The European Union: To leave or not to leave?

Martyn Rady, Professor of Central European History at UCL, disagrees with those who are campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU. He argues that whilst Europe shares much in terms of common history and culture, this is not in itself sufficient to underpin political union across the continent.

Europe is not the same as the European Union. The European Union is only an episode in Europe’s history. The two, nevertheless, are frequently treated as if they were identical. It is, however, entirely possible to be a Europhile, in the sense of valuing and engaging with Europe’s cultures, peoples and history, and to be opposed to the European Union and thus to Britain’s continued membership of it.

Britain and continental Europe share much. Cultural, religious, philosophical and political movements and ideas have spilled across from one to the other. It would be strange if they had not, given their proximity. Nevertheless, exchanges of this kind are hardly sufficient to justify political union. The histories of Poland and Russia are similarly entangled, but no one would now suggest that they should join together.

The way that ideas have spread in Europe is important. One of the strengths of Europe has been its diversity. The separate experiences of Europe’s countries have acted as inspirations and warnings to others. The example of British manufacturing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, underpinned by the free-trade philosophy of Smith and Ricardo, overturned the regulatory and protectionist regime that prevailed across much of Central Europe. Bismarck’s early welfare state and Swiss federalism had their own emulators. Across large parts of Europe, the lesson of the French Revolution stimulated the politics of conservatism and of gradual change, and so on.

The high modernist ideology that underpins the European Union is predicated on the erosion of differences between countries. It would seek to impose single solutions that are blind to complexity and inimical to the sort of local experimentation that has been one of the driving forces in European history. Not only therefore are the European Union and Europe different things. By putting its stress on political, economic and social convergence, the EU may also be antithetical to Europe’s historical dynamic.

The history of multi-national ventures in Europe is not a good one. Over four hundred years, the Habsburg Empire was unable to cement a workable enterprise. It only held together in the nineteenth century by striking bargains between the various national groups and by keeping them all, in the words of one Austrian prime minister, ‘in a condition of even and well-modulated discontent’. It is the same in the European Union today. The European Council brokers between national governments. ‘European policy’ is not European at all, but an amalgam and compromise between contending national policies.

The Habsburg Empire was not alone in being divided by local identities. Before Bismarck, the German lands were split between states with their own different political complexions, religious affiliations and regional allegiances. They were successfully brought together after 1870 because a larger pan-German sense of belonging had taken root, having been actively promoted in literature, folklore collections, and high scholarship. In the German lands, poets, historians and lexicographers made political union possible.

France went down a different route in the nineteenth century. At its start, less than a half of France’s population spoke the French language. The Marseillaise, sung in 1792 by volunteers from the Provençal south, was incomprehensible to most Parisians. Over the course of the century, the French state made a nation of Frenchmen—coercing a sense of national belonging and a single language through the schoolroom, bureaucracy and army. A similar pattern of cultural impressment took place in nineteenth-century Bohemia. Peasants from Moravia and Austrian Silesia were made into Czechs.

A political union will only prosper if its peoples feel some sense of common belonging that makes them willing to make sacrifices for one another. This is lacking in the European Union—Germans will not make financial sacrifices for the Mediterranean countries, while other states put up barriers to keep migrants on their neighbours’ soil. Without the ambitious cultural project on which German unity was built or the drive towards cultural homogenization undertaken in France, the European Union will remain a discordant assemblage of competing national voices, unwilling to share burdens.

So the European Union offers the worst of both worlds. Its regulatory regime and policies of convergence threaten Europe’s historical experience of learning through diversity. Yet, the European Union lacks the cultural underpinnings to construct an enduring political union, based on a sense of common identity. To adapt the satirist Karl Kraus’s verdict on the Habsburg Empire, it has already become a grand experiment in failure.

Martyn Rady is Masaryk Professor of Central European History at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

This article was originally published by History Today and is reprinted with permission.

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