22 June 2016

Please leave – a letter to the UK from the scorched lands

By Antonio-Carlos Pereira-Menaut

I have been since 1999 a Jean Monnet Chairholder at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. I make no arrogant claim to a say in a matter that concerns only Britons, unlike Messrs. Obama, Merkel, Gates and others who enjoy lecturing or even menacing the people of the UK.

Nonetheless, I think I may be able to make some relevant observations. Like most Spaniards I am, and indeed always have been, a europhile, as well as a federalist, since federalism protects small polities. I used to see the EU as broadly a force for good. It can even be plausibly argued that my nation, Galicia, has received more funding and aid from the EU than from Spain itself — all the while recognising the costs are paid for by our fishing, shipbuilding, cattle-breeding and other sectors of the economy.

That said, after anti-crisis remedies administered by the EU and Troika in recent years, Spain is becoming (if you will permit a mild exaggeration)  something of a scorched land — albeit to a far lesser degree than Greece and Portugal. Young doctors, architects and engineers have left Spain by their hundreds of thousands (many of them now in London, as I saw on a recent visit), simply because ruthless austerity measures have wiped out all but a very few jobs. Not even the most optimistic expect unemployment to fall below 15 per cent in the foreseeable future. The EU, traditionally a friend, might thus be mutating into a foe. Possibly for the first time in recent history, euroscepticism is now growing in Spain.

I do not favour Brexit in principle or in theory. Were I given a blank cheque to re-arrange EU affairs, my ideal solution would be for the UK to take the helm for a period in order to reshape the whole thing. No other member state has the experience you have of presiding over a broad association of nations and peoples of all races, cultures and continents, and of accommodating all without imposing uniformity. The UK itself may be viewed as a result of multinational integration. My preferred option would be for the UK to remain, but instead of always looking to opt out, to assume a directive role. Some of us would like to think that another form of EU might be possible. Since the Germany-France duopoly seems in practice to lead us to nowhere but a centralised mega-state, let the British have a try.

It must, however, be accepted that, as things stand, the UK has not been able to play so directive a role during the last forty years. If the Remain option wins, that possibility will fade further.

Let us, therefore, go for a second-best option: ‘Please leave in a peaceful and orderly manner, staying in touch and on good terms with all the rest’. What would be the result?

First, do not panic. No apocalypse or tragedy would follow a UK departure. If we discount the politicians and technocrats, the rest of humanity can be trusted. History is awash with unions, secessions, integrations et hoc genus omne. The threatening language voiced in recent months makes for unfair play, scaremongering and undue interference. The whole business calls to mind the language used by Spain to prevent Cataluña leaving: quasi-religious (Spain is all but sacred and beyond discussion); menacing (you will become very poor); moralising (disloyalty and selfishness); Hobbesian (we shall return to a bellum omnium contra omnes and to a natio nationi lupa); in short, anything but truly political arguments. As if, over time, Spain (or, for that matter, the EU) should have become something other than what it is: a man-made, political association of free persons and countries. Arguments of necessity, doom and fate seem to have driven out those of consent and agreement. Classical politics consisted of free men talking to each other in the marketplace.

Secondly, if both sides are uncomfortable, and will in all likelihood continue to be so, why shouldn’t Britain leave? The rest of the EU is not on easy terms with the UK, which in the event of its deciding to remain will have to cope with large numbers of its own people who are at least uneasy with, if not actually opposed to, the Union.

Thirdly, there is the so-called bicycle issue. The EU — we are often told — is like a bicycle that must either go forward or fall over. This is inaccurate. It is actually more like a modern train, stable and with considerable inertia. Nevertheless, the false bicycle analogy justifies the mindset behind ‘ever closer union’. Just why must integration be quite literally ‘ever closer’? ‘Ever’ speaks to a never-ending story, one of integration without limits other than that of one fully homogeneous state. Surely Brussels does not have exactly this in mind(I do not see Brussels as a dark cave of conspirators), but the ‘ever closer’ logic pervades EU institutions, rationales and policies. We should be clear that Americans did not seek ‘ever closer’ union but rather a union ‘more perfect’ than the fragile one that had gone before. The German Constitutional Court famously produced several magisterial rulings (Solange, Maastricht, Lisbon), but the trend to ‘Kompetenz-Kompetenz’ has not been reversed, especially regarding countries other than Germany. Needless to say, the present crisis reinforced it.

A fourth reason to favour Brexit is that EU genetics makes difficult any serious change of direction. Today’s EU cannot stop itself being interfering, hyper-regulatory, and centralising. When the USA came into being it accorded a handful of strong, typically political powers to Washington (foreign policy, war and peace, currency, commerce, etc.), leaving the rest to the discretion of member states, with scarce a word about them in the Constitution. Conversely, the EU was born humbly, all but unnoticed by the people, with a very few, conferred powers over technical and economic matters. The new political machine advanced in an incremental, piecemeal way, driven by technocrats who were invisible and unaccountable to the public. With such precedents, an ever-increasing centralisation and the regulation of endless minutiae were but a matter of time (although for decades many of us failed to see it clearly). The EU is incapable of doing things other than by the functionalist method. This worked so well during the first decades of integration that when later faced with very serious problems (e.g., the recent financial crisis) all that the EU rulers can think of is a further turn of the centralising, regulating screw, thereby curtailing liberties and, especially recently, developing a new, autocratic dimension. This also explains why Brussels is comfortable with routine and technical administration things, but develops paralysis when grand and political problems are at stake. This is historically quite unlike Washington, which for a very long time did not interfere much in minor problems but focused on foreign policy, war, and serious truly national questions. Washington was able to win two World Wars but is unable to homogenise the civil laws of member states. Brussels is able to homogenise beer mugs if it so chooses but is unable to solve major problems.

A fifth and last point: democracy. Technocracy and functionalism have long been inherent to the EU. Autocracy and imposition have not been so, yet they now seem to have come to stay. Lincoln famously described democracy as ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. The high and mighty of the EU talk to one other with no real, concrete people in mind, and then impose on us political decisions disguised as technical, indisputable policies. No one can ignore the facts that even the UK of today is far from democratic ‘perfection’ and that most other EU states, including Spain, have little, if any, democratic tradition. Ceteris paribus, size does matter. If a wrong or unjust policy be adopted — we have experienced both during this crisis — the bigger and higher the sphere of power, the bigger and more difficult to mend the damage done. Every human government will sooner or later make some wrong or unjust decisions, and experience suggests that, to avoid monopolies of power or reduce them to a minimum, we should be ruled by a plurality of powers, and have them checking and balancing one another however imperfect they may happen to be.

Antonio-Carlos Pereira-Menaut is a Jean Monnet Chairholder at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.