by Kai Weiss

When Britain decided to leave the European Union on June 23, 2016, shockwaves undoubtedly went through Brussels and Europe in general. The EU has, of course, been going through many crises over the last decades, and especially in the years of the euro crisis dissatisfaction was high in many member states. But the fact that one of the largest and most important member states decided to leave the project outright was a precedent.

At first, Brussels was in a state of utter shock – for many, it seemed as if the end of the EU was nigh. The crucial question then was how to recover from Brexit. Which direction should continental Europe take without Great Britain, its old love-hate relationship which decided to exit?

For many, it seemed obvious that the time had come to make a U-turn, to do less in the future. After all, the British did not vote to leave because too little integration had taken place yet at the European level. The euro crisis seemed to be another prime example that the EU had gone too far. In addition, the migration crisis demonstrated the inability of the member states to find a common denominator even in the most urgent crises. Meanwhile, Eurosceptic forces were gaining steam all over the continent.

But in a shocking turn of events, the decision was taken in Brussels, initiated by Commission President Jean Claude Juncker and the newly inaugurated French President Emmanuel Macron, to stand up for the “ever closer union” even more enthusiastically. In times of populism and burgeoning nationalism, the moment would be now, they felt, to defend the European project stronger than ever.

To this day, an endless stream of ideas has been voiced on how this could be done, all of these ideas having been presented in pompous speeches in parliaments, at universities and on debate stages. They all had one aspect in common: there has to be more integration, more centralization in Belgium’s capital. Because if Europe does not continue along this path, Europe would return to an era that no one wants to live through again.

How the Brussels elite and some heads of government drew this lesson from Brexit is not quite clear at first glance. Of course, politicians can defend the EU as much as they want by calling it a peace project and success of free trade and liberalism – hardly anyone will disagree.

But the EU was already all of that several decades ago. What Brussels has done since is far from it – and far from the ideals of liberal democracy. To talk about democracy would be hypocritical at this point anyway, ever since multiple referenda in which countries voted against more integration have been ignored since the 1990s. And whether a powerful bureaucracy in a city hundreds of miles away from most citizens is particularly democratic is also questionable.

The argument of economic dynamism has similarly been left behind. Further deepening and strengthening the common market and continuing to dismantle barriers has long been ignored. In the same way, free trade with the outside world has been increasingly forgotten. Instead, protectionist and regulatory aspects have increasingly developed. Successful companies are being penalized nowadays, while the Commission is trying to finance the Brussels apparatus – and of course the billions in agricultural subsidies and redistribution programs to southern and eastern Europe – at the expense of private companies and citizens.

The euro, described by prominent economists like Hans-Werner Sinn as a “historical error,” has suffered an enormous loss in value thanks to the monetary policy of the European Central Bank. This has led to economic impoverishment of several countries and the erosion of personal wealth of ordinary citizens, and has created an artificial bubble, which at some point threatens to burst, through the ECB’s zero interest rate policy.

At the same time, the popularity of the EU among Europeans has hardly improved. It may be true that the EU itself as an institution is more popular than ever before. But the same cannot be said about the work of the Brussels elite.

In summary, it can, therefore, be stated that the integration attempts of recent decades have failed, to put it mildly. So why then do federalists, the advocates of a federal, united, Europe, think that all we have to do is to go even further in order to finally reach the turning point?

Listening to the federalists, it quickly turns out that for them, the EU is more than just a supranational organization for the coordination of individual states. For them, the EU is Europe and Europe is the EU. If one disappears, the other does so, too. If you criticize one, you criticize the other. They live for this project; the success of the EU is more important to them than anything else. One could almost say that they feel the “Pulse of Europe” – or at least they believe so.

In this sense, the federalists follow a strongly progressive view on the EU. For them, a united Europe, imitating the United States of America, is the final goal for achieving ultimate peace and prosperity in Europe. The nation-states are mere relics of the past, perhaps even the main reason for the great wars of the twentieth century, which made the EU necessary. Instead of counting on national sovereignty and identity, those concepts would need to make way – similarly to anything else that could prevent bringing about the end state – for something much bigger: a European sovereignty and European identity.

For this reason, obvious problems such as, for example, the euro are simply ignored. For EU fanatics, the euro is not simply a currency that has gone wrong. For them, it is a symbol of the European project and criticizing it would be tantamount to criticizing Europe in general.

Instead, increasing integration is the only way to stay on the “right side of history.” The United States of Europe is the final destination – and the fastest way to get there is pursued, regardless of the obstacles.

