Which “colonial master” would Mr Johnson prefer, Europe or America?

by Ira Straus

17th December 2018

Mr Johnson spoke truthfully when he said the Brexit Deal will leave Britain a colony of the EU: subject to most of its laws but with no share in making them. Let us proceed from this reality, even if he does not accept the underlying reality: that if flows from the inherent nature of Brexit.

The basic options for Britain’s future — for such sovereign control as it can in practice have over its destiny — are three. Either stay in the EU as a Member State. Or join the U.S. as a member State. Or stand alone and find itself in a semi-colonial status — an economic semi-colony of the EU, a military semi-colony of the U.S.

This limited range of options is not new. Already back in the 1970s, the alternative for Britain was either to join the EC/EU, by then much larger than Britain itself, or else continue sinking into the condition of a semi-colony of both it and the U.S.

EU membership seems the best of the three options for the UK; separate semi-colonial status the worst. But let us at least give a glancing look-over to the second, U.S. option.

Americans would certainly be flattered by Britain offering to join. It would feel like a final victory over the Enemy Empire of 1776. Although most Americans would see it as a joke. And would proceed to refuse the offer, once they noticed the complications involved.

It seems some Brits take it more seriously. I’ve run into an occasional Republican who sees it as a way of getting rid of the monarchy. But for most Britons, this would be why they wouldn’t want to join the U.S.: too damaging to national symbols and pride.

What would be in it for Britain? England would once again be a full voting part of the leading power in the world. It might hope to impart its Athenian wisdom more fully to the American Rome, were it to become an organic participant in its national political deliberations, not just an external partner. Another Mr Johnson, also anti-EU — the late Tory historian Paul Johnson — once sighed that, if only Europe were at least a real federation like America, with all its glories! For those over 70, it would bring back memories of the olden times of their youth.

They might find hope in a Mr Craig Schoonmaker. He formed an “Expansionist Party of the United States” to achieve this goal and eventually absorb the whole world into the U.S. The U.S. is, to be sure, an open federation; any country anywhere can be admitted — if a majority in both houses of Congress agree to let it in. His cleverly thought-out plan for admitting the UK can be found on his group’s website at http://expansionistparty.tripod.com/Britain.html. It entails dividing the UK into six states. And eliminating the Crown and titles of nobility; those being Constitutional requirements for joining.

Oh, one more thing: Britain would also have to accept the U.S. Constitution as “the supreme Law of the Land,” nothing “in the Constitution or Laws of (the UK) to the Contrary notwithstanding” (Article 6, the Supremacy or Sovereignty Clause). An oath of loyalty to the U.S. Constitution in all its supremacy would be required of every UK governmental official — national and local, petty and great, civil and military, English, Scotch, Irish.

And that is only the beginning of the conformities required. The U.S. provides far less space than the EU for flexibility on a vast range of issues for a new integration of a new member. The EU is an emergent international Union; the U.S. is an established national Union with a national constitution. The U.S. regularly lays down Federal laws that pre-empt State laws; it usually skips the humble, cumbersome, integration-style effort of harmonizing member state laws that is the operating mode of the EU. It has a vast acquis of Federal laws and regulations, contradicting those of the EU and UK on innumerable details; dangers to “our values” in each of them would be discovered by enterprising national-resentment politicians in the former UK. It acts mostly through its own officers, while the EU relies on its member governments for most of the implementation of its decisions. It has a Federal bureaucracy of 2,000,000 people, dwarfing the EU’s 45,000. Penetrating every State is a mass of Federal officials, courts, and military; these would have to be newly installed in every locale of the UK. This might be done mostly, to be sure, by coopting the UK’s own officials, courts and armies, putting them under U.S. Federal direction; but still it would be a radically intrusive change.

That is why Clarence Streit, the great Federal Unionist, advocated forming a new Union of America and its democratic friends in Europe and beyond, not just letting in the latter as States of the U.S. He wrote that it might seem easier at first sight just to let countries in under the existing Constitution as one State each alongside the then 48 States, but in practice these are, like the U.S. itself, historically consolidated nations, not subdivisions of the U.S. A new Union would be needed to honor their equal dignity.

Perhaps more importantly, a new Union would need to be built so as to be structured for its members’ common needs in thisera. A considerable degree of common power and efficiency is indeed needed amongour countries in this era, but Streit held that the new Union would rightly befar less centralized than the American Union had evolved to become when hewrote in the 1930s, not to say today.  

