As the United Kingdom inches perilously closer to a ‘no deal’ Brexit, Frank Armstrong recalls the European Union’s origins as an antidote to destructive and ill-conceived nationalism, which tore the continent apart for thirty years between 1914 and 1945. He argues that explanations for British exceptionalism should not be reduced to post-imperialist delusions, instead highlighting a long-standing failure to make adequate provision for post-industrial ‘rust belts’, regions witnessing a recrudescence of nationalism right across the continent. He also interprets Brexit as a product of competing nationalistic forces within the U.K., proposing the E.U. should avoid an acrimonious separation, and leave the door ajar for a return. Finally, he identifies necessary reforms to the E.U. Treaty to avoid the very real possibility of a ‘Brexit Domino Effect’ threatening the wider union.
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914 British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey wrote in a letter to a friend: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.’[i] Grey’s foreboding ran contrary to the dominant ‘it’ll be over by Christmas’ view. From that war’s outbreak the continent descended into thirty years of almost continuous violence and instability – with non-combatant civilians often victims of collective punishment.
At the Paris Peace Conferences in 1919 ascendant ‘Wilsonian’ ideas of democracy and self-determination swept away multicultural empires, (Hapsburg-Austrian, Hohenzollern-German, Romanov-Russian and even Ottoman-Turkish) which for centuries accommodated multiple ethno-linguistic ‘nationalities’, ruled by a transnational aristocratic caste.
Cobbling together states based on often plastic identities proved problematic almost everywhere, however, as dispersals of nationalities rarely cohered with distinct geographic frontiers. Moreover, many nations possessed insufficient populations to make up viable sovereign entities, engendering dual- (Czechoslovakia[ii]) and multiple- (Yugoslavia) nation-states. Meanwhile, in violation of ‘Wilsonian’ principles of self-determination, the Peacemakers prohibited any unification between Germany and German-speaking Austria.
Throughout the inter-war years, across Europe, a significant challenge for many governments lay in accommodating German minorities – the volksdeutsche that had settled in Central and Eastern Europe over the course of the Middle Ages – but also others such as Hungarians living beyond their rump state. This poisoned relations between newly emerged countries from the outset, while embedding seemingly implacably hostile minorities within states such as Czechoslovakia, and others.
Establishing what Benedict Anderson referred to as the ‘imagined community’[iii] of the nation as the basis for a state, also elevated racial notions of a single volk, or people, with ‘blood’ attachments to a particular territory. This further estranged widely scattered, and linguistically heterogeneous, Jewish communities – without a state of their own or any prospect of creating one in Europe – from dominant national groups. Jews became convenient scapegoats, characterised as either bloodsucking-capitalist-Rothschilds, or transnational-Communist-ideologues, depending on political expediency.
The U.K. was among the few European countries where anti-Semitism was not rife in this period. Indeed, with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British Empire committed to ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine, to the consternation of its indigenous population. By the 1920s, however, the British were confronting a distinct fraying of imperial bonds (or really bondage), beginning with the concession of Dominion Status to the recalcitrant Irish in 1921, and threatening the ‘Jewel in the Crown’, India, which finally gained independence in 1946.
A Community to End all Wars
By 1945 World War II had stained the continent with the blood of almost fifty million. Nazi, and to a lesser extent Soviet and other states’, Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide introduced greater ‘national’ homogeneity, with Jews the main victims, but also most of the volksdeutsche were often brutally corralled into the two German states that emerged in the wake of the thirty year conflagration.
As Europeans drew breath many – including Winston Churchill who coined the term a ‘United States of Europe’[iv] – identified the need for a political entity to safeguard what would have seemed a fragile peace, and confront the encroachment of the Soviet Union – and even the United States. The experience of total war brought by nationalist excesses proved cathartic.
The European Community, proceeding from the European Coal and Steel Pact of 1951, and culminating in the Treaty of Rome in 1957, might reasonably be held up as the most successful peace process in history, coinciding with, if not incubating, an epoch of unprecedented stability and prosperity for Western Europe at least. Establishing close economic ties could, in the words of French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, ‘make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible.’[v]
Seemingly irreconcilable French and Germans, especially, found common cause in rebuilding their countries and raising the standard of living – with the assistance from the United States through the Marshall Plan. A nascent supranational identity eroded the dominant idea of the nation – along with its implicit racial ideas of a distinctive volk – although any pan-European identity relied more on rational construction than emotional identification.
