On June 23, Britain will hold a referendum on its membership in the European Union. Opponents of a British exit from the EU assert that a “Brexit” would be bad for both British security and the peace of Europe. Indeed, on May 9, British Prime Minister David Cameron, a supporter of Britain’s EU membership, implied that Brexit risks causing a European war.
This argument rests on bad history and a worse understanding of the risks to peace in Europe today. If Britain exits the EU, it will ensure that it retains control of its foreign, security, and alliance policies. This will allow it to continue to play a leading role in the NATO alliance, and ensure that it remains a vital security and intelligence ally of the United States. It is the United States and NATO—not the EU—that have brought peace to Europe.
Moreover, the EU’s policies today, while not posing an immediate risk of war within Europe itself, are based on a complete failure to learn the lessons of the post-1945 era. By simultaneously failing to deter Russia, refusing to confront the crises on the European periphery, and following policies that encourage the rise of domestic political radicalism, it is the EU itself that threatens the stability of Europe. As such, democratic assertions of national sovereignty, such as Brexit, are the best way to bring Europe back to sanity and security alike.
The EU Did Not Bring Peace to Europe
Defenders of the EU claim that it ended the wars of Europe—a risibly false assertion. The wars of Europe were caused first by the rivalry between various European powers attempting to control the continent and, second, by the anti-democratic ideologies of Nazism, fascism, and Communism.
War came close to disappearing from Europe after 1945 because the dominance of the superpowers—the U.S. and the USSR—made it impossible for the European powers to resume their rivalries. At the same time, the U.S., with NATO, deterred the Soviet Union, Western Europe’s external enemy, from launching an assault on it. The catastrophe of World War II made the pursuit of continental dominance illegitimate, while the defeat of Nazism and fascism—and in 1989, of communism—removed the ideological obstacles to peace. As historian James Sheehan points out, Europe’s nations came to rely on prosperity, not war, for their legitimacy.
The EU did not cause any of these great events, it benefitted from them. Only in a Europe that had already decided not to return to the path blazed by Philip II, Napoleon, and Hitler could the EU have been built through its successive stages. The first step toward the EU, the Coal and Steel Community, did not happen until 1951, and the most significant one, the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC), did not take place until 1958, by which time Western Europe was both peaceful and increasingly prosperous.
Britain did not seek to join the EEC until 1961, and did not gain entry until 1973. British membership of the EEC thus played no role at all in securing the peace of Europe in the three decades after 1945. The argument that British membership of the EEC is necessary to preserve the post-war peace ignores the fact that Britain was not in the EEC when that peace was built.
Moreover, British membership of the EEC was—in the realms of security policy and parliamentary sovereignty alike—a rejection of its historic role. In the past, Britain had always sided with the weaker powers on the continent against the strongest one. But by joining the EEC, Britain was in effect siding with a political and economic organization that had aspirations to unify all of Western Europe. Britain had, in effect, become part of the stronger power.
In the context of the Cold War, this decision was understandable, but after 1989, the paradox that Britain the balancer was now siding with an increasingly dominant continental bloc became all the more obvious. For this reason alone, comparisons between the policy that Britain followed against Napoleon and its membership of the EU are absurd.
The EU Has Not Preserved Peace in Europe
The EU’s defenders also claim that it plays an important role in preserving peace in contemporary Europe. This claim is equally false. It was clearly not the EU’s predecessors that deterred the Soviets after 1945: That honor belongs to the United States, Britain, and NATO. Of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, Sheehan observes that while Europe’s institutional weaknesses were serious, what really mattered “were the Europeans’ failures of will and imagination.” To put it simply, the more the EU came to define itself as the avatar of peace, the less psychologically capable it was of recognizing the need to meet force with force.
What was true in the 1990s remains true today. The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy offers the worst of all worlds. It tempts the majority of EU members that are also in NATO to allocate their increasingly limited military resources simultaneously to both the EU and NATO. This double-counting creates an illusion of strength and thus encourages them to spend even less, while simultaneously distracting them from an exclusive focus on NATO, which is the vital but increasingly fragile security link between Europe and the U.S.
Moreover, because six members of the EU—Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden—are politically and militarily neutral, the EU cannot stand whole-heartedly alongside NATO as an alliance of democracies, even if it were minded to do so. In practice, the EU wavers between the fantasy of a European army and a less grandiose plan for a European defense union. Such a union would in practice force EU members to choose between the EU and NATO, for the simple reason that they would no longer be able to make independent commitments to the transatlantic alliance.
The EU’s security achievements remain paltry: Missions usually take place in the former French colonial empire in West Africa, or with substantial support from the U.S. and NATO, such as in the former Yugoslavia or off the coast of Somalia. Worse, though, is the role the EU has played in destabilizing Europe. Both of today’s great security crises, the flow of migrants from Syria and the wider Middle East and the Russian occupation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, were facilitated by the EU’s policies and bungling.
In the case of the migrants, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany invited what turned out to be well over one million migrants into Germany. The EU’s open internal borders transformed this spontaneous and poorly considered initiative from a German crisis into a European one. While the initial responsibility for this failure rests with Merkel, the EU’s responses to the migrant crisis have been as hesitant and confused as they were to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
The case of Ukraine is equally complex. Ukraine had serious political problems, but it also had—and still has—the right to make its own policies, including the right to seek association with the EU. Russia was clearly opposed to such an association, which the EU and Kyiv sought to negotiate in 2014. The EU was eager to come to an agreement with Ukraine, but it failed to recognize the need to deter a Russian intervention: The result was Russia’s dismemberment of Ukraine and the first successful use of force to change European borders since 1945.
