The dream of a united Europe
Back when I was doing research on the Great Depression, I read the New York Times from 1929 to 1938 (on microfilm.) Occasionally, I came across articles discussing the possibility of creating a United States of Europe. The Economist has a fascinating article about Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, who was the most prominent interwar figure pushing for the creation of the EU:
Few Europeans remember Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi. But as Martyn Bond argues in a new biography, he deserves as much credit as anyone for creating the eu. In 1923 he wrote a bestselling book, “Pan-Europa”, advocating a United States of Europe. He launched a movement, the Paneuropean Union, which soon had thousands of members, including Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. Adolf Hitler referred to him as “that cosmopolitan bastard”. He was probably the model for Victor Laszlo, the activist fleeing the Nazis in “Casablanca”. He counselled Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle on creating a European federation, and proposed Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as its anthem.
Yet today his name is best known on the paranoid right. Over the past decade and a half, xenophobic nationalist groups all across Europe have put him at the centre of their conspiracy theories. Seizing on predictions he made of rising migration and intermarriage, they have imagined a secret “Kalergi plan” comprising the EU’s real mission: to destroy European nations through miscegenation.
The problem with the European dream is that not everyone dreams of the same sort of Europe. In 2016, British voters opted to leave the EU, the first country to do so. On the other hand, the logic of European integration is still quite strong, as seen by the fact that very little has actually changed in Britain. Here’s the Financial Times:
Lamenting the “current direction of travel”, Frost complained that Boris Johnson is resiling from the dream of “a lightly regulated, low-tax, entrepreneurial economy, at the cutting edge of modern science and economic change”.
Other economic liberals voice similar concerns. Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader and co-author of a report for Downing Street on potential post-Brexit reforms, wrote recently: “We have yet to see the Government seize this opportunity” of moving from the “EU’s deeply risk-averse precautionary principle to . . a proportionality principle”.
With personal and corporate tax rises just introduced, ministers pledging not to scale back employment rights and an increasing role for the state, the buccaneering post-Brexit vision of a low-tax, low-regulation UK seems more remote than ever. So long Singapore-on-Thames, hello Sweden.
The Trump administration took the Brexit side of the debate, but one can argue that the US is the most important force pushing the world toward this sort of globalist structure. The US has been in the forefront of the move to unify taxes and regulations across borders. Consider the following:
1. Under the Trump administration, countries were punished for not adhering to US policies on everything from banking rules to economic sanctions. Through our control of the SWIFT payment system, we were able to bend smaller countries to our will.
2. The Biden administration has successfully pushed through a global rule to prevent “excessive” corporate tax competition.
3. Several administrations have been in the forefront of demanding that international trade pacts go beyond reducing tariffs, and require unification of all sorts of rules and regulations affecting consumers, labor, and the environment.
In this sort of world, the British have little hope of developing their own distinctive style of regulation. And where they do have a bit of freedom, domestic interest groups often oppose any sort of change:
The clearest changes so far are new immigration and agricultural subsidy regimes, neither very light touch. The state aid and takeover regulations seem more designed to facilitate governmental intervention than prevent it. In some sectors, wage inflation is practically an official policy. The new chemical safety regime offers more domestic bureaucracy for multinationals that need also to comply with EU regulation. Ministers are keen to break free of EU data laws but are rightly nervous of straying too far lest the UK lose its European data adequacy certification. In almost every trade-off, valuable market access was surrendered for a sovereignty that is being little used.
On the size of the state, Tories are in an uphill struggle. MPs may fret about tax levels but neither they nor their voters evince much appetite for a return to austerity.
The US increasingly dominates the global scene. English is becoming the de facto global language. American popular culture dominates almost everywhere. Our identity politics (both left and right wing versions) are increasingly influential throughout the world. Science is dominated by US universities. In a few decades, the entire Brexit debate will seem quaint, as smaller countries are crushed between hegemonic blocs such as the US, the EU and China.
A global free trade zone made up of independent states was a beautiful dream. Global unification of taxes and regulations is becoming a dystopian nightmare. For better and for worse, Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi’s vision is on the way to being achieved.
PS. Russia’s recent bullying of Ukraine is pushing Sweden and Finland closer to joining NATO. China’s bullying of Lithuania makes the EU seem more attractive to Lithuanians. For small countries, there is safety in numbers.