocqueville).

By contrast, the young have enjoyed the freedom to roam abroad, to study in foreign lands, to sample the riches of foreign cultures. London is one of the great cosmopolitan cities, yet paradoxically, perhaps, the reflexive rejection of foreigners seems stronger in rural areas where immigrants are relatively sparse. If youthful, vibrant London has absorbed myriad foreign influences without succumbing to melancholy, the stark contrast with the morose and sullen hinterland has created a growing sense of exclusion and alienation, as Peter Mandler has argued.

Businesses, too, must now reconsider their imagined futures. Some invested in Britain with an eye to doing business on the Continent as well as in the U.K. They may now relocate. Yet admonitions of this sort were among those condemned by Michael Gove as the unwanted and unwarranted speculation of mere experts. But it hardly required expertise to forecast a sharp increase in uncertainty if the majority voted to leave.

Were Leave voters really rejecting the experts? Were they punishing the elite? If so, why did they take the country out of the hands of one Oxford swell (David Cameron) only to turn it over to another, his old school chum Boris Johnson, who offered no particular resistance to Cameron’s commitment to the disastrous doctrine of expansionary austerity?

Johnson himself claims that the vote represents a massive protest not against immigration but against “loss of control.” Voters are right to perceive a loss of control, but if they think control is now vested in Brussels, they are mistaken. The forces at work are far too great and too vast to be confined to the “official quarter” of Brussels or to a few boardrooms in the City of London. They emanate from places as far away as China and India. They involve the invention of new technologies and the creation of complex and far-flung chains of supply.

The Sceptred Isle is being buffeted by winds of change as powerful as any in human history. To analyze the Brexit reaction as a peevish poke at Eurocrats and banksters is as misguided, I think, as David Cameron’s ill-fated attempt to placate an electoral faction by throwing it the bone of a referendum—“a device of dictators and demagogues,” according to no less an authority than Margaret Thatcher. But just as Pascal mused that the world’s physiognomy turned on the length of Cleopatra’s nose, so, too, may the future shape of Europe forever reflect the pettiness of Prime Minister Cameron’s fleeting ambitions.

Tocqueville offers the famous image of the kite and the string. The elite may hold the string, but they do not control the kite, which is buffeted by winds on which they have no purchase. When the winds pick up, as they have done over the past three decades, the best the elite can do is nudge the kite this way or that while trying not to lose their grip on the string. For if they lose their grip, we all lose. If the kite is not torn to shreds, it may come to rest far from where it started when at last the winds subside. Liberal democracy was the starting place; the end may be something else entirely.

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