The EU is an astonishing institution, unique in human history, imperfect because of the scale of its ambition. Let's not tear it down.
Another day has brought another dismal poll for the Remain campaign. And yet, if Britain does vote to leave the EU on the 23rd, it will still most likely not be because a majority of British people wish to leave, but because those who wish to remain are too lukewarm about the issue to get out and vote.
This, if it happens, will be tragic. For all its faults – which, though very real, are inherent to the grandeur of its virtues – the European Union is arguably the greatest thing human beings have ever achieved in the political sphere.
To put the matter in perspective, imagine for a moment how the world would look if the international system worked like the EU.
First off, suppose that entry into global free trade arrangements was conditional on the more or less genuine implementation of democracy and human rights. Imagine, say, that a state couldn’t join the IMF, the WTO or the World Bank without demonstrating that it complied with the Universal Charter of Human Rights and accepting the jurisdiction of an International Court of Human Rights to which its citizens could appeal and which, unlike the International Criminal Court, actually worked.
Now suppose, in this world of democracies, that the General Assembly of the United Nations had real authority which it used to regulate on matters of global importance beyond the competence of any one state, upholding environmental, labour and safety standards, holding transnational corporations to account and ensuring that free trade wasn’t a race to the bottom.
More than that, imagine that there was also a directly elected world parliament – one which admittedly still played second fiddle to the General Assembly, but which was displaying growing confidence as the mass of national level political parties began to coalesce into genuinely global coalitions.
Now imagine if this counterfactual international order achieved the holy grail of being able to actually do development and peacekeeping? Imagine if, by taking a small amount of revenue from each member state, it was able to divert very substantial resources to the world’s most impoverished regions and, unlike much development aid today, this money (combined with meaningful support in improving governance) had a real (nobody said perfect) track record of lifting countries out of poverty?
At the risk of sounding like a bad John Lennon impersonator, imagine if war had become unthinkable within the boundaries of this global community, while countries that collapsed into civil war outside of it could expect to be painstakingly and unglamorously pieced back together again and patiently prepared to return to the fold? Imagine if there were not just armed peacekeepers, but international police missions and a plethora of other hard and soft interventions of the kind which transformed Bosnia in less than ten years from a place so riven with sectarian politics that lasting inter-communal peace seemed unthinkable, to a place where, by 2003 ‘a resumption of violence [was] no longer seen as a credible possibility’.
Having sketched this rather dry work of speculative fiction, consider the sorts of attitude that world citizens would have towards this arrangement. Would they be grateful? Would they think they were living in some kind of utopia? I very much doubt it. Businesspeople from Delaware to Delhi would rant about red tape that prevented them from hiring or firing as they wished, or using whatever chemicals they liked. Petty nationalists from Moscow to Milton Keynes would pine for the days of sovereignty, forgetting that true state sovereignty is intimately bound up in ‘realist’ conceptions of international ‘anarchy’ in which war is endemic and the lives of states (or more usually their citizens) are often nasty, brutish and short. Anti-capitalists would complain that the global order was basically capitalist, and that the world parliament was in hock to the big corporations. Small government libertarians would moan about examples of money spent corruptly or inefficiently. What’s more, all of these complaints would surely contain at least a grain of truth.
But would these really be grounds for dismantling the arrangement, in favour of multilateral trade deals made behind closed doors and a nationalist free-for-all?
“the European Union isn’t just the devil that we know. It is the foothills of something truly new, something not quite like anything that has existed on earth before.”
Whenever people criticise the European Union for its many real, and its many imaginary faults, it is legitimate to ask ‘as opposed to what?’. This isn’t to reiterate the tired challenge of the political centrist to any demand for radical change. After all, the European Union isn’t just the devil that we know. It is the foothills of something truly new, something not quite like anything that has existed on earth before. More than that though, it is here now, at least in rough draft. And what makes it radical is, in large measure, precisely the same as what makes it achingly dull.
The EU isn’t quite like anything else, and as such it suffers from being chronically overestimated or underestimated. And yet, in its curious tangle of attributes, it bears comparison with some rather obvious human institutions that have much longer pedigrees.
Former ‘lexit’ voices such as Aaron Bastani (who will now be voting ‘remain’) object that the European Union has used its economic clout to bully developing countries and, increasingly, to challenge elected governments within the EU itself. Both accusations are perfectly true. But they go both too far and not far enough, and in both ways are unfair to the EU project.
At one level, these accusations rest on the idea that the EU acts with too much of the realpolitik of an old-fashioned expansionist state. But if we choose to see the EU as a quasi-state, then it’s only fitting to compare it with the track record of actual states. The EU’s use of financial muscle and soft power to coerce and control abroad and at home is often not nice or fair. But nearly every actual state worthy of waving a flag for brought itself into being through appalling acts of violent extermination at home and, in many instances, abroad. In particular, support for Brexit, we know, because previous polling data tells us, can be seen in the context of widespread nostalgia for the British Empire. This is important. When Brexiters long for the days when Britain controlled ‘its own destiny’, they are really recalling an era when Britain controlled the destiny of numerous other countries and peoples by means of patently unfair trade undergirded by brute force.
the future of human institutions doesn’t have to be defined by the categories of the past
On the other hand, those who observe in the EU a ‘democratic deficit’ perhaps forget that, when push comes to shove, the EU isn’t actually a state, but rather a regional cooperation organisation with a lot of bells and whistles attached.
Various memes are flying about to the effect that the EU is actually more democratic than the UK (since the Council of the European Union is made of ministers from elected national governments, whereas the House of Lords is unelected). But perhaps these miss the point. Compared to its obvious peers, the EU wins hands down. Where is the NAFTA parliament, for example? Which specific political assembly exists to hold the WTO to account?
In the end, the EU isn’t definitely one thing or the other, and the point is that it doesn’t have to be, because the future of human institutions doesn’t have to be defined by the categories of the past. What the EU obviously is, is an attempt to impose some kind of political accountability on transnational trade and to build political community without violence. And it is not just an attempt, but a real, concrete example – the only one there is. The European Union, vastly, magnificently imperfect beast that it is, has made political miracles so ordinary that we too easily forget that they even exist.