That new union was in fact formed after 1945. It emerged in multiple stages, with a variable geometry; and not as a federation, but as a collection of the deals that could be achieved among the real existing nations. It took the form of split-level common home: a military union on the Atlantic level, and a tighter economic and political union on the European level.

This duality was unavoidable. The U.S., with its much larger size and stronger condition, was not willing to compromise nearly as much on its sovereignty as were the Europeans. America saw a need for a tighter economic consolidation too, but subcontracted most of the work to the Europeans.

The duality began with the Marshall Plan. On the initiative of the American Federal Unionist William Clayton, then Undersecretary of State for Economics, it required the Europeans to start forming what he called an economic federation in order to get the funds. The Europeans agreed to the extent of forming the OEEC, laying the ground for both the EC-EU and the OECD. The British and American Federal Unions worked together in the late 1950s to get OEEC transformed into OECD; the British side of this is recounted in the Pinder-Mayne history of Federal Union, while the American side of the story was led by the same Mr Clayton. OECD embodied how much economic integration could be agreed on the Atlantic level: an important amount, but leaving a need for a closer internal arrangement on the European level. It can be further supplemented; OECD trade agreements were attempted in the 1990s (MAI) and 2010s (TTIP and TPP), and we should not give up on such deals, even if those ones were rendered unratifiable by the campaigning against them from the anti-globalization or anti-Western movement of the left that had grown strong in the decades after the 1950s. It could a skillful move today to try an OECD-wide trade agreement as a way of reviving TPP and TTIP in new form, and it might be more ratifiable if done with a President who won his spurs on an anti-globalization platform. But a half century of trying should teach us that Atlantic/OECD arrangements will not suffice to substitute for the more intimate European one. The split-level nature of the Euro-Atlantic union remains inescapable for as far as can be seen into the future.

This dual union was formed with many more “bespoken” arrangements than are to be found in the constitutions of traditional federations. More transitional arrangements too. It reflected the reality that it was sovereign historical nations that were uniting, countries with their own consolidated economic policies and international identities that had to be brought together in stages, not provinces that had already been under an historically common sovereignty.

Britain, a late comer to the EC, joined it with the most special terms of all, later augmented with rebates and opt-outs. Its special arrangements were agreed thanks to the EU’s recognition that its case was truly unique in all respects — historically, geographically, sentimentally. Its EU membership is far more profoundly bespoken than anything in the Brexit agreement, or in any possible Brexit agreement.

Britain would not be able to get its old bespoken EU terms again, were it to leave the EU now and reapply later — not unless it somehow got such an option written into the withdrawal agreement. The EU has become — unwisely in my view — more rigid in the interim decades in its use of rules and principles. This was partly for reason of having more rules and more members.[1]

There has been a particular penchant toward a rigid uniformity in foreign policies and expansion policies, and now, in certain respects, in Brexit as well. Bosnian secession was dealt with by the EU setting formal rules for Yugoslav secessions, rules that helped bring on the civil war there. Ukraine’s Association Agreement was negotiated with a rules-based negligence of the uniqueness of Ukraine and its economic intertwining with Russia; this helped bring on its civil war too. It was decided in the early 1990s not to bring in the Eastern Europeans quickly on any 2nd Tier membership terms. Such an innovative approach might have given them the validation they needed in the critical period of their transitions, and — much to the EU’s own benefit — caught them in their early moments of enthusiasm for the EU, while allowing decades for them subsequently to grow together sociologically with Western Europe. The slogan of the day was, instead, “no second class membership”. One set of rules for all: it sounded very democratic. (Hmm, the same could be said of a recent referendum, also on paper highly democratic.) In practice it proved bad for democracy as well as for other considerations. It left the Eastern Europeans long out in the cold to suffer a bitter first formative experience with democracy; it harmed the Western Europeans and the Union itself with the subsequent premature full memberships. The Copenhagen Criteria were drawn up, laying down strict detailed terms for full membership. These Criteria were applied mechanistically to Turkey, in the name of its full democratization; with the actual effect of aiding Erdogan in the destruction of the functioning liberal semi-democracy in that country. It was a destruction carried out by forces moving toward a new form of totalitarian ideological democracy, akin to that in Iran, Islamism having replaced Communism as the content for such hybrids in the current era. The ideological strength of Islamism made the Copenhagen rules, designed for the Eastern Europeans, the opposite of what was needed in Turkey.

