Napoleon, Etymology and (sorry) Hitler

The current meme amongst my pro-Brexit friends is that (a) Britain is a net importer of EU goods and services so the EU will meet Britain on Britain’s own terms and (b) the EU will disintegrate anyway.

I’ll save the first of these for a later post, as it’s related to Trump’s position on trade, and look here at the widely predicted disintegration of the EU.

The two main reasons used to support this are currency and migration.

Currency’s the easy one. In the short term, based on these IMF figures, the Euro zone’s GDP is about US$10tn, of which Greece accounts for US$0.2tn, or 2%. Irrespective of whether poor Greek peasants are enriching rapacious German banks, or German banks are carrying the cost of Greece’s inability to govern its own public finances, 2% is a manageable problem. As to those who claim that Italy and Spain are next to fall, leading to a disintegration of the Euro, I think that sovereign defaults by larger economies are more likely to trigger the structural reforms the Euro needs than to a disintegration of the EU.

Migration is a hot topic. But the issue to Europeans is not the internal migration that so irks Brexiteers – who have a sudden desire to unblock their own toilets and serve their own bar food – but external migration. With the exception of the Cold War era, border controls between continental European countries have ranged from lax to non-existent for most of its history: Schengen and the freedom of movement did little more than formalize that reality. But Britain had the Channel / La Manche – and there lies the problem. That stretch of water has kept Britain out of Europe in three very important, non-geographic ways.

Napoleon overran continental Europe. His empire was short-lived, but the Napoleonic Code lives on in nearly all of the other 26 members of the now EU. Britain is alone in using the Common Law. There are lots of learned articles on the differences between Code and Common Law, but my point is that Code Law gives the other European Countries a very different perspective of their public and political institutions to Britain: a commonality of expectations that transcends the linguistic barriers. Britain, with its very different history of law, has never quite got this point.

Etymology is the derivation of words, and the word of the moment is “bureaucracy.” This is of Franco-Greek derivation – bureau means desk and -cracy, rule by. Again, it’s the French. They invented bureaucracy, and their system of rule by technocrats behind desks was spread in Western Europe by… Napoleon. So while the British complain about rule by distant bureaucrats, it’s been the norm in Western Europe for the better part of of three centuries.

But bureaucracy per se is not the problem – any political unit bigger than a hamlet needs its bureaucrats. The key difference is not bureaucracy, but expectations: Europe’s bureaucracy has been centralized and large for a long time; Britain’s (at least in the popular imagination) diffused and small. That’s what irks – but it irks Britain a lot less than it irks Europeans. Again, the underlying perspectives are different.

Hitler, like Napoleon, overran continental Europe but, also like Napoleon, never landed troops on the British Isles. I’m not ignorant of the Blitz, the flattening of Coventry, and the sacrifices Britain made. But the damage to Britain’s cities, the internal displacement within Britain, and the violence committed to the social fabric, were a fraction of those suffered by Europe. The urge to make sure this is never repeated gives Europeans a much stronger political motive to “ever closer union” than Britain ever had.

So, to my Brexiteer friends who think that the EU will collapse without Britain, I say that, although the EU may collapse, it won’t be because Britain left it. If anything, Britain has been the main impediment to “ever closer union.”  Weaving a fabric from carbon fibre and wool was just too damn hard. With the wool out of the loom, the warp will proceed apace.and, with Britain gone, I think that union will accelerate – and of necessity address the problems of the Euro and immigration in its wake.

All of which misses the real point: it’s not that Brexiteers think that EU will collapse, it’s that they want it to. In this respect, Britain was far more effective impeding ever closer union from within than it ever can be from without. In which respect Brexit, to use a fine British metaphor, is a splendid own goal.


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