Continental Europe is showing an unfortunate inability to understand the Brexit as a historic opportunity to rethink the European project and open ways for breaking the deadlock in which the European Union now finds itself. “Br-exit” could be transformed into “Br-entry”, a reincorporation into a concept of Europe that is acceptable to the United Kingdom.
The relationship of the United Kingdom with Europe has always been “unique”. The British never wanted to be part of the hard core of European integration, and they had their reasons. Their relationship with Europe was ambiguous from the very first. Winston Churchill expressed it in 1953: “We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not combined. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed.” They wanted Europe to unite, they actively worked for it, but they never wanted to transfer sovereign power to supranational instances. And when they were forced to do so, they always reserved the right of opting out.
During the first 15 years after World War II, the British did not feel that they needed Europe: the existence of the Commonwealth and the special relationship with the United States allowed them to remain on the side-lines. But when Europe began to progress and Britain was economically left behind, attitudes towards European integration changed and in 1961 Harold Macmillan formally requested the incorporation of his country into the European Economic Community. The change of attitudes, however, was mainly due to utilitarian commercial motives, where British singularity was never questioned. The United Kingdom was only interested in economic integration within a common market of goods, and not in a political integration involving the transfer of sovereignty. The Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty, however, were that extra step that ended up widening the gap between the island and the continent. The free movement of people, and especially the common currency, implied a degree of integration that the United Kingdom had never wanted, but by staying out of the latter, the British felt they had become second-rate European citizens.
Much of the British discomfort with Europe has also been felt by other members of the Union. There is an ever-present tension between national sovereignties and supranational community powers. It is perceived that the community decision-making processes do not have the democratic legitimacy to supplant national mechanisms. It is felt that the community instances invade spaces in contravention of the principle of subsidiarity. And more recently, the popular anguish over the handling of refugees and immigrants in the context of open borders has cast doubts on the desirability of “ever closer union.” In some ways, long before Brexit, the United Kingdom represented voices calling for the respect of subsidiarity and diversity.
During the years of the euro crisis, the Monetary Union showed the ugly face of an increasingly invasive Europe. The reason was very simple: a common currency, by definition, does not allow diversity in the management of the economy. Those who deviate must be disciplined to avoid contaminating others. Germany took that disciplinary task upon itself. Instead of assuming the role of benevolent hegemon, it acted as coercive power. This is how Europe has evolved towards a more centralized and imperative space, becoming less democratic and less flexible.
Unfortunately, the common currency has not served to unite Europe more. A good part of the current tensions derive from the existence of that single monetary framework and the deep divergences between countries on how to provide it with viability. I am convinced that the eurozone has to be reconfigured before passing the point of no return and ending in a chaotic break. From the ashes of the euro should arise a less “totalitarian” European Union, where there is room for more flexible configurations. The common currency will no longer represent an existential risk for other areas and spheres of the Union.
In the economic-commercial area two or more spheres of integration could coexist. Those who wish to remain within the current inner sphere of the EU, can do so. Other countries can be part of a more “external” integrated commercial area, not associated with demands for political integration, access to social welfare systems or free movement of people. In this second sphere, countries like the United Kingdom or Switzerland could feel comfortable.
The new Europe would have a minimum common denominator that is less demanding and comprehensive than the current one, and would allow a variety of spheres of integration, according to national preferences and interests. National democracies would regain control over how much Europe they want and at what speed. They would have a palette of options in which they could decide whether to advance in common security and defence institutions, in lightweight schemes of coordination of monetary-financial policies or in a full-fledged monetary union. The new community language should talk less about uniformity and more about alternatives, flexibility or free choice. In short, a Europe that democratically respects its great cultural, social and political diversity.
Unfortunately, the EU bodies, instead of understanding the legitimate concerns of the United Kingdom and making efforts to reinvent themselves, have taken the punitive route of raising the cost of Brexit to deter other countries from following the British path. Big mistake.