Niall Ferguson is a super-star historian, but no one’s idea of a bien pensant liberal. Indeed, his work often attracts the fury of the intellectual Left, in particular his defence of the British Empire. And so his lack of enthusiasm for Brexit must come as a surprise to many and a disappointment to some.
In a recent interview with John Ashmore of CapX, Ferguson makes his reasoning clear. The key point to note is that he’s not a massive optimist about the EU: “I think the future for the European Union itself is quite bleak. And I still hold the view that in the end, Brexit will be a footnote in a chapter about the breakup of the European Union.”
But rather than take the assumption of a doomed EU as the justification for Brexit, he believes it renders leaving pointless: “…why waste all this time on a divorce from something that is becoming weaker over time, and it’s almost certain not to become a superstate? Remember the starting point for so much euroscepticism was ‘it’s becoming a superstate’.”
In other words, why bother leaving the EU when we can just wait for it to fade away?
Current events in Europe would appear to support Ferguson’s case. A rift is growing between France and Germany over the future direction of the EU. Emmanuel Macron has big plans — including significant fiscal integration and a European Army. Angela Merkel is standing in his way. Macron has raised the stakes — vetoing the start of membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. The message to Germany is clear: if you don’t give us what we want, we won’t give you what you want. It’s a recipe for gridlock.
If it can’t move forward, then what threat does the EU pose to British sovereignty? Out of the Eurozone, out of the Schengen area, we could have remained without risk, sitting pretty on our literal and metaphorical island. Whether the EU slowly falls to bits or staggers on indefinitely, we could have enjoyed full access to the Single Market, safe from any supranational shenanigans. Instead, we opted for the trauma of Brexit: “Seems like we’ve just wasted so much political capital on this divorce and we’re divorcing a slowly decomposing spouse.”
One can, of course, object to Ferguson’s pessimism about the EU’s vitality (not to mention the ickiness of that final metaphor). But assuming he’s right in that respect, does the rest of his argument stand up? I have my doubts.
Let’s start with with a basic fact, which is that the EU already is a superstate. It has its own currency, its own central bank, its own customs union, its own directly elected parliament, its own budget of over €150 billion, its own civil service, its own diplomatic corps and its own seat on international bodies like the G20. It has a common trade policy, a common agricultural policy and a common fisheries policy. There’s an EU flag, an EU anthem and EU citizenship.
Other features of a sovereign state are absent, but even if these are never acquired, what already exists is not static, but possessed of an in-built forward momentum: the accumulation of EU law; the expansion of the EU budget; the ongoing and highly uneven impact of internal EU migration. As David Cameron found out to his cost, these fundamentals are non-negotiable, while opt-outs and concessions to member states cannot be guaranteed — as the erosion of the UK’s rebate demonstrates.
Ferguson’s talk of slow disintegration is therefore misleading. The EU continues to integrate in small, but numerous, steps. Moreover, the possibility of faster movement cannot be discounted. Angela Merkel’s time in office is running out; Emmanuel Macron’s is not. The cautious CDU will not rule Germany forever — a Green-led Left-wing coalition could be in charge by October 2021.
Economic events could also force the pace of change. We’ve already had one Eurozone crisis; if the single currency comes under threat again, then significant movement towards fiscal union may be judged a price worth paying to save the European project (the crushing of Greece was judged worth it last time).
But what if it isn’t saved? If the EU is doomed, we shouldn’t assume that its demise will be gradual and therefore manageable. In the modern world, multi-national political entities have a habit of going out with a bang not a whimper — Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, various European colonial empires, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire. Of course, the EU is neither an empire nor riven by war; but arguably it’s more easily collapsable, because national governments are already in place to (re)absorb the EU’s functions.
The dissolution of the single currency, however, would be a deeply disruptive event. The UK has its own currency, but, in the event of a Eurozone collapse, being in the Single Market would expose us to destabilising flows of capital looking for a safe haven, followed by large numbers of EU citizens looking for a job.
Admittedly, Britain outside of the EU would not be immune to serious troubles within the EU. Indeed, anything as big as the collapse of the Eurozone would be an economic shock of global proportions. Nevertheless, a UK in full control of its borders and trade policy would be in a better position to manage the consequences.
Finally, one has to question the ethics of sticking with a political project that you don’t believe in. Remember that the Ferguson case isn’t just that the superstate won’t happen, but that the EU is ultimately doomed. Indeed, there’s something vulture-like about waiting for a community you’ve chosen to be part of to topple over. We should either give the project our all or find a new national purpose.
Britain should always be the best of friends to our neighbours, but the European Union is not a friendship group, it is a family — and family requires love, loyalty and sacrifice. If that is not something we feel we can give, then our place is elsewhere.