There is a common notion that the ideal of a European super-state is in some fashion progressive, modern and forward-thinking. A common notion, but a mistaken one, and one which threatens the very foundations of Europe.
Europe only truly thrived when it emerged from feudalism as a cluster of distinct and diverse nations whose legal structure was elucidated in the Treaty of Westphalia, and with an ideological break-through in the liberal revolutions of 1848. These nations were held together by common heritage, institutions and language, by Burke’s little platoons and by a sense of fellow-feeling. Sometimes they fought, but it is worth remembering that decades went by in the 1800s without major wars. The innovation and prosperity that their diversity and competition drove forward, however, were constant.
Then came the world wars: the perverse nationalism of the Axis powers, a nationalism that dispensed with the institutions and heritage pivotal to meaningful patriotism, poisoned the idea of the nation-state in Europe. Once it was over, some looked at the devastation and decided that it was only by dissolving the peoples of Europe into a single state that such things could be prevented.
The destruction of the nation state is not, however, forward thinking in any sense. It is not paving the way for some post-national utopia; rather, it is a return to the deeply regressive ideology of empire. A vast bureaucratic apparatus administering the provinces for the benefit of the apparatus, its clients and rent-seekers and pacifying the people with bread and circuses: such a model would not have been foreign to the Roman Emperors.
Such an approach leads inevitably to the abuse of the imperial hinterland, as we have seen in Southern Europe, to the forcing of devastating one-size-fits-all policies on economies utterly unsuited to them, as across the continent but especially in Britain, and to the agglomeration of power, wealth and privileges to the rulers and the well-connected, as can be seen by anyone willing to look. It is an approach that has already sown the seeds of resentment across Europe. The assault on the nation-state, the suppression of sovereignty, patriotism and democracy and the crushing consensus of most continental politicians leaves people no choice but subservience or radicalism. As the empire crumbles, dragging its provinces down with it, more and more will choose the latter. Across the EU this is already in evidence.
There are other visions of the EU, of course. The Bruges approach envisions the EU as a family of nations, working together on transnational issues while respecting one another’s diversity and democracy. That – a model that respects the differences between European nations and allows them to prosper on their own terms, with their own models, under the direction of their people – is what Europe needs. Naturally, there is no appetite for this approach in Brussels, and there won’t be so long as the EU believes it can ignore the people and maintain its relentless drive for centralisation.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can have peaceful cooperation without being controlled. We can have an arrangement that respects the unique nature of each nation. We can be part of a family and not an empire. It will require a firm rebuke to ambitions of the centralisers. On June 23rd, we can give one.