The smoke is beginning to clear. Some of the main outlines of the post-Brexit world are beginning to emerge. Markets have recovered from their immediate plunge. British politics have begun to stabilize. Life continues, as the French say.
The decision of British prime minister David Cameron to leave office in the near future triggered a succession crisis in his governing Conservative party. At this point, the leading contender to succeed him appears to be Theresa May, currently Britain’s long-serving home secretary. May, who was herself opposed to Brexit, has pledged to honor the vote of the country’s majority if she becomes prime minister. She insists that there will not be another referendum, as some die-hard opponents of Brexit have demanded. Nor will there be a General Election, which would be tantamount to a second vote.
To us, this seems to be exactly how democratic politics should work, once a national referendum has been called. Any other course, including a general election, would tarnish the democratic credentials of Parliament. After a protracted debate in the U.K., the majority in favor of exiting the EU (52 percent), while not overwhelming, was clear and convincing. And the turnout (72 percent) was high. That is a mandate to leave.
But looking further out, does the Brexit vote portend the disintegration of the EU? And would that undermine the peace and prosperity of Europe and the world? We’ve already written about this at NRO, and we’ve argued that the answer to both is “no.” But others whose opinions we respect, including Charles Krauthammer, seem to disagree. So let’s reconsider.
Outgoing prime minister Cameron argued that the key issue in Brexit voters’ minds was not so much the EU itself as the immigration policies that go with it. British voters would probably have wished to remain in the EU if that had meant only the free movement of goods and capital across national borders. But the EU also requires the free movement of nationals of member states across internal boundaries. And that was the sticking point for both the pro-Brexit voters and the EU leadership.
German chancellor Merkel has indicated that she will not bend on that point, even if it has resulted in forcing the U.K. out of the EU, even if it inflicts tremendous harm on German exporters, and even though a compromise would seem well within reach. (One compromise might allow Britain to have some form of immigration controls, perhaps a skills-based point system, to reduce the flow of unskilled workers from EU states in eastern and central Europe.)
Why this German intransigence? We think the answer lies in the fact that the EU project since 1991 has been primarily political in nature, not economic. And therein is the crucial error of Krauthammer and others. The post-1991 EU is not merely a common market or free-trade zone, the economic complement of NATO. Rather, the EU project has become an exercise in state formation.
The Post-1991 EU Project
Lord Ismay once stated that the object of NATO was to keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in. After 1989, with the collapse of Soviet Communism, keeping the Russians out no longer seemed to be a problem. So, it appears, the European elites considered that there was no longer any need to keep the Americans in, either. The Europeans could be the masters of their own house again. They could take what had essentially been just a continental common market and make it into a continental political project. Then they could compete hand to hand with the Americans. They could demonstrate the power and attractiveness of a purely European model. They could restore Europe’s vanished place in the world. They could, in short, gratify their nostalgia for the days when Europe played a leading global role. So the EU political project begins with the Maastricht Treaty, which was drafted in 1991, just two years after the fall of Communism.
Further, the reconstituted EU was intended to be a project that would still keep the Germans down, though in a nice way. Indeed, the German elites, who so transparently mistrust their own people, have waxed particularly enthusiastic for the EU because they think it will have precisely that effect: They want their own people to live in a straitjacket.
The View from the United States
But why did the Americans go along with this project, which after all might have created a powerful competitor for us? First, we probably could not have done much to stop it anyway. Second, American global hegemony has rested not only on force of arms but also on trade and culture, to build an ordered, peaceful world. The new EU project seemed consistent with both our goals and our methods.
For the past quarter century, the EU has been unable or unwilling to accommodate its own citizens’ demands for pluralism and democracy.
Most of all, however, the post-1991 EU seemed consistent with the United States’ basic, century-long strategic policy toward Europe, which was to prevent any single rival, Germany or Russia especially, from dominating the Continent. As Cambridge University historian Brendan Simms argued in his brilliant book Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy from 1453 to the Present (2014), the major European wars over the past 500 years have ultimately been about control of Germany. Whoever controls Germany, dominates Europe and so, perhaps, the world. Spanish, French, and Russian attempts to assert control over Germany have all been beaten back (in the last case, by us) for half a millennium.
But neither could Germany be allowed to be united and self-governing, because then it might dominate the Continent. That is why the Americans fought two world wars in Europe. Our war in Asia had a similar objective: preventing a single nation, Japan, from dominating continental East Asia.
From the American point of view, the post-1991 EU was a neat path to the strategic goal of preventing the rise of a single hegemonic power on the Continent. Germany would be safely encased in Europe. The German Gulliver would be tied down by Dutch, Italian, Belgian (etc.) Lilliputians. Europe would have to work in a slow, consensual way.
It hasn’t work out that way — hence the desperate, existential crisis in the EU. For the past quarter century, the EU has been unable or unwilling to accommodate its own citizens’ demands for pluralism and democracy. Of late, the EU has also been unable to provide for robust but also inclusive economic growth. And Germany’s asylum policy under Merkel undermines the elite project of fabricating a common, “European” identity out of disparate national identities.
Yet instead of recalibrating their objectives, scaling down, and making essential changes, the EU elites are digging in. They have forced British and other dissenters to make a stark choice between Leave and Remain, when the best answer would be Reform and Restructure. Thus, rather than being a force for peace within Europe and abroad, some pro-EU leaders are now in danger of destabilizing that peace.
An EU Army?
The post-1991 EU project is fundamentally one of state formation. The EU already has much of the outer form of a government: a flag, an anthem, a parliament, courts, a form of executive, and an administrative bureaucracy. But to be a state, it must have a military. Hence arises the scheme — which the EU leadership does not openly acknowledge — of creating an EU Army.
#related#The EU leadership has just produced a white paper titled “Shared Vision, Common Action.” It has plainly been in the works for months but was deliberately withheld until mere days after the Brexit vote. It does not call for an EU army, but it would create the nucleus of one. The purpose of that army would not be to complement NATO but eventually to displace it.
Why does the EU need its own army, when NATO forces have successfully defended Europe’s peace and prosperity for almost seven decades? One may well wonder. But our guess is that the EU elites consider this immensely expensive, potentially destabilizing exercise necessary in order to drive out the Americans, finally and decisively — even at the risk of drawing the Russians back in, indeed even at the risk of no longer keeping the Germans down.
And, from the point of view of some pro-EU advocates, if the U.K. has been forced to exit the EU, so much the better. It was only a Trojan horse for the Americans anyway.