Shortly after the results of the Brexit referendum were declared and Mr. Cameron resigned as Prime Minister, the French newspaper, Le Figaro, published a little cartoon. Two French peasants are looking across the Channel towards England, and one says to the other (or words to this effect), “They do things differently over there. They pay attention to referendum results.”
Well, yes and no. There is little doubt that a large part of the political class, the upper bureaucracy and the intelligentsia did their very best to prevent, or at least obstruct, Britain’s departure from the European Union. The Prime Minister who followed Mr. Cameron, Mrs. May, was herself in favour of remaining, and yet she was put in charge of the negotiations on the British side. This was like putting an ardent pacifist in charge of an army, and indeed she managed to negotiate a deal that (from the British point of view) was the worst of both worlds.
It should have been obvious from the first that Brexit was an existential question for the European Union, as well as for Britain, of course. If Britain prospered, or simply failed to suffer greatly, after Brexit, this would have been a disaster for the European Union, in the populations of which there was significant and growing scepticism of or opposition to the “European Project” (it is the only project I know whose end is never stated, though I suspect it is a superstate in whose administration politics in the normal sense of elections, appeals to public opinion, etc., are not to be allowed to intrude). An example had to be made, and in effect has been made. No other member state will want to go through what Britain has gone through these last four years. The light must not be worth the candle.
Professor Bogdanor’s very lucid and well-written account of the road to Brexit fails to mention this, though I should have thought it was obvious. He does mention, however, that after the referendum in Britain, President Macron of France said that if a similar referendum had been held in France, it might have yielded the same result, or worse. This, of course, only proved to him how urgent it was to press on in the same direction: towards what Thomas Sowell would no doubt call the vision of the anointed, among whom he was numbered.
Whatever else the European project was meant to be, it was never meant to be very democratic. Its deus ex machina, Jean Monnet, was quite clear abut this: the plebe was neither intelligent or informed enough to decide its own fate, at least as regards high politics. It would be dishonest to say that such thoughts never run through the heads of the more intelligent sector of the population in respect of the less intelligent; you have only to walk down the street to see that the voice of the people is hardly that of God. How many people, for example, know what the interest rate should be (assuming, that is, that there is a correct answer), or even what factors should be taken into account when assessing it? But few highly intelligent people would put their night thoughts into practice, and simply say, “We should rule because we are the most intelligent and know best.”
Professor Bogdanor is very good in his delineation of the reasons why Britain joined what was then the European Economic Community, and its relations with it and the successor European Union afterwards. At the end of the Second World War, though victorious, the country was enfeebled; its political class took many years to realise just how enfeebled. Actually, British decline had set in long before. Although it was not an agricultural country, and imported half its food, it ceased to be an advanced industrial one either, for reasons which are no doubt complex but a mention of which might have added depth to this book.
As Dean Acheson famously said, Britain had lost an empire and not found a role. It tried to hang on to a power that it no longer had the means to support. Joining the EEC was simply faute de mieux, an admission of a slow crumbling defeat, the best analogy, perhaps, being with that of Spain in the 17th century. De Gaulle had very good reasons for vetoing Britain’s first application to join, and if the British had listened to him—he was more lucid about the country’s conditions and interests than any of its own leaders—they would not have renewed their application to join. As it happened, they did join just as the boom years of the post-war reconstruction were coming to an end, in part because of the oil shock, and Europe was in the process of becoming the slowest-growing region of the world. With an execrable timing that now seems to be the particular gift of the British political class, Britain – having wasted four years on negotiations leading nowhere—is now leaving at a time of maximal uncertainty and disruption.
Professor Bogdanor tells us that the European project was one of peace, and no doubt, after the second catastrophic war within the space of half a century, this is in part so, at least originally. No one could possibly have wanted yet another Franco-German conflict. But it does not in the least mean that the subsequent peace in Europe was caused by the European project. Other factors were surely far more important, indeed decisive.
First, of course, was the fact that Europe was in no condition 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 genuinely changed. There was no revanchisme to speak of in Germany, as there had been after the first war. Moreover, to the east was the looming presence of what in the 19th century was called the Russian steamroller, only infinitely worse than that of the time of Alexander I and Nicholas I, with a barbaric ideology that at the time attracted the allegiance of a considerable proportion of the population, especially of that part of it—the intelligentsia—that ought to have known better. Only American power prevented the steamroller from rolling west, and thereby kept the peace in Europe.
Even if the maintenance of peace was one of the original aims of the European project, this is a very weaselly way of putting it. Even without the European Union, Estonia would not attack Portugal, nor would Belgium attack Slovakia. What is meant by keeping the peace is ensuring that Germany does not again attack France (no one thinks that France would attack Germany): in other words, and to put it crudely, without the European Union people thought—even Germans themselves—that Germany would be up to its old tricks again. I do not believe this.
Those in Britain who supported Brexit are often accused of nostalgia for a past in which the country was powerful, but I do not think this nostalgia, if it ever existed at all, was very widespread. One might well say that nostalgia, on the part of France, was and is a driving force in the European Union, since it is only by union with Germany than France can aspire to a semi-Napoleonic role in Europe.
The irony is, of course, that Germany is once again by far the strongest power on the continent. Its interests are complex and no doubt contradictory: it wants the rest of Europe to continue to import its goods, but it does not want to fund, or mutualise, the debts that allow it to do so. The southern countries would like to either to mutualise the debts, or inflate them away by debasing the currency, but Germany will allow neither of these solutions to the imbalances within Europe. There would be no better way to re-awake German nationalism than follow the prescriptions of the southern nations; on the other hand, resentment of Germany will grow if they are not followed.
The author acknowledges the problems within Europe in his last chapter, up till which he has treated Europe as if it were one big happy family with a population gaily marching in unison behind its leadership. The truth is quite otherwise, which is why an example must be made of Britain. But the likelihood is that the more integration there is, the greater will be the tensions, both between and within countries. There is a class within countries that benefits mightily from the present arrangements, which in my opinion explains the paradox of Catalan, Flemish, and Scottish nationalism: for all these nationalisms are firm adherents to the ideal of European Union, namely a dilution of national sovereignty even greater than that which their nations already possess. Again to put it crudely, the leadership of these movements want their place not in the sun, but at the trough. They are pied pipers to their populations.
The book ends by quoting that old Mephistophelian, François Mitterand, to the effect that “Nationalism means war.” And of course this is true if by nationalism is meant an exaggerated and militant love of one’s own country and a hatred of, or disdain for, all other countries, particularly neighbouring ones. Yet at the same time, nation states—at least some of them—have been the only large-scale states able durably to protect the freedom of their populations. Moreover, 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 to hold it together. As José Manuel Barroso, once President of the European Commission, former Maoist student leader and then Goldman Sachs executive (the thirst for power being the golden thread that runs through this diverse career) put it, Europe—using the word to mean the European Union, which is now more or less standard—is an empire, though of a new kind.
Perhaps not so new, in fact: a kind of Habsburg Empire without the charm and aesthetic sensibility. From the right it is attacked as a socialist enterprise, from the left as a neo-liberal one: corporatist is the word for it, that happy union between regulatory bureaucracy and large corporations.
Anybody who wants a short introduction to the history of the European Union, Britain’s relationship to it, and its current problems, cannot do better than read this book, lucid if not always as sharply drawn as it might be. It is at least an antidote to utopianism from whichever direction.