The European Union: British Misconceptions

By Simone Clericuzio

After a delusional electoral campaign the ballot was finally cast: the United Kingdom will leave the European Union and all its problems to macerate for themselves. Britain will now face a fabled scenery: a curb on East-European migrants, a revitalised economy and a newly-conquered independence from an evil tyrant – or maybe not. Maybe the participation in the EU project had nothing to do with this after all. The UK’s perception of the European political attempt has been significantly flawed from the beginning: the EU is a political project, not an economic one.

When Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973 all it cared about was its economic potential. The late 1960s and early 1970s had been a dire period for the country’s economy: the recent loss of the empire had struck a fatal blow to its global status and there no longer existed a protected imperial market to export goods to. The new reality was one of autonomous nation-states competing for largely protected markets where competition was fierce. Britain was rapidly losing its industrial sector and its poverty of natural resources (coal excluded) impaired its potential on global markets.

The Thatcher revolution and the transformation of the UK into a service-based system was yet to come. For the time being, all it could do was join the then still customs union, reconsidering its previous decision not to sign the 1957 Treaty of Rome. The hope was to overcome the succession of inflationary crises that had plagued the finances thus far.

Throughout the decades, the UK retained the original inspiration that led it to join the EEC. Its only and constant interest was to strengthen the economy using the Union as a tool, particularly after the establishment of the single market. It is clear if we pay attention to the campaign’s themes. Leave supporters advocated Brexit in order to reduce immigration, perceived as the main source of unemployment and diminishing living standards among British citizens. They argued that an economy freed from the Eurobureaucracy and the red tape imposed by technocrats in Brussels might finally soar.

Bremainers, instead, waved at the scared electors the economic rollercoaster that the country would be forced to face in the event of a Leave’s victory. In any case, neither of the contenders treated Europe for what really is: a political project devised by enlightened statesmen and intellectuals in the wake of the most atrocious war humanity had ever known.

The founding fathers’ original scope was not that of economic prosperity for its own sake. Schuman, Monet, Adenauer, De Gasperi and Spinelli desired to build a peaceful community of states in which sovereignty would be transferred to a higher authority without depriving single states of their control on the territory. The UK has never given in to this narrative. It might be an erroneous understanding of politics and a vane, idealistic project. But British citizens never bothered to discuss it during the campaign.

All that mattered was British unemployment, the state of the British economy, the number of people moving to Britain. The European Union was never treated as a regional ambition, a long-term political project that affected millions of people outside British borders. Moreover, it was never mentioned the awe that this project inspires in people across the world, the envy they feel for a region that was able to build a peaceful and prosperous order out of the wreckages of war.

We are now facing the concretisation of a prolonged misunderstanding. History has its own times: a flawed idea requires decades to have an impact on reality. The eventual break-up was inevitable. While the core European countries have been pursuing an “ever closer union” as their political strategy, Britain has pulled the rope in the opposite direction. ‘Never a union of states’ it was said, ‘just a common market’. These two views could not coexist: the EU is either a political project or an economic one, it cannot be both, and it is better that the paths part if they cannot be reconciled.

The common market alone, though, is a very humble achievement. Several times history has witnessed the creation of economic communities aiming simply at prosperity. Never before, instead, had humanity been faced with a project of the EU’s scale: a prolonged peace obtained in a region previously torn by conflict, a place where the rule of the sword had trumped the rule of law finally made peaceful through cooperation rather than subjugation.

Brexit might constitute the worst crisis the Union has faced so far, but if Britain senses that this is not its project, as it is clear from the way it has framed the debate, then it is reasonable that it changes its long-term political strategy. Being part of a union whose main goal has been misunderstood makes no sense.

The European Union is the most ambitious political project in human history. It might fail, maybe even in the near future. It might be an intellectual fantasy nurtured by idealists. What is certain is that it requires from all its members determination and full confidence in the common goal: a politically unified community that aims at cooperation and peace.


Photograph by Michael Greenberg via Flickr

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