Thoughts on the Morning of the Brexit Vote

We march to victory, or we march to defeat. But we go forward. Only forward.

– Stannis Baratheon, Game of Thrones


The Brexit referendum is finally upon us, and the thought of a “Leave” victory really scares me. If we lose Britain, we lose our second-largest economy and military; moreover, the balance between the Protestant North and the Catholic South within the EU shifts in favour of the southern countries. But the psychological fallout could be even worse. So far, the European project has always had a sense of unstoppability about it: slowly as it may roll, there are no brakes on the European train, and certainly no reverse gear. When that aura shatters, when it becomes clear that European integration is reversible – on the retreat, even – that will be a huge morale boost to anti-EU forces everywhere: these past few weeks I’ve heard the words “Nexit”, “Frexit”, “Swexit”, “Dexit” and even “Czexit” floated a few times more than I’m comfortable with.

A Brexit would weaken Europe, not only materially but also morally, to such an extent that any hopes of Europe setting its own course in the world will be crushed for the next 50 years, if not longer. (Not even a 3-0 loss against Wales will be able to wipe the smirk off Vladimir Putin’s face.) As for the Brits themselves, the idea that they have anything to gain from a Brexit is based on a delusional view of how much power they can still project on their own – which is apparently somewhat of a chronic disease for them.

However, I will say this for the Brexit referendum: it’s a legitimate question to put to a vote. We can’t very well force any country to join the EU or to stay in it. If Britain really wants out, out it goes.

I can’t say the same for another recent referendum – the Dutch vote on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Needless to say, I cast my vote in favour, but it seemed quite silly that we Dutch voters should get to decide this at all. And I mean, we technically didn’t: the referendum was explicitly an advisory one, and our parliament is free to ignore the outcome entirely and ratify the agreement anyway (which I’m afraid they won’t have the guts to do).

But hang on a minute – why should the Dutch parliament have anything to say about an EU treaty?

Suppose Germany signs a treaty with some other country – say, Mexico – and a bunch of people in one of its federal states – say, Saxony – hold a referendum about the treaty and reject it. The Landtag of Saxony follows this decision and refuses to ratify the treaty. Wouldn’t the Bundestag then tell the Landtag of Saxony to get stuffed? Federal states don’t make foreign policy in Germany, only the national government does.


Go up one layer, to the European Union, and this basic logic – different powers for different tiers of government – no longer applies. The curious fact that a handful of Dutch malcontents can hold EU decisions to ransom is just one symptom of the EU’s most fundamental problem: particularism.

Particularism basically means “putting the interests of a part ahead of the interests of the whole”. It’s one of the problems that ended the Dutch Golden Age: because almost everyone in the governing elite was only out to get the best deal for their town or region, and there was no central government that could overrule these squabbling city bosses, coherent policymaking for the Dutch Republic as a whole was next to impossible.

Particularism runs rampant in Brussels today, and the way European institutions are set up only encourages it. Not only do EU treaties need the approval of national parliaments besides that of the European Parliament (whereas even in the loosest federations, foreign policy and defence are the two policy areas that fall to the central government). Two much bigger flaws are the existence of the Council of Ministers as a legislative power alongside the European Parliament; and the fact that the same European Parliament is composed of “delegations” elected separately by each member state (instead of a single Europe-wide election where the same candidates are on the ballot everywhere).

Fix these two design flaws, and you’d ease a lot of the EU’s biggest troubles.


First and foremost, the “democratic deficit” would vanish. Anti-EU campaigners have a point when they call the EU “undemocratic”: in the Council, ministers from national governments – most of whom aren’t elected – decide on EU legislation. These ministers form the executive branch of government in their home countries, so this legislative role violates separation of powers. Cut the Council out of the loop, and the EU (finally) becomes a normal democracy.

