The great EU power trap

Having influence in a powerful European Union means giving it much more power over us

Soon after the date for the EU referendum was set, Timothy Garton Ash published a piece in this magazine under the title ‘A conservative case for staying in’. He was followed by Ian Buruma, attacking the idea that, having left the EU, the British would be more free. And then, after the Obama visit to London, there was Anne Applebaum, assuring us that the US had ‘excellent reasons’ for being opposed to Brexit.

We are warned about the possible effect of Brexit on the ‘crisis-torn’ EU, and told that we should not let Europe ‘collapse into protectionism and authoritarianism’, lest it fall prey to ‘disintegration, national hostilities, xenophobia and illiberalism’. The current crisis may be a rather short-term basis on which to decide one’s vote on such a long-term issue, but never mind. Such harping on present dangers raises the obvious question: if this rickety building is under such dangerous stresses and strains, wouldn’t we be safer standing outside it?

Tim Garton Ash replies that withdrawal is not an option for Britain, because throughout our history we have been ‘ineluctably drawn in to the travails of a troubled continent’. This is a common argument among historians: that the British have always needed to protect their strategic interests in continental Europe. But in the past those interests have been ‘strategic’ more or less in the military sense of the term, as we have intervened to curb a hegemonic power — France or Germany — that could threaten us with a blockade or an invasion. Does anyone really imagine that we face such a danger from any western European power today?

Even if that historical argument were valid now, those who wield it would need to explain why the best or perhaps the only way for the UK to defend its strategic interests in Europe is to submit to a European supranational government. Non-membership of the EU does not equal ‘isolationism’. It is surely possible that an independent UK, active on the world stage and remaining a strong member of Nato, would be better placed to defend its long-term interests on the Continent than one which is increasingly obliged to do as European policy–makers say.

It seems deliciously easy to suppose that a united bloc of 28 countries, with 508 million inhabitants, will be a super-powerful force on the world stage. Yet super-power can have super effects only when it is directed at coherent policy goals — which the EU struggles, and often fails, to agree on. The problem here is built into the very nature of the organisation. On many important issues, unanimity among so many countries with very different interests is simply impossible; and when agreement is lacking, the result is a kind of auto-paralysis, where decisive action is ruled out.

For me, the most important issue is the one that flows directly from these problems: the loss of democracy. This huge artificial structure would indeed be paralysed if all decisions required unanimity. But once our laws and policies are made by EU majority voting, we begin to sacrifice the most precious thing of all: the principle that those who make our laws and rule us are chosen by us, and can be removed by us. European elections, and tinkering with the so-called democratic deficit in Brussels, are entirely beside the point here, as the EU is not, for any of its member populations, the primary political community, the ‘demos’ on which genuine democracy is based.

Most advocates of a Remain vote simply ignore this issue. Some contrive to suggest that it is just a matter of accepting technical regulations for the single market — whereas the range of EU law-making does in fact go much further than that. And some like to imply that if people do not want to put themselves under a supranational government, they must be harking back to a nostalgic (and probably right-wing) concept of ‘sovereignty’ which has no validity in the modern world.

Full article: The great EU power trap (The Spectator)

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