by Ira Straus

Chair, Center for War-Peace Studies

13th January 2020

It’s a new world in UK-EU relations. All — Europeanists, federalists, the EU itself — have to find their bearings in it. All have to refocus on the tasks most relevant for the future.

So also do all who wish for the UK to survive as a Union.

Following are five priority tasks.

1. To hold the UK together.

The odds are not good on this. It requires a skillful and intense struggle against secessionism in Scotland. It requires the best inter-communal political management in Northern Ireland. And it requires keeping Brexit quite soft.

Any harder Brexit means a harder inter-Irish border and/or Irish Sea border, and a strengthening of the economic argument for secession in both Scotland and Ireland. This would override any anti-secessionist political struggle no matter how skillful.

This in turn requires the Johnson Government to reverse its policy on terminating EU trade negotiations at the end of 2020.

Failing that, the harm from a break-up of the UK cannot be overstated. It will, as a knock-on effect of Brexit, have still worse consequences than Brexit itself.

It will also lead to a further radicalization toward both extremes in politics — and in each successor country to the UK. The damage of break-up is not only to the economy but to the psyche. It deprives politics of its established moorings and balances. It reduces England to a shadow of its former extended national self. It leads to scapegoating for the blame on one side, to utopian fantasies on the other about what wonders the country can work once it’s all on its own.

It might in theory someday become safe, were the UK to have become in some distant future a member of a full-fledged international federal government, for the parts of the UK then to safely become separate subjects alongside England within that larger federation. Until then, break-up of the UK is a disaster for all parts of the UK.

It is also be a disaster for the rest of the world, in ways few have yet begun to imagine.

2. To develop a security culture within the EU that can balance its economic and humanitarian cultures.

The EU was built around economic tasks plus human rights. This is only one half of a normal political culture. It leads to biases in EU thinking and policy, biases that have in the last decade put the EU itself at risk.

All societies and governments, Machiavelli and Pareto taught us, need lions as well as foxes. That is to say, they need to have plenty of people with an instinct for group persistence norms and strong security policies, not just people with combinational norms and maneuvering instincts.

Jonathan Haidt’s important book, The Righteous Mind[1], makes pretty much the same point, drawing upon contemporary research in moral and behavioral psychology. It also shows a widespread trend, within the modern educated classes or elites, toward a dangerously one-sided embrace of one of these sets of norms, the combinational one; and blindness toward the other set, the group persistence one.

It is a problem that afflicts all modern governments in some degree. For obvious institutional reasons, it affects the EU even more than most: It is an incomplete government, it lacks the normal balanced complement of governmental functions, and its institutions and procedures are more heavily weighted to its educated bureaucratic elite than are national governments.

One aspect of correcting for this is to rewrite the book of the EU’s narrative in relation to the nationalisms of its member states. Hitherto its narrative has leaned heavily to the anti-nationalist side. However, nationalism is an encapsulation of the security and group persistence sides of a polity’s thinking. It is not to be dismissed cavalierly.

The EU narrative needs to be reformulated as an integration of the nationalisms of the member states rather than a removal of them. “Integration” in this matter means an upward reinforcement of the core elements of the members’ collective pride sentiments and of their security policies, anchoring them in the supplementary level of European security culture and instruments. It includes also, to be sure, a somewhat downward modification of the member nationalisms for mutual compatibility, lopping off mutually contradictory parts of them and overcoming their excesses; but this is a subordinate aspect: a consequence of doing the thing together, and indeed of the upgrading of the nationalisms by rewiring their narratives to fit together in a supplemental common narrative. Here we might recall the basic point of David Mitrany’s functionalism, a point that has always been foundational for federalism as well: that enforcement against members of the community is mostly a by-product of their doing positive things together and the build-up of the joint spirit, not the main thing in forming the community.

The greatest mistake of the Remain campaign was that it framed the issue almost solely in terms of economics, relegating national pride and national importance to the hands of the Leave campaign. The mistake became a national tragedy.

This tragedy stands to repeat itself in other forms and other countries, if the roots of it are not corrected.

A Latvian Europeanist has written of the need for the EU to stop presenting itself on the lowest level of Maslow’s ladder of human needs, as a mere economic benefit, and start talking about its benefits to Latvia higher up the ladder of psychological needs. It is something that would not be hard to do, as the EU is, alongside NATO, what has enabled Latvia’s self-realization as a free country, one with some real security and a real say in the world, something Latvia had never had in all its previous history.[2] The case is less trivially obvious for the older EU member states, but the same point is essentially true for them also: the EU has been presented too much as a truncation of their nationalisms, painting the latter as primarily evil and as the enemy, rather than as the fulfillment of them, which is something that the EU in fact also is, and ought to be.

Karl Deutsch, in the foundational work of academic international integration theory[3], stressed that a union of countries, in order to be sound and sustainable, must integrate and gain willing consent from all the major, legitimate constituent entities and elites going into it, including the major parties and factions on both sides of the political spectrum within its member states. This is the corollary, on the level of forming a Union, to Pareto’s point about the need of every society for both combinational-welfare elites and persistence-security elites. It means that integration of both sets of national elites, and of their mindsets and policy work, is essential for a new union.

