This Realm, This England

I sure hope the Brits vote “Leave” on June 23. That would be the first thing to go right in global politics this year.

Much of the fierce debate has revolved around what “Brexit” might entail for Britain’s economy and financial markets around the world and especially the City of London. The “Remain” camp has stressed these transactional considerations and predicted dire consequences in the event of an exit. To my mind that’s overblown and short-sighted. Long-term, you can either have the EU and its thicket of improvised regulatory “processes” (invariably named after French diplomats) or else, you can have the City of London; you can’t have both. In any event, the calculus misses the larger point that Brexit is the honorable thing to do. British historian Andrew Roberts, among this year’s Bradley Prize recipients, suggested the point on the occasion:

Imagine if a bunch of accountants had turned up at Valley Forge in that brutal winter of 1777 and proved with the aid of pie-charts and financial tables that Americans would be better off if they just gave up the cause of independence. George Washington would have sent them off with a few short, well-chosen words on the subject—probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon.

The analogy captures the fatuous, cowardly tone of the “Remain” campaign and its foreign supporters (including the U.S. President), but it’s off in material respects and by about eleven years. Britain is not about to secede by military force from an actual sovereign country; it would merely leave a misshapen government over governments. That’s like Virginia or New York saying, 1788 or thereabouts, “we’ve had it with the Articles.”

The grounds for separation would be the same: We (meaning the union) cannot control our borders. We cannot defend ourselves because “we have neither troops, nor treasury, nor government.” “Our ambassadors abroad are the mere pageants of mimic sovereignty.” We cannot “remonstrate with dignity,” let alone respond, when some foreign potentate seizes territory on our borders. Solemn agreements are “the subjects of constant and unblushing violation.” Member-states free-ride on the union and rack up unpayable debts. You want more “facts too stubborn to be resisted”? Go re-read Federalist 15, from which the quotes are taken.

That essay bears re-reading especially because it nails the common source of discontents. The EU, like the Articles, is a “government over governments,” and the great Hamilton explains why that “political monster” will unfailingly produce an “imbecilic government.” As I noted some time ago, his analysis tells you all you need to know about the EU.

This analogy, too, is imprecise. Hamilton did not argue for a break-up or unilateral withdrawals but for the union—not an “ever closer union” under the Articles but a more perfect union on altogether different principles, with a real government, under a Constitution. That choice, however, is foreclosed to the EU. Its attempt to write a “constitution” turned into a bureaucratic exercise and then went down in flames in referenda in France and the Netherlands, of all places. Nobody anywhere in Europe wants to be reminded of the experiment, let alone try it again. It would involve actual voters, and everyone knows how that would end.

So the “Remain” camp and the EU’s defenders are stuck with a “reform the Articles” program. Dalibor Rohac, a Slovak-born European affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute, has made a “conservative” case for that proposition in a book entitled Towards an Imperfect Union. Freely acknowledging the EU’s multiple defects, he argues that the union has also done some good things. It made Germany safe for Europe (until it made Europe safe for Germany). It has broken down trade barriers and helped to promote democracy in former East bloc countries. Plus, conservatives ought to be skeptical of radical, irreversible change.

I haven’t read the book yet, only several reviews. But I recognize the argument. The “conservatives” in 1788 were called the Antifederalists, and they practically wrote the hymnal: “The union has done some good things—winning independence, resolving border disputes, lodging the idea of union in citizens’ heads. Maybe we can engineer reforms (a tariff formula) that solves our problems, and mutual trade will help things along. In any event, what’s being proposed here is just too risky.” Mr. Rohac rehashes that case.

It is now, as it was then, the program of a morally and intellectually bankrupt political elite, and it deserves to lose. While there may be a “conservative” case for the EU in the sense of shunning risk or minimizing expected regret, there is no classical-liberal case for that course. Liberalism stands for (among other things) democratic accountability, transparency, and lawful government. The EU is the antithesis of those principles—not by coincidence, but by design and DNA. Tragically, liberal European parties have promoted this project in multiple ways, including the propagation of an elite consensus that shouts down any dissent: Euroskeptic! You cannot say that! As a result, liberal parties (such as Germany’s FDP) are on their last legs and dissent from the EU has fallen into the hands of populists who will say anything. That cannot end well.

The British do not need some foreigner’s or ex-pat’s advice on matters of self-government and political honor. But perhaps that bastard son of a Scottish peddler said it best:

Here, my countrymen, impelled by every motive that ought to influence an enlightened people, let us make a firm stand for our safety, our tranquility, our dignity, our reputation. Let us at last break the fatal charm which has too long seduced us from the paths of felicity and prosperity.