Let’s get this out of the way first. Yes, the European Union is a bureaucratic institution with a democracy deficit. Its regulatory role is often experienced as burdensome. All this has been true for a long time, but the post-Cold War expansion has made it even more unwieldy.
Let’s also get his out of the way. The Brexit vote had not a lot to do with the EU. It wasn’t a working class blow against globalization as Bernie Sanders would have us believe, even though many districts that traditionally voted Labor also voted to leave the EU. It was a bill presented to the British elites by the citizens who had been hoodwinked, first by Thatcher and then by Blair, into believing that nostalgia for an imperial past is a substitute for responsive politics. Even though the target of the discontent driving the Brexit vote was the EU, its origin is domestic.
US commentary on both the left and the right have strangely converged on the causes of the Brexit vote, which highlights a fundamental misunderstanding of the EU and the role it plays in Europe. The European project was not an exercise of globalization. It was a grand bargain to foster continental peace by embedding German industrial redevelopment after WW II in a European context while protecting French and Italian farmers. This was achieved through an increasingly open market between the six original members combined with a common agricultural policy. The CAP turned out to be a boondoggle, it stabilized food prices, but at astonishing cost. The open market also wasn’t based in simple free trade.
**Short historical interlude** The crucial difference between Anglo-Saxon capitalism and European Continental capitalism is that the latter emerged as a state project in reaction to the former. As a result, Continental capitalism has never embraced free markets as an exclusive principle. It has always believed that the governments play a crucial role. **End of interlude**
Despite creating a large internal market, the EU assumed that pure free trade wasn’t feasible as long as there wasn’t an agreement that the freely traded goods of particular kind ought to be roughly equivalent. Yes, this approach led to sometimes onerous regulations determining what percent cocoa butter was required for a chocolate bar to be labeled as such. But it was the EU alternative to the “buyer beware” approach of Anglo-Saxon capitalism.
The internal market slowly expanded to include what the EU today calls the four freedoms, free flow of goods services, capital and, crucially people. The abolition of border controls in the Schengen area followed suit. The freedom of Europeans to settle and work anywhere in Europe is one of the EU’s major achievements. While Britain did not join the Schengen Agreement and maintained border controls, it did allow other EU citizens to settle and work in Britain.
The downside of the EU is the management of the Euro zone. With the currency crises of the 1970s, and driven by German concerns with inflation, the progressive embedding of neoliberal discipline at the European level found its acme in the creation of the Eurozone with its strict rules regarding deficits, debt and inflation. The European Central Bank became a tool to enforce monetarist policies over the resistance of national legislatures. This reactionary side of the EU came into full view during the harsh negotiations with Greece, Spain and Portugal in the aftermath of the great recession.
The upside is the increasing democratization of the EU. Since 1979, the European Parliament has been directly elected by all citizens of the European Union. Again, it is a work in progress. Its powers aren’t anywhere near what they should be. But its increasingly vocal role in the decision making processes has begun to curtail the European Commission powers. The EP’s opposition to the secret negotiations of the TTIP trade agreement with the US are one example.
So the EU is complex, bureaucratic, maddening and it still inspires hope. Some of that has been lost since the accession of Eastern European countries who were eager to get EU payments, but not at all eager to embrace the European ideals of openness. The election of right-wing regimes in Hungary and Poland in particular put a brake on integration. Rather astonishing, considering that Poland exported its unemployment to Britain.
But if the world is to have any progressive future at all, we’ll have to move past territoriality and sovereignty. The EU, despite all its warts and problems, is still the only experiment working to eliminate borders. The vote for Brexit set back that experiment in ways we don’t even understand yet.
Nigel Farage called it a vote for independence. Here’s a politician from a country that, for centuries, subjugated peoples, sold them as slaves and stole their resources, claiming to be subjugated by the EU. To quote from Gary Younge’s excellent article, “Nostalgic about its former glory, anxious about its diminished state, forgetful about its former crimes, bumptious about its future role, [Britain] has lived on its reputation as an elderly aristocrat might live on his trust fund—frugally and pompously, with a great sense of entitlement and precious little self-awareness.”
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