Vitally, a hybrid ‘social market’ – an accommodation between capitalism and socialism that emerged across post-war Europe – brought, or coincided with, the so-called ‘Miracle on the Rhine’, or Wirtschaftswunder (‘post-war economic miracle’) in Germany, Les Trente Glorieuses (1946-75) in France and Il Miracolo Economico to Italy. Affection for the European project was nourished by the rising living standards of a substantial majority across Western Europe.
Under conditions where individual states, in general, sheltered citizens from ‘cradle to grave’ from naked market forces, the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, a Common Market – the defining feature of European Law – worked to the benefit of the majority; at least until the oil shocks of the mid-1970s brought that sustained period of broad-based development to a close, jeopardising an unspoken European social contract.
The one notable Western European democracy that declined to sign the Treaty of Rome was the U.K.. This ensured the organisation’s legal system was based on the Civil Law tradition of France rather than British Common Law, or a hybrid of both. Importantly also, Charles de Gaulle’s ‘non’ to British membership in 1967, reinforced British exceptionalism: a sense that they were of Europe but not from Europe – an island apart from the continent belonging to an Anglo- or Atlantic- sphere. Thus, when Britain (and Ireland) finally acceded to membership in 1973 it joined an institution whose still recognisable form had already crystallized, and at a less economically dynamic stage in European history.
Left and Right Opposition
It is commonly assumed that, from the outset and beyond, it has been the U.K.’s idea of itself as a global Empire that brought aloofness from the European Community.[vi] In fact, a succession of post-war Tory leaders including Winston Churchill, Harold MacMillan, Edward Health, John Major – if not Anthony Eden and Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron and Theresa May to the same extent – have been decidedly pro-European, viewing what became the European Union in 1992 as a guarantor of free trade on the continent. Even the current Tory Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, famously vacillated before urging a ‘leave’ vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum.[vii]
On the other hand, the Community was initially identified by many on the left in Britain as a Capitalist club, working to the detriment of workers, in cahoots with Uncle Sam. Thus the U.K.’s Post-War Labour government declined an invitation to join the European Coal and Steel Pact in 1951. In response Churchill, then still Tory leader, inveighed against the decision in front of the House of Commons, maintaining that ‘The whole movement of the world is towards an interdependence of nations.’[viii]
Indeed, from the outset, across Europe, the main opposition to the Community emanated from the radical left, Communist Party and others. But as long as states provided adequately for needy citizens agitation against the Community remained marginal. In the U.K.’s case, the ‘Bennite’[ix] wing of the Labour Party led opposition to membership in 1973, an enduring standpoint in the Party – albeit prominent ‘Bennites’ such as Shadow Chancellor John McDonald now advocate another referendum and a ‘remain’ vote.
Importantly, the Community’s defining liberalism does not extend to the treatment of the agricultural sector, long protected through trade tariffs and embargos from cheaper exports imports from beyond the continent. To an extent this contradiction was the basis of the Community itself – offering French farmers German prices for their produce brought (or bought) necessary electoral support, as well as guarding against dependence on imports from beyond the continent in the event of another world war.
The effect has been to preserve millions of small- and medium-sized farms that would otherwise have become commercially unviable. Controversially, however, the Common Agricultural Policy used to suck up to two-thirds of the Community’s budget, and still accounted for almost forty percent in 2018.[x] Moreover, the subsidy regime has proved regressive, rewarding wealthy, including super-wealthy, landowners,[xi] and is insufficiently attentive to the environmental damage of farming systems, including traditional pastoralism that prevents necessary re-afforestation and re-wilding.
In contrast, the populations of post-industrial regions – ‘rust belts’ – such as the North and Midlands of England, north-east France and elsewhere, have been given little European assistance since much heavy industry has pulled out. Historically these areas offered staunch support for left-wing parties, but loyalties have shifted in recent times, with UKIP and the Brexit Party, as well as the French National Front in particular, gaining traction among working class voters.
The expansion of the Union into Eastern and Central Europe in the 1990s has also worked to the detriment of these regions, with increased competition for employment in Western Europe, and re-location of multinationals to low-wage Central and Eastern European economies.
Indeed, the demise of the Soviet Union crippled the ‘hard’ left across the continent, with Communist Parties losing both an important patron, and exemplar. By the 1990s most European socialist parties, including the U.K.’s ‘New’ Labour Party had shifted to a broadly pro-European, and even neo-liberal, outlook.
An ensuing vacuum has been opportunistically filled by a range of Far Right or nationalist parties, opposed to the supranational Europe project. Populist parties have gained support in economically depressed post-industrial regions, where atavistic appeals are often made to the nation or volk, targeting constituents ill-served by the Common Market.
