Brexit and Beyond

The EU isn’t “the least bad option”. It is the institution which holds together liberal Western democracy.

The Article: The EU isn’t “the least bad option”. It is the institution which holds together liberal Western democracy.

Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The other day, a Liberal Democrat leaflet was posted through my letterbox. Skim-reading, one line struck me: “We believe that despite the obvious weaknesses and flaws of the European Union, it is the least bad option for the UK”. My word, I thought. Not even the party that has made its opposition to Brexit its unique selling point wants to boast about the virtues of European integration.

Not all go as far as Owen Polley who wrote on this site last week that those who feel a strong attachment to the European Union are suffering from some form of “derangement”. Yet many remain bewildered that one might see the EU as not only a necessary evil, but as a good in itself. 

Much of this eurosceptic sentiment stems from the popular image pro-Brexit politicians and pundits forged of the EU long before the referendum: as a bureaucratic monstrosity that undermines democracy. If true, this is obviously not a project anyone could love. But it isn’t.

The “bureaucratic monolith” actually only employs about 45,000 staff. By comparison, the Office of National Statistics currently registers 430,075 people on the British civil service payroll. If anything, therefore, the EU civil service is a remarkable example of efficiency. But the definition of “bureaucratic” is often stretched when it comes to the EU: Labour MP Kate Hoey’s recent denunciation of Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt as an “unelected bureaucrat” or Polley’s inaccurate classification of Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker as “unelected officials” (both are politicians with a democratic mandate from the 28 EU leaders and European Parliament respectively) are cases in point.

Rumours of the EU’s “democratic deficit” are also greatly exaggerated: EU law is not approved by officials, but MEPs and national ministers. Civil servants and Commissioners are accountable to the European Parliament and Member States – that is, to elected politicians.  

This brings us to the crux of the matter: the debate around the EU is not about its merits as a democratic institution. If it were, Brexiters would not only rile against allegedly “unelected” politicians in Brussels, but those unelected figures sitting on the throne, or in the House of Lords. What actually lies behind their rejection of the EU was perhaps best revealed by Hoey’s reaction to the correction that Verhofstadt very much had the popular approval of the ballot box: “You were not elected by anyone in the U.K. to the position you hold.” What motivates the leaders of the Brexit movement is not liberalism, but nationalism; the EU is simply not part of their idea of the British political project. 

To understand their perspective, one must highlight that the EU is far more than just the Brussels institutions. It is first and foremost a community of nations. That's why it hugely appeals to those for whom European unity is part of a much larger idea, one perfectly encapsulated by the late John McCain: the “West”, that is a “world order … based not on blood-and-soil nationalism, or spheres of influence … but rather on universal values, rule of law, open commerce, and respect for national sovereignty and independence.” The defence of these values was the EU’s founding mission – and contrary to the claims of Brexit leaders, it remains the most efficient vehicle to keep these values alive. 

Nowhere does this become clearer than in Ukraine, where I had the privilege of speaking to many of those who risked their lives on Maidan Square. For them, the EU was not merely a common market, it was a promise of a community built on human rights, democracy, and opportunity. Where they were no longer subject to the whims of the Kremlin but forge their own destiny.

As an aside, Polley’s alleged 'popular divides' seem to be increasingly irrelevant: recent polls show that opposition to Russia has become the prevailing attitude among all Ukrainians as a result of the Kremlin’s aggression. Many see a blueprint in the Baltic states which aspired to EU membership not least to protect their sovereignty and liberty from Russian imperialism. Though it does not face the same threat, Britain will conversely soon learn that it has lost rather than taken back control through Brexit by increasing its dependence on the United States and other more powerful partners on trade and foreign policy. Though it will have sovereignty on paper, it will have a lot less in practice.

Enthusiasm for the European project is far more than attachment to a handful of office blocks in Brussels. Supporting the European Union is to profess support for the very Western liberal order that brought this formerly war-torn continent the greatest freedom and prosperity ever known to humankind. 

More on Brexit and Beyond