On top of this came the “principled” carelessness of Britain in waiving the EU’s transitional period for free in-migration of Eastern Europeans. Coupled with the principled careless EU talk of Turkish membership and support for Merkel’s invitation to migrants, it was the main reason why the anti-EU vote — hitherto always large but well below half in Britain — exceeded the 50% mark in the Brexit referendum. Coming on the heels of the euro crisis, the EU’s historic stabilizing role in Europe had seemed to have transmogrified into a destabilizing role; and destabilization on rigid principle at that. Principles are important indeed as moral guidelines to the wandering mind, but the highest principle is prudence when it comes to prioritizing among principles and managing their contradictions. The founders of the EU had a facility with traditional sovereign power and its prudential application. That facility is sorely needed today.

Fortunately, the mistakes of the last fifteen years, or what can be called the Merkel era, are being gradually overcome in the EU. Merkel is on the way out. The invitation to a mass migrant influx has been withdrawn; the EU is talking more about an increase in joint border security instead. A political culture of security is likely to gradually develop, after decades when EU officialdom has been overwhelmingly formed in a political culture of economic and humanitarian affairs. The late Italian federalist theoretician Mario Albertini decried how the political culture of the EU and its member states had become distorted by a half century of elite formation that was all fox no lion. It will take time to overcome this distortion in mentality and practice, but current trends are, tentatively, favorable.

Those who want stronger EU border and security policies, and who want greater caution about annulling or overriding national border restrictions until there is a considerably greater degree of joint control and strength — and who want a more traditionally balanced political culture, one that supports effective state security work — need Britain fully in the EU as an ally.  

Britain has surely learned from the bitter Brexit experience. It is not likely to repeat the mistake of Mr Cameron of doing virtue signaling about being more open than the bad Continentals to immigration from new members; nor the mistake of a generation of British leaders of pushing for Turkish EU membership; in neither case bothering to ask their own people what they thought of it, until they found out in the shock of the Brexit referendum. The EU collectively is learning also, albeit more slowly.

The past is past. Less rigidity of principle, more “bespokenness” in the spirit of the EU’s founders, would have served the EU better in these last few decades. But it is what it is. We are left with still tremendous achievements that we have built together. The only way for Britain to keep those achievements, and with them the enormous elements of bespokenness that it has gotten grandfathered into its EU membership, is to keep that membership.

One cannot step anew in the same river twice, but one can keep swimming and stay a part of the historic current. That is as true for the EU as for the UK. With so many more members and so much more acquis, the EU cannot simply return to its founders’ forms of flexibility. It could recover its old flexibility only in a new form, through a greater federalist efficiency. That may be the nightmare of many a Brexiteer, but it is the only way for the EU to regain the flexibility it has needed.

There was wisdom in what our forefathers did after 1945; greater wisdom than tends to be found in happier conditions. Britain in particular showed tremendous wisdom. It lost an empire, quipped Acheson, and was still searching for a role. But it in fact was already finding its new role — in NATO and the EU. A new historic role at that; one in which it enabled itself to punch well above its weight. Not the pre-eminent role of the global Empire and Pax Britannica; that is gone forever. But a nodal role in the continuation of that earlier pax, in its renovated Euro-Atlantic form. Nodal, and centrally important: not the centermost role of America, but neither a peripheral role. Certainly not the dreary picture we can see ahead of a post-Brexit UK, cut by its own hand out of councils into which its historic greatness was re-invested after 1945, fraying at the edges even on its home isles in Ireland and Scotland.

The founders of the Euro-Atlantic order acted under the pressure of urgent necessities, economic and strategic. These impelled them to think along the broad lines of Federal Union and to act integratively on the existential common needs of our Western nations, and at the same time to deal realistically with the entrenched national obstacles to so acting. Our countries spoke their critical requirements and made the deals they had to make. They created a real measure of common power by agreement — a miracle by the standards of history. They got it to work with the special arrangements their countries needed in the process. It is our great inheritance. We can improve on this system further with time. We would be cutting off forever the branch we stand on, were we to throw it out.

[1] Rigidity was also favored by a simplistic trans-Atlantic polemic in the early 2000s. America was called power-based and Westphalia; the EU called itself postmodern, Kantian, morally superior, law-based, a Union of Laws. In reality the EU is a Union of Power. It has laws that are effective because it is power-based. The power roles of its members are invested in its core institution, weighted voting in the Council. It is what distinguishes the EU from the mere unions of laws that are found in other, purely intergovernmental organizations. It needs to regain the flexibility of mentality that used to come with the celebration of its foundations in power and politics, not legalism.