The outcome of the Brexit vote in June 2016 was clearly an historic moment. Despite the predictions of some early UK polls, the population of the United Kingdom voted to part ways with the European Union. And Theresa May, Britain’s new prime minister, has said that there will not be a second referendum on her country’s membership in the bloc — with polling suggesting that most Britons don’t want a second referendum, either. In other words, the matter has been settled. Although it will likely take a few years for Britain to officially be outside the European Union, this will eventually happen — barring any surprising event that turns the tide.
Of course, the question on everyone’s mind continues to be: Will this trigger a domino effect? Will a Frexit someday follow? Or a Spexit, Denxit, etc.? The answers to such questions are of great importance to the bureaucrats who run the European Union — and to the people living in Europe. And the way they will act, as well as the conclusions they draw from last summer’s British vote, will determine if the British thread is the one that eventually leads to the unravelling of the 28-member bloc.
Take a mental journey back to Western Europe in the early post-war years. Although not as devastated as northeastern Europe, the western half of the continent had also experienced its share of suffering and had seen war destroy its industries. The horrible atrocities that took place during the Second World War — the bloodiest conflict in human history — made pan-European cooperation seem like a pipe dream. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was rapidly expanding its sphere of influence, making Europeans nervously wonder if, after getting rid of one tyrant with a moustache, they would soon be ruled by another one.
In such a situation of undoubted crisis, the European project was born. In fact, Italian, French, and German statesmen like Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, and Konrad Adenauer were fundamentally inspired by the Christian notion of forgiveness, and thus invited the Germans to re-join the European community of nations. They established a ‘European Community’, beginning as everyone knows with the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, followed by the Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957 by West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
This was a European Community — not a union — based on the principle of subsidiarity. That principle, established by Thomas Aquinas and popularized by Pope Leo XIII, suggests that policy problems can be best solved at the most local level where there is suitable knowledge for solutions. It assumes that no one central authority has access to all the necessary information needed to make informed decisions — Hayek’s “dispersed knowledge” problem — and suggests that the determination of the appropriate level for solutions is not top-down but works sequentially from the bottom up.
The keyword in all this was ‘cooperation’ not domination. The western European participants in this project thus worked to establish free trade, rebuild the war-ravaged economies of the Continent, and counter the growing Soviet menace.
If Alcide de Gasperi or Robert Schuman could learn what eventually became of their project, they would likely be shocked. After the Treaty of Maastricht, which established the European Union, and the Lisbon Treaty, which subordinated national legislation to European laws, the European project has begun to reflect more the interests of a clique of out-of-touch bureaucrats in Brussels than of the populations they are supposed to represent. Today, as has been so widely documented, the European Union meddles into every aspect of its member states’ public lives — from how many migrants they should accept to how much carbon dioxide they are allowed to emit to the pettiest matters.
Additionally, the European Union wasn’t even entirely true to its name, as the government of Germany has increasingly used the EU to exercise its hegemony over the continent and mould the policies of its member states to reflect its own interests. Witness: the European Central Bank, based in Frankfurt or the EU’s migrant policy overwhelmingly being dictated by Angela Merkel, despite the strong objections of many member states (especially those in the former communist bloc, such as Poland and Hungary). One would be tempted to say that, in a way, the days of Charlemagne are back (minus the great flourishing of Christian culture).
Without a doubt, no nation likes to be treated like a child, and this has provoked a growing backlash in almost all the European lands. Last year, the British people simply reached their limit and said: “Enough!” Incessant meddling from Brussels was just too much for feisty Britons.
It’s worth noting that one of the main arguments used by the opponents of Brexit was economic. Leaving the European Union, they argued, would likely throw Britain into a recession. Yet British opponents of the European Union were undeterred. For them, the notion of national sovereignty was more cherished than simple material or commercial interests.
In this way, Brexit challenged the axiom 12 Summer 2017 prevalent in the social sciences that voters are motivated primarily by their economic interests. Such demands for national sovereignty will only grow. From Scotland to Catalonia, pro-independence nationalist movements are surging across Europe. And in this age of increasing assertiveness for greater sovereignty, such movements simply cannot bode well for the European Union — at least in the form created by the Treaty of Maastricht. Meanwhile, there are a growing number of governments — on both sides of the ideological divide — across Europe that are pro-EU yet simply won’t let themselves become colonies of Brussels.
One excellent example of this is the centre-right, Christian democratic government of Viktor Orbán in Hungary. He has frequently clashed with EU bureaucrats, both on the migrant issue and on internal matters. Yet Orbán is officially pro-EU. In late 2016, Hungary’s economy minister even said that his country wanted to adopt the euro as its national currency by 2020.
Eventually, however, Hungary’s patience will reach its limit, as will that of Poland and Greece, two other pro-EU countries unwilling to be ‘walked on a leash’ by Brussels. They could easily go the way of the Czech Republic, for whom joining the EU was a matter of utmost pride, as a post-communist state, in 2004. Yet today the country is one of the most Euro-sceptic. If there is Brexit-like scenario in another European country in the near future, a likely first candidate could thus be the ‘Czexit’.
If the European Union does nothing to return to its federalist roots, then the successful Brexit vote will likely end up being the first domino in a long protracted process that could ultimately obliterate the European Union. Rather than making cosmetic changes, as it usually does, the EU must return to the idea of being a ‘community’ — not a bureaucratic juggernaut threatening national sovereignty. Brexit should have been a wake-up call, but more than a year later most bureaucrats seem to have missed the message. And emboldened by the defeat of anti-EU parties in Austria and France, the political elites seem to have been assured that nothing really needs to change; all that they need to do is fight off the occasional threats from what they see as the populist extreme right.
The European project is certainly something worth pursuing. Free trade among nations always brings economic benefits. But today, there are growing external threats that also require a united front. Russia is increasingly aggressive, for example, and its invasion of Ukraine should be a warning to Europe. Meanwhile, it seems that hardly a week or two goes by without learning of another terrorist attack, usually perpetrated by recent immigrant or, what’s worse perhaps, a radicalized European-born son of migrants.
In light of all these growing threats, Europe should be united, both internally and externally. However, at the same time, Brexit and the growing Euro-sceptic voices across the Continent should serve as signs that a united Europe must seriously re-evaluate its proper role.
If the European Union continues simply to be a bureaucratic monster that increasingly strangles the liberty of its member states in regulatory red tape, then the outcome is clear: It won’t collapse because of a sovereign debt crisis — but rather because of millions of angry voters at ballot boxes located from Lisbon to Tallinn. Time will tell.