Many people in the United Kingdom believe that their country can do perfectly well outside the European Union. Members of the U.K. Independence Party even think that Britain would do better, as do a considerable number of Conservative “Euroskeptics.” They dream of Britain as a kind of Singapore of the West, a commercial powerhouse ruled from the city of London.
That is why Prime Minister David Cameron felt obliged to offer the British people a referendum on a simple question: in or out. Cameron does not personally want Britain to leave the EU, but he knows that some form of democratic consent is needed for future British governments to settle the matter.
The year of the promised referendum, 2017, is comfortably far away. Many things may change in the meantime. If the eurozone forges ahead, what countries outside the zone do may not matter much anymore. Moreover, other Europeans may end up agreeing with Cameron that ever closer political union in Europe is undesirable – if they have a choice, that is, which is by no means certain.
In the meantime, there is another question to be considered: How many Europeans want Britain to stay in the EU? The answer depends partly on nationality. The smaller northern countries, such as the Netherlands, have traditionally wanted Britain to be in. Without Britain, they would be bossed around by France, and even more so by Germany. And yet, as memories of World War II fade, more and more people in the Netherlands and Scandinavia feel content to be under Germany’s powerful wings.
But Germany itself would probably prefer to keep its British partner, rather than face the Mediterranean countries alone. Culture still matters. And the Germans have much in common with the British – more than they do with the Greeks, or even the Italians.
France is a different matter. According to a recent poll, 54 percent of the French would prefer Britain to leave the EU. This, too, might have something to do with culture. Britain never was very popular in France. President Charles de Gaulle blocked British entry into the European Economic Community twice. Like many French leaders, de Gaulle was deeply suspicious of the “Anglo-Saxons.” France, in his grandiose view, was the natural guardian of European values, which, according to him, were coextensive with French values.
In 1930, Winston Churchill said of his country: “We are with Europe, but not of it.” It is a sentiment still shared by many in Britain. De Gaulle agreed. As he once put it, somewhat ironically, Britain would lose its identity as a member of a European union, and this would be a great pity.
But culture and nationality, or even Gaullist chauvinism, cannot explain everything. There is an important political dimension to the pro- or anti-British sentiments in Europe. The French who said they wanted Britain to leave the EU were largely on the left, while many who held the opposite view were further to the right. It is not entirely clear why, though it is probably because the right includes neoliberals, who share the British attitude to business and free trade.
Like leftists everywhere, the French left favors a large degree of state control of the economy, together with technocratic rather than liberal solutions to social and economic problems. This type of thinking has played a vital role in the development of European institutions.
Jean Monnet, one of the godfathers of European unification, embodied this tendency – a born bureaucrat who distrusted politicians. Democratic politics are messy and divisive, and riddled with compromises. Monnet hated all that. He was obsessed by the ideal of unity. And he wanted things to get done, uncompromised by political wheeling and dealing.
Monnet and other European technocrats were not exactly opposed to democracy, but in their zeal to unify Europe’s diverse nation-states, they often appeared to ignore it. The Eurocrats knew what was best for Europe’s citizens, and they knew what needed to be done. Too much public debate, or interference from citizens and their political representatives, would only slow things down. Hence the typical EU language about “unstoppable trains” and “irreversible decisions”: Citizens are not supposed to question the wisdom of great planners.
This emphasis on planning was one reason why the “European project” always appealed to the left – and not only in France. The technocratic belief in ideal models is inherently utopian. Those on the left also shared a deep aversion to nationalism, born of two disastrous European wars.
The British, whose Churchillian nationalism helped them to prevail against Adolph Hitler’s attacks, never shared this aversion. And their deep pride in Britain’s liberal-democratic tradition made them suspicious of meddling Brussels bureaucrats. Some of this is doubtless the result of chauvinism, even xenophobia. How can one possibly share political authority with foreigners?
But it would be wrong simply to dismiss British doubts about the European drive toward greater unity. It is not just a nationalist reaction. Many Europeans now resent the expanding powers of the EU bureaucracy. British resistance to grand European plans is the democratic grit in an enterprise that could become authoritarian, despite having the best intentions, and should serve as a necessary corrective to the utopianism of the technocrats.
Those who favor European unification should take criticisms of its political flaws very seriously. Doing so is the only chance to ensure that a united Europe, whatever form it takes, will be democratic, as well as economically beneficial. That is why Europe needs Britain: not as an offshore center of banking and commerce, but as a difficult, questioning, stubbornly democratic partner.
Ian Buruma is a professor of democracy, human rights, and journalism at Bard College. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © www.project-syndicate.org.