I’m neither European nor British but over a decade ago I chose to do my Masters in Contemporary European Studies. Contemporary in that we didn’t focus on anything before World War II. I then followed that up with a 6 month internship at the European Commission in Brussels so I got a chance to observe how the machinery worked.
Ultimately European integration was something that awoke from the horrors of World War II. It was a phoenix that rose from the ashes of a conflict that tore apart Europe and most of the rest of the world with it.
For me as an outsider it was fascinating to study how territories that had been at war with each other, countries and kingdoms that competed with each other for centuries came together to forever destroy the prospect of another earth shaking conflict.
I’m not sure that most of the people who went to vote yesterday knew about the European Coal and Steel Community- that very first supranational organisation that promoted regional integration in 1951. You read those names in books- Jean Monnet, Robert Schumann- and then you encountered them on the streets of Brussels (Schumann round about- that iconic point at the end of Rue de la Loi where most EU institutions are located).
But what the European Union really was, was an experiment. An experiment that tried to bring nations together in “an ever closer union”. It was a noble intent- the aim to integrate countries in such a close circle that they would never again go to war with each other. I’m not sure if Jean Monnet or Schumann or any of the people who signed the Treaty of Rome establishing the origins of the European Economic Community in 1957 imagined that this experiment would be such a huge success.
For it is a success- can anybody imagine France going to war with Germany? Can any other region in the world try and emulate this? Would India and Pakistan (which were part of the same regional bloc until the British) ever come together in a South Asian Union that would rid the border tensions between them? Put things in perspective and then you will see why the European Union is such a big deal.
It was and is one of the biggest experiments in humanity- it is where we transcend those very politically primal instincts of borders and defense and surrender some of our powers to a supranational organisation. In its hey days the Union was so successful that countries waited in line to join in. In fact the UK’s application to join the EEC was rejected twice be De Gaulle – in 1963 and 1969 if I remember correctly. I’m sure that if De Gaulle were alive today he’d have a few choice words. But rapid expansion is what brought about a lot of the significant challenges today. Basically when the economic going was good everything was gung-ho. The moment the financial scales tilted suddenly – well you know what has been happening.
There are certainly problems with this experiment- Eurosceptics often dish out “democratic deficit” as the biggest problem- basically bureaucrats in Brussels making decisions not endorsed by people voting governments into power. Laws and directives creeping in without being debated in national parliaments. But problems can be sorted through negotiation and implementation of new rules. And then they talk about how much money they were paying to Brussels as against what was coming in (ironic that Wales voted to leave when it has been the beneficiary of not insignificant European structural funds).
Anyway anyway anyway there are always problems in anything. And because we are human beings there is also likely to be corruption. The expression ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water comes to mind’ after we have all seen what happened today with the referendum in the UK.
More than the economic implications of what happened I just feel bad that the UK chose to step out of this grand experiment. I guess if and when the aliens land up in a few hundred years they won’t find humanity united under one banner like how some of those television shows or sci fi books would have liked.