WASHINGTON – For the outside world, the current political debate within Great Britain about staying in the European Union, EU, or leaving, depending on the outcome of a June referendum, looks like arcane stuff, and probably not that interesting. Another strange internal European thing that foreigners, and Americans in particular, do not understand much, and frankly do not care that much about.
What difference does it make?
In the end, what difference does it make to America if Britain, a much diminished second rate power, belongs or does not belong to an assorted group of medium, mediocre, and poor European countries tied together by a complicated web of trade agreements?
Well, it probably does not make a huge difference to Americans.
Failure of the “Idea of Europe”
But this issue matters in Europe. And I am not referring here to the ripple effects of a British Exit, or “Brexit”, when it comes to trade between the UK and the rest of the EU, or the possible consequences on the City of London as a key global financial center, should Britain begin to operate outside EU banking and securities rules.
No, I am referring to something else. I am referring to this. The very fact that Britain is openly debating whether or not it is good for the country to stay in the European Union attest to the failure of the “Idea of Europe”.
The unfulfilled promise of a “European Union”
The very denomination “European Union” suggests a relevant and powerful new entity that is and will be involved in a lot more than agricultural subsidies and regulating the allowable size and shape of vegetables.
True, from the other side of the Atlantic, the EU looks mostly like an over complicated, and rather cumbersome arrangement among under performing economies, run by bureaucrats who seem intent on regulating everything.
A Big Project
But, in Europe, the expression “European Union” is supposed to have a strong meaning. In Europe, at least for some, the European Union is an unfolding “Big Project”. It is the plan to progressively unify almost 30 countries, eventually creating a United European Super State, (or something close to that), so that the new entity would be much more relevant than the sum of its individual parts, (the member states).
And this Big Project supposedly is the pull factor attracting so many applicants. The EU is the future; and they want to be part of it.
Well, this is the official, or semi-official narrative.
Lack of shared strategies
In practice, the picture is far less attractive. Cohesion and solidarity, let alone unity of purpose among members, is rather low. Getting to an agreement on practically anything within the EU involves an immensely laborious process aimed at reaching a consensus among almost 30 governments.
And when the focus is on major policy choices, common strategies, the EU members find watered down unity at the lowest possible common denominator. In simple terms, this means that whatever the EU declares, nobody listens to it, because it is usually just empty rhetoric.
Right now the EU is trying, with little success, to forge a common policy to face a major refugee and immigration crisis triggered in part by the civil war in Syria. It is obvious that there is very little common ground among member states.
Furthermore, there is no discernible European foreign policy; let alone security policies based on a genuine consensus on external threats and appropriate countermeasures. Threat perception in Portugal is not the same as threat perception in Greece or Poland.
Europe is not irrelevant
Do not get me wrong. I am not suggesting that the EU is inconsequential across the board. On matters of global trade, anti-trust, financial arrangements, and a lot more the EU is very consequential. And for foreign investors and exporters into the EU, the harmonization of rules within the EU, plus the existence of a pan-European market where the same norms are applied across almost 30 countries, from Finland to Croatia, is a major advantage.
No European Identity
Still, all this notwithstanding, the EU failed in its ultimate goal: the creation of a genuine “European Identity” that successfully replaced or will soon replace national identities. If this shift had been accomplished, then the issue of Britain leaving Europe would have never come up. Nobody would want to leave a new Super State that all citizens strongly identify with and that brought about so many advantages to all its members.
What will Britain do?
And yet, the debate about leaving the EU is going on in Great Britain. In June there will be a referendum that will allow voters to settle this issue. My hunch is that eventually the British people will decide to stay in the EU.
Still, the very fact that no one dares to predict the outcome of this referendum is an indication that Britain is deeply divided on an issue that should have been settled decades ago. Other countries that are not planning any “In or Out” vote are also deeply divided on whether EU membership is a good thing or not. (Think of Poland, Denmark, Greece, and to a lesser extent France and Italy).
EU will survive; but it will stay weak
Here is the thing. With or without Britain, the complex inter-governmental arrangements that make up the European Union will survive.
But Europe will continue to be a rather weak hybrid in which some components of national sovereignty have been delegated to EU functionaries in Brussels, while others remain under the control of national political authorities. All these competing authorities and jurisdictions created a recipe for confusion and weakness.
With or without quarrelsome Britain, forget about a strong Federal Europe. And, most of all, forget about a strong Europe playing a decisive role in world affairs. If the Europeans do not believe that much in Europe, why should the rest of the world take the EU seriously?