“Brexit” and the Failure of Europe

The continent that once ruled the world seems adrift as its soul is consumed by bureaucracy and political correctness.

It’s difficult for most non-Europeans to grasp the scale of the devastation that overtook Europe twice in the twentieth century. Having descended into the abyss between 1914 and 1918, European nations were at it again twenty years later. They consequently endured an apocalypse of death and destruction from Normandy in the West to Stalingrad in the East. “Never again!” became the lodestone of numerous European politicians, most notably Catholic statesmen such as West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, Italy’s Alcide de Gasperi, and France’s Robert Schuman (presently being considered by the Catholic Church for beatification), all of whom headed Christian Democratic-led governments in the immediate postwar years.

It was against this background that European unification became seen as a surefire way of securing peace and damping down the fires of nationalism. And from a certain perspective, that made sense. For all their differences, European nations had much in common. These ranged from a rootedness in Christianity and a substantial Jewish influence to the legacies of the Greeks, Romans, and the various Enlightenments. Then there was the fact that intra-European trade had existed for centuries, forging not-easily broken economic bonds.

The Treaty of Rome, which sought to create a common market by securing the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labor between the 6 original signatory countries, was signed on 25 March 1957. It’s no coincidence that the ceremony was held at the Palazzo dei Conservatori on Rome’s Capitoline Hill. Built on top of a sixth century BC pagan temple and refurbished by no less than Michelangelo, the Palazzo functioned as a center for businesses and entrepreneurs from across medieval Europe to come together to engage in peaceful trade. Given that the European continent had been laid waste by war only 12 years earlier, the establishment of the then European Economic Community (EEC) was seen as a great achievement and cause for celebration.

All this seems far removed from today’s European Union. The common market certainly exists and has even expanded to 28 nations. But the continent is flooded with political movements and parties which differ about many things but share a deep distrust of—and an increasing antagonism towards—the EU. It’s a hostility that transcends more traditional divides such as right and left, employers and employees, Catholic and Protestant, Western and Eastern Europe, or Northern and Southern Europe. Now it has claimed its first major victory, when Britain—the EU’s second-biggest economy—voted by a relatively comfortable margin to formally exit the supranational union.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as the result of resurgent nationalism and fear of immigrants, something accentuated by the EU’s inept handling of the 2015 migrant crisis and the outbreak of Islamist jihadist violence. Certainly, there is something to this. But it’s also a distraction from an even bigger source of alienation: namely, the form assumed by the contemporary EU, especially its political leadership and bureaucracy. These groups are, in many Europeans’ view, deeply anti-democratic, downright contemptuous of anyone who expresses misgivings about their agenda, and inclined to insist that most problems can be resolved by giving the EU—and therefore EU officials—more power. People in Britain voted for Brexit for many, often different reasons. It’s hard, however, to deny that the EU’s top-down approach to public life, its stealth supplanting of national laws, and, perhaps above all, the sheer arrogance of its political-bureaucratic leadership played a major role in causing 52 percent of British voters to say that enough was enough. 

The economist-prophet

Any visitor to Brussels these days is bound to be taken aback by the sheer number of EU agencies and organs housed by the city. Leaving aside the aesthetically questionable architecture of many of the buildings inhabited by such organizations, the EU gives whole new meaning to the word “bureaucracy.” Brussels teems with hundreds of EU politicians and representatives of member-states as well as thousands of assorted advisors, civil servants, and (invariably state-funded) NGOs. Only a handful of these people are actually elected by normal citizens.

It’s this world of unaccountable political insiders and the perception (fair or otherwise) that the only interests they serve are their own which drove many people in Britain to tick “Leave” on June 23. Yet it’s a world whose emergence was also predicted in the 1950s by one economist who, in this regard, truly merits the title “prophetic.”

Most early opponents of European political and economic integration were old-fashioned socialists. They worried that a common market might impede implementation of socialist policies. A rare exception to this rule was the German economist Wilhelm Röpke. Today Röpke is known as the foremost intellectual progenitor of the postwar German economic miracle. A devout Lutheran deeply versed in Catholic social teaching, Röpke was also one of the very few free market economists who loudly and publicly criticized what would become today’s EU even before the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957. 

Röpke’s proto-Euroscepticism didn’t arise from nationalist sentiments. His experiences as a highly-decorated combat soldier fighting in the German army on the Western front during the First World War left him with an enduring aversion to militarism and nationalism, especially its fascist varieties—so much so that Röpke was one of the first academics dismissed from German universities by the National Socialists in 1933. Moreover, as an economist unusually well-read in other disciplines, Röpke recognized that modern nation-states have not, historically-speaking, always been freedom’s allies. Nevertheless, Röpke was highly critical of the Treaty of Rome and made several predictions about how the EEC was likely to develop.