But federalists have to finally realize – and one would think Brexit would have been a good enough reason – that their progressivist philosophy of the EU will end in chaos. Economic disasters are ignored because of an irrational (self-)infatuation. Opposition of member states and citizens has no meaning whatsoever.

In the case of the latter, fanatics will often bring up the argument that all this would no longer be a problem once a European identity has been created. The citizens of Europe should see themselves as exactly that: citizens of Europe, not of Germany or France.

And the federalists are right about this to a certain extent: for if people were to see themselves primarily as Europeans, centralization in Europe’s capital would indeed be much less absurd and more readily accepted. But who in Europe really sees themselves first and foremost as Europeans? It is an incredibly tiny minority and consists largely of the Erasmus generation, i.e. those who, at the expense of their fellow citizens, went on a “study” abroad semester and celebrated for three months on a beach in Spain or Portugal with their new European friends and now believe that this would justify disasters such as the euro or tax harmonization.

Meanwhile, the Brussels elite is considering on a daily basis how to spread European identity among ordinary citizens. But this cannot be done from above – except through coercion. If a European identity ever comes into being, it must come from the citizens themselves. As long as this is not the case, federalists will have to accept the reality that Europeans do not share their enthusiasm for the abolition of their nation-states for a large European apparatus.

And there is nothing wrong with that. After all, one of Europe’s strengths has always been its diversity. The former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher summed this up in her famous 1988 Bruges speech: “Europe will be stronger precisely because it has France as France, Spain as Spain, Britain as Britain, each with its own customs, traditions and identity. It would be folly to try to fit them into some sort of identikit European personality.”

This decentralization is, after all, a characteristic that has also always made Europe unique. For centuries, the greatest thinkers have wondered why liberalism and capitalism, with its subsequent prosperity, was to first ascend in Europe. There are enough answers and in reality, the right one is probably a mixture of many different ones. However, it is widely agreed that the Kleinstaaterei, i.e. the hundreds upon hundreds of small states in Europe, was an important reason and at the very least a precondition.

One story goes that this pluralism made it possible for people to move quickly from one state to another with borders so close, enabling European citizens to choose where to settle – something that today must sound familiar. This freedom of choice and the simplicity of quickly moving on created competition between states to offer the most attractive place to live. And because a policy that was as free as possible turned out to be particularly successful for people, there was an incentive for states to offer such a policy.

Of course, it is not only the ideas of individual liberty, decentralization, and diversity that existed for the first time in Europe over a longer period of time. Other ideas have also emerged in their present form on this continent and they represent the exact opposite, that of centralism, collectivism, and dehumanization. These ideas would be those which showed their ugly face – and the ugliest face of Europe – in the twentieth century.

Today, the EU has the choice of which side to choose, which element of European history it wants to propagate. It is certainly far from the totalitarian regimes of the previous century. One can assume – and hope – that it will always be this way. And, of course, none of the Brussels elite has any intention of going in this direction.

And yet, the ideas that federalists have today share the same basis, even if accidentally. They want to centralize decisions in Brussels. They increasingly want to prevent free enterprise from being free. They want to seal themselves off from the outside world. They want to create an identity which has never existed before. And anyone who opposes these plans needs to be vilified as a populist, nationalist, or any other empty, nonsensical insult.

The federalists may think that their vision of the “ever closer union” is ground-breaking and innovative. But the idea of creating a mega-state is not new – the fact that this idea is still being considered in the 21st century is a sad example of how quickly one forgets.

Were the European project come – or degenerated – to this, the EU would be doomed to failure. Either it would sooner or later collapse because of its own blindness or, because of ignoring dissenting votes, would cause an even stronger uprising of actual nationalist forces – and would, thus, potentially produce exactly what is most feared and the prevention of which European integration even began in the first place.

However, there is an alternative – and a European alternative anyway. It is a Europe that once again sees the benefits of decentralization and pluralism. It is a European Union in which free and sovereign nation-states come together to cooperate. A European Union in which economic freedom is promoted and trade barriers reduced. A European Union, with which the European countries can come together in order to interact more freely with the rest of the world. And a European Union that can provide security in times of crises, in times of war on its own doorstep and in times of terrorism, instead of failing in nihilism and by being distracted because of another great reform idea.

First and foremost, it should be a European Union in which all citizens have a voice – a Europe in which – as far as possible – decisions are taken locally, not far away in Brussels. Such an EU would produce the best Europe has to offer. It would be an EU that really secures peace and promotes prosperity instead of getting caught up in utopian dreams.

Kai Weiss is a Research Fellow at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member of the Friedrich A. v. Hayek Institute.

The article can be read in German in the Peace Love Liberty magazine (pp. 34-36).

The views expressed on AustrianCenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.