May 28, 2019

Guy Verhofstadt is a former Belgian Prime Minister and a current power broker within the European Parliament. An ultra-federalist Anti-Farage, this energetic Flemming has emerged as the bête noire of British Eurosceptics.

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I, however, think he’s brilliant – not because I agree with him (I really, really don’t), but because he’s so open and upfront about the nature of the European project. Here, he sums it up in a tweet:

“The world of tomorrow will be dominated by empires like China, India, the US and Russia. The status quo isn’t enough. We need a strong, united Europe to protect our way of living.”

This is admirably clear. To date, most EU leaders have preferred to hide behind non-words like ‘coordination’ and ‘solidarity’. Verhofstadt, however, defines the European project by comparing it to existing and potential superstates.

Admittedly, he doesn’t quite say that the EU should become an empire itself, but rather that it should be “strong” enough and “united” enough to hold its own against states he does describe as empires.

In any case, one could argue that we’re well on the way to an imperial EU. It’s already a big multinational entity with a single currency (for the most part), a common trade policy, its own legislature and numerous federal institutions. And though the EU cannot be described as a sovereign state, it is the only entity that isn’t one to be permanently represented at the G7, and to be a member of the G20.

It’s a shame that the Brexit debate became bogged down in arguments over net and gross contributions to the EU budget; the minutiae of trade policy; and controversies over immigration. It’s not that these issues are unimportant – but more important than any of them is whether the United Kingdom ought to participate in the construction of a new European empire (or ‘superstate’ if you find the e-word too much to deal with).

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Despite the referendum, I don’t think we’ve ever had this debate – not out in the open. Neither Eurosceptics nor Europhiles have wanted to face the question head-on because it doesn’t suit the standard narratives.

On the Eurosceptic side, the tendency has been to present the EU as either an out-of-control bureaucracy or a vehicle for the machinations of rival nation-states (especially France and Germany). Eurosceptics do, of course, refer to the logical implications of “ever closer union,” but almost always in terms of the threat to UK sovereignty, as opposed to the creation of a new and much larger sovereign entity – their focus being what would be lost rather than what could, potentially, be gained.

Mainstream Europhiles have also avoided the issue – presenting the EU not as an empire in the making, but as a bulwark of a rules-based international order. In fact, they’d probably argue that the European project is all about challenging the very basis of imperialism: the idea that might is right. At its heart is an understanding that the powers of the Earth, whether big or small, should jointly abide by rules determined by principles of peace and justice, fairness and efficiency. And the EU has a special role to play in the implementation of this global vision, as the vanguard and exemplar of rules-based internationalism.

Writing for Prospect, Helen Thompson argues that European leaders are taking a more pessimistic view of the rest of the world these days:

“Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron may not agree on the future of the EU, but they are of one mind in understanding its origins. Both believe it was founded as part of a precious liberal, rules-based international order—that Europe must now rally to defend. In a joint press conference with Canada’s Liberal premier Justin Trudeau last year, Macron declared that ‘the rules-based international order is being challenged not by the usual suspects, but by its main architect and guarantor: the US.'”

They are right to be concerned. America’s Trumpian turn comes on top of Russia’s growing belligerence and the rapid extension of China’s power across Asia, Africa and, increasingly, Europe itself.

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We should therefore not be surprised to see Europe adopting an increasingly defensive posture – even if most of its leaders aren’t yet following the logic of Mr Verhofstadt’s conclusion (though here is Angela Merkel talking his language, last week).

However, Thompson makes a compelling case that the rules-based international order isn’t breaking down – and that’s because it never existed in the first place.

She provides one example after another of America’s post-war hegemonic power – from the Suez crisis to the making and breaking of the Bretton Woods system. In the 21st century, the US continued to do as it pleased, breaking the ‘rules’ as necessary – the invasion of Iraq being a prime example.

In an odd parallel to Verhofstadt’s undisguised federalism, Donald Trump’s main innovation is to make the implicit explicit:

“Trump is different from his predecessors not because he rejects multilateralism or deploys sanctions, but because he feels no need to disguise the fact that US dominance rests on coercive power. When he pulled out of the Paris climate accord, he was merely acting as the US Senate had when it refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, even before Clinton had signed it. When he imposed steel and aluminium tariffs on the EU, Canada and Mexico, he repeated George W Bush’s actions in 2002 in erecting tariffs on steel imports, including from Europe.”

Masks are being dropped all over the place these days. Authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Mohammed Bin Sultan, Recep Rayyip Erdogan, Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte are not even pretending to play by liberal rules.

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There are those within the EU who’d dearly love Europe to throw its weight around too. They are not afraid to do so within the club (evidenced by the crushing of Greece during the Eurozone crisis or the punishment of the British for trying to leave). Pressure is building for an EU capable of acting as a unified force against external antagonists too.

That, of course, would require a common foreign policy and a European Army sustained by a greatly expanded EU budget. Whether the EU is capable of such integration is another matter. The current situation in which the Germans profit from the single currency and common trade policy, while not having to pay for fiscal or defence integration is such an absurdly good deal that I don’t see why Berlin would give it up if they don’t have to.

If the EU does do more to assert itself against the likes of America and China, then, for the time being, it will be by wielding its undoubted economic strength.

Where does that leave Britain? The answer is in the same place as many other major economies around the world: nations that can’t or won’t be absorbed into the 21st century empires. Looking around the world, examples include Canada, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico and the emerging African giants like Nigeria. These are too far flung and diverse to form a superstate of their own – but they do have a shared interest in not allowing the biggest trading blocs to push the rest of the world around.

Britain should play its part in building a global alliance against economic imperialism – and, yes, I am aware of the historical irony.

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