A few weeks ago, I sat on a horse-drawn cart lumbering over a potholed bridge that felt less like the divide between two countries than between two political realities. I had spent the week reporting in Abkhazia, a breakaway Russian-backed separatist region of Georgia recognized as independent only by Moscow and a handful of other governments. Cars aren’t allowed across the disputed border between Abkhazia and Georgia, hence the horse carts to carry travelers and their baggage across the 1-kilometer no-man’s land. As we made our way across, I asked one of my fellow travelers, a local, which side of the border he lived on. “In Georgia,” he replied. “In Europe!”
Georgia is not a member of the European Union, or even a candidate for membership, though it signed an “association agreement” in 2014. But EU flags are everywhere, from the airport to government buildings in the capital, Tbilisi, to the border with Abkhazia. The flags don’t symbolize the country’s current status but, rather, its aspirations.
In many of the countries that broke free from Soviet domination, and are now fighting to stay outside the sphere of influence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the EU flag is a powerful symbol. It was the issue of European integration, after all, that brought Ukrainians, many carrying EU flags, out onto the streets to topple their pro-Moscow government in 2013. For these protesters, and my companion in the back of the horse cart, Europe stands for democracy, good governance, and freedom of movement.
But Europe obviously looks quite different when viewed from the West rather than the East. For the Britons who voted last night to pull their country out of the European Union, Europe stands for the surrender of political sovereignty to a faceless and bloated foreign bureaucracy, and the loss of cultural identity thanks to uncontrolled immigration. Even its supporters have to admit that it has done little to counteract this perception in recent years.
The British public, or at least the English public, has always been skeptical about European integration, and the country had already kept the EU at arm’s length, never signing on for the common currency or the passport-free travel zone. But the U.K. certainly isn’t the only country where euro-fatigue has set in, and likely won’t be the last country to hold this type of vote. Populist anti-EU parties, including the Dutch Freedom Party and France’s National Front, are already calling for their own countries to hold membership referendums. Many of these parties are growing in influence, but as Britain’s U.K. Independence Party has demonstrated, they don’t even necessarily have to take power: They can simply pressure mainstream political parties into adopting their positions.
The prospect of European countries rushing toward the exits should be an alarming one: For all its flaws, the EU is among the most impressive political achievements of our time. Mock the overpaid, pampered eurocrats and silly banana regulations all you want, it’s hard to argue with the fact that after a half-century of carnage that dwarfs today’s Middle East conflicts, not to mention the centuries of war that preceded it, Western Europe has been at peace for 70 years. The carrots and sticks of EU membership are also a large part of the reason that Spain, Greece, and the formerly Communist countries of central Europe are now consolidated democracies. The mere fact that you can drive from Lisbon, Portugal, to Tallinn, Estonia, without once showing anyone your passport should be considered a major political achievement. As historian Charles King writes, the EU has introduced something genuinely new to Europe—a political identity based on a set of values rather than old-fashioned ethnic nationalism.
That being said, it’s also always been a hard project to root for in its actual form: endlessly bureaucratic, unaccountable, and arrogant. As columnist Christopher Hitchens once mockingly pointed out, it’s a body whose constitution begins not with something along the lines of “we the people” but with “His Majesty, the King of the Belgians.” European integration is a project that has often been motivated less by optimism about the United States of Europe than by fear that if it ever stopped, the continent would return to the bad old days. It has always been, as historian Tony Judt described it, “the insecure child of anxiety.”
Now, it seems, anxiety isn’t enough to keep the project on course. The first major turning point was the euro crisis, which exposed one of the union’s signature projects—the common currency—as an ill-advised, or at least poorly implemented, blunder. The harsh, growth-strangling austerity programs the German-dominated leadership in Brussels then imposed on struggling member states deepened the continent’s economic and political divides. Next came the refugee crisis, which has caused many to rethink the wisdom of open borders and, again thanks largely to Germany’s policies, deepened the EU’s East-West divide. The German question is, as always, pretty central here. The EU may have helped keep the peace since World War II, but Germany’s economic dominance allowed British tabloids to portray the Brexit vote as a restaging of the Battle of Britain.
The worst sign for the EU’s future may actually be that it is losing popularity in the new member states that joined with such enthusiasm a few years ago. The Czech Republic has the lowest support for the EU in Europe, including the U.K. Poland and Hungary both have right-wing governments backsliding on democracy and proudly touting their willingness to defy Brussels.
Thursday’s result shouldn’t have been shocking to anyone who watched Greece vote down its EU bailout deal last year, or majorities in France, the Netherlands, and Ireland reject successive EU constitution drafts, or Denmark and Sweden—the only country where euro adoption was put to a referendum, both reject it. The fact that the EU project is rejected almost every time it is put to a public vote should indicate that the union needs to do a better job of making a proactive case for itself. Instead, integration seems to continue apace and the response to these public votes has been to avoid holding them whenever possible.
In the debate leading up to last night’s vote, the “Leave” side argued for national sovereignty, political independence, and control of borders. The “Remain” side, by contrast, generally seemed to base its case on costs: Brexit would be expensive and the U.K. would lose out on access to markets. Not surprisingly, vigorous nationalism won out against lukewarm economic expediency. (Let’s hope the Clinton campaign is taking notes.)
In 1950, when Robert Schuman, French foreign minister and EU godfather, first proposed the European Coal and Steel Community, the original partnership that evolved into today’s EU, he suggested the integration project would proceed “through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.” In other words, integrate first and ask questions later. But that’s not good enough anymore. If the EU project has a future, its leaders and supporters need to find a way to make an affirmative case for it, not just warn voters of how expensive it would be to abandon it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel showed some signs of awareness on Friday, saying Europeans must not forget the foundation of European unity was the “idea of peace.” But at this point, it’s not clear that anyone is listening.
Update, June 24, 2016: This article has been updated to add a citation to Charles King.