“History does not teach fatalism. There are moments when a handful of free men break through determinism and opens up new roads”.
Charles de Gaulle
A Gaullist European Union?
Garmisch-Partenkirchen. 5 June. Tomorrow is the anniversary of D-Day. It is time for Europeans to save ‘Europe’...from themselves. Specifically, it is time to abandon the idea of a federal Europe once and for all and return to de Gaulle’s realist idea of a true European union of nations in which Brussels is once again reduced to where it should always have remained: servant not master. Europe will only survive if it is reformed and brought back closer to the people and that can only happen if the EU becomes a true union of states.
Charles de Gaulle was a great man, and although not always a friend of Britain he remains a hero of mine. He led his country at a moment of abject weakness in the wake of France’s defeat in 1940 and with iron will defended both its honour and its interests. Oh, for a British de Gaulle now! Brexit is turning out to be the disaster I feared with Theresa May simply the wrong person in the wrong position at the wrong time. Her lack of leadership has set Britain adrift whilst much of the government machine charged with negotiating Britain’s orderly departure from the EU is completely unsympathetic to the very idea of Brexit. Add to that a Parliament determined to gut Brexit and my once great country – a top five world economic and military power - is heading into a self-imposed form of servitude. The darkest hour?
What Brexit Really Reveals
My on-balance rejection of Brexit back in 2016 was for geopolitical reasons and out of solidarity with friends in Eastern Europe. However, I also foresaw this mess precisely because the British Establishment long ago abandoned all notions of power and influence (see my book Little Britain) that de Gaulle and, of course, Churchill understood. If it were not for the fact that Britain’s revoking of Article 50 would only encourage an arrogant and increasingly autocratic and technocratic European Commission to seek more power, and the consequent further hollowing-out of democracy in Europe it it leading, I could envisage the abandoning of Brexit in spite of the political crisis it would cause in the UK. What is now clear is that THIS Brexit will not be in the national interest.
For all that, Brexit is also a symptom of a much deeper malaise that stretches across Europe. It is a malaise that results in a ‘Europe’ today far less than the sum of its parts. It is also a malaise caused primarily by a battle between ‘unionists’, such as me who believe in the EU as super-alliance, and power-centralising Brussels federalists. The extent of this malaise was evident last week when Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Commissioner Guenther Oettinger told Italians-in-crisis to work harder. So much for solidarity. What should be a set of European issues – the failure of the Euro and effective management of migration - was again dumped on a single member-state proving once again that ‘solidarity’ is the most over-worked word in the Brussels Lexicon.
Union or Federation?
Any analysis of the EU’s current state demonstrates the over-arching contradiction at its elite core: for THIS EU and its institutions to work ‘Europe’ needs more and deeper state-shrivelling political integration. However, most Europeans refuse to accept the shrivelling of their respective states because it is the state, not Brussels, to which most Europeans remain loyal.
Here in Germany that contradiction is particularly and peculiarly apparent. There is much nonsense talked about Europe as a German Empire implying Berlin’s power is cast in the image of Wilhelm or Adolf. Yes, Berlin can be frustrating and at times seem to want the benefits of leadership without the cost. In reality Germany is strong enough to be called upon to lead, but insufficiently strong to lead without help. Chancellor Merkel seems to have finally understood this even if her own political capital is declining fast. In a weekend interview in Der Spiegel she seemed to accept President Macron’s case for more ‘Europe’ but only via deeper co-operation between states, i.e. a Europe of nations. Whilst she countenanced the idea of temporary loans to assist EU countries in financial distress she quite clearly ruled debt mutualisation or the financial federalisation which would transform the Euro into a wealth transfer-mechanism from north to south. Even President Macron’s ideas for a new European military intervention force seemed to de-federalise EU defence even as he presented the plan as ‘more Europe’. For France keeping Britain somewhere between EU member and third country is clearly vital, especially for defence co-operation. Second country?
The Trump Factor
Cue the Trump factor. The Sunday Times this week, as part of a series of interviews with respected German commentators, stated, “…for years Germany lived under the cosy assumption that America would underwrite its defence while running up a trade deficit buying its cars”. In other words, Germany and other Europeans have for too long assumed that America would pay for the defence of Europe whilst Europeans argued endlessly over the shape of Europe. With the world now pressing in on Europe, and America hard-pressed the world over, the need for Europeans to get serious about their place in the world is fast becoming more important than the place of Europeans in ‘Europe’. As de Gaulle once said, “It will not be any European statesman who will unite Europe: Europe will be united by the Chinese”. Maybe, just maybe, Europeans will be forced into some form of meaningful unity by an America that forces Europeans to finally wake up to America’s twenty-first century reality.
How does Europe get out of this mess? Brexit is again illuminating. The same pressures that led to Brexit are apparent in Poland, Spain and whole host of EU countries, as is the hard-line taken against the British by a European Commission worried about the fate of Project Europe and interpreting to the limit both its mandate and the treaties, even if that sows mistrust amongst numbers of European citizens about distant, unaccountable power and the point of voting if Brussels effectively orders member-states to scrap outcomes it finds inconvenient. The Brussels federalists are deeply worried that Brexit marks not simply the quasi-departure of a turbulent anti-federalist ‘pest’, but rather the beginning of the real struggle between unionists and federalists. When placed in that context the true reason for the struggle over Brexit becomes apparent.
Which brings me to the central contention of this piece. Like some enormous ice-berg that is breaking away from a continental ice-field Europe is creaking, cracking and groaning its way to a new shape for power on the Old Continent. My hope is that a new and legitimate political settlement can be forged before Europe itself melts. However, for such a settlement to be seen to be legitimate by the people of Europe, it would once again have to be seen to put the European nation-state to the fore.
The tests? If Brexit actually happens (and anything more than a sham Brexit remains a big ‘if’) the Commission will propose that it is given tax-raising powers to offset the loss of Britain’s budget contribution. If the Commission is given tax-raising powers Europeans will have crossed the Rubicon towards a European super-state. Europeans must collectively resist these ambitions and convene, instead, an intergovernmental conference or IGC to prepare for new European treaties built on a simple set of principles that would realise de Gaulle’s vision of a Europe of nations – more European Council, a bit more European Parliament, and a lot less European Commission.
A Europe of Nations
It is time for a real European union of nations of which Britain and everyone else can feel a part. A European union of nations that would enable European states to again make sovereign decisions in a world in which the logic of European co-operation is overwhelming. Europeans need not fear such a future. Europeans have come a long way since World War Two and few if any would seek to resolve differences on the battlefield. As the great man once rightly said, “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first: nationalism when hatred for other people comes first”.
Maybe, not only would Europe be politically re-invigorated but a vital transatlantic relationship re-forged as a strategic Europe finally emerges with Britain at its core and a new US-German special relationship at its heart.
And no, objecting to giving ever more power to Brussels does not make me a populist. A realist yes, a populist no.