A Non-Populist Case for Brexit

The U.K. will no doubt face challenges ahead, but its departure from the EU is a victory for sovereignty and democracy.

Ever since the Brexit debate began, the case for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union has been dominated by arguments about immigration and about the cost of membership. In the U.K., the Vote Leave campaign famously claimed that “We send £350 million to the EU every week.” This slogan demonstrated what many considered to be the misleading nature of the Leave campaign. Supporters also claimed that Turkish membership in the EU was imminent, a move that would have meant a serious increase in immigration from Turkey.

However the £350 million price tag did not take into account that the U.K. also received money from the EU, and Turkey has never come particularly close to joining, especially since Recep Tayyip Erdogan became president.

The U.K. officially left the EU as of January 31, 2020. But the parties set up a transition period for the sake of negotiating a trade deal and other outstanding issues. That transition period ends today, December 31, so Brexit is, finally, officially official. While many of the arguments for it over the last four years have been populist in nature, there are plenty of reasons for more traditional conservatives to support the U.K.’s separation from the EU.

Conservatives believe in local government. We believe that as much power as possible should be relegated to individuals and families to make their own decisions, and that power that cannot be vested in households should be vested first and foremost in local governments, such as school boards, city councils. and state legislatures. 

The European Union, of course, adds yet another layer of government, making it harder for citizens to hold representatives accountable. Further, the European Union actually has the power to override the constitutions of its member states. If the Swedish constitution says one thing, and an EU directive says another thing, the EU directive goes. The legal principle behind this is known as the primacy of European Union law.

While the U.S. Constitution is mainly about restricting the power of federal government, the EU equivalent states that its powers shall be forever growing. The contrast could not be greater.

So much for laboratories of democracy. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once famously described the American states as “laboratories of democracy.” With so many powers relegated to states, they can experiment with policy initiatives without hurting the other states. Policies that work are apt to be adopted by other states.

The same is true for Europe. My native Sweden was the first country in the world to introduce paid paternity leave back in 1974. Other countries would soon follow. In 1979, it became the first country in the world to completely ban corporal punishment, even in the home. Since then, 57 other countries have followed our example.

Whether you think those policies were good or not, in both cases Sweden was free to take a chance with untested ideas.

Now imagine if Sweden had been a member of the EU, and imagine that the EU has passed laws governing these areas. Suppose the EU had mandated the exact structure and form of parental benefits. Sweden would not have been allowed to divert from the norm. The only way to introduce paid paternity leave in this scenario would be to convince the rest of the EU to introduce a radical, untested policy across the board. How long would it take for paid paternity leave to become established anywhere in Europe, if those were the rules in place then? The proposal would almost certainly have died in a European Parliament committee or been vetoed by the more socially conservative member states.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to convince the rest of the EU to apply our unique policies, nor did we need to bargain with the European Commission to grant us an exemption to allow us to apply our new ideas in our own country. 

If the above scenario sounds far-fetched, well, it is based on real, recently introduced EU policy, known as the European Pillar of Social Rights. Through this pillar, the EU intends to grow its powers and enforce policies in a number of areas that were previously (mostly) the domain of the member states, including:

  • Minimum wage

  • Work-life balance

  • Gender equality in the labor market, in particular wage transparency

  • Access to childcare, and the right for parents to work flexible hours.

  • Unemployment benefits

  • Pensions and how pensions should be structured

  • Access to health care (including preventive health care)

  • Long-term care

  • Protections against evictions and support for the homeless

Instead of 27 countries experimenting, discovering, and inspiring one another, we now increasingly have just one supra-national monolith. 

The EU lacks transparency and disregards democracy. It is a common view of the history of the EU that it started out as merely a trade bloc and grew to become a political and monetary union. What few people know is that the EU was never intended to be just a trade bloc. Like the US, the EU has a group considered to be its founding fathers

The main building in the European Parliament is named after Altiero Spinelli, who spoke of the need for a European superstate to preserve peace in Europe. Jean Monnet, another founder, also created the Action Committee for the United States of Europe. Walter Hallstein considered a common trade policy to be merely the first step toward a superstate. Paul-Henri Spaak made his view clear in 1962 when he argued that “the Europe of tomorrow must be a supranational Europe.” Back in the early 1970s, Sicco Mansholt took the first steps toward creating a common currency, although the euro would not be launched for another 30 years.