It’s striking just how much Röpke got right about the character that’s been assumed by the European integration project. In 1958, for instance, Röpke forecast that it would eventually pit fiscally-responsible European nations against less-economically disciplined countries. In our own time, this division has become one of the major cleavages that, for instance, distinguishes fiscally-responsible Germany and Finland from economic disasters such as France and Greece.

On the topic of a single European currency, Röpke insisted that it would work only if member-states followed disciplined fiscal policies and that there were mechanisms available to oust any nation that violated tough rules regarding spending. He doubted, however, that such conditions would be met in a Europe in which (1) governments were proving skilled at skirting rules, (2) generous welfare was increasingly regarded as a human right, and (3) political parties habitually used the government’s tax-and-spending powers to buy the electoral support of various constituencies. In retrospect, Röpke’s prediction proved, once again, to be spot-on.

Röpke also conjectured that the EEC would aggravate the bureaucratization of European life. Every postwar creation of supra-European institutions, he illustrated, had produced thousands of civil servants predisposed to expand their numbers and influence. A mere 6 years after the EEC’s founding, Röpke observed that its executive organs had already become “an enormous administrative machine,” imposing thousands of regulations upon member-states. Even worse, he added, the EEC’s various departments had been taken over by “socialists and ingrained interventionists” who regarded top-down planning by political-bureaucratic elites as superior to the workings of markets within a framework of rule of law, constitutionally-limited government, and a basic safety net.

Rootless, adrift, and (maybe) finished

Röpke was no naysayer about Europe. Indeed, he supported the continent’s economic integration. He maintained, however, that it should develop “from below” rather than be imposed from the top-down. It would be best actualized, Röpke held, by European countries unilaterally opening up their economies not just to each other but the rest of the world. That would, Röpke stated, remove any need for supra-European bureaucrats and organizations to “manage” the process.

At the same time, Röpke didn’t hide his conviction that the core of European identity went far beyond the world of supply and demand. To be European, he argued, meant affirming those specific religious, political and cultural traditions which made Europe different to those cultures shaped by other heritages. It wasn’t a matter of denigrating other societies. Rather, it was simply acknowledging those things that gave Europe, and therefore the West more generally, its distinctiveness.

Such notions are given short-shrift by contemporary EU officialdom. Any discussion of values is invariably dominated by words like “diversity” and “non-discrimination” and a near-obsession with equality. To be sure, such phrases can assume positive meaning, but only if grounded in a coherent understanding of the nature of man. In an EU increasingly inclined to aggressively promote nonsensical concepts such as “gender theory” (something repeatedly condemned by Pope Francis), all these things take on rather different meaning.

In as de-Christianized a country as Britain, it’s unsurprising that concern about these problems didn’t feature in the Brexit debate. The EU’s adoption of such specific ideological agendas are symptomatic, however, of a trend that many who voted for “Leave” did rebel against. And this is the imposition of ideas simply assumed to be correct by the EU’s political classes, bureaucracies and their intellectual enablers. This goes hand-in-hand with an associated habit of labelling anyone who questions their positions as a troglodyte or words to which the suffix “phobic” is regularly attached. Rather than actually debating ideas, it’s much easier to suggest that someone’s views are akin to some form of mental illness.

Given the economic sclerosis, political inertia, and creeping bureaucratization that characterizes much of the EU today, it’s sobering to realize that, 100 years ago, this continent dominated the rest of the globe: economically, culturally, politically, philosophically—even religiously. On June 23, however, a majority of British voters decided to detach their nation from what is, as no less than the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker conceded in a September 2015 speech, a “European Union [which] is not in a good state.”

In the short-term, negotiating the terms of the divorce—not least among which will be trade arrangements and the untangling of English and Scottish law from the labyrinth of EU law—will require considerable dexterity from Britain’s next prime minister. Still, it’s difficult not to conclude that the United Kingdom has detached itself from a political experiment that once offered hope but presently appears (1) incapable of substantive reform; (2) disposed to take refuge in denial; (3) awash in a fever-swamp of political correctness; (4) beset by aging and falling demographics; (5) enduring catastrophic youth-unemployment levels; and (6) dominated by a political class that lives in an echo chamber and won’t acknowledge that many of their actions have helped reignite the very tensions which the European project was designed to obviate.

The future, alas, for Europe is not bright right now. One can hope that Brexit serves as a long-overdue wakeup call. Unfortunately, present trends don’t provide many grounds for optimism. Quite the contrary.

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About Dr. Samuel Gregg 39 Articles
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. The author of many books—including the prize-winning The Commercial Society (Rowman & Littlefield), Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (Edward Elgar), Becoming Europe (Encounter), the prize-winning Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (Regnery), and over 400 articles and opinion-pieces—he writes regularly on political economy, finance, American conservatism, Western civilization, and natural law theory. He can be followed on Twitter @drsamuelgregg