The EU’s identity problem
The EU is an incredible institution. It takes dozens of independent countries and creates a political and economic union that not only strengthens each country individuality but also brings countries at the edge up to European standards. Countries like Ireland developed massively as a result of joining the EU, leading to better quality of life for Irish people and a much greater demand for goods from the rest of Europe*, like British financial services and German manufactured goods, leading to better economies for those countries too. The free movement of people allows talented people to move to where their talents are best utilised, furthering Europe as a whole much more than the country that they leave is set back (in the long run). Together, the countries of Europe together are about as rich as the US, arguably with far greater potential for growth than the US**.
And yet, the Brexit vote happened. I often hear that it was because the UK had a special relationship with the EU, it was because we could never fully commit and that we are “half in, half out”. However, this is not unique to Britain, in many ways distrust of the rest Europe is one of the only things that you can find consistently throughout Europe. If you need evidence of this, look at all of the nested and overlapping layers to European membership — the Eurozone, the Schengen Area, the European Economic Area, the Council of Europe***, Every country is so scared that they are going to loose out on issue X or issue Y that they ask for a million nitpicky changes and exceptions.
While Europe is unified in many ways, it remains stubbornly separate in others, and this creates problems. Much of Europe may share the same currency, but the countries raise different taxes and borrow different amounts to fund different policies. This disconnect between fiscal (taxes and borrowing) and monetary (the money supply) policy is what created the European debt crisis, as being financially tied to northern Europe allowed countries like Spain, Greece and Ireland to run up massive debts that they could never pay back, while using a currency that couldn’t depreciate in value to make the burden of their debt less.
This crisis of inconsistency has two possible solutions, we figure out how to look past our distrust of other European countries and go for more centralisation, or Europe falls apart from dysfunction.
While political solutions might work as a band aid, I would argue that the most robust way to keep Europe together is create some concrete sense of “European-ness” in Europe’s citizens, some feeling of unity between the different countries and cultures of Europe, so people within Europe feel an obligation to each other in the same way that people feel they have an obligation to other parts of their country. Implementing a Pan-European identity is not without its problems, however, and trying to legislate an identity in a free world usually ends up feeling forced and artificial. We need people and organisations which try to bring Europe together independently of the EU, and we need them before the nationalist parties intent on burning the EU to the ground reach the tops of their trajectories. If we want to save the EU, we have to start now.
*These countries did end up borrowing too much, but this problem could be solved with more fiscal integration
**The EU has a much larger population than the US, and if they can all be brought up to northern European economic standards, the EU would be far richer than the US
***I know the Council of Europe is distinct from the EU, but with all of the overlaps it effectively forms another layer of the EU.