When everything else fails, the assertion that “Europe is peace” is the ultimate argument of those who defend the EU. It is no surprise that the prime minister David Cameron resorted to it in a speech on May 9 arguing for the UK to remain in the EU.
Yet the argument is a fallacious and I find myself, however reluctantly, agreeing with London’s former mayor Boris Johnson who responded that the EU’s “anti-democratic tendencies” are “a force for instability and alienation”. I do not, however, reach this conclusion for the same reasons.
It is a myth that the unprecedented period of peace between European nations is due to the EU – a myth that has been convincingly refuted by my Cambridge colleague Chris Bickerton, among others. The European Union took its current form with the 1991 Maastricht Treat (or, at the earliest, with the 1986 Rome Treaty) and can hardly be credited with the years of peace that preceded them.
In no way democratic
Promoters of the EU often deny that the EU is antidemocratic, but by doing so they fly in the face of history. The EU’s current treaties were implemented against the will of its peoples. Referenda in France (May 29 2005), the Netherlands (June 1 2005) and Ireland (June 12 2008) on various iterations of the European treaties all resulted in “no” votes, but revised versions of the treaties were implemented anyway. It is these treaties that form the framework within which austerity policies are imposed on Europe, stirring popular discontent which national governments have met with astonishing violence.
In Greece, austerity policies have led to appalling violations of human rights, in contradiction with international conventions of which all European member states are signatories. Civil liberties were stamped upon by the Spanish government which, in its determination to placate popular anger, restricted freedom of expression in ways reminiscent of the times of Franco.
Terrorist attacks provided the French government with an ideal opportunity to decree the state of emergency, which was used to neutralise environmental protesters during the COP21 summit in Paris in December 2015.
Over the last five years, popular protests have been repressed, with extreme brutality in parts of Europe. Protests in Athens in early May against pension reforms were repressed by a government whose course of action is dictated by the Eurogroup, an offshoot of the European Commission that does not have any institutional existence.
Leaders to blame
If one looks beyond Europe’s borders and considers its response to the migrant crisis, one can only wonder how the EU can have any apologists left at all. Such is the cognitive dissonance between the EU’s appalling achievements and its high ideals that those who cannot renounce these ideals are forced to conjure up a scapegoat: the people of Europe. Greeks and Britons who oppose the EU are routinely labelled ignorant or xenophobic.
Europhile commentators suffer from ever increasing forms of “political agoraphobia” (to use a phrase coined by French historian Françis Dupuis-Déri): implying that the stupidity of the masses legitimises authoritarian policies.
The Economist did not shy from asserting that the problem with Europe rested with “its querulous voters and its cowardly political leaders” – the cowardice of the leaders consisting, of course, in their failure to bully their voters into acceptance of the Lisbon Treaties.
The Brexit campaign presents us, again, with an astonishing display of scorn for those who dare want out. Analysts lament the return of nationalism, xenophobia and racism but never seem to wonder whether the EU’s failures might not be the cause of their resurgence.
Free trade doesn’t secure peace
Europe’s failings are not due to circumstance. They are rooted in a philosophical error: the theory that free trade secures peace and prosperity. It is a theory that dates back to the 18th century and was popularized by 19th century free marketeers, whose influence reached its high point towards the late 1800s, when the world experienced what historians refer to as the “first globalisation”.
In 1909, British journalist Norman Angell published a pamphlet entitled Europe’s Optical Illusion, whose thesis was that the commercial and financial linkages between countries were so extensive that no rational country should contemplate starting a war from which the victor would lose as much as the vanquished. Angell’s book achieved cult status and by 1913 had sold more than a million copies.
Yet war broke out the following year. In one respect, Angell’s prediction proved accurate: the war did ruin both victors and vanquished. But in a crucial respect, he was wrong: economic interdependence does not defuse conflicts – if anything, it intensifies them.
In 1926, the economist John Maynard Keynes dared hope that he had seen the end of laissez-faire economics. Unfortunately, free market utopianism returned after World War II; it was the ideological foundation of the European project, whose aim was to secure peace by means of the market economy.
Jean Monnet, the French politician and one of the architects of European integration, stated in 1950 that world peace would be guaranteed by “concrete realizations that would create effective solidarities”. The post-war German chancellor Konrad Adenauer concurred: this economic integration would make another Franco-German war “not merely unthinkable but materially impossible”.
Brexit a chance to rewrite the EU
It is all too easy to pass off the 70 years of peace between nations as confirmation of their hypothesis. Yet it is time that we give up the mantra “Europe is peace”, whose only function is to justify the EU’s authoritarian drift.
Judging by the narrow economic focus of the Brexit debate, it seems that idealist defences of the EU have lost much potency anyway. Britons are being asked to weigh the advantages of staying or going, not to embrace a project.
In this debate, the Brexit camp thinks soundly: if the aim is to compete on the market, why not free the UK from the few regulatory constraints – safety, the environment, social services, benefits for all – that the EU has managed to impose over the years? After the EU has forced Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal to dismantle their welfare states for reasons of competitiveness, it can hardly be defended by appealing to ideals it has continuously betrayed.
Brexit is not contrary to the EU’s logic, it is its natural endpoint. This is the view – that states are currently waging economic war on each other and taking no prisoners – promoted by Johnson and those in the leave camp. But I do not endorse this stance.
Perhaps what we should come to terms with is the fact that there is no such thing as a European project, although there are European institutions. This realisation could free the conceptual space to actually invent one – a project based on cooperation, not competition; on democracy, not technocracy. The first step towards its realisation must be a radical rewriting of European treaties and modes of decision. Only by offering such perspective can the left make the EU an appealing prospect. The debate on the Brexit constitutes a vital opportunity do so.
The last paragraph of this article was altered on May 13 to reflect that it is not Brexit, but the debate about it, which represents an opportunity.