While the founders were ambitious enough to want a superstate, the EU lacked virtually any form of democratic accountability for a long time. Until 1979, there was no elected parliament, and even today the parliament remains for the most part a talking shop. Members of the European Parliament cannot submit legislation; this is the prerogative of the unelected European Commission.

Furthermore, votes in the European Parliamentary committees are by default secret. As a voter, you generally cannot find out how your MEP has voted in his or her committee(s); which amendments and proposals they supported, and which they rejected. You will just have to take their word that they have voted the way they said they would before they were elected. Even the vote for who should be the President of the European Commission is done by secret ballot. We will never know the names of the 383 MEPs who voted for the current president, Ursula von der Leyen, and thus as voters we can never hold them accountable if we feel they made the wrong choice.

Also consider the way the EU treats referendum results it does not like. In the early 2000s, the EU wanted to adopt a formal constitution, which would have expanded its powers drastically. France and the Netherlands both decided to hold referendums on whether to approve the constitution, which required unanimous approval from all member states. The voters in both countries rejected the constitution by decisive margins. 

What did the EU do? They proceeded to rename the constitution the “Lisbon Treaty.” And this time, the governments of France and the Netherlands signed on without making the mistake of first holding referendums.

Once the constitution was rebranded as the Lisbon Treaty, there was only one remaining problem: The Republic of Ireland, whose government was required by its constitution to hold a referendum on the treaty, since it would reduce Irish sovereignty. In June 2008, Irish voters rejected the treaty

The following year, the EU pressured the Irish government into making the Irish vote again. In the time between the first and second referendum Ireland had plunged into an economic depression and needed financial aid from the EU. In the second referendum, the Irish approved the treaty.

This was actually the second time Ireland had been forced to vote twice on an EU treaty: In 2001, Irish voters rejected the Nice Treaty, which was the predecessor to the Lisbon treaty (and which, like the Lisbon treaty, expanded EU powers). In 2002 they were forced to vote again, and this time the treaty was approved. The same thing happened to Denmark, which rejected the Maastricht treaty (which, you guessed it, expanded EU powers) back in 1992. The EU made the Danish vote again the next year, and this time Danish voters relented and gave the EU the answer it wanted.

It should come as no surprise that after the U.K. voted to leave the EU in 2016, the EU and its supporters in Britain immediately suggested they vote again. The British government, however, refused. Even though then-Prime Minister Theresa May had supported the Remain side during the referendum campaign, she insisted that the will of the people be respected.

There is no European identity. One reason the EU, unlike the United States, can never be a successful superstate is that despite its best efforts, there is no European identity. Every year, the EU spends vast amounts of money on projects to promote a “European identity” and “European solidarity,” and yet Europeans continue to identify far more strongly with their fellow countrymen than with their fellow Europeans. As a Swede, I have a lot more in common with, and identify more with my fellow Swedes than with the Irish, even though I’ve spent half of my adult life in Ireland. The EU does not have a common language; in fact, it has 24. There is also no common European history; my country’s history can hardly be said to be seriously intertwined with the history of European countries like Malta, Portugal, or Romania.

The lack of European identity becomes obvious in times of crisis. Look no further than earlier this year when the Covid-19 pandemic struck Europe. Italy directed its ventilator manufacturer to cater to the domestic market. Understandable as that is, it highlights the danger of the more powerful countries having sway over other countries’ domestic affairs. 

France and Germany are the two biggest member states, and both have championed the cause of European federalism and the centralization of power. Yet, they both banned the export of PPE in the beginning of March, preventing it from being sold to countries that had been hit worse by the pandemic and who needed it more than they did at the time.

In the end, for all the talk about European solidarity, when push came to shove Germans cared about their fellow Germans, and the French about their fellow Frenchmen. 

Overall, the EU acted painfully slowly in countering the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is not (only) due to incompetence, but rather because the EU is made up of 27 countries with different languages, cultures, economies, political systems and ways of thinking. Because of this, it is difficult and time-consuming to negotiate and find compromises, making the EU a poor arena to deal with crises which require rapid response—whether the crisis is a pandemic or a recession. In fact, it has taken until now for the European Parliament to pass a stimulus package, and the money will only begin to be distributed next year. Fortunately, few Europeans looked to Brussels for help when the pandemic hit. At this point, we are all familiar with the inertia of the EU bureaucracy. Individual member states have proved themselves able to act faster and more decisively than the EU during this pandemic, and because of this, many commentators now describe it as the revenge or resurgence of the nation-state.