Furthermore, since the 1960s most European countries have experienced an influx of overseas migrants, mainly drawn from former colonies. That the Union guarantees the free movement of labour has brought a misleading association with an ensuing multiculturalism. This is despite immigration from beyond Europe being subject to the laws of individuals states, a point affirmed in the Dublin Regulation of 2013 on refugees.[xii] This requires, in most cases, that an asylum seeker’s application is processed in the first EU member state he or she sets foot in.
Explaining the Referendum Result
Ironically, it has been elements within the Tory party, the long-standing champion of the free trade the Community brought to the continent, which came to the fore in opposing the Union. The opposition of ‘Shire Tories’ may have come as no surprise, but the referendum also revealed deep antipathy towards the Europe Union in the economically depressed regions of the Midlands and North.[xiii]
This should have come as no surprise. Since Britain’s entry into the Community heavy industry has continued to depart these regions, helped along by Thatcherite privatisations throughout the 1980s that worked to the benefit of speculators in the City of London. Crucially, the British media focused working class malcontents on the European Union, with constant emphasis on Britain’s heroic role in World War II, and enduring stereotypes of Nazi Germans and cowardly French.
British working class antipathy towards Europe can also be explained by a lingering – not altogether without foundation – left-wing view that indigenous industry cannot recover under free trade conditions, and without state-aid grants, currently prohibited under European law.
Moreover, as indicated, the U.K. entered the Community at a stage of economic decline across the continent, and with a sense of unbelonging. Importantly, unlike within the founding states, there is no collective memory to draw on of thirty glorious years of growth and development under European suzerainty.
Also, the U.K. lay at a remove from the extremes of cathartic bloodletting during World War II. Notwithstanding the experience of the Blitz, and the loss of hundreds-of-thousands of men-under-arms, the country was spared Nazi occupation – the apotheosis of state-sponsored racism.
Increasingly strident national identities within the U.K. itself now also shape attitudes towards the supra-national institution; on the basis that ‘my enemies enemy is my friend’ Scottish nationalism is identified with a European affiliation, while Northern Ireland Unionism is antipathetic. Thus Brexit signifies, and fuels, a fissuring of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Also, strikingly, a majority of English Brexiteers are more concerned with leaving Europe than preserving the Union.[xiv] A willingness to shrink one’s state hardly equates to residual imperialist ambitions.
It seems Brexit cannot be avoided, and Europe (including the Irish government) should refrain from counter-productive meddling in U.K. politics. Its electorate cast the dye, and recent election results for the European Parliament indicate there are no regrets.[xv] A face-saving resolution can surely be found to the so-called ‘Backstop,’ especially given the U.K. has undertaken to respect the terms of the Common Travel Area,[xvi] allowing for unhindered movement and reciprocal employment opportunities for Irish and U.K. nationals.
It now appears that both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have softened their stances on preserving all aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement[xvii], putting it up to the Irish government to offer alternatives. But the uncompromising, and occasionally nationalistic,[xviii] rhetoric of Taoiseach Varadkar and Foreign Minister Coveney leave the minority Irish government vulnerable to attack from current partners Fianna Fáil, and opponents Sinn Féin.
The total volume of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic amounted to just over £5 billion in 2016,[xix] suggesting the challenge of equipping the border to check in-coming container traffic is not insurmountable. The key to preventing further Troubles surely lies in addressing the impoverishment and ghettoization of areas such as the Creggan in Derry.
Of far greater concern for the Republic should be the extent to which trade flows are dependent on the Holyhead ‘land bridge’, rather than through direct links to the continent. Previously, this led to the boorish comment from the new Home Secretary Priti Patel that the threat of food shortages could be used as a weapon in negotiations over the Backstop.[xx]
Clearly the current Tory leadership, and membership, is hell-bent on ‘delivering’ on Brexit. But their preferred outcome is presumably a compromise deal, but they are at least courting the possibility of crashing out.
A period beyond the Union would acquaint dyed-in-the-wool Brexiteers – especially those Prosecco-quaffing ‘Shire Tories’ – with a salutary lesson in the perils of life outside a substantial free-trade block. For starters, the prices of many foodstuffs, and beverages, will rise through the weakness of the pound and potential retaliatory tariffs. The Cabinet Office’s leaked Operation Yellowhammer document even anticipates food shortages.[xxi]
A period of stagflation is on the horizon with many multinational companies poised to pull out. But if a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government were to come to power, it would surely introduce state aids to assist fledgling industries, which might flourish under protectionist conditions, with a weak pound conducive to exports. Whether such a regime could resist a tendency towards over-bureaucratization, historically evident in command economies, remains to be seen. But the alternative of business-as-usual in many regions under E.U. is just as unpalatable to many living there.
