Every day brings a fresh reminder that the UK was lucky to escape when it still had the opportunity
After a trip to America following the Second World War, the EU’s forgotten founding father, the legal scholar Walter Hallstein, decided that Europe’s destiny was to “mirror” the US superpower. He would be appointed president of its new political federation. A Commission, overseen by technocratic philosopher-kings, would replace national civil servants. Laissez-faire Britain would be excluded, and any attempt to reduce the project to a mere free trade body violently fought off.
But there was a problem. European leaders thought Hallstein a delusional snob. The only thing that prevented Charles de Gaulle – who was particularly contemptuous of the vision – from squashing a project “devoid of reality” was the allure of containing Germany and agricultural subsidies. So the proto-EU was half-born a monster; Hallstein’s grand strategy almost immediately sank into a morass of budget rows and political paralysis. Still, he gloried in being first president of the commission of the EEC and the euro-federalist dream lived on.
The result is that the European project was, and remains, an illusion: a 1950s Disney fairytale wrapped in Continental legalese. It is a failed federation not just riven by power struggles and vanity, but tormented by suspicion of “Anglo-Saxon” freedom.
This has been more evident than usual lately, and every day seems to bring a fresh reminder to even the most disillusioned Brexiteers of exactly why we left. Emmanuel Macron continues to use the EU as an electoral weapon, petulantly agitating for a blockade against the UK, albeit with little success. Relations between Brussels and some East European states have reached new lows, amid accusations of backsliding on rights, and Poland's president has even said the EU will collapse if it blackmails his country. The bloc is an irrelevance on almost every major foreign policy issue, from the Iranian nuclear talks to the Western pivot towards Indo-China.
Anti-Brexiteers nonetheless remain entranced by the EU’s mythology. How they gush at its iron integrity and cheered on every supposed “blinder” pulled off by chess grandmaster Michel Barnier in the Brexit talks. But they make the rookie error of mistaking dogmatism for ideological strength.
Brussels’s doubling down on cosmetic “technical solutions” to the impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol is a case in point. For all the lofty claims of protecting the single market (which Brussels knows could be pragmatically safeguarded by mutual enforcement), it is the free-trading UK’s divergence from its regulatory orbit that fills it with terror.
Brussels will do everything it can to prevent this from happening. Not only to deter other member states from following the UK out of the door. In its legalistic obsessions and refusal to bend to reality, it is trying to protect itself from a devastating truth: the Eurocrats called it wrong when they bought into dreams of a superpower, super-bureaucracy 60 years ago. And now an existential crisis, potentially even greater than 2009, is coming, as its misreading of the modern era catches up with it on three fronts.
First is economic. The EU’s low-growth, dirigiste model has long condemned the bloc to relative decline. But it has also squandered the chance to fix the fault-lines that caused the last Eurozone crisis and it remains trapped in the delusion that the single currency could survive another one. Ten years on from the Greek bailout catastrophe, Germany has arguably already decided the fate of the disastrous bid to chain Europe together in fiscal union. It has refused to back the centralising reforms that would fully safeguard the currency from future shocks, and the country’s prospective new finance minister, Christian Lindner, appears unlikely to change course. He once called for Greece to be kicked temporarily out of the Eurozone.
Second, there is its claim to global relevance. With the rise of China, the era of American supremacy is over. In recent years, the EU has been able to operate as an “empire within an empire”, relying on America’s military prowess while turning itself into a regulatory superpower in its own right. Today, though, it is estranged from its trans-Atlantic partner, having spent recent years dismissing American suspicions of Beijing. The compromised WTO may soon be unable to shield it from China’s worst anti-trade practices.
Worse, the AI arms race started by Beijing threatens its only true source of power, the “Brussels Effect”. Since the 1990s, this phenomenon has seen global firms, particularly in traditional industries like cars and chemicals, accept EU regulations as the price for entering its vast market, and then effectively export EU law by rolling their regulations across their global operations.
In the growth area of technology, however, the EU is struggling to repeat the trick. It seems to realise that the key to hegemony in the digital era is to be light-touch, rather than to stifle every innovation in regulation. It has, for example, flirted, but done nothing with, inspired calls from some quarters for a single market data pool, open to all firms. This would address the single biggest obstacle to tech innovation in the West which is data hoarding by tech giants. Unable to reinvent itself, however, the EU staggers towards fresh catastrophe, with GDPR set to eclipse even the euro as a historic disaster.
Finally, in the Covid years, national protectionism is set to challenge the EU's claim as guardian of the rules-based trading order. It has already extensively trashed its own credibility on this front, shutting down its borders just when Europe become the Covid epicentre and blocking vaccine exports. Now new talk of “national strategic resilience” undermines whatever reputation the EU might have had to be a neutral custodian of trade. A savvier version of the EU would, like Britain, be striking trade agreements like no tomorrow to counter the de-globalisation narrative. It looks more likely that Brussels will never agree a new deal ever again, thanks to political division and pushback from environmental and labour lobbyists.
The worst mistakes are the easiest to make. Through luck and the strength of its idealism, the EU has managed to endure. Through decades of turbulence it has never retreated from its founding vision of bureaucratic technocracy. Now, though, as the world transforms, the EU’s aura of invincible purpose is fading away. The end will not be implosion but obsolescence. And it is surely not a matter of “if” but “when”.