IT seemed like such a good idea at the time – a unified Europe, prospering through trade within itself and collectively with the rest of the world, forming a hefty world market to sustain its high living standards.
But what happened?
The woes of Britain and the European Union, which include but are not limited to Brexit, pivot on unrealistic expectations and failing to anticipate likely developments.
It was a fantasy to nurture a superstate as a supranational entity and still hope to preserve the old state prerogatives of national sovereignty. Compromises had to be made, and continue to be made, on a slippery slope by the component states.
State power is such that, when critical mass is reached, it continues to accumulate on a momentum and with a logic of its own in usurping more power from sub-state entities.
Marginal communities around the world have long known and suffered from their increasing marginalisation as minority groups. The same applies between a supranational state and its constituent member states.
Just one year after the end of World War II, that icon of British conservatism – Winston Churchill – championed a supranational “United States of Europe” at Zurich University.
After 1945 it was thought that European integration would prevent extremist nationalism on the continent and contain the traditional rivalry between Germany and France.
Few of the advocates gave serious thought to the problems of a European superstate. Switzerland steered clear of the “European project, ” Greenland left in 1985, and Norway decided to stay out in 1972 and 1994.
The Treaty of Rome saw six countries establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. This became the European Communities in 1967 and today’s 27-member European Union from 1993.
Britain joined in 1973 in a move denounced by critics as sacrificing British sovereignty. But big business hoped to gain from membership, and the big money that went into the campaign for joining won the day.
One generation later, the perceived economic, political and social costs of joining seemed to weigh heavier than the received benefits of Britain’s membership.
In 2016 Prime Minister David Cameron, blithely unaware of the changing national mood, offered the British public a referendum on continued membership. He had presumed that a vote for Britain to remain would strengthen his leadership position.
But Downing Street miscalculated, having neglected popular concerns over the increasing demands and shrinking accountability of an increasingly powerful Brussels bureaucracy.
Although the vote to leave was just under 52%, the anti-membership sentiment steadily became the norm in both the Conservative and the opposition Labour parties.
Far from portrayals of anti-EU sentiment as right-wing, it was a mindset common to segments of all parties. The “leave” components were fired with new energy, while the “remain” factions stayed quiescent.
After repeated delays and extensions, Britain officially left the EU nine days ago. However it is now neither in nor out in the current “transition stage, ” having to remain obligated to the terms of membership until the end of the year.
That is assuming the terms of departure can be settled between Britain and the EU by December. What could not be done in recent years is now said to be achievable in 11 months.
The basic stumbling block remains the same: Britain wants favourable terms of trade and other relations with the EU almost as good as it had as a member, but the EU rejects that for fear it would encourage other members to leave.
The so-called “Canada model” that London is aiming for essentially means no tariffs or quotas on goods traded with the EU. But then financial services are also a significant sector for Britain.
London thus fantasises over a Canada-plus model, which Brussels would be quick to disabuse it of. Britain may then gravitate towards an “Australia model, ” which is said to be little more than being WTO-consistent.
WTO rules however require equal treatment with all other trading partners, which would swiftly bring Britain down to earth. Meanwhile, other plans for new trading engagements with the US, Commonwealth countries and other regions remain in the distance.
All of this has kept British lawmakers busy and more than a little flummoxed. How to fashion a meaningful, productive and workable agreement within just months, when it is still so difficult to do so at all?
Britain first entered “Europe” without being fully aware of the pitfalls of membership. Then it left without being fully conversant with the setbacks of leaving.
Some inversions and perversions have already surfaced as a result. “Brexit”, until very recently a proud term for all those intent on leaving the EU, including the Government, is now officially a dirty word.
The furore over the plight of French and other “foreign” fishing vessels in “British waters” further exemplifies the muddle.
Guernsey in the Channel Islands is a British Crown dependency but is physically closer to France than to Britain. Since Britain is no longer an EU member, French fishermen around the island are stuck, as are Guernsey fishermen whom Britain told to stop selling their catch in France.
Confusion also reigns in companies operating in Britain and Europe. They need staff who are permitted to live and work in Britain and in EU countries, which can now be tricky.
The biggest headache for the EU is yet to emerge fully: future funding. Britain was the third-biggest economy in Europe in real GDP terms, so its departure leaves a considerable financial vacuum.
This can never be filled satisfactorily by Albania or North Macedonia, even as the EU tinkers with the prospect of enlarging its membership with them. Demands for larger contributions from existing members may provoke stronger sentiments to leave.
The former European colonial powers can remain among leading world economies today only by banding together in a club like the EU.
They had fought one another as rivals in a scramble for colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America before. Now they have to consolidate to live “in the manner to which they have become accustomed.”
Never colonised before, some – beginning with Britain – are now feeling the brunt of a colonising EU. The complaints of a cold, distant and aloof bureaucracy in Brussels, with interests alien to Britons yet remaining unaccountable to them, are complaints that colonised peoples have made everywhere.
Prominent Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage declared the date of Britain’s fateful referendum, June 23, as Britain’s independence day. His counterparts in such EU countries as France, Denmark and the Netherlands now look forward to Frexit, Dexit and Nexit.
Nonetheless, the EU is far from done despite the hopes of exit campaigners. Lasting and definitive change in Europe will take some time yet, even if it comes at all.
Meanwhile, other regional organisations stand to learn from the successes and failures of the European experience. Asean is often compared with the EU but there are major differences between them.
Even as Asean integration grows towards a seamless community, the component states remain mindful of the pitfalls of moving too far and too fast.
As former colonies, member nations are also jealously protective of their respective hard-won sovereignties. Unlike in Europe, the colonial experience here has infused a natural resistance to any prospective supranational power.
This article first appeared in The Star on February 9, 2020