Politically, Brexit may finally prompt the U.K. to settle on a written constitution, the absence of which has brewed such confusion, including the latest prorogation of Parliament. Much of the uncertainty around the Brexit referendum, and beyond, is linked to the absence of a clear text explaining the powers of the various arms of government. Ultimately, it seems likely that a majority in the U.K. will wish to return, but for this to happen undue punishment should be avoided.
How to Save Europe
If a ‘take it or leave it’ ‘in/out’ vote had been placed before other European electorates in all likelihood some would have chosen to push the exit button too. Even in Ireland – the beneficiary of disproportionate financial supports due to a substantial agricultural sector – two recent referendums on extending the European treaty have yielded negative votes, only reversed after clamorous support from the main political parties and mainstream media.
Likewise, the French and Dutch electorates rejected the European Constitution in 2005,[xxii] but were ignored, while the populations of both Switzerland and Norway have repeatedly chosen to remain outside.
As the poet Micheal O’Siadhail put it: ‘Starred blue flag so dutifully raised, / Still not fluttering in our chambered hearts’[xxiii]: Lacking symbols such as a football team to support, or other singular cultural representations, the European Union has not invented a lasting idea of itself beyond its liberal freedoms. These are now associated with a permissive Globalisation benefiting rapacious and tax-avoiding multinational corporations, and often working to the detriment of working people. Moreover, an extensive and exceedingly well-remunerated[xxiv] E.U. bureaucracy is associated with unnecessary red tape – and not only in the U.K..
The Brexit vote should give rise to profound questioning of the laws and institutions of the E.U.. Lest we forget, European leaders displayed palpable disregard for the welfare of the Greek and Irish populations during their economic crises; as Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole put it in response to Ireland’s EU/IMF Bailout in 2010:
There is no European solidarity. And there is not even a genuine sense of self-interest. The sadistic pleasures of punishment have trumped the sensible calculation that an Ireland enslaved by debt is not much use to anyone.[xxv]
A worldwide economic crisis impoverished many parts of the continent, and the E.U. became an agent of a doctrinaire austerity, often to the benefit of speculators.
What it means to be ‘European’
For the European Union to develop lasting legitimacy among a new generation – increasingly removed from the bloodletting if the first half of the twentieth century – it needs to be seen to do more than maintain the liberty to move goods, services, capital and labour. It should inspire loyalty by guaranteeing basic socio-economic rights, including inter alia basic sustenance, a dwelling, health and education, and defend human rights violations in countries such as Spain – where draconian measures curb freedom of expression, and have led to outrageous prison sentences being handed down to Catalan separatists for having the temerity to hold a referendum.
This requires a re-negotiation of the Treaty, along with abandonment of grandiose notions of a European super-state, and army. It could involve the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into E.U. law. We also need to see far greater institutional accountability, with all forms of lobbying being completely transparent, and outlandish salary scales re-assessed. The Commission ought to be democratised, with Commissioners perhaps being elected from a Europe-wide list, instead of positions being in the gift of national governments – resulting in political ‘fixers’ such as our own Commissioner Phil Hogan being promoted without democratic oversight.
Far greater burden- (and benefit-) sharing of refugees is also required – meaning the Dublin Regulation should be scrapped. This would take pressure of states such as Italy and Greece that have had to accommodate a disproportionate share.
Our ‘European’ identity should be disentangled from blood and a Judeo-Christian heritage; instead being a European should be equated with taking pride in one’s region’s culture and history, while holding a curiosity for others, available to visit via a continental rail network that is a unifying-symbol of progress. To this end, legislation offering all eighteen-year-old-Europeans a free Inter-rail pass is to be lauded.[xxvi]
A European identity should become modern in the sense of understanding global environmental responsibilities; along with recognising that a certain income threshold is required for human flourishing, beyond which gains are marginal.
A failure to reform is likely to result in a ‘Brexit Domino Effect’, with states such as Italy, Hungary and Poland succumbing to Populist, anti-EU political parties. A progressive supra-national alternative to inward-looking nationalism must be offered, but if states are unwilling to accede to a greater focus on environmental protection, human rights, income support and inclusivity then these should be permitted to leave, or be shown the door, and face the harsh realities of life outside the Union, just like the U.K..
