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Why it is so difficult to leave the EU

by Hans Dembowski


Brexit opponents in front of the Palace of Westminster this week.

Brexit opponents in front of the Palace of Westminster this week.

The current Brexit drama is a good reason to consider how the EU became what it is. Closer scrutiny shows that its history is more complex than generally believed. Accordingly, the British government is finding it more difficult to leave the EU than was anticipated in the Brexit referendum in 2016.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is the top Brexiteer. He prominently campaigned for leaving the EU, and he is now responsible for making it happen. The irony of the matter is that he obviously is uncomfortable with the idea of Britain’s Parliament closely scrutinising his policies. He unlawfully suspended Parliament some weeks ago, but that decision was blocked by Britain’s Supreme Court.

Next, he insisted on keeping negotiations with the EU secret, so it really only became obvious late in the game that he was giving up red lines the British government had previously insisted on. It is actually quite bewildering that Johnson now wants to establish a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. He used to rule out such a decision categorically.

Last night, the House of Commons agreed to seriously consider the deal he struck with the EU, but it insisted it needed more time than Johnson was willing to grant for scrutinising the implications and  passing necessary legislation for implementation. The prime minister wanted to ram everything through Parliament in a mere three days. According to British law, the normal time MPs must have to consider international treaties is 21 days. Frustrated with Parliament not accepting his timeline, Johnson has now paused debate on the matter, which shows that he really does not want that debate to happen in depth.

The underlying reason is probably that there are other disruptive implications apart from the new customs border. No, the Brexiteers’ campaign promises of frictionless trade with the EU in the future will most certainly not come true. It has become obvious in the past three years, that exiting the EU is far more complex than Johnson and his political allies ever acknowledged.

They always painted the EU as a bureaucratic monster that was eating away at members’ sovereignty without providing any serious benefits. What they overlooked is that pooling sovereignty serves member countries’ interests and enhances their global standing. The myth of the emerging superstate does include a grain of truth, but it is vastly overblown.

The current Brexit drama provides a good opportunity to consider how the EU became what it is today. It turns out that myth of the superstate is not the only distorting narrative. Reconsidering others is interesting too.

The historian Kiran Klaus Patel does an excellent job of deconstructing three such myths. He shows that, while there is some substance to the ideas of the EU being a peace builder, a driver of prosperity and a potential world power, there never was a master plan to make any of these things  happen. What now looks as though it was a preconceived goal was typically a side-effect of action taken. EU history often evolved in incremental steps in response to various crises.

Patel is a professor at the University of Maastricht. His book “Projekt Europa” was published in German by C.H. Beck last year. Cambridge University Press is preparing an English translation that is scheduled to appear in April 2020.

Let’s take a brief look at some the three myths Patel deconstructs. As he shows, the EU did serve a peace-building function, but it did not play an important role in reconciling the war-torn continent immediately after 1945. At the time, many different international organisations were established to promote peace. The first precursor of what is now the EU, the European Community for Coal and Steel, was only started a decade later and it had a mere six members: West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The same countries soon started two other communities, pooling their policymaking on nuclear technology and establishing a common market. Only by the end of the 1950s, were the three communities merged, and Euratom was long believed to be the most important component. Only in the 1990s did the European Community become the EU.

In regard to peacebuilding, this community was actually somewhat ambivalent in its early years, according to Patel: on the upside, it reinforced trust and cooperation among its members, tying them closer together and turning Germany and France, the former enemies, into close allies. On the downside, the Soviet Union and its allies considered it a reinforcement of the western block. In the early 1980s, by contrast, the EU insisted on maintaining trade relations with the Soviet block and thus mitigated Washington’s re-escalation of the Cold War to some extent.

In Patel’s eyes, the EU only really became a major peacemaker in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union by offering perspectives to Eastern European countries. EU enlargement proved very important in ensuring peaceful transitions.

Patel does not elaborate on the Good Friday agreement that ended the Northern Ireland troubles in the late 1990s. This international peace treaty was based on the fact that, thanks to the EU’s single market, no hard border was needed anymore between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Leaving the EU thus undermines the preconditions of peace, which is why the EU insisted on not introducing a new hard border on the island. Johnson’s acceptance of a customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is historically awkward, to put it mildly, and the consequences remain to be seen.

In regard to economic affairs, Patel does not deny that the European Community was always useful, but he argues convincingly that it was not a driver of growth in the early years. In his assessment, economies were expanding fast due to opportunities provided by post-war reconstruction and the introduction of new technologies. National governments, however, used the European Community to manage difficult transitions. For example, joint agricultural subsidies cushioned off rural change, slowing down the pace at which smallholder farming was becoming unviable. In a similar sense, inner-community migration, especially from southern Italy to industrialised cities in northern member countries, reduced social tensions as well as labour market bottlenecks.

As for making the EU a world power, Patel not only elaborates how this aspiration was always tampered by pragmatism, but also shows that the USA was generally supportive of its allies’ regional integration for geostrategic reasons. Washington may sometimes have found “Brussels” to be a difficult partner during the Cold War, but its stabilising impact on western Europe was most valuable. Over time, the EU became a powerful player in trade affairs with an increasing influence in other policy fields. However, it still is basically a non-entity in military matters. NATO is quite obviously much more important. So why did a six-member community of West European countries evolve into the dominant supranational organisation in Europe and a global model of regional integration? According to Patel, there were several important differences from other international organisations:

-  The EU and its precursors were not merely intergovernmental organisations, but had strong supranational components which concerned administration, legislation and judicial matters. Right from the start, there were joint commissions that administered the joint policies, and they were later merged into one commission. Moreover, there was binding joint legislation that all member countries had to implement. A joint court of law ensured that this happened. In other words, the member countries pooled sovereignty and that made their community especially effective.

- The EU and its precursors played a crucial role in economic policymaking. Building the common market, which in the long term proved to be the most important initiative, meant that market- relevant regulations had to be coordinated. Such regulations have an immediate bearing on people’s lives. Accordingly, major industries, lobby groups and trade unions paid close attention. This community increasingly mattered in citizens’ eyes.

For these reasons, the  late-comer among international organisations increasingly overshadowed competitors. In particular, the European Free Trade Organisation proved a less coherent and weaker initiative, so Britain, Ireland and Denmark switched sides in the early 1970s. Since then, ever more countries have joined the EU. In spite of the Brexit referendum, it has proven surprisingly resilient.

Patel’s book explains why. It elaborates how the EC started in the 1950s and grew into the EU by the mid-1990s. It does not discuss more recent crises. Brexit, refugees and sovereign debt do not figure. Nonetheless, the author’s insights help to understand what the EU is today and why it has proven so resilient. The most important point is that it serves members’ interests. Another is that its institutional setup and decision-making processes are flexible enough to rise to challenges. Indeed, Patel shows, that the EU’s history is best understood as a series of successful responses to crises rather than as the implementation of a rigid master plan.

The historian expresses the evidence-based hope that the EU is not about to disintegrate, but more likely to evolve into an even more important supranational organisation. As in the past, he expects such a development to be marked by fuzzy compromises and sudden innovations rather than to be guided by strict principles.

The truth is that the EU has a lot of shortcomings but also a lot of strong points. It is a complex and multi-layered supranational organisation in which national governments still play decisive roles. At the same time, it makes many things easier for them. Extricating a member from this union is very difficult and has massive consequences. It is nothing that should be rushed with a superficial insistence on “getting Brexit done”.


Patel, K. K., 2018: Projekt Europa. München: C.H. Beck.
English translation (“Project Europe”) 2020 forthcoming and scheduled for April: Cambridge University Press. 

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