Is the European Union a mere blip in history?

A break-up of the EU would be a brief chapter in the long and tumultuous history of the continent, argues Sholto Byrnes

German vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. Thomas Kienzle / AFP
Powered by automated translation

Sometimes it's good to think the unthinkable. Take the German vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. A convinced Eurofanatic, as I think we should term particularly ardent proponents of an ever-closer European Union, Mr Gabriel is the leader of his country's Social Democrats, and would displace Angela Merkel as Germany’s, and thus the EU’s, leader if his party wins this year’s elections.

He recently declared that the break-up of the EU is no longer “unthinkable”. Naturally, he regards such an outcome as a tragedy, and given his stature, we should not take his opinion lightly. But first, we should acknowledge that it is ahistorical nonsense. And second, we should thank him for his forthrightness about the state of the EU – which is exactly what is needed if it is not to head towards terminal fracture.

The EU’s predecessor, the European Economic community, was founded 60 years ago. In the greater perspective of a continent that has seen the rise and fall of empires, from that of Charlemagne to those ended less than a century ago after the First World War – while countries such as Poland and Ukraine have appeared and then disappeared off the map when they were divided by rivals – that is the blink of an eye.

No doubt there was a time when the demise of the Hanseatic League seemed unthinkable, as was perhaps the end of Spanish rule over the Netherlands. Both happened nevertheless and Europe continued.

Mr Gabriel should be aware of this, because while all nations have a sense of their history, many Europeans feel it acutely. Perhaps it comes from growing up with so many old buildings, unlike countries where wooden structures could not survive for posterity but were felled by heat or humidity.

I used to live in London in a house dating from 1850, but I would never dream of describing it as old. It's only Victorian, after all. One friend grew up in a castle built in 1300. That’s old. So was my school, which was founded in 597. With that mindset, an organisation aged a mere 60 years is a stripling, a faddish innovation whose future has no guarantee.

Who is to say that generations to come might not look back and laugh at the naivete of those who thought so disparate a continent could ever be bound together out of idealism for an entirely artificial identity?

Far from being a tragedy, the break-up of the EU could be seen as inevitable at some point, as there is not one empire or association of nations or cities that has not fallen apart in the end. What’s so special about the EU?

On the second point, Mr Gabriel’s candour is to be welcomed, especially as it is relatively newfound. In 2015, for instance, he was of the view that it should be “unthinkable for any country ... to consider a future without Europe – or within a lesser union”. Now many countries have plenty of reasons for doing so, and the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, is well aware that “forcing lyrical and, in fact, naive Euro-enthusiastic visions of total integration” is counterproductive. But hitting the pause button is not enough. Reform of the kind never seriously considered in Brussels is necessary if this gloomy scenario is not to continue and further fuel sentiment against the EU.

The arrogance of the unelected European Commission – the EU’s most powerful body – must be curbed, its remit reduced to being the bureaucracy it used to be rather than the executive role it has assumed. Sovereignty must return to national parliaments. Let us have no more talk of constitutions and recognise ever-closer union as the dangerous pipe dream it always was.

The only future for the EU, much as it may distress Mr Gabriel, is precisely as a “lesser union”. Under those circumstances no country would want to leave and the United Kingdom would almost certainly apply to rejoin, which the EU would swiftly facilitate, so long as wiser heads, not those bent on revenge, prevailed.

A diminished union would do less, for sure, but the EU’s problem is that it has always been driven by a Eurofanatic elite who wanted it to do too much, regardless of the desires of its citizens.

As I have written before, it is not other regional groups such as the GCC and Asean who should look to the EU as an example, but the other way around. They have retained the consent of their peoples by never bounding ahead of them. Can they act quickly and decisively or militarily as one? Perhaps not. But neither can the EU. The difference is that the GCC and Asean have never made political union a goal. They probably never will; and neither should they.

This may be too bitter a pill for the likes of Mr Gabriel to swallow. If that means further chaos and further anger, it could indeed eventually lead to the break-up of the EU. But that would not be a tragedy. It would merely be a brief chapter in the long and tumultuous history of the continent.

Europe is bigger than the EU. It has made far greater contributions to the world than a model of how not to grow a regional association. It will continue to do so long after the EU has become a dusty relic, discarded by a continent that never learnt to love it, and eventually rose up against its overbearing, unaccountable tyranny.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia