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There Is No Such Thing as Going ‘Back to the Nation State’

In the last days before the Brexit referendum what started mystifying me was the way both sides presented their core argument. While the ‘leave’ side presented its fight as a fight for a return to the nation state as the locus for democratic control, the ‘remain’ side presented the EU as an imperfect but necessary international coordinating body. Neither side, however, seemed to challenge the basic tenet of the current debate in which the EU and the nation state are presented as two sides of a dichotomy – we are either for the one or for the other; both are incompatible with each other. Nobody seemed to point out that not only is the EU not inimical to the nation state but that, in a very deep sense, the EU was built to help the old nation states’ transition into a non Eurocentric  world (a point that was made in a classic book by the political scientist Alan Milward). Moreover, much of the debate was centered on the perceived defects or virtues of the EU as a fixed entity and disregarded the capacity of the EU to evolve. It was then that I wrote a piece using both arguments: that the EU has been great for the European nation states and that, contrary to the myth, the EU is both capable of reform and actually permanently engaged in self-reform in a way that Member States often are not. I published the following text in my blog and as I am just starting to contribute to ‘Reconnecting Europe’, I think it’s still worth republishing it here – after the referendum.  My intention is to develop these arguments into a series of posts on transnational democracy and the prospect of cosmopolitanism against the ‘globalisation vs. nationalism’ rhetorical dichotomy, which at the moment so terrifyingly holds the world in its grip.

So here it goes, as my opening statement on this blog, my ideas on what the EU is – and what it can be.

There is a huge misunderstanding about the EU (Brexit) referendum, and this is that with the UK leaving the European Union we will now go back to the nation state – or, as Brexiteers put it, that ‘we will take our country back’. The fact is that there is no such thing as ‘back to the nation state’. Most European countries have not been nation states for centuries, except for very brief periods. They were either empires, or parts thereof. The states that were heads of empires, such as Great Britain, France, Portugal or the Netherlands, had easy access to raw materials, a captive market in their colonies and an outsized global influence because of their metropolitan status. The European project was the remedy they found to alleviate their post-imperial decline; and quite an obvious one too. When they could, none of these countries spent much time out there alone – in between losing an empire and acceding to the EU or its antecessors. My country, Portugal, lost its colonies in 1975; the year after we applied for membership of the Council of Europe, another year later we asked to enter the European Economic Community. That the UK tried to enter the EEC half a decade after the Suez crisis is no mere chance; that de Gaulle vetoed the UK’s accession showed that he wanted to protect France’s comparative post-imperial advantage of access to what was then the common European market.

The exceptions to this rule, such as Spain, Germany and Austria (i.e. countries that lost their empires long before there was a European project) have had telling trajectories that include civil war, being cut to size, losing itself in revanchist dreams, terrible dictatorships and widespread state-sponsored murder. If one adds Russia and Turkey to that list one can see that the post-imperial hangover can be quite lasting. As for the countries that were parts of empires in Eastern Europe, well… they didn’t have much sovereignty until they acceded the EU, did they? Contrary to common perception, EU accession was and is the main way for countries like Lithuania, Slovenia and even Hungary to secure their status as independent nation states.

The truth is that the EU is not inimical to the nation state. For some of the European nation states, actually, the EU has been the only respite from being dominated, invaded and unrecognised for a century after WWI. For Europe’s historically oldest and most fortunate independent countries, however, the European project has also been the greatest boon imaginable in an era characterised by the emergence of the rest of the world’s societies and economies in post-colonial states that quite often much outsize in population and potential even the biggest European countries. The EU is an inescapable market of 500 million consumers and a club of 28(27) of some of the most advanced democracies in the world which has secured continued relevance for European countries at a global scale. Four EU countries, and the EU itself, sit at the table of G8 summits. In fact, the UK is now represented twice at these summits, but after leaving the EU and its economy taking a hit or with Scotland leaving the UK, it will risk not being represented at the G8 either directly or indirectly. Surely, at the UN’s Security Council the UK would keep its permanent seat – at least until UN reform – but it would be overcome in influence by a France that would, through the EU treaties, also represent the rest of the EU among the states with a veto right at UN level.

