Five years ago today, the British government “triggered” (an apt term in the circumstances) Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon which permitted any member state to secede from the European Union “in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.” Five years of bitter, muddled wrangling later, Britain has finally departed from the Union, the first—and most in Europe hope the only—state to do so. Britain had, of course, never really ever been a part of Europe—not at least of the Europe which ever since 1951 has been edging itself steadily, if often in Jean Monnet’s words “by stealth,” towards a species of con-federal state, a “United States of Europe.” “We are with Europe,” as Winston Churchill said firmly in 1930, “but not of it. We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”
And so, it has been ever since. The economic impact of Brexit, although severe, has not been so dire as most “remainers” had predicted, and perhaps hoped. Britain seems to be prepared to co-operate with its European neighbours—what choice does it have?—even while it struggles, as the crisis in Ukraine continues to show all too clearly, to re-assert itself as an independent regional power, if no longer a global one. But it has certainly brought no obvious benefits, nor is it likely to, in particular for the younger generations who were given no say in matter.
“If the EU is finally to become ‘the model for new world order,’ it still needs to do more.”
The future for Europe, by contrast, seems in many respects far brighter than it was in 2016. The impact of Brexit has tamed many of the xenophobic populist parties within Europe. Even the most extreme of the candidates in the upcoming French presidential election, Eric Zemmour, who speaks loudly of closing France’s borders, has not yet raised the spectre of a “Frexit” (although how he could achieve one without the other he cannot explain.) And with the British no longer there to slow it down, the Union is better placed to expand its “soft power.” The so-called “Green Deal” endorsed by the member states in December 2019, which aims to make Europe climate-neutral by 2050, will inevitably have a massive impact even on those “many international partners”—which must now include Britain—who, in the measured words of the Commission, “do not share the same ambition as the EU.” It is taking new initiatives to reform globalization and is playing an ever-increasing role in global governance by building “a European regulatory state” based upon a system of intergovernmental networks—as described by Anu Bradford, in her remarkable book, The Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the World. It is steadily, if all too slowly in the face of the growing power of China and Russia and of a barely controlled mass immigration, building a new, more humane, more varied, more flexible, more far-seeing political community.
“If Europe is to fulfill the promises implicit in the phrase ‘ever-greater union,’ it will need to develop a far more powerful sense of its own political identity.”
But if it is finally to become what the American political theorist and diplomat Anne-Marie Slaughter once called “the model for [the] new world order” it still needs to do more. It will need to develop a common policy of social welfare for its citizens and a single unified pension scheme. It will need to create a network of common health policies and common medical institutions, the absence of which has been such an obstacle in battling the current pandemic. It will need, as the French economist Thomas Piketty’s “Manifesto for the Democratization of Europe” insists, to create a common system of taxation and a fiscal control capable of fulfilling the promise of the Treaty of Rome of 1957, to bring about an “equalization in the progress of conditions of life and work.”
Most pressing of all, if Europe is to fulfill the promises implicit in the phrase “ever-greater union,” it will need to develop a far more powerful sense of its own political identity. European citizenship—of which all the peoples of Britain were stripped in January—has none of the emotive and cohesive power that citizenship of any nation-state is intended to offer. It must be made to count. And to do that, it should, as the European Court has so often insisted, in the last instance, trump the demands imposed by the member states. It should, in short, be a true transnational citizenship. It needs, as the ill-fated Constitution of 2004 claimed to offer, a union which “places the individual at the heart of its activities, by establishing the citizenship of the Union and by creating an area of freedom, security and justice.” This might then give some real substance to the slogan: “ever-closer union.”
“It can only be hoped that wiser generations might be able to ‘rebuild Europe,’ just as their ancestors had hoped to do after 1815, 1918, and 1945.”
It can only be hoped that, in this way, wiser, more experienced generations in some not too remote future might be able to “rebuild Europe,” just as their ancestors had hoped to do after 1815, 1918, and 1945. This might well then bring Europe far closer to the vision of “a community of others” or a “persistent plurality of peoples,” closer to being a true European people, varying perhaps as little in their cultural assumptions and political and social aspirations between the citizens of the member states as two centuries ago they did between the villages and parishes within a single nation. And if that happens then perhaps a new more far-sighted, more cosmopolitan Britain might be prepared to re-join the Union and become, at last, not merely with Europe, but also of it.