There is much worth saving about the European ideal. In particular, as we stare down the barrel of an environmental crisis threatening humanity’s very survival, we require an E.U.-led Green New Deal, including reform to the CAP so as to make it more equitable and focused on environmental protection.
Europe can be a beacon to the rest of the world, and the development of a symbiotic relationship with nature can inspire a new generation, countering obsolete nationalist ideas of racial belonging.
Let us leave the light on also, and the door ajar, to allow the U.K. to return, whether United or not.
[i] [/efn_note]Viscount Grey of Fallodon: Twenty-Five Years 1892–1916, New York, 1925, p. 20[/efn_note]
[ii] At least in name. There were also German, Ruthenian (Ukrainian) and Hungarian minorities, as well as Jews drawn from different nationalities, along with a substantial partially nomadic Romany community.
[iii] Benedict Anderson Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, London, Verso, 1983, pp.6-7.
[iv] Boris Johnson, The Churchill Factor: How One Made History, Hodder, London, 2015, p.301
[v] ‘The Schuman Declaration’ May 9th, 1950, https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/symbols/europe-day/schuman-declaration_en.
[vi] Ishaan Tharoor, ‘Britain clings to imperial nostalgia as Brexit looms’, Washington Post, January 4th, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/01/04/britain-clings-imperial-nostalgia-brexit-looms/.
[vii] ‘Jessica Elgtot, Secret Boris Johnson column favoured UK remaining in EU’, The Guardian, October 16th, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/oct/16/secret-boris-johnson-column-favoured-uk-remaining-in-eu
[viii] Ibid, Johnson, p.300.
[ix] Followers of the Labour politician Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn 1925-2014.
[x] ‘Common Agricultural Policy: Key graphs & figures’ https://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/sites/agriculture/files/cap-post-2013/graphs/graph1_en.pdf, European Commission, July, 2019.
[xi] George Monbiot, ‘The one good thing about Brexit? Leaving the EU’s disgraceful farming system’, The Guardian, October 10th, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/10/brexit-leaving-eu-farming-agriculture.
[xii] Regulation (EU) No 604/2013, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX:32013R0604
[xiii] Untitled, ‘EU Referendum Results’, Financial Times, 2016, https://ig.ft.com/sites/elections/2016/uk/eu-referendum/
[xiv] Frank Armstrong ‘An Irish Poet Attains Greatness’, Cassandra Voices, August 31st, 2018, http://cassandravoices.com/history/an-irish-poet-attains-greatness/.
[xv] Ashley Kirk and Josh Wilson, ‘EU election UK results and maps: Brexit Party wins nine of 12 regions, Lib Dems triumph in London’, The Telegraph, May 28th, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/05/28/european-eu-election-results-2019-uk-maps-brexit-party/
[xvi] Untitled, ‘Johnson tells Varadkar that Common Travel Area will remain after Brexit’, August 20th, 2019, RTÉ, https://www.rte.ie/news/ireland/2019/0819/1069694-varadkar-johnson/.
[xviii] Juno McEnroe, ‘Varadkar: United Ireland possible in hard Brexit’, Irish Examiner, July 27th, 2019, https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/ireland/varadkar-united-ireland-possible-in-hard-brexit-939785.html.
[xx] Untitled, ‘Patel comments on no-deal Brexit in Ireland criticised’, BBC, December 7th, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/amp/world-europe-46488479.
[xxi] Rowena Mason, ‘No-deal Brexit: key points of Operation Yellowhammer report’, The Guardian, August 18th, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/aug/18/no-deal-brexit-key-points-of-operation-yellowhammer-report.
[xxii] Untitled, ‘Dutch say ‘devastating no’ to EU constitution’, The Guardian, June 2nd, 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/jun/02/eu.politics
[xxiii] Frank Armstrong ‘An Irish Poet Attains Greatness’, Cassandra Voices, August 31st, 2018, http://cassandravoices.com/history/an-irish-poet-attains-greatness/
[xxiv] Bruno Waterfield, ‘10,000 European Union officials better paid than David Cameron’ The Telegraph, 21 May, 2014, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/eu/10847979/10000-European-Union-officials-better-paid-than-David-Cameron.html
[xxv] Fintan O’Toole, ‘Abysmal deal ransoms us and disgraces Europe’, Irish Times, 29th of November, 2010, https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/abysmal-deal-ransoms-us-and-disgraces-europe-1.683289
[xxvi] Alexander Sims, ‘EU plans to give free Interrail pass to every 18-year-old in Europe on their birthday’, The Independent, September 30th, 2016, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/interrail-passes-free-eu-parliament-debate-europe-train-tickets-a7339466.html.