There has been a deficit on one side of this equation in the case of the EU, due to its almost exclusive focus on economic and humanitarian work. The consequent selection of personnel, within postwar European national elites as well as on the EU level, is one that the late chief theorist of the Italian school of European Federalists, Mario Albertini, described as all fox no lion. He added that the leonine aspects of political culture got exported to the U.S. and NATO; leading in his view to a degeneration of elite thinking on Europe’s national and EU levels alike.

The same point led others, such as Spinelli, to suggest that much of the European moralizing against the U.S. was childish and irrational, and to hope for a better trans-Atlantic relationship after Europe’s union was completed. Decades have since passed and the problem remains, or even grows.

An EU security culture has meanwhile emerged, but with an internal contradiction: it develops under a condition of a foxy culture rather than a leonine one. Further, its joint declaratory security policies are formulated in the absence of a proportionate joint security arm and structure, giving added incentive for a drift toward rhetorical combinational declarations instead of group persistence ones. This contradiction translates often into calls for a European security culture that is strong in a paradoxical sense: strong more against the collective power of the West than as a part of it. In a recent survey on the meaning Europeans give to a “strong Europe”, this view was expressed by supermajorities in the form of affirming that the main purpose of a strong EU foreign policy is to be neutral between America on the one side and Russia and China on the other.[4]  

There is no easy solution to this conundrum. Development of a joint security culture was always going to be a tough task, involving integration of national security cultures. It is eased in one way by the shrinkage in the practical role of the security cultures within the individual European nations, but made more difficult in the deeper sense of the degenerative simplification of mindset that Albertini found connected to that shrinkage.

Nevertheless, the present period presents an opportunity for some of this rebalancing of EU culture in the security direction. The opportunity is present in the person of the new President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. As German defense minister, she had it as a part of her job description to imbibe elements of the national and Western security culture. It was not, to be sure, as strong a Western security culture as it had been in the days of the Cold War, or even in the 1990s under Helmut Kohl; it was affected by the almost ironic redefinition of “strength” described above; but it still also had real elements of a concrete security culture.

Here then is a major new task that President von der Leyen needs to focus on in her new role: how to bring a real security culture into the EU; how to make it substantial there; how to embed it into the EU culture.

This is a critical reform for the EU. It is the more critical for having a novel, amorphous-sounding cultural aspect, not just an institutional competences one.

The cultural reform aspect should get some front-loading. Without it, the extension of institutional competences to the security sphere is not likely to work very well, in light of the paradox of security-concept outlined above. Still, even a simplistic build-up of institutional personnel in this sphere would inevitably help in bringing in a better balance of the economic and security sides of the EU personnel culture.

Absent this reform, it will be hard to avoid further repetitions of the mistakes (see task 3 below) that brought on not only Brexit, but brought also dangerous losses to the EU in the loyalty of its citizens throughout the Union.

3. To avoid any repetition of the mistakes of 2015-16 on migration, and the related mistakes of loose talk of Turkish membership. 

I underline “any”. Any such repetition would lead to further damages to the EU’s foundations, potentially dwarfing Brexit. Leaderships in Europe need to show to the public that they “get it” on migration concerns and will always henceforth follow a policy of careful management of in-migration.

“Careful management” means, first, a policy in which it is emphasized that the policy is always subject to state regulation, not a form of laissez-faire. Second, one in which pragmatic attention to domestic societal cohesion and acceptance of the policy will be recognized as a principle in itself and take precedence in the formation of the policy, rather than being dismissed sarcastically as a deplorable prejudice, or as ignorance of macroeconomic needs for more labor. Expressions of concern over societal cohesion will need to be met in the future with the respectful attention that such political inputs normally get.

This does not prejudge what the outcome of such a change of tone will be in terms of numbers admitted. What it does prejudge is that no outcome should ever be presented as a matter of a non-discretionary principle of open entry from outside today’s EU.

The case of UK policy and language on EU expansion and migration, during the Blair, Brown, and Cameron governments, may help make the point clearer. The point is not that there was necessarily something inherently wrong in the number of migrants that came in from Eastern Europe. What was inherently wrong, disastrously wrong, was for the UK government to waive its EU right of numerical regulation of this entry and its pacing. The consequences were seen in the loss of public trust in the government’s and elites’ attentiveness to the fundamental societal need for safety of public spaces and security of jobs. That loss of trust played itself out in the Brexit vote; a vote whose economic costs will far outweigh all the gains that economists had projected from the migrant cohort that came in.

