Giles McNeill: The EU failed to build a post-national identity for its citizens

Brexit is symptomatic of a rise in populism centred around embedded senses of identity and patriotism. In a world where we are told the value of individualism has never been more important and a capitalist economy that demands our conformity, the rise of these forces is not unexpected.

In Hungary, Poland and Italy we have seen the rise of eurosceptic governments and in France, the UK and Germany parties that espouse a fear or the unlike have had their successes too.

French president Emmanuel Macron has made clear he believes Brexit could destroy the EU:  “Never since the second world war has Europe been so essential. Yet never has Europe been in such danger. Brexit stands as the symbol of that. Retreating into nationalism offers nothing; it is rejection without an alternative. And this is the trap that threatens the whole of Europe.”

But is this really the case. Can such a simple explanation of our circumstances really hold true?

Brexit — and it counterparts in other European countries — are, to a significant extent, a reaction to overreach by the European Union. Which is not to say that immigration and economic factors are not important contributory causes too; however, these reflect, to an important extent, the policies of the EU. But let us look at how the EU evolved from a constructive European community to an overbearing, undemocratic force that acts as if people have ceased to identify with their nationalities and are already loyal citizens of the EU.

Prof. Etzioni provides a very succinct narrative of the EU’s history, originally, then known as the European Economic Community, was a trade association among six nations. Over the decades that followed, the EU added members and expanded its missions. Initially, these were focused on measures that facilitated trade, travel, and commerce among the member nations. These changes were low-key in the sense that they increased efficiency, but largely did not challenge citizens’ sense of identity. In addition, many small measures were introduced ‘under the radar.’

Over time, the level and scope of integrated activities expanded. In 1985, several of the member states signed the Schengen Agreement, which allowed for the free movement of people among member states. The introduction of the European Economic and Monetary Union in the early 1990s marked another significant expansion of EU-wide governance. Twelve of the member states adopted a common currency (and monetary policy), which necessitated the establishment of the European Central Bank and many regulations affecting national budgets. Since 2005, the EU has required each member nation to accept a given number of the refugees entering Europe, despite often strong opposition from several member states.

As a consequence of this expansion, the EU involved itself in matters of high emotive and normative content, such as those concerning the basic values and cultural differences of member nations, people’s sense of identity, and self-governance. As the European Union’s supranationalism increased, so too was a sense that nations’ sovereignty was being lost.

The removal of national border controls facilitated large population flows both within and into the EU. The French were upset by the large numbers of Poles who moved to work in France, referred to as the problem of the Polish Plumber. The British were troubled by the large number of workers from Baltic countries and by new immigrants and asylum seekers. Typically, Brexit advocates found themselves unified under the banner of ‘Leave: We Want Our Country Back.’

The European courts have often made millions of EU citizens feel that their moral sensibilities and national independence have been violated. For example, in Vinter versus The United Kingdom the court declared the practice of mandatory life sentences for convicted murderers a human-rights violation. Without recourse to an appeals process, the UK was compelled to comply with the decision by granting the prospect of release for the incarcerated. Conservative and Labour parliamentarians alike felt the court had usurped Parliament’s purview.

While the EU was founded like a typical inter-nation organisation, by a treaty that requires unanimous agreement by all members, thus protecting their sovereignty, successor treaties replaced unanimous decision-making with qualified majority voting in more and more areas of EU governance, including border security standards, immigration, public health, financial assistance, and dozens of other areas. These changes contributed to the sense of sovereignty being lost.

The result of all these developments has been growing disaffection with the EU. One can readily recognise the need for a growing supranational governance, as many challenges ahead cannot be handled by each nation on its own or by inter-nation governance, which is slow and cumbersome. Given that the EU provides by far the most advanced form of supranational government, the critical question is: Why is it challenged so adamantly by populism?

It seems likely that, for a supranational government to develop, it must be accompanied by supranational community-building, in which people transfer the kind of commitments and involvement they have with their nation to the new regional (and – doubtlessly one day – global) body. However, while the EU was unable to develop such a community, it nevertheless has acted as if one was in place.

To illustrate: West Germans granted the equivalent of a trillion dollars to the East Germans during the decade that followed reunification. “They are fellow Germans” was about all the explanation that was needed. However, the same Germans resisted granting much smaller amounts to Greece and other EU nations that were in trouble. They were not members of “our tribe.” A demonstration of the powerful communal bonds at the national level is that, while millions of people are willing to die for their nation, few are willing to die for the EU.

In response, far from slowing down the expansion of the EU as an administrative state while it lacks the needed sociological, communitarian foundations, EU leaders moved to extend the powers of “Brussels,” as the EU Commission is often referred to. President Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are calling for greatly increasing the powers to the EU Commission and increased integration, through such measures as the introduction of a EU-wide banking union and the creation of a centralised budget.

Brexit is merely one expression of the reaction to the EU’s premature moves. After all Great Britain took more than a century to emerge after 1707 Act of Union – and even then the Irish became independent. EU members are flouting EU policy by restoring national border controls; Greece, Italy, France, and Portugal have defied the EU’s budget deficit and GDP-to-debt ratio constraints. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland have refused to accept the number of immigrants they are supposed to absorb according to EU policy.

Brexit indeed may be an expression of reactionary forces; however, if one seeks to avoid more disaffection from the EU — and other drives to form transnational governments which the world probably needs in the longer run — we need to realise what Brexit and similar political movements  are reacting to. These movements in the EU are driven, to an important extent, by authorities that disregard that people’s first loyalty and sense of identity is still invested largely in their nation-states.

The district of West Lindsey was created due to the reorganisation of local government in the early 1970s – and whilst our name may derive from the ancient kingdom of Lindsey, no one identifies as being from West Lindsey in the same way they might identify as being from Lincolnshire, English or British.

These feelings may seem increasingly obsolete to the metropolitan liberal elite. And a case can be made that we need a sense of global, or at least for now continental, post-national communities, if we are ever going to move towards planetary government.

The PM of Luxembourg and his empty podium for Boris Johnson, is yet another mishandling of people’s sensibilities. For those that oppose Boris Johnson it will not change their minds, but for everyone else it is the lastest failure of the EU to win around the hearts and minds of the people.

Our identities define who we are, how we see ourselves. And these identities evolve and grow with each generation. The European Union has singularly failed to build a post-national identity for its citizens. I would die for my country – but certainly not for the EU!

— Cllr Giles McNeill is the Conservative Leader of West Lindsey District Council