Will they or won’t they? On June 23rd, British voters will decide whether to stay in the European Union or exit. Regardless of the outcome, it is time for the EU to face the uncomfortable facts that the push by the elites within the EU for greater integration is running far ahead of public consensus. The historic trend toward political fragmentation must be taken seriously. At this moment in history, "More" Europe will only result in resistance and political unrest. "Less" Europe is a far better prescription.
Make no mistake, the EU has delivered enormous benefits to its members. After centuries of armed conflict, the EU and its antecedents created a firm political partnership amongst past antagonists. Reduction of trade barriers was a boon to the regional economy and replaced the disastrous pre-World War II protectionist and autarkic policies that contributed mightily to the Great Depression.
The success of the EU was a powerful magnet for the nations of the crumbled Soviet Empire. So much so, that the EU was able to place the vital preconditions of democracy, economic and judicial reform. Without the EU, how many of the newly independent central European states would have slipped into autocracy or kleptocracy? Nations do not typically make good transitions from authoritarianism to democracy – the relative ease with which central Europe did it is very much a credit to the EU.
What the leaders of the EU and its various technocrats did not realize was that the continent was not ready for their project of non-stop unification. Peace, prosperity and competent government is one thing, but surrendering national sovereignty is quite another. The nations of Europe still possess significant differences in culture, political tradition, judicial system and attitudes toward the role of government.
But most importantly, the EU leadership thought they were on the right side of history – when they were (and are) on the wrong side. The seminal political theme of Europe since 1900 has been political devolution, not aggregation.
At the dawn of the 20th Century there were 20 European nation-states. Over the past century Europe has steadily fragmented into more and more sovereign states, with the authoritarian governments of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Empire only temporarily slowing the process. The sum total of nation-states in Europe today is 45. And this process can hardly be said to be complete as Catalonia may seek separation from Spain. A British exit would surely lead to another referendum on Scottish independence (which would likely pass). Belgium is barely a unitary state.
In short, the people of Europe very clearly desire local political autonomy. Peace, prosperity and decent national governance were all aims desired by a strong consensus of the European public. Surrendering national identity and political independence are not.
The EU leadership might have been able to change this trend had its two most important policy projects, the Euro and the Schengen Agreement, worked out. However, both are failing and in need of significant restructuring. A unified currency and free movement of labor certainly have strong theoretical underpinnings in economics, not to mention they would seem to further the ultimate goal of the EU elites: Europe as one nation-state.
The Euro worked great for a while, but now that the boom years have ended, the incompatibility between North and South is straining the currency severely—and wrecking Greece. Similarly, free movement of labor worked well when employment was rising and the labor was from the culturally compatible nations of central Europe. Fast-growing EU countries needed the labor and slow-growing nations supplied it (or did not attract migrants). However, the flood of refugees from the Middle East have exposed the problems with Schengen. When the migrants are all poor and desperate, any country in Europe looks like a good destination, whether that nation can afford it or not.
Prosperity masks a lot of bad ideas.
For the EU to survive, it needs to recognize that there are still significant differences within the continent. The EU needs to be far more selective in its initiatives, while allowing for more autonomy. The people of Europe did not sign up for a one-size-fits-all political, economic and legal state and its concomitant regulatory straitjacket. Europe may well become a fully-integrated single state, but that time will be far in the future. Today "More" will lead to less Europe, while "Less" Europe will keep the EU together.