The meaning of any nation’s membership in or departure from any “union” or alliance, especially with regard to geopolitical strategies, depends entirely on the nature and degree of that unity or alliance—in short, on the extent to which these represent a common will. History teaches that international organizations, ranging from formal “unions” to informal alliances, tend to obscure the members’ differing wills, and to be hindrances to rational strategizing, individual and collective. Since few international organizations have obscured their members’ different identities and perspectives to the degree that the European Union (EU) has, departures from it would only clarify the strategic choices of those who remain as well as of those who leave. Above all, the departure of member states from the EU would remind one and all of what Western elites have forgotten in recent decades—that the very existence of nations, never mind of coalitions, rests on bringing together the sentiments of millions of ordinary citizens.
To draw power out of economic substance, to make and execute strategy to weigh in the councils of nations, requires marshaling diverse popular sentiments and interests into common purpose and will. Countries involve others in their own strategic planning in order to increase their own capacity to do that, and the impact of what they might do. But taking account of another’s interests often results in the opposite. As Charles De Gaulle noted of the Franco-British informal alliance of the 1930s, these partners found “in each other excuses for their own reticence.” Supranational organizations that supersede alliances tend to dilute whatever commonality of purpose their members might’ve had insofar as they are valued for themselves rather than for what they might accomplish. “Collective security” depends—as Woodrow Wilson made clear—on the existence of “a community of power.” Said Wilson: “When all unite to act in the same sense and with the same purpose all act in the common interest…” But on planet Earth, such things do not exist.
Nevertheless, the impression has fastened on the U.S. foreign policy community that international organizations, especially supranational ones—the United Nations, the EU, NATO, etc.—are so inherently valuable that actions undertaken by their members either unilaterally or as part of ad-hoc “coalitions of the willing” are less solidly based, or even less legitimate. The opposite is the truth, because any attempt to make or execute international strategy that is not based on wills that are concurrent (if not exactly common) is foredoomed to divided councils, unfulfilled pledges, withdrawals of support, and separate dealings with adversaries. One need not delve into how the differences between the EU’s members on vital issues (Poland and the Baltics vs. the rest regarding relations with Russia, France vs. Germany on the Middle East, Britain vs. the rest on relations with the U.S.) have well-nigh nullified Europe’s power in these matters to grasp the problem.
The issue of the European Union’s inherent worth to the West is subject to examination by a kindred logic. In fact, the EU has been as deleterious to the coherence of popular will within the member states, that is, to their viability, as it has to Europe’s weight in the world. What would be the effect of a reduction in the number of the EU’s members on their viability as polities?
In the 1970s, when European statesmen decided to depart from the goal of “Europe des Patries” that had animated Konrad Adenauer, Charles De Gaulle, and Alcide De Gasperi, they chose a model of governance that displaced decisions—wholesale and retail—about how to live life, from governments elected by each nation’s people to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. The EU’s ensuing “democratic deficit” has done nothing but grow. It has deprived of legitimacy not just the EU but the member states as well. The EU has compounded the sense of Europeans that they are governed by a complex of bureaucrats and big businessmen as corrupt as they are incompetent and partial. Each of its member peoples now is less cohesive within itself, feels more helpless than ever in the face of its problems, and trusts less in its neighbors’ capacity or good will in solving them.
The EU’s “democratic deficit” is not wholly to blame for turning its member peoples into entitled and resentful consumers of government services with an ever less clear sense of their own responsibilities. Nor would devolving responsibility to each of the states resolve all problems. In fact, although the several member states work under very different economic, cultural, indeed geographic circumstances (vide the problem of migration), all need substantial cooperation with one another. But the departure of a number of states from the EU would focus the minds of all Westerners on the essential questions of politics, domestic as well as international: what people want, what they will or will not do, will or will not sacrifice, to get it.
The British people’s decision to leave the EU is sure to increase the already lively sentiments among the French, the Dutch, and others to follow, and may administer a much needed dose of responsibility to Western politics.