This fact alone refutes the claim that the EU is a force for peace: The EU has never had more power than it does today, and yet today, there is a war raging in Europe, while Europe’s borders are palpably not secure. The EU is not responsible for Russia’s crimes, or those of Assad’s Syria, but it is responsible for its own failures of diplomacy and imagination that allowed Vladimir Putin, and the civil war in Syria, to threaten the security of the heart of Europe.
The EU Fails to Recognize the Basis of European Peace
The most immediate and obvious threat to European peace is posed by Russia, which is illegally occupying two large regions of Ukraine. Russia also poses a threat to the Baltic nations, which are both NATO and EU members, and to Georgia, which aspires to join both NATO and the EU. As long as Georgia and Ukraine are partially occupied, Europe is not whole, free, or at peace.
The flow of migrants from the Middle East also poses a direct threat to European security. These migrants cannot be effectively screened, which raises concerns about Islamist terrorism—concerns already made real by the Paris attacks of November 2015. Moreover, the European publics do not want to welcome that many migrants to Europe, and as long as the mainstream parties demand that the migrants be let in, the publics are likely to vote against them, and in favor of parties on the left or right that are willing to take a clear stand against further migration.
Not all of these parties are anti-democratic—indeed, in the sense that they are standing up for what their publics want, they have a good claim to be more democratic than their centrist rivals. But the arrival in Europe of millions of migrants from the Middle East must have political consequences, and it is difficult to believe that those consequences will all be positive.
In short, the EU’s inability (or refusal) to cope with the migrants or to deter Russia shows it has failed to recognize one of the bases of European security: the need to ensure that external pressure does not reach directly into Europe, or so frighten the European publics that they abandon democratic values. That was precisely what the U.S. sought to achieve after 1945 by protecting Western Europe from the external pressure posed by the USSR.
The EU has also failed to recognize another vital basis of European security. As Sheehan points out, the European nation-states were relegitimated after 1945 by economic growth. This was what the U.S. wanted and expected, and it was in considerable part the result of U.S. policies, exemplified by the Marshall Plan. But today, growth in the EU is slow, and in many EU nations, unemployment is frighteningly high. The result has been exactly what the U.S. would have predicted after 1945: rising concerns about European political extremism.
Moreover, the EU has decided that its central aim must be to save the euro currency. The result in Greece has been a punishing depression: Since Greece uses the euro, it cannot adjust the value of its currency externally, and must therefore deflate its own economy. In consequence, the old Greek party system has collapsed, and Greek politics are now dominated by the far Left and the far Right. Italy, Spain, and France are going down the same path, and unlike Greece, those nations are too big to be bullied by the EU into enduring a depression for the sake of saving the euro.
The EU’s financial leadership, the European Central Bank (ECB), has also embarked on a policy of quantitative easing and negative interest rates in order to prevent deflation by making it easier to borrow. But, as one German bank has already warned, “by appointing itself the eurozone’s ‘whatever it takes’ saviour of last resort, the ECB has allowed politicians to sit on their hands with regard to growth-enhancing reforms and necessary fiscal consolidation.” In short, by making it easier to borrow, the ECB is merely postponing the national reforms that are the only basis for sustained growth, which in turn is vital to preserving democracy and peace in Europe.
As the U.S. recognized after 1945, bad economics make bad politics. That is still true today. The EU’s economics are bad, and until they improve, its politics are likely to become worse. While bad politics do not guarantee wars, they are inherently undesirable, and they pose risks of even greater instability. Ironically, while the EU vaingloriously prides itself on bringing peace to Europe, it is doing exactly the opposite of what actually brought peace to the continent: deterring external enemies and promoting democratic politics by pursuing economic growth.
What the U.S. Should Do
The U.S. can, and should, do two things:
- Return to the goals that guided U.S. policy after 1945. The U.S. should recognize that its interests in Europe have not changed since 1945: It wants peace, prosperity, and democracy. All three are inherently good, and all three contribute to each other. The path to peace rests partly in deterring Europe’s external enemies: That has been, and remains, a job for NATO. It rests also in the pursuit of democracy inside Europe, and post-war history strongly suggests that this is most safely achieved if Europe’s nation-states are prosperous. The next President should defend these interests by ending the outsourcing of U.S. policy in Europe to the EU.
- Recognize the risks posed by the EU’s erosion of democracy and national sovereignty. The EU makes no contribution—except a negative one—to European security. It poses serious risks to European prosperity, and it exists to override and control Europe’s nation-states, thus making them less than fully sovereign and democratic. Defenders of the EU should ask: If the EU makes a central contribution to British and European—and thus American—security, why did Western Europe turn to peace before the EEC was established, and why today, with the EU at its peak, is Russia waging a war inside Ukraine, has the Syrian war crested Europe’s borders, and do the far Right and far Left threaten Europe’s political order?
The European Union is not the solution. It is the problem.—Ted R. Bromund, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow in Anglo–American Relations in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.