In the EU referendum, those urging Britons to vote to leave see two possible outcomes for Europe in the event of a Brexit. Either it would integrate further and become a superstate or it would fall apart, restoring a Europe of nation states. Both can’t be true. And when you take a historical perspective, neither would be in the UK’s interests.
Let’s start with integration. The longstanding fear of many Brexiters is a European federal superstate. They cite the European Commission’s “Five Presidents’ Report” of last year as unsettling progress – it proposes deeper financial, fiscal and political union, chiefly in the eurozone, by 2025. Some in Vote Leave argue that the departure of the eurosceptic British would make such deeper intergration and even a superstate more likely.
Any move by Britain to encourage this would run counter to five centuries of foreign policy. Britain has always been deeply intertwined with the continent in everything from politics to culture to religion. Hence it has been a longstanding policy goal to maximise influence there and prevent a single power dominating.
This was one reason Elizabeth I of England supported the Dutch protestants’ revolt in the 1580s against the king of Spain and Habsburg emperor, Philip II. It was equally behind Britain’s wars against Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte of France; its declaration of war on Germany in 1914 to support Belgian neutrality; and its refusal to make peace with Hitler after France fell in 1940. Splendid isolation has rarely been judged a viable proposition.
In reality, a European superstate is a distant prospect. Notwithstanding a small core of federalists, European integration has primarily been about strengthening its nation states through collective action. The UK has not been the only state to guard its sovereignty. This is why, for example, the idea of a European Defence Community with a single army was too much for the French in the 1950s – and why rumours of new plans for an EU army are unlikely to succeed either.
It seems far more likely the EU minus the UK would remain a prosaic supranational bloc built on nation states. From outside, it would be harder to maintain the influence that the UK has generally judged crucial.
A Europe of nation states
An alternative vision from leavers such as the UK justice secretary Michael Gove and UKIP leader Nigel Farage is that a Brexit would trigger the collapse of the EU. Europe would then flourish as a patchwork of coexisting sovereign states, they argue. After even a cursory glance at 19th and 20th century European history, this looks hopelessly romantic.
Nineteenth-century Europe was a collection of nation states and empires. The nation state dominated in the west after Italian and German unification in 1870 and 1871, while eastern Europe remained largely the preserve of multi-national empires such as the Ottoman and Austria-Hungary.
Economic cooperation certainly blossomed in that era. Between 1870 and 1914 – sometimes described by historians as the “first age of globalisation” – labour, capital and goods all moved freely enough. But there were limits. A free-trade honeymoon in the mid-century gave way to protectionism in the 1880s. And while some argued in the pre-war years that economic interdependence had made conflict irrational, this made little difference in 1914.
What really underpinned peace by the early 20th century was the system of alliances between the great powers. Yet it struggled to contain their rival ambitions, not least those of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. The crumbling Ottoman Empire let loose competing nationalisms in the Balkans. When Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28 1914, a showdown between Serbia and Austria-Hungary rapidly descended into the great war the alliances were intended to deter.
Yet the drive for a continent-wide state system based on national sovereignty reached its zenith after 1918. Led by Woodrow Wilson, the US president, the victorious allies applied the principle of “national self-determination” to eastern as well as western Europe – even if the patchwork of ethnicities meant compromises were necessary to build viable states. It meant unions such as Yugoslavia and large minority enclaves such as German-speaking Sudentenland in Czechoslovakia. Inter-state tensions and the potential for conflict were ever present.
Inter-war Europe had only weak mechanisms to smooth things over. In place of the system of great-power alliances the new League of Nations pursued collective security and cooperation, though with limited power to bind its members. It proved too weak to prevent protectionism resurging in the 1920s or the rise of fascism. Great-power politics re-emerged and the continent plunged into an even bloodier war in 1939.
No wonder so many British and continental leaders since World War II have supported European integration. Winston Churchill spoke airily of a “United States of Europe” in 1946. A Europe of sovereign nation states had proved a failure twice, and the second failure had been worse than the first.
All in the past?
Brexiters might argue Europe could now return to separate sovereign states because its stability is underpinned by the American-designed international framework of the UN, NATO, IMF and World Trade Organisation that emerged after 1945.
None of these other organisations provides a specifically European system of cooperation, however. They are not designed to tackle the common problems of a small, densely populated and combustible continent. This is why successive US presidents, most recently Barack Obama, have generally supported the European project and UK participation.
When those who back Vote Leave conjure these competing visions of a European superstate or a patchwork of sovereign states, they are effectively offering the UK either impotence or instability in its own neighbourhood. Even if the more likely outcome is probably a diminished EU with the UK on the sidelines, let’s be clear: none of these three alternatives looks attractive for either the UK or the rest of Europe.