After Brexit: Europe beyond fanaticism and fear | Opinion | DW | 28.06.2016
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After Brexit: Europe beyond fanaticism and fear

As the European Union struggles to contain the post-Brexit fallout it should not let itself be driven by misguided populism and policies, writes Jan-Werner Müller.

There is much whistling in Europe's darkness right now: "every crisis is an opportunity" or "the Founding Fathers of European integration thought that Europe would advance through crises" - these are the sorts of phrases with which European elites are currently trying to comfort themselves. There is also a vague hope that somehow a combination of British pragmatism and Brussels subterfuge could result in the Brexit vote not ending up being a real divorce, after all. One only needs to remember that at various points during the past decade, French, Dutch, and Irish populations voted against the substance of the Lisbon Treaty - and now they live under that Treaty nonetheless.

These are illusions. To be sure, fears of Brexit being soon followed by Dexit, Nexit, and so on, are overblown: there isn't anything close to a majority in any of these countries for getting out of the Union altogether. But neither are hopes plausible that somehow this crisis will result in a great leap forward for integration. It is simply not true that all Europeans minus the recalcitrant Brits have been itching to move ahead with ever closer union. Danish, Swedish, and Dutch governments in particular have long been happy that London is putting the brakes on European integration. Euroscepticism in these countries is not as deep as in Britain, but all would be reluctant now to deepen integration according to Franco-German plans.

Plus: there are no such plans anyway. Berlin and Paris both talk the talk of completing "Political Union," but they mean radically different things by the term. Germany actually is ready to surrender further competences (and, as the recent ruling by the German Constitutional Court showed, might face fewer legal obstacles than had long been assumed). But France, especially under a fatally weakened President Hollande, who might well be eliminated by Marine Le Pen in the first round of the presidential elections next year, will not be keen to, as the misleading phrase goes, "surrender more sovereignty." Yet, even if Paris somehow were ready, conceptions of how the eurozone and the EU more widely should be governed differ markedly between what is increasingly an odd couple franco-allemand.

portrait photo of man Copyright: Tor Birk Trads, Princeton University

Jan-Werner Müller

National leaders will draw the lesson that Europeans simply are not ready for more integration, and that the EU needs to slow down. On one level, that seems sensible. Just think of what the opposite appears to look like: arch-federalist Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister, immediately after Brexit called for another constitutional convention to speed ahead with ever closer union - a clear case, it seems, of fanaticism as defined by American philosopher George Santayana as "redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim."

Remembering the aims and being more transparent about which aims are realistic and desirable is what the EU needs now. Through small, often ill-conceived steps, the Union has ended up with one money and, in theory, one external border. Yet it has consistently been denied the financial and practical means to make the eurozone and the Schengen area work properly. To make things worse, many national governments have been happy to play a cynical game where they make it impossible for the European Commission to make the euro and borderless Europe function - and then, when things indeed fail to function, blame "Brussels" for everything that goes wrong.

The debate at this point should not be an abstract one about "more" or "less" Europe, or "slower" or "faster" Europe as such. Europeans should take stock of what they have created and have an open debate whether they are ready to do what needs to be done to fix what everyone agrees was both an ill-conceived currency union and common border. In that sense, Verhofstadt actually has a point: there needs to be a long, hard look at fundamentals.

Brexit, though it was not the first reversal of integration, has certainly for good broken the taboo that Europe can only ever move into the direction of further integration (as what used to be called the shark and the bicycle theory of integration held: if the shark stops moving, it dies; if the cyclist stops pedaling, she falls over - except that the EU is not a shark and that a bicyclist can also simply put her feet down). There is nothing illegitimate as such about member states deciding that, in some respects, integration has actually gone too far for them.

However, there is something wrong with such decisions being based on both false premises and false promises. The deplorable Brexit debate in the run-up to the referendum shows what can happen when a political class, one way or another, capitulates to a press that systematically portrays issues of existential importance in a misleading way.

It also demonstrates the fateful effects of allowing a populist like Nigel Farage to frame the conversation. Farage from the beginning managed to make Brexit a matter of identity politics: either authentic English democracy or Brussels dictatorship by funny foreigners. The Remain campaign conceded that there was truth to this account; once they did that, appeals to economic interests could only be ineffective. Nobody argued the case that European integration does not as such threaten national power, but actually enhances it in crucial ways on the world stage. Instead, the solipsism of the Brexiteers (according to which democracy can today only mean autarchy) was left uncontested.

Thus, European politicians should not shy away from putting fundamental questions on the table. Hunkering down or redoubling efforts to deepen integration without looking left or right will only confirm the clichéd reading that "elites aren't listening." But when they address the very basics of European integration, politicians must have the courage and convictions that the likes of Cameron and Corbyn have so spectacularly lacked. Populism and identity politics are not somehow destined to win every battle over the meaning of European integration. It's a question of how others confront them.

Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of politics at Princeton and a fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences, Vienna. His book "What Is Populism?" will be published in September.