Samuel Johnson once wrote of the “wonderful concentration of the mind” that the prospect of being hanged brings. It is how European leaders should feel in the wake of Brexit. As the reality of a British departure from the European Union sinks in, policy makers are being forced to concentrate their minds on some very uncertain and unsettling repercussions.
Despite a clear win for the Leave faction, the impact of the Brexit vote is ambiguous both for Britain and for the European Union. It’s not even clear when and how the exit will occur. One can’t help but hum a line from the Eagles: “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” The Brits have checked out, yet are in no hurry to go. The lasting sentiment from the vote seems remorse, not resolve. Euroskeptical leaders on the Continent may be quick to claim that history has changed course, but recent opinion polls and the outcome of Spain’s parliamentary elections suggest that Brexit frightens rather than inspires, and it is the pro-European mainstream rather than the anti-Europe extreme that may benefit from the current maelstrom.
What is worrying in a post-Brexit Europe is not only the state of emotions, but the state of the argument. The debate is in some ways a clash of two nostalgias, between two camps that want nothing more than to hop into a time machine. Sovereignists, represented by populist parties in the West and several of the governments of the East, pine for the late 19th or early 20th centuries, the golden age of the nation state (if ever such a golden time really existed for small European nations), when governments guarded their borders, managed their economies and enforced social cohesion.
In contrast, federalists, centered in the employment rolls of the expansive European institutions, dream of a United States of Europe and fantasize about returning to the 1990s, before the euro, before eastward expansion, when the European Union was smaller, smarter, more prosperous and decidedly Western — and hardly anyone challenged the vision of an “ever closer Union.”
But if time machines make good literature, they usually produce poor politics. Brexit scarcely brings Britain back to the time of the classical nation state; rather, it threatens the very disintegration of the nation state itself. If Scotland decides to leave Britain, the Leave campaign can pride itself not only for the unraveling of Europe but for the undoing of Britain as well. With the collapse of a British party system in which both major parties experience leadership and identity crises at the hands of a right-wing populist insurgency, it’s easy to wonder whether the same thing could happen across the Continent: If the union disintegrates, liberal democracy itself may soon follow.
It’s also easy to overestimate the thickness of Brexit’s silver lining. Yes, opinion polls hint at a renewed pro-European sentiment on the Continent, but a belief that Brexit signals a “federalist moment” is delusional. In practice, that moment means a consolidation of power in the west while the east and south stay politically isolated and tranquil — or that the illiberal turn in places like Poland and Hungary can be contained.
Such a view is demeaning — Central European societies as a whole remain the most pro-European — and an easy way to forget that the rise of populism is not just a Central European phenomenon. In fact, the dream of “two Europes” could lead to no Europe at all. In the context of widespread resentment against concentrating additional powers in the European Commission, recycling the federalist dream of the 1980s and early 1990s could provoke a backlash powerful enough to destroy the Union. It is important to remember that elites are out of sync almost everywhere across the Continent. Nine out of 10 economists and nine out of 10 celebrities campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union, but a majority of the voters opted for Leave.
More Europe can only mean less Brussels. The fact that Europe’s oldest democracy voted to leave the union to secure its self-governance makes it particularly dangerous for a mistrusted political establishment to push for a federalist solution. More complicating, populist parties are part of the governing coalitions in a third of the union’s member states. Clearly, populist parties on the far left and far right are not simply protest parties that will vanish in the next electoral cycle. They don’t represent a mood; they manifest a trend, so the hope that the European Union can be saved by recycling old cherished ideas from Brussels is a dangerous illusion.
This is particularly important to bear in mind when 34 union-related referendums are being introduced in 18 member states. The insistence that the future of the European Union should be decided by referendums and not in parliaments is what unites populists of both extremes. In their view the electorate is a sovereign whose vocabulary is limited to two words: yes and no.
Rumor has it that after the fall of the Berlin Wall the esteemed British diplomat Robert Cooper, then head of the Foreign Office’s policy planning department, developed a special stamp: “OBE — Overtaken By Events.” Cooper asked his colleagues to go through existing files and to stamp OBE wherever appropriate.
European leaders should take inspiration from Mr. Cooper and stamp OBE not only on the aspiration for some 19th-century-styled sovereign, liberal nation state, but also on any fantasy of 1980s-style federalism. The future of Europe cannot be found in the past — and European leaders need to start writing that future today.