Brexit, the Moral Identity of the EU, and the Return of the International

Late last year, Tony Abbott, the former Australian Prime Minister, was ridiculed for his contribution to the Brexit debate.   Abbott’s article for The Spectator in October, ‘How to save Brexit’ set out the basic point that not being prepared to walk away with no deal weakens the UK’s negotiating position, but then pushed a simplistic vision of the glories of a Britain trading under WTO rules.  So far, so usual edge of plausibility forgettable Brexit dream.

However, it was something he said in a later interview with Brendan O’Neill that caught my attention (the Brexit discussion starts from 47 mins in). In setting out why the EU would never give the UK a good deal he went beyond the usual strategic reasons of discouraging others from leaving, to move on to ‘theological’ territory; because the EU sees itself as a ’morally superior alternative to nation states” leaving is ultimately immoral, a going backwards, an atavistic return to the anarchic world of a warring states system.

This is an astute point I have not seen made that often.  The usual moral framing of the Brexit debate is to do with either sovereignty, or trade and economic impacts.  Yet it is precisely from this belief in the EU’s transcendence of the nation state that the EU derives its moral identity and self-image as a uniquely legitimate international actor. And, it is this self-image that in turn builds leaving into more than a damaging political and economic blow, to become an immoral act.

The Moral Identity of the EU

The EU believes that in overcoming its own warlike past, ‘in ceasing to massacre one another we have solved all our problems’,[i] and beyond that have constructed a positive example to the world, a morally superior mode of international politics that legitimates its external actions as a ‘force for good in the world’ (a belief reinforced by the ridiculous award of the Nobel Peace prize to the EU in 2012)[ii].

This is what James Rogers, now Director of the Global Britain Programme at the Henry Jackson Society, called a ‘chrono-political’ strategy: instead of constructing itself against a geopolitical other, the EU has constructed its identity against its own past, and particularly the horrors of World War II.[iii]  As explained by Ole Wæver, Professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen, ‘Europe’s ‘other’, the enemy image, is today to no very large extent ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, ‘the Russians’ or anything similar – rather Europe’s Other is Europe’s own past which should not be allowed to become its future’.

In such a moral schema the variously conflicting and overlapping interests of different states and EU level institutions, or even the complexities of the legal untangling Brexit requires, are as nothing compared to the difficulties presented in handling this challenge to moral identity.

Any nationalism from member states, let alone as significant an assertion of state autonomy as Brexit, is an enemy to this project. Yet of course, these are European states and the whole point of the project in the first place is for all European states to live in peace and harmony together.

Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission (and ‘passed over’ for the Brexit job), gives a clear indication of the difficulty.  He sets Brexit in the context of rising nationalism throughout the continent. In a speech in 2017 he notes that in ‘Brexit, Turkey, Poland, Hungary and even in the Western Balkans we see the return of fault lines in Europe’ and that ‘if you think nationalism is a welcome breath of fresh air, think again: It is the road to war’. He then, inevitably, returns to the European past as irrefutable evidence:

French and Germans, Dutch and Belgians, Danes and Swedes, French and English, Hungarians and Romanians, Bulgarians and Greeks all fought each other on the bloody timeline of European history. By 1945, […], three generations of French and German young men had slaughtered each other in three wars within living memory. But history can surprise us. Sometimes for the better. Twelve years later, 60 years ago next month, these two countries signed the Treaty of Rome, along with four other European nations. From arch enemies, to best buddies. They founded the most successful peace project in human history.

I use Timmermans here as he gave an interview the preceding year, that is interesting not for the boilerplate importance given to the  EU because of ‘the bloody legacy it replaces’, but because of his diagnosis of the deeper driving cause of the problem, and his prescription.  At heart he suggests the problem is tied to expectations about the future, that the ‘middle class doesn’t believe that its children will someday have it better; it fears an inexorable decline’. While political projects like the social democratic version of the EU vision can only survive with ‘a credible, positive promise about the future’.

His remedy though is not more of the old supranational vision of a cosmopolitan Europe and the slow death of the nation-state. Indeed, the ‘message can’t be cosmopolitan. We need a European patriotism based on individual countries yet recognizing that together we stand stronger in the world.’  The problem here is not of the dangers of what Clive James referred to as the ‘sinister note’ of compulsory patriotism but the inherent and telling futility of an EU driven and approved patriotism.  The attempt would provide a matching bookend for the earlier and persistent failures to create a European public sphere.

I do however think Timmermans is broadly right here.  Yet this does not look much like what the EU currently offers or can meaningfully represent without fairly radical change.  Indeed, the danger is that for too many, Brexit and the many other nationalist challenges to the EU will provoke only a doubling down on the default belief, the continuing orthodoxy of the Monnet method, and the  ‘federal logic which lies behind ‘ever closer union’’.  Even here where Timmermans knows something different is needed the logic of the EU’s moral identity, tied into the specific mode of its expression in the EU apparatus since the beginning, makes itself felt.  He starts by calling out nationalism as the great evil threatening the EU and peace, yet ends with calls for national patriotism.

