These are dark, painful days for the European Union. The union is battling for its very existence, and with it the concept of European unity itself. If the euro were to collapse, for example, the union could in theory continue, but one suspects that the huge pressures on members caused by currency appreciation (Germany) or depreciation (everyone else) could force the German government into a nakedly Germany First policy to protect jobs.
The curious thing is that British or Irish or Danish eurosceptics would, of course, react with delight at the end of the EU. But I wonder what sort of Europe they would expect to emerge from it? Presumably, they picture a Europe of nation states that they vaguely remember from their youth, or assume existed, in the 1950s and 1960s, peacefully trading with each other. Of course, this is quite possible, after all, a Europe without the EU would still be a Europe of free democracies, bound together by NATO.
But they forget the German question.
Let me be clear: I have no doubts whatsoever about the democratic credentials of Germany. Germany is a peaceful nation committed to democracy. But it is also by far the economic heart of Europe. More importantly, Helmut Kohl was the last German Chancellor bound by the post-war consensus that saw the creation of a European Germany as the keystone of German foreign and domestic policy. This generation of German leaders are like any other group of European leaders: Interested in putting their country’s interests first, as their Nord Stream gas deal with the Russians, which bypassed Poland, showed. The difference is that unlike other EU countries, which tend to be small and reliant upon cooperation with others, Germany has the economic heft, and the location, to plow its own course with little need to pay heed to the chaos it can create in its slipstream. Through sheer economic gravity, a Europe without the EU will become a German Europe, where German standards and laws and the needs of German consumers becomes the benchmark, without the need for pesky commission consultation.
That may not be a bad thing. Germany is, after all, a well-run country. But is that really what the eurosceptics were thinking of? A future German chancellor who sees Washington, Moscow, Brasilia and Beijing as his equals, and deals with them accordingly, ignoring the rest of Europe in his plans? Impossible! Declare the British or the French. Really? After all, militarily, Britain and France are now minor players, relegated to sharing aircraft carriers. Britain played at best a supporting role in Iraq and Afghanistan (Despite the bravery and professionalism of her soldiers), and France is only really good at bombing people who include voodoo in their national defence plans. Neither of them, even combined, were able to handle the bloodletting of Yugoslavia. Economically, they are, individually, still significant nations, but they are not where the action is. Ten, fifteen years from now, if only because of sheer size, Britain and France will struggle to compete with Brazil or India, becoming quaint brands of yesteryear rather than global names. It’s true, Germany is a military pygmy too, but unlike France and Britain, the Germans are industrial on a global scale. In short, a Europe without the EU leaves only one European player still capable of playing at a global level, and that is Germany.
The truth is that a Europe without a plan for mutually beneficial integration is a Europe engaged in slow decay, like a once glamorous Vegas casino now in the shadow of a Disney super-resort. It just can’t compete with progress, despite its glorious past. Yes, Dino and Frank and Joey Bishop once performed here, but the super resort has Beyonce and WiFi and roller coasters!
Brazil and China and India and the US will run the world, with Germany and Japan just allowed in the door, and the aging divas of Britain and France throwing tantrums and wearing skirts too short and tops too low for their age in the lobby. The rest of Europe will just gawk in the window like Dickensian street-waifs, oohing and ahhing at how the other half lives. Is that really what eurosceptics want?
I’m an Irishman, and even though I feel I’m an Irishman, I don’t know why*. I don’t speak Irish, I don’t like most Irish music or literature, which to me seems to wallow in self-pity. But I feel my Irishness, and when I’m in the company of non-Irish people, they tell me that I’m “just so Irish.” To me, European unity is not about creating an identikit European, but adding additional components to enhance my Irish way of life. What I have never understood about euroscepticism is not its logic, which is sound enough, but its belief that national sovereignty as they perceive it is what is on offer. What is on offer does not strengthen the options open to me as an Irishman: Instead I will find myself a citizen of a tiny state open to the whim of the economic colossus that is the Chinese dictatorship, or the take-it-or-leave-it blackmail of mega-corporations freed from the watchful eye of the European Commission. Where is the national sovereignty in that? How can any patriot claim that as a better path for his country?
*Actually, as a postscript, I did recently come across a story that helped define my Irishness. In the 1980s, graffitti appeared all over Dublin demanding the release of Dessie Ellis, a Sinn Fein activist who was being extradited to the UK. More often than not, the declaration “Free Dessie Ellis!” would eventually be accompanied by some local wit adding “with every box of cornflakes” to the wall. That to me is the epitome of Irishness.