In any case, national sovereignty matters little if individual sovereignty or citizenship is not respected. In this regard the EU – with the Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Treaties and the EU Charter – is very much at the forefront of what can be do. Where else in the world, for example, could a single Austrian young man by the name of Max Schrems defeat Facebook in a court ruling of the EU Court of Justice? And even if this could be achieved at national level, would an affected multinational comply? Not if they can ignore the country and its market, as the case of Google News against Spain shows. Remember: even the biggest national markets in Europe are smaller by comparison with the rest of the world in which these multinationals operate. Only by the combined force of its 500 million strong market can the EU impose standards and enforce rulings against companies that are more powerful than many states. I know it does not feel that way most of the time, but if you don’t believe that in the fight between an individual’s right and a multinational corporation the EU fares much better than the rest of the world, go ask a peasant in Peru or a gun-violence victim in the NRA-dominated USA.

But isn’t the EU out of touch and too technocratic? Wouldn’t it need a big democratic overhaul in order to be up to the standards that we as 21st-century citizens demand? And isn’t it – so we’ve been told – irreformable? Yes, yes – and no.

I was a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for five years, from 2009 to 2014. I have seen the EP gain the power to squash international agreements – and use it: against EU-US agreements on grounds of data protection, for instance, and against Morocco because of the rights of Saharawis in occupied Western Sahara. I do not know of many national parliaments that would dare overrule their governments, which in many cases have locked-in parliamentary majorities, in cases of international agreements. Today the EP is our best chance that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) either adheres to good environmental, labour and consumer-protected standards or gets rejected outright by a majority of MEPs. I’ve seen it happen, and I do not doubt that it can happen again.

During those five years I also saw the procedure for the election of the President of the European Commission change from choosing the President behind closed doors to him or her being indirectly elected in a procedure that is akin to US-style primaries. Although far from perfect, this new procedure means that in 2019 we can boot Jean-Claude Juncker from the EU’s top job by not voting for parties that belong to his European People’s Party. And it goes to show again that the EU, although far from being a full democracy as it should be, is indeed capable of being reformed in a way that compares quite well to the immovability of most of our national systems (think the UK and the House of Lords).

And even on austerity, the subject that has been closest to my heart, being a national – and quite a patriotic one – of a country that has suffered the indignities of the Troika and is still appalled at the wrong-headedness of the European response to the eurozone crisis, I think it is completely bereft of objectivity to say that this response did not change over time. Consider the differences between the European Central Bank during the Jean-Claude Trichet rule and with Mario ‘whatever it takes’ Draghi, or the times that the hard line of German ordoliberalism lost in both the ECB board and the EU Court of Justice, or the possibility that Spain will soon join its voice to the anti-austerians in Portugal’s and Greece’s governments, and you have some reason to hope. And in the case you think I am being too optimistic, please refer back to the historical record: just think how many trial and errors it took for the US to overcome the Great Depression or how many decades it took (and a Civil War) for the dollar area to consolidate itself in the USA, and maybe you’ll see that in the most severe crisis of the last 80 years the EU did fare terribly, but that there is a learning curve that can be followed.

So, all in all, let’s dispel some of the biggest myths about this referendum. The country that nostalgic Brexiteers want to take back was an Imperial Metropolis whose colonial privileges are not on offer anymore. The EU has been a solution for the European nation states, and not their undoing. And, in any case, we can change – via political pressure and both national and EU elections – what the EU gets wrong.

Why the UK – whose GDP has grown by  69% since the beginning of the single market and does not have to worry about the euro – would choose to leave the EU and enjoy its post-colonial hangover in solitude is beyond the reasonableness of any outside observer with the obvious exception of Mr  Putin. Because – to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s own paraphrase of an anonymous quotation about democracy – the EU is indeed the worst solution to Europe’s problems, – apart from all the others that have been tried from time to time. We will miss it if we break it.

You can download the article in PDF here.


Rui Tavares (Lisbon, 1972) is a historian, newspaper columnist and a former Member of the European Parliament. He served on its Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs where he was rapporteur on issues of rule of law, fundamental rights and the EU’s refugee policy. Tavares holds a PhD from the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris, obtained with a dissertation on censorship in the 18th century. Among many other titles he published “The Short Book of the Great Earthquake” (tinta-da-china), which won an award for the best Portuguese non-fiction book of 2005. Tavares writes weekly at the Portuguese newspaper Público. His latest book is the essay “The Irony of the European Project” (tinta-da-china). He is co-founder of the Portuguese political party LIVRE and of the pan-European network “Ulysses Project”.

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