National Security & Defense

Cross-Purposes: The Long Road to Brexit

Flags outside the EU Commission building in Brussels (Yves Herman/Reuters)
Last week, Britons voted themselves out of the European Union, but the seeds of Brexit were planted decades ago.

Nothing,” wrote the Duke of Wellington, “except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” The vote for Brexit was a necessary victory. And that it was necessary is a tragedy.

Its origins lay in the fact that many Britons never fully grasped the nature of the European project into which they had been enrolled. They saw it as a trading bloc with extra benefits (and, yes, some annoying costs and meddling regulation). It was a misunderstanding encouraged by those who took the United Kingdom into the “Common Market,” a misunderstanding that left a legacy that bedeviled Britain’s domestic politics and soured the country’s relationship with its European partners.

The entities that evolved into the European Union were inspired by two world wars within a single generation, and they were about a great deal more than trade. Their most important founding fathers (men like Jean Monnet) believed that the nation-state could not be trusted to keep the peace. What was needed was a post-national federation, not exactly the superstate of sometimes fevered euroskeptic imaginations, but something softer, subtler, and, arguably, more insidious. People liked the nation-states they already had; the post-national would have to be built by the post-democratic. As Monnet anticipated, this was a process that would have to be patient, and, often, oblique (“by zig and by zag”), and that’s how it’s turned out. Piece by piece, swaths of domestic policy-making have been transferred to “Brussels,” safely beyond national democratic control.

Monnet recognized that voters in the six founding members (France, West Germany, Holland, Luxemburg, Belgium, and Italy) of what eventually became the EU, countries that had known military defeat and occupation, would be reluctant to jettison their nation-states. What then would be the case with Great Britain, a kingdom comfortable, even too comfortable, with its past?

The most important reason given by 49 percent of those who voted last week to quit the EU was that ‘decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.’

Well, according to one poll, the most important reason given by 49 percent of those who voted last week to quit the EU was that “decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.” That thinking shades, I suspect, into the second-most popular (33 percent) first choice (leaving “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders”) and the third (13 percent): Sticking with Brussels would mean being left with no choice “about how the EU expanded its membership or its powers.” The top reasons why Remainers wanted to stay in the EU were primarily economic. Only 9 percent cited “a strong attachment to the EU and its shared history, culture and traditions.” After more than 40 years in the Brussels club, national still trumped post-national.

Some of those who led the U.K. into what were then the European Communities in 1973 understood their true nature. Others convinced themselves that talk of “ever closer union” was grandiloquent continental verbiage, nothing more. The refusal of the English, wrote George Orwell, “to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time.”

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Despite the best efforts of more erudite opponents of membership, the debate over whether Britain should join and (after the question was put in a 1975 referendum) then stay in the “Common Market” largely revolved, as that misnomer suggests, around trade and the economy, leaving far too much that needed saying unsaid, an omission with consequences. In the 2013 speech in which he agreed to hold his fateful referendum, David Cameron noted how many Britons were asking “why can’t we just have what we voted to join — a common market?” The problem, of course, was that they had, in reality, voted for something that was very much more than that. Forty years later, the memory of what they thought they had voted for still haunted Britain’s political landscape.

People felt, claimed Cameron, “that the EU is heading in a direction that they never signed up to.” It would have been fair to add (although he didn’t) that British politicians had done their bit to set — or at least go along with — that course. For example, Margaret Thatcher helped push the union toward a greater acceptance of economic liberalism. This led to the EU’s Single Market, a major achievement, but it came with a catch, the Single European Act, a new EU treaty that diluted the veto power of individual member states. Mrs. Thatcher believed that the sacrifice of another slice of sovereignty was worth it. Yet again, economic promise trumped political price. The pace of integration duly picked up: No need to zig or to zag on this occasion.

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By the time of her famous speech in Bruges in 1988, the lady was beginning to turn. Brussels was using its expanded powers to pursue an interventionist (and integrationist) agenda that Thatcher did not appreciate. Even so, to reread that speech is to notice that, like so many of her countrymen, she still didn’t get it: “The [European] Community,” she said, was not “an institutional device to be constantly modified according to the dictates of some abstract intellectual concept.” On the contrary, it was, and it always had been — and there was nothing “abstract” about the “intellectual concept” that underpinned it. “Ever closer union” meant what it said.

The Bruges speech (essentially) set in motion the conflict that toppled first Thatcher and, indirectly, her successor, John Major. Trivialized by the media and opposition as an internal squabble, the “Tory Wars” were the result of a serious attempt by some Conservatives to come to grips with where the European project was going. They were at their bloodiest in the aftermath of Major’s signature of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Maastricht turned the European Communities into the European Union and paved the way for the introduction of a single currency. Major negotiated an exemption from any obligation on Britain to sign up for what would become the euro, at least. But he didn’t use his veto power to try to force through a deal that might have carved out a niche for the U.K. that was more realistically aligned to the aspirations of its people. It was a missed opportunity.

Instead the ratchet of ever closer union had turned again — and a Tory government had helped out. Frustrated by all this, a small euroskeptic group reinvented itself as the United Kingdom Independence Party. One of UKIP’s founders was a Thatcherite commodities’ broker named Farage. Few noticed and fewer cared.

