I grew up in Germany, about seven miles from the Dutch border. In my lifetime, I’ve seen that border devolve from a heavily policed, show-your-passport-twice, do-you-have-anything-to-declare obstruction to a simple blue sign with 12 gold stars and the word “Nederland.” That’s at the core of the European project. No U.S. commentator I’ve read, and I include my friend Herb here, has quite gotten that. They get hung up on bureaucracy, borders, sovereignty and globalization. Important points, to be sure, but not all that relevant when it comes to Brexit.
The European Union started as a grand bargain between France and Germany to forge a new European future. A future that was to prevent a repeat of the previous century and all its death and destruction. The vehicle was a common market, which, over the decades morphed into the European Union. I’d be the first to highlight its shortcomings. But getting stuck there misses the larger picture.
Rather than bore you with the complexity of how the EU works, let my highlight a couple of key points.
It’s true that only one of the three European institutions, the parliament, is directly elected by European citizens. The Commission and the Council are not. The commissioners are appointed by the democratically elected governments of the member states and the Council is made up of the democratically elected cabinet ministers of the member states. The latter has the final authority on passing European legislation, often by using a qualified majority vote. So, yes, Britain might be subject to laws it voted against, the same way I would be subject to laws my elected representatives voted against.
With regard to the globalization argument, the EU single market is quite different. Rather than subscribing to the Anglo-Saxon notion of “buyer beware,” European rules demand that goods exchanged freely should be roughly equivalent. That means an item labeled "chocolate" should contain the key ingredients that make chocolate. There are also European-wide health and safety rules to prevent one country freely exporting unsafe goods to other member states. The free flow of labor allows all European citizens to seek employment and residence in other member states. No trade agreement contains all these safeguards.
The harsh austerity imposed on Greece, Portugal and Spain in the wake of the great recession is indeed a shameful episode in European politics. It is true that the European Central Bank has become a tool of Germany for pushing its vision of a low inflation monetary policy on the other Euro countries. More oversight is definitely needed there. Since the UK didn’t adopt the Euro, it isn’t a factor leading to the Brexit vote.
Which brings me to reasons behind Brexit. Brexit supporter Boris Johnson had a bus drive around England suggesting that the money sent to the EU should be spent on the National Health Service instead. It is supreme irony that the party, which under Thatcher eviscerated the National Health Service, now blames the NHS decline on the cost of EU membership. And that is the crux of Brexit. The reasons for the vote to leave have little to do with the EU and everything with British politics. As the vote happened, I watched the statistical analysis on the Guardian website. It showed that poorer and older voters tended to support Leave while younger and more affluent voters opted for Remain. The geographical concentrations were also clear — the City of London versus the rest of England.
Those patterns tell the real story. The British working class has been hoodwinked by Thatcher and Blair for more than three decades. As in the U.S., the crisis of the 1970s led to a wholesale embrace of the financial sector by both parties. That policy favored the City of London at the cost of the rest of the country. Blair’s neo-imperial warfare fanned the flames of patriotism while rising inequality and failing services made life for ordinary people harder. When those facts became undeniable, it was easier to invoke a grand imperial past, the specter of foreign immigrants, and that perennial bugaboo, the EU, instead of examining the policies that led them there.
To me, that blue sign I mentioned above is the proudest achievement of Europe. A post-national Europe means recovering the pre-national continental heritage and forging it into a continental future. There will be bumps along the road, there will be mistakes but it’s the only feasible future there is.
Britain never understood that idea. It joined late because it feared missing out, but never accepted the basic idea. Now Britain has decided that its future lies elsewhere. It’s a choice at odds with the realities facing the country. A small island in the North Sea, living off the memories of an ignominious past. Not a lot to stake one’s future on.
Michael Niemann is a professor of International Studies at SOU. For 20 years he taught a course on European Integration at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.