The same point applies to Turkish membership. Polls showed already many years ago that, were Turkey to be admitted to the EU, large majorities in a number of core EU countries would want out of the Union. This was due once again to the combination of the number of immigrants with the cultural distances and risks they would bring. It is the EU’s tragedy that much of its own language, along with that of several of its member nation leaderships, indicated a failure to grasp the full import of this concern, or even to accept its legitimacy. Here too there was a propensity to deplore clear expressions of the concern rather than engage with it as legitimate. Here too, the failure to understand the other side of the issue seemed entrenched and persistent, something that would inexorably return even after the periods when it had seemed discarded. There was a time when Mrs Merkel, following electoral losses, changed tone on Turkish membership and began speaking in tandem with Mr Sarkozy as if to be closing the door on it. But a few years later she and others were back to statements with a tone of reopening that door. This, alongside the statements welcoming the migrant influx of 2015, was the factor that raised the Brexit vote over the 50% mark. It also brought a dramatic rise in votes for the most often deplored parties throughout the EU.

The mistakes on migration and Turkey have taken a heavy toll on the EU. The damages to the project of integration have been of historic proportions. They will be hard to repair. It is never easy to repair major historic damages; history moves on, and the damages usually compound themselves with new layers of consequences, outpacing the repairs.

Nothing could be more important than to learn from the recent mistakes and make sure they are not yet again repeated. Otherwise still more severe damages will be suffered, potentially terminal ones.

The heart of the matter is to show to the public that the EU and its supporters have in fact learned the lessons in depth, not just in the sense of making a tactical retreat; and can be counted upon to heed the lessons and prevent recurrence. The spirit of this matter — the readiness to recognize the cautionary side of the issue as legitimate and embrace it as an equal part of the debate, the definitive turn away from a spirit of dismissing the concerns on that side — is no less important than the substance of the policy. It is the only way to regain the trust of half the public.

4. A discriminating UK policy on immigration that keeps EU citizens at the front of the line.

I use the word “discriminating” here in the old-fashioned English usage, as in “discrimination is the hallmark of an educated person”. I am aware that this usage, the correct one in fact, is treated as odd today, even sometimes thought of as revealing bad attitudes. That is perhaps part of the problem. A sober person should not be indiscriminate.

Societal dislocation from migration is always roughly proportional to both the number of in-migrants and their cultural distance from the host society. EU and First World immigrants are the ones culturally closest to British society; and the ones close enough to British per capita income (pci) or wage levels as to produce only limited cohorts of migrants to Britain. It is a paradox of Brexit that, in light of the UK’s unavoidable needs for workers, Brexit is likely to lead to an increase in the very migrant cohorts that are more difficult to assimilate instead of the EU ones that are easier.

This must weigh heavily in private on the breasts of Brexiters, despite their public calls for “global Britain”. The dialectic of their debating position has cornered them in a more indiscriminate policy, one that exacerbates their own worst fears and runs opposite to what most of them really want.

Tories are in principle against indiscriminate opposition to all discriminations; their theory discriminates between sound and unsound prejudices, reasonable and unreasonable discriminations. They would, in logic, favor a perpetuation of the existing discrimination in favor of European and Western countries as sources of immigration. Labour’s trade unions would likewise so discriminate, out of the strong concrete interest of their members and communities. All that either side needs is to get past its rhetoric and back to their own actual intentions. That may not be easy when the rhetoric has become entrenched, not only on each side, but in the dialectic of the debate between them, as if to form a dialogue of the deaf. But it is something they surely ought to be able to do.

5. UK re-entry into the EU.

This is a long shot. But then, so is saving the UK itself from breakup. Both are nonetheless targets that it is necessary to be shooting for.

As the harm from Brexit comes to be suffered, the extremists in both major parties will project the blame for the harm onto what they will call an insufficiently radical government program in UK domestic policies; the more readily, as it is by their dreams of transformative programs for domestic national regeneration that they justify their support for Brexit. For this deficiency of radicalism, they will be immediately ready with remedies to propose. They will campaign for ever more radical national policies with enthusiasm and without delay.

It will be important for there to be strong voices that place the blame for the harm on its actual source, Brexit itself. This point will not be perceived in its true force if it is left on the level of an intellectual abstraction. To gain force, it has to be coupled with proposing the logical conclusion: re-entry.

A campaign for re-entry may fail in this stage, yet it will still be of enormous educational importance. Unless it is visible, there will be very little to restrain the projection of the blame elsewhere, and therewith a slide into further radicalization. Perhaps a re-entry campaign would lead only to temporization and limitation of the extremes at this stage, and to keeping options open for the future; but even that would be doing the UK a tremendous service.

There are several additional critically important tasks ahead. These might be lumped under the rubric of the roles and policies of “global Britain” farther afield from the EU. There is its role in NATO. There is its global environmental policy. There is its potential trade deal with the U.S. There is its influence on U.S. global policy. That influence in the past has been often strong, indeed history-changing; it may need to be so again in the present period. I intend to address these matters in a follow-on article.




[3] ; the neofunctionalists built on his groundwork

[4] . This is, sadly, in line with other surveys, repeated over some years and solidly conducted, which have found by wide margins that it is Europeans not Americans that are the unreliable public on NATO and its Article 5 commitment.