27-29 June 2016: I am grateful to The Europeaum for inviting me to the 2016 Estoril Political Forum to participate in a debate on the aftermath of Brexit and its implications for the European Union.
The question at the heart of the debate was this: After the Brexit vote, should the European Union pursue more or less integration? Many of the arguments that were made throughout the debate, including those from the audience, remarked primarily on the predicted economic consequences of Brexit and other practical considerations relevant to the EU’s upcoming strategic planning and integration agenda. All were strong appeals to reason. Yet if there is one thing that the Brexit vote decisively demonstrated (and that we ignore at our own peril) it is that arguments about Europe today are seemingly won not by appealing to the mind, but rather to the heart. My own contribution to the debate (and to the pro-integration position) follows below.
The European project, we would do well to remember, began as a passionate moral imperative to bring lasting peace to Europe. In practice, of course, it has often been uninspiring, manifesting primarily as dry economic cooperation, and the original visionary appeal has withered away under the stifling and lumbering technocratic bureaucracy that the EU has generated over the last several decades. Brexit is a warning that the EU’s losing battle for public opinion might ultimately be fatal, if it cannot deliver an emotionally and ideationally compelling narrative to justify its existence and reinvigorate its purpose. ‘Business as usual’ is no longer an option.
One of the most common indictments of the EU that was repeatedly voiced throughout the Brexit campaign is that the EU merely serves the interests of a privileged international elite while shortchanging the economic interests of ‘ordinary’ Europeans, by which we mean the blue collar. This accusation is not without merit — the post-war neoliberal order has reduced economic inequality between countries, but exacerbated it within them. We are faced with systemic flaws that absolutely need to be acknowledged and overhauled if we want to resuscitate our credibility with the citizens of Europe. I don’t pretend to have the technical expertise to propose the necessary solutions. But EU integration cannot merely be a continuation of what has been — technocratic, obscure, and incomprehensible to large swathes of the European electorate who feel disadvantaged by a programme of institutionalised globalisation that does not facilitate the creation of an autonomous and robust livelihood.
But the integrated trade and alliance system of Bretton Woods and international cooperation that reigns today wasn’t originally calculated to enrich the global elite at the expense of everybody else. European monetary union, as Helmut Kohl used to say, was a matter of ‘war or peace’ for Europe. Many people will scoff that the argument for peace as justification for European integration falls short at this point in our history. But that was also the public mood prior to August 1914. The first decade of the 20th century was also one of relative peace and prosperity brought on by then-unprecedented globalization. In 1910, Sir Ralph Norman Angell went so far as to declare in his book The Great Illusion that economic integration amongst European countries had grown so deep so as to make militarism obsolete and war impossible. The next 40 years must have been a pretty unpleasant surprise.
Today we find ourselves confronted with a sobering sense of déjà vu that we would be remiss and indeed utterly foolish to ignore. European nationalist parties, relegated to obscurity for decades, are enjoying renewed legitimacy and popular support. The continent is witnessing increasing fragmentation, from the euro-ravaged countries of Southern Europe, to autocratic Hungary and now possibly Poland, to the pro-Christian and anti-Islamic sentiment sweeping across Western Europe. Commitment to European unity and cooperation is essential in response to this provincialism and xenophobia, and the mendacious political opportunism behind it. We have already seen what happens when we succumb.
Ultimately, the EU must move both towards greater flexibility and greater integration. These are not mutually exclusive concepts. Flexibility and patience with certain initiatives that lack public support are not anathema to the final goal of a stronger and greater European Union. But, undoubtedly, there are areas of cooperation where integration is vital, for instance in fiscal policy and R&D. Furthermore, European cooperation in foreign policy is more imperative than ever. We find ourselves in a climate of global political contestation where counter-hegemonic actors — both state and non-state — are seeking to undermine the Western institutional legal order. Some are even within our own borders (like Orban’s Hungary). If we care about preserving the values of liberal democracy, a normative tradition that has engendered historically unprecedented human freedom and well-being, we must resist the self-destructive impulses of our own myopia.
The Estoril Political Forum is an international conference organised annually by the Institute for Political Studies at the Catholic University of Portugal together with the International Forum for Democratic Studies, based in in Washington D.C.