February 24, 2021

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How will the European Union develop after Britain’s exit? It is a question seldom asked, yet one of huge importance for our future. Indeed, it is an updated version of the question which has shaped British foreign policy since the reign of William III — how to foster a balance of power on the continent and avoid the UK facing a continent dominated by a single, overweening power. Didn’t that motive play some part in Britain’s decision to join the EU? And have we now, rather carelessly, lost sight of that goal?

For many on the continent “Building Europe” is still a stirring appeal, but it is also dangerously ambiguous, avoiding the fundamental question – the difficult, yet crucial question — of the ultimate legal structure of the new creation, its constitutional character. A number of decisions by the German Constitutional Court have, by implication, raised this question, but it cannot be said that EU member states as yet speak with one voice. Do France and Germany share the same vision? Smaller member states may fear the day they do.

Despite the EU Commission constantly invoking “European Unity”, the question of what rights and duties are intrinsic to EU membership is very far from being uncontested. Recent examples of fundamental discord come all too readily to mind. The question of how responsibility for dealing with immigrants into Europe should be shared, as well as the question of what duties the richer member states have to support poorer member states, are two obvious ones. But even the most fundamental question — the EU’s identity as an association of liberal democracies — has been fudged in the face of growing authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland.

The European Union has failed to achieve a clear constitutional identity — a failure which can make even its commitment to liberal democracy equivocal.

The EU’s evasiveness about its purpose raises important questions about its future, and Brexit ought to be a wake-up call. Paradoxically, the only member state with an unwritten constitution has decided that membership of the EU is incompatible with national sovereignty. The very simplicity of the British constitution (“the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament”) has focussed public attention on the question of where sovereignty is located in a way that nations with elaborate, codified constitutions have mostly avoided.

Does national sovereignty remain fundamental in the EU? Should it? Discontents behind those questions can be found both in the original member states and in more recent entrants. Portugal complains about the lack of EU “solidarity”, while the Dutch oppose large financial transfers. Further east, Poland scarcely conceals its determination to defend the “sovereignty” only recently regained. With such a mixture of views in European governments, can the EU now even be classified as a “confederation”?

What does Europe aspire to? If we are to answer that fundamental question, we must first look beyond particular controversies in Brussels and national capitals. We must look at the beliefs appealed to in arguments about European integration, that is, beliefs about its “proper” goals. In order to do that, we must first look at the crisis in liberalism today.

Liberal thinking underlay the original project to “build a new Europe”. The writings of the greatest liberal thinkers — Locke, Montesquieu, Madison, Constant and Tocqueville — were dominated by constitutional concerns. For it was by constitutional means that they proposed to disperse power and protect individual liberty. The primacy of this classical’ liberalism was more or less taken for granted in the West at the end of the Second World War. But liberalism has changed since then, and these changes have become a threat to the moral and political challenge laid down by classical liberalism: the challenge of how to combine the ancient idea of citizenship with the scale of the modern nation-state.

But if that project — the project of “self-government” — was daunting on a national scale, how much more formidable it becomes when now applied to political integration on a European scale!

In the early post-war decades there were few reservations about integration. After the horrors of the Second World War, the weakening of national identities seemed more an advantage than a threat. In 1945 liberalism was triumphant. It seemed to have freed the best of human nature and opened the way to unprecedented peace and prosperity. The newly created United Nations was committed to promoting human rights, and free institutions were the norm.

These post-war decades seemed to confirm liberalism’s promise, and with American aid, Western European economies developed rapidly and flourished. But the very prosperity liberalism helped create had unintended consequences.

It was a consequence that was made especially important because of the threat posed by the Soviet Union and its Marxist ideology. In response to that threat from the east, liberalism in Western Europe and the United States began to redefine itself. Competition with the Soviet Union increasingly led liberals to contrast the prosperity brought by “free” markets in the West with the halting progress of Eastern Europe’s “command” economies. Thus, liberalism began to identify itself increasingly in terms of the marketplace — of private property, free exchange and competition.

The result was the emergence of what can be called “neoliberalism”. Neoliberalism takes far less interest in the form of the state, and increasingly, its call for “freedom” is identified in terms drawn from the marketplace. It ceases to be a challenge to the human spirit and the imagination – to ourselves – to create something new, a fairer and better world. Rather, it emphasises the disciplines required by “success” in the marketplace. This new emphasis replaces what has, since liberalism’s emergence in the 18th century, been at the heart of liberal thinking — constitutional guarantees of freedom.

While the writings of the great liberal thinkers are dominated by constitutional concerns, since it was by constitutional means that they proposed to disperse power and protect individual liberty, the most striking thing about neoliberalism is its neglect of constitutional questions in favour of “market solutions”.

This, in turn, has involved increasing reliance on a philosophical tradition which is only equivocally “liberal” — utilitarianism. The core of utilitarianism emerges in its emphasis on “maximising” individual satisfactions (or “happiness”) rather than protecting individual rights and freedom by means of constitutional safeguards. Instead, utilitarianism fosters the centralisation of power, its “rational” use rather than favouring its dispersal. “Checks and balances” give way to “efficiency”.

