They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 18, 2016
According to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, President Trump is a threat to the existence of the European Union. In a feat of hubris, Ted Malloch, Trump’s likely candidate for the post of E.U. ambassador, declared that he “helped bring down the Soviet Union, so maybe there’s another union that needs a little taming.” As to President Trump, he recently took a break from his busy schedule to tweet that “Greece should get out of the euro & go back to their own currency–they are just wasting time.” Since Brexit and Trump’s electoral college victory others in the USA and the UK boldly voice their opinion that it is time for other countries to leave the shackles of the EU and regain their independence à la 1776.
Not so fast. There are similarities and differences between the EU, the UK, and the USA that President Trump might want to ponder.
The USA is a Union of Formerly Independent States Too
Like the EU, the USA is the result of an evolution from separate entities to federalism. Let us remember that the purpose of the American Revolution of 1776 was not to create one great country or nation – neither term being used in the founding documents of the USA – but rather a union of states independent from the Crown and from each other. It would take years, some arm-twisting, and a meeting behind closed doors by the Constitutionalists in Philadelphia for the states to buy into the vision of a federal Government with a President not directly elected by the people under one Constitution.
Members are Free to Leave the EU
A fundamental difference between the UK, the USA, and the EU is that all countries in the EU joined voluntarily. The EU grew without resorting to conquests, wars and other forceful means, unlike the UK and the USA (Think of Wales, Northern Ireland, Nevada, Alta California, Hawaii.).
Just as is the case in the EU, tensions remain between the Federal government and the member states of the USA. However, another important difference between the EU and the USA is that the EU Lisbon treaty of 2009 has provided a peaceful path for a member to leave the EU. Not so in the USA. Just a few years after the ratification of the Constitution, fears surfaced that Kentucky might leave the Union; Connecticut and Maryland contemplated an exit during the war of 1812; South Carolina threatened to leave as early as 1832 and finally did so in 1860. The ensuing exit of the Southern states was approved by popular vote in the concerned states. Sounds like Brexit? Except that the Northern states did not just let the leavers go their own democratically chosen way. They marched to war, a conflict whose “paramount object,” according to Lincoln’s famous words to Greeley in 1862, was “to save the Union,” not to eliminate slavery. Brexit may turn out to be a messy proposition and the EU may be reluctant to see the UK go, but at least the possibility for such a withdrawal exists.
The EU’s Original Aim is Peace in Europe
Trump’s attitude to the EU is not only in contradiction to what he would advocate for his own country, it is also a dangerous move that could threaten peace in Europe and beyond. Initially, the EU was a political project for peace in Europe, supported and advocated by the UK and the USA. Nationalist tensions that led to wars had been boiling on the continent for centuries before the creation of what would become the EU. Already in his Zurich declaration of 1946, Churchill’s stated conviction was that to build peace in Europe
“We must build a kind of United States of Europe… we must re-create the European family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe. The first step is to form a Council of Europe.”
The purpose was to intertwine France and Germany and other willing countries so inextricably that war between them would become unthinkable. Whatever the imperfections of the EU, and they are many, the continent has now been at peace for more than seventy years. Has the EU played no part in such peace?
Granted, Churchill had no plan for the UK to join such a union since it already had the Commonwealth. But when Churchill spoke, the UK still had an empire and saw itself as a world power. Reality would quickly settle in with the loss of the Empire and the Suez Crisis of 1956. The UK eventually joined in 1973 and then spent the next forty-odd years pondering whether it should stay in. Unfortunately, as is still the case today, the UK wanted all the benefits of joining the EU without any of the disadvantages and never bought into Churchill’s project. It would take two referendums, in 1975 and in 2016, for the inner workings of the Conservative Party to finally lead to Brexit.
Playing with Fire
“They will soon be calling me Mr. Brexit” gloated Trump a while ago. Would President Trump adopt such a cavalier attitude should the EU start cajoling