The issue is not the desire for European peace, or even the claim that the EU has played its part in achieving this goal.  Rather it is that this broad desire for European peace has been channelled in only one direction by the claims made by the EU’s identity, and has thus come to be perhaps irretrievably enmeshed in one particular model of how such a desire for peace and cooperation on the continent can function, develop, and provide a vision of the future to Europeans.  Objecting to this vision and process becomes a rejection of the great achievement of European peace, and the EU’s gift to the world of a model of post-state civilised politics.  Such an amalgam is ill-suited to our current times, to ‘Easternisation’, the ‘return of history’ and of the state and of the international asserting itself against the supranational.

The Return of the International

There is no necessary link between a laudable moral aim, and the specific form of its translation into a political institution.  The disjuncture between the two in the case of the EU, especially in its self-construction as providing an example of civilised politics to the world, is well captured by Theo Hobson. In thinking of the European ‘creed’ of secular humanism, he starts by noting that our  ‘national political institutions express this creed’, as does the EU, and that ‘an organisation that promotes such a creed on an international level is surely a good thing: it can influence other nations, with less liberal histories than our own, in a benign way.’ The familiar argument that the EU is a normative power – spreading its (superior) norms by example.

However, he pushes further:

the EU expresses this creed in a way that makes many people dislike this creed. For it is over-prescriptive, legalistic. And self-regarding: it forgets that it is the national expression of this creed that really matters. For only nations really have the power to enforce human rights.

Which brings us to the current conjuncture and the role of international orders more generally. The EU was one of the well-functioning international organisations that made up the liberal international order.  Underwritten by US power, and secured by NATO’s pre-eminence (as many commented at the time – the EUs peace prize should perhaps have gone to NATO), this liberal international order fooled itself with its supranational appearance. As John Bew puts it, for those ‘those who saw the future in terms of increasing integration and supranational governance (through the UN, EU or World Bank), the events of the last few years have been hard to accept’ as the cosmopolitan vision of ‘a liberal international order in which the boundaries between states were supposed to melt away and nationalism was to be consigned to the dustbin of history’ is revealed as mirage.  The nation-state is back, having never really been away. With it comes the re-assertion of the underlying international structure of world politics, and of its institutions. And as it does, we realise that changes to the underlying structure – the shift from a North Atlantic to an Indo-Pacific world – means some of those institutions no longer fit the realities of this post-post-Cold War era.

Ultimately international orders are just that, orderly arrangements of relations amongst states. To be successful they must solve the most pressing problems states face, with an institutional structure that reflects, manages and maintains that order.   Changes to the underlying structure of the international (for whatever reason: domestic drivers, exogenous factors like climate, etc.) that change the problems they face will change the nature of the order that works to help solve them.  This change need not be revolutionary, but for smoother evolutionary change it requires management and an institutional assemblage that is responsive and adaptive to that change.

In Europe, It is clear that the EU centred order is not solving the problems EU states feel they are facing.  The worst outcome would be the disappearance of a workable order at all – an EU break up, or, for us, just leaving. Paul Henry Spaak’s comment grows ever more apposite: ‘There are only two types of state in Europe: small states, and small states that have not yet realized they are small’. But perhaps scarcely less bad in the longer term is the continuation of an ossified order structured around solving the problems of the past.

The first, and perhaps hardest step for the EU to take is not institutional reform but to realise that the core moral framing of its legitimacy is limiting, a reified dogma that as time passes has become a negative vision built on a fear of our own past.  In calling for a ‘European patriotism based on individual countries’ Frans Timmermans makes a (too) clever distinction between a nationalist and a patriot – a distinction heard increasingly frequently in this era of Trump and Brexit – saying that a ‘patriot doesn’t fear the world; but a nationalist does’. He fails to reflect that the EU’s current approach to maintaining European order is counter-productive, based on a fear of the past that countermands any development of national patriotisms.


[i] Pascal Bruckner, ‘Europe’s Worst Enemy Is Europe Itself’, South Central Review, Vol. 20, No. 2/4, 2003. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3189789?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. Most of the argument repeated again here.
[ii] Javier Solana, former EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, makes the progression of the argument very clear: ‘Where did we start? As a peace project among adversaries. What is our greatest accomplishment? The spread of stability and democracy across the continent. And what is our task for the future? To make Europe a global power; a force for good in the world.’
[iii] James Rogers, ‘From ‘Civilian Power’ to ‘Global Power’: Explicating the European Union’s ‘Grand Strategy’ Through the Articulation of Discourse Theory’, Journal of Common Market Studies, Volume47, Issue4, 2009. More briefly, here.