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Making matters more difficult for Major, a modernizing Labour party had embraced the EU both as handy post-democratic bulwark against Tory reform and as a branding device: New Labour not Old, united (unlike certain parties) and forward-looking (unlike certain parties). But what Labour had not done — at least to any significant degree — was buy into the integrationist dream. Its interest in the EU was as a cudgel to batter the Tories.

To be sure, Tony Blair was a genuine europhile (he would have taken Britain into the single currency if he could), so it’s perversely appropriate that he accidentally prepared the ground for Brexit, starting with the decision to give the right to work to migrants from the bloc of formerly Communist countries that joined the EU in 2004. Most EU member-states insisted on a transition period. Blair’s Britain did not. The initial estimate was that there would be a net 5–13,000 new arrivals a year. That’s not how it worked out. The cumulative net total is (conservatively) thought to have exceeded 400,000 people between 2004 and 2012, just part of a huge influx of immigrants from elsewhere in the EU and beyond. This played poorly with the U.K.’s working class, and Brussels took the rap. That was partly (I suspect) because — in an era of political correctness — Brits were wary about criticizing immigration from further afield, and partly because the EU’s freedom-of-movement rules meant that EU migrants could only infrequently be turned away. Their numbers were not only large, but, effectively, uncontrollable.

#share#Immigration was the topic that transformed UKIP from (more or a less) a single-issue euroskeptic party to a far more potent force and propelled it into Labour’s old heartlands, territory where it had hitherto rarely been seen. German chancellor Angela Merkel only fueled the fire, whether bungling the migrant crisis last autumn or refusing to cut Cameron some slack on the EU’s immigration rules during his disastrous “renegotiation” earlier this year. The chickens came home to roost on Thursday: Seventy percent of Britain’s skilled working class supported Brexit.

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And it was Merkel who pushed through the Lisbon Treaty as a substitute for the EU constitution that had been rejected by referendums in France and Holland, a brutal reminder that the cause of European integration trumped democracy. Britons had also been promised a referendum on that constitution, but the constitution had been killed off before they could vote. When it was (for all practical purposes) revived in the form of the Lisbon Treaty, Blair’s referendum promise was not. To repeat the message: Ever closer union meant ever less democracy. Walking away from a referendum was also a wasted opportunity: It would have been a relatively (compared with what was to come) low-stakes chance for the U.K. (which could have vetoed the treaty) to consider what it wanted from the EU. Oh well. Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, signed the treaty, seemingly unconcerned that it reduced Britain’s shrinking ability to block additional integration, a fact that forced more euroskeptics into the “out” camp.

Meanwhile, opposition leader David Cameron had reined in Tory grumbling about the EU. A modernized party had to stop “banging on about Europe,” he said. Divided parties lose. Voters were bored with the issue. Euroskepticism gave a bad impression: It was retrograde, nostalgia tainted with poison. To be sure there was UKIP, but they were “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly,” Cameron said — cranks who were not to be taken seriously. As a political tactic, Cameron’s approach made some sense, at least in the short-term (he became prime minister in 2010), but it alienated euroskeptics still further. And there were more of them than in the past, their number boosted by the crisis in the euro zone, a crisis accompanied by the insistence that the only solution was more Europe, not less. It was a demand made all the more alarming by the British eurofundamentalists who claimed that there could still come a time when the U.K. might adopt the single currency. Britain had its safeguards against that, but would they survive the election of a europhile government?

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In 2012 Jacques Delors, one of the European Union’s most distinguished senior statesmen, appeared to accept that Britain and its partners would never agree on what the EU should be. He floated the suggestion that “if the British cannot support the trend towards more integration in Europe, we can nevertheless remain friends, but on a different basis.” He could imagine, he said, “a form such as a European economic area or a free-trade agreement,” and as Conservative MEP Dan Hannan recalled last week, it was not the only such deal being touted. Finally, Brussels was signaling its willingness to try to solve its “British problem” in a constructive and innovative way.

Cameron should have jumped at the opportunity — a get-out-of-jail-free card if ever there was one — but this surprisingly unimaginative politician still believed he could play the game by the old rules, throwing a few scraps to the euroskeptic rabble at home, while continuing with business as usual in Brussels. He even neglected the chance to wring a few concessions out of Britain’s EU partners in exchange for agreeing to a change in the Lisbon Treaty prompted by the euro-zone crisis.

He was wrong to be so complacent. Euroskeptic attitudes were hardening in Britain and with UKIP on the rise, euroskeptics had somewhere to turn. Indeed, it was to head off the UKIP threat to the Tory vote that Cameron committed to the referendum he had never wanted — a referendum he could quite possibly have junked in the event of a renewed coalition government with the eurofundamentalist Liberal Democrats after the 2015 election. But remarkably, the Conservatives won an outright majority. The referendum couldn’t be dodged.

#related#Then Cameron blew his last best chance. The threat of a pending in/out referendum ought to have given him the leverage to cut a better EU deal for Britain. After all, he presided over the union’s second-largest economy and the U.K. made the third-largest contribution to the EU budget. But his much-vaunted “renegotiation” failed to secure any significant changes. Perhaps, thinking like almost everyone else (including me) that the Brexiteers had no chance of winning, Cameron didn’t press the EU hard enough. Perhaps the EU’s leadership, confident that they too had little to risk, felt that they could get away with tossing no more than a few crumbs London’s way. Or, perhaps, realizing that the Brits would always stand in the way of ever closer union, they no longer cared.

Whatever the reason, Cameron was left with a renegotiation that proved the EU would concede no more to Britain. The rest is history.