Neoliberalism, with its utilitarian underpinning, does not merely draw attention away from the importance of constitutions. It also draws attention away from the national identities and cultures reflected in those constitutions. In that way, unintentionally, it has contributed to what is by far the most striking development in public opinion across the European continent in recent years: the resurgence of a kind of nationalism, a nationalism which is not aggressive but defensive. It is a defence of inherited identities.

The early stages of post-war European integration were relatively painless, but by the mid-1990’s mounting ambitions — shaped by the French reaction to German reunification — led to projects such as the Euro, threatening national identities.

A wise response would have been “to make haste slowly”, for the risk was that any acceleration of integration in Europe would create a backlash in public opinion, the growth of a new populism — a risk aggravated by growing fears about mass immigration. That risk is real — appeals to national unity and identity have indeed been growing in recent decades.

No doubt forms of liberal idealism survive in demonstrations favouring women’s rights and racial equality. Yet such “semi-populist” outbursts can, unintentionally, become threats to constitutional liberties. When divorced from a context of careful argument, they can even threaten freedom by appearing to sanction and enforce new types of conformity.

Recent demonstrations in defence of “black rights” may, for example, have an unintended consequence — by bringing the discredited concept of “race” back into wider public use. Another example of liberalism almost unwittingly contributing to populism can be seen in conformist pressures released by unregulated development of the internet and in particular social media sites like Twitter. These can become a new type of threat to individual autonomy. For, as J.J. Rousseau long ago observed, “the vice of civilised man is that he compares”.

Yet how little critical public discussion of the issues raised by these developments can be found! What public institutions are now best suited to protect freedom of thought, speech and association — to foster the better parts of our nature — in the face of the conformist pressures exerted by the media giants and the internet? At the heart of classical liberalism was the desire to promote and protect those values constitutionally — to shape wants rather than merely satisfy them — through privileging local autonomy, voluntary association and public debate. Classical liberalism put a premium on public conversations, preferring vigorous argument to mass demonstrations.

Sadly, with the development of neoliberalism, the excitement which in the 18th and the 19th century accompanied the challenge to create a new representative form of government and the rule of law – “free institutions” – has faded away. Recent changes in the teaching of history have reinforced that development. We are now embarrassed by any attempt to tell “the story of liberty”, not because we are now more sophisticated and sceptical, but because we are more ignorant.

Classical liberal values were long transmitted by learning about the problems encountered during the 18th and 19th centuries when creating liberal and democratic institutions. Historical knowledge then played an important part in transmitting constitutional values from one generation to another. Today the decline of that historical understanding is reflected in political classes who seem to feel more comfortable discussing economic problems than constitutional issues. The political education of the public has suffered.

As a result, government is now too often seen as simply a remote instrument to satisfy our demands. That its form and policies might rightly have a role in shaping those demands is seldom emphasised or explored. Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument that local government and the jury system should be understood as “schools for citizens” — as indispensable means of popular education — is seldom voiced. Rather, “efficiency” in the distribution of benefits is the goal appealed to. Altogether, the impact of neoliberalism means that political classes in the West are now less concerned with the dispersal and balancing of power than its uses. But this amounts to a longer-term threat to the very survival of constitutional government and individual liberty.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union neoliberalism has lost some of its appeal. It certainly does not capture the imagination of the young, having deprived liberalism of its moral aspiration through its emphasis on market relations.

So idealism — a concern with the formation of wants rather than merely their satisfaction — has had to find other outlets than constitutional ones. Idealism survives among the young, but it is no longer disciplined by a firm constitutional education. The risk is that new forms of populism may become less tolerant of the diversity of public argument that classical liberalism sought to create.

The decline of classical liberalism helps to explain why EU public opinion has not demanded of its political leaders greater clarity about the constitutional implications of building the EU. Nor, sadly, has Britain’s exit from the EU generated as much soul-searching on the continent as might have been expected (though there has been some in the Netherlands and Denmark).

I am not suggesting that the EU should attempt once again to adopt a constitution. That would be a mistake, and there is no constitutional consensus lurking in Europe. Yet EU member states should be far more careful defenders of the dispersal of power in Europe. For, as a recent President of the EU Commission has admitted, the Commission’s instinct, until it meets resistance, is always to push for more centralisation.

Awareness of that danger has been the most admirable feature of the Brexit movement in the UK (although it has not been accompanied by self-awareness about the excessive centralisation of UK government itself!) But what about other EU member states? Germany, with a political system that carefully disperses power domestically, ought to be especially alert and resistant to this danger in Europe. However, thus far it has been content to delegate that role to the Dutch and the Danes. How long will that remain the case? There is no immediate danger. Yet the truth remains that French intuitions about what is desirable for Europe differ markedly from German intuitions. How will this contrast play out in the long term?

Even now — after Brexit — losing interest in questions about the EU’s future would be a dangerous mistake for Britain. Leaving the European Union should not become an excuse for the UK failing to follow closely, and even trying to influence, the development of institutions on the other side of the Channel. Such failures in the past have had serious consequences, and may well do so once again.