The EU has not preserved peace. In 2012, the European Union received the Nobel Peace Prize. The past 75 years of uninterrupted peace in Europe are considered to be the crowning achievement of the EU, and a fallback defense for supporters of the union. Sure, the EU can be a headache with its red tape and strange sense of priorities, but at the end of the day, it is worth it to keep peace here in Europe.

The truth, however, is that the EU has had little or nothing to do with preserving peace in Europe. 

After World War II, the global power balance shifted away from Europe. The world was divided between capitalism and communism, with the United States and Soviet Union being the flag-bearers for their respective teams.

In truth, NATO has done more to preserve peace than the EU. By joining together former enemies in a military alliance focused on the defense of the free world, NATO effectively ensured that these former enemies would not be attacking one another. 

To say that Europe has had peace since the end of World War II is also a bit generous. We have not had conventional wars between countries, yes, but there have been a number of conflicts within countries. Most notably the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which stretched on for 30 years, and the armed conflict between Basque separatists and the governments of both Spain and France, which ended only in 2011. Yes, these conflicts began before the countries in question were members of the EU, but it’s hard to argue that the EU has a stellar track record. More recently, the EU was completely ineffective at preventing Spain from violently cracking down on peaceful Catalan separatists. 

It’s arguable that the EU in many cases has created conflicts between its member states that would otherwise not have happened. The best example might be Greece and the Eurozone crisis. Greece has a history of state bankruptcies, irresponsible fiscal and monetary policy, and corruption. This never bothered anyone other than the country’s creditors, and it never made anyone in Europe dislike the Greeks as a people or as a country. 

However, when Greece screwed up again in the first decade of the new millennium, it was different. Due to Greece’s economy now being intimately linked to the economies of 15 other member states that all used the same currency, what Greece did to its own economy and creditworthiness was no longer just Greece’s own business. Under normal circumstances, Greece would have defaulted (again), had a really high rate of inflation for a while (again), and then things would have settled back to normal. 

But defaulting in this case would have destabilized the entire currency, potentially raising the interest rates on government debt for everyone involved. Because Greece was a member of the Eurozone, it could not simply print more money and inflate its government debt away. And so Greece was forced to rely on aid from the larger, wealthier members of the Eurozone—mainly Germany and France—who bailed out the country in exchange for Greece adopting strict austerity policies that lasted nearly a decade.

As a result of the crisis, anti-Greek sentiment and racism grew to levels unprecedented in modern times. In 2012, Greece was the least popular country in the EU. The political center in Greece collapsed during the crisis, allowing parties like the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn to rise to prominence. Meanwhile in Germany, anger over the country being forced to bail out Greece and other southern European member states led to the aggressive growth of the right-populist Alternativ Für Deutschland party (“Alternative for Germany”). 

Had Greece and Germany had their own currencies, neither country would have had any reason to dislike the other over its economic policies. The same can of course be said about Spain, Portugal and Italy, who also struggled under the policies of the German-dominated European Central Bank. 

There are many things to be said about the Vote Leave campaign of 2016, the tactics that were employed, and the arguments that were used. The case it made against the EU was a case designed to most strongly appeal to the common voters, not political junkies or high-minded intellectuals. Unfortunately in the case of Euroskepticism, the populist message has dominated to the extent that few Americans and even many Europeans are unaware of the underlying reasons conservatives in Europe tend to be skeptical or outright opposed to the European Union.

There is no doubt the United Kingdom will face many challenges outside the EU, one of the first being to negotiate a trade agreement with the United States, with whom it has for centuries had a special relationship. It is because of this special relationship that it is particularly important for Americans to understand Brexit—and understand that while the populist case may be weak and misleading, there is, in fact, a strong rationale behind the U.K’s decision to leave the EU. While Brexit has been framed as a victory for populism, it ought rather to be viewed as a victory for sovereign nation-states, for local government, and yes, for democracy.

John Gustavsson is a conservative writer from Sweden and a doctoral student in economics.