Then there’s the matter of actual policy, which, in the current particularist setup, is all too often a fractured mess. One retired legal translator (link in Dutch) complained that ‘texts coming from the Commission are often reasonably coherent. It’s in the negotiations between member states where they fall to pieces.’ Every one of the twenty-eight member states wants to see their own touch in the final text – something the ambassadors and ministers can proudly show to their colleagues at home: look, we got the Czech/Italian/Irish viewpoint in there! This leads to bloated and often outright contradictory legislation. Budgeting is no better – European Court of Auditors member Alex Brenninkmeijer summed up member states’ attitudes on EU money as ‘better poorly spent in our country than well spent elsewhere.’

And what about Brussels’s legendary near-total absence from the mental universes of ordinary Europeans? Well, might that have something to do with the fact that we’ve never had truly European elections? European Parliament elections are separated by country. The campaigns are run by national parties; the candidates are figures from national politics. Change that, put the same names on the ballots everywhere, and you force the creation of a truly integrated European political class, one which will have to campaign for votes and reach out to voters all across Europe – something generations of Brussels politicians have failed to do. Except for diehard Brussels watchers, nobody has heard of European “parties” like ALDE or the EPP or the Socialists & Democrats; that will change when these parties are on our ballots and campaigning for our votes, instead of Venstre or the CDU or the Parti Socialiste.

An end to the particularist setup would also make the Union more robust against shocks coming from a single country. Remember when Greece accounted for ‘2% of European GDP but 98% of European meetings’? If the Dutch province of Limburg turned out to have been lying about its finances for years, that would hardly pose an existential threat to the Netherlands as a country. Oh, and while we’re at it, we could cut the European Commission from its current ridiculous size (twenty-eight!) to a more practical number – say, ten or twelve commissioners. Can you imagine how bloated the French cabinet would be if there had to be a minister from each department?


The end goal must be a Federal Republic of Europe, on the German model (there admittedly isn’t much of a case for calling it “Imperial Europe”, as I proposed earlier, beyond “it would be, like, totally awesome“). The member states as we know them now will remain a relevant layer of government, with the final say in a range of policy areas such as education, health care, policing, taxation and public transport – but decisions taken on a European level must be taken by the European Parliament; what the parliaments and governments of Slovakia, Portugal or the Netherlands think about it doesn’t matter.

By this point anyone with a more pragmatic mindset will have told me a dozen times that this is all well and good, but it’s not “politically feasible”. And sure enough, it’s a rotten time for plans like these; we’ve let the undemocratic, uninspiring version of the European Union plod on for so long that ordinary Europeans’ indifference to the project has turned into outright hostility in many circles.

But the defeatism in the pro-European camp is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Politicians who are pro-EU on paper refuse to defend the union with any shred of passion, because they fear too enthusiastic support for “Brussels” will run against widespread anti-EU sentiment and cost them votes. (In the run-up to the Dutch Ukraine referendum, all the moderate Dutch parties were in favour of the treaty, but only one of them campaigned for a Yes vote with any sort of conviction.) But how are these anti-EU sentiments ever supposed to change if no one is telling any positive stories about Europe, at least not at a volume exceeding a half-hearted mumble?

Pro-European politicians need to show backbone instead of meekly swaying with the breeze of populist rage. Clearly say what you want with Europe and why, and stand for it; that will win you a lot more respect than the current politics of appeasement.

The crucial arguments for European integration are barely heard in any debate beyond a tiny circle of enthusiastic Europhiles. Screw the hazy calculations about economic growth; let’s talk about how much more coordinated European energy policy needs to be if we want to secure a reliable energy supply in the future. About why we need military cooperation to guarantee our security in an unstable world – something we can’t leave to the Americans forever. About why the solution to the migrant crisis is effective control of the external border, not the return of internal ones. About the fact that Britain, Germany or France – let alone Belgium or Latvia – will never be taken as seriously in Washington, Moscow and Beijing as a united Europe would.

And let’s build an effective, democratic European Union to achieve those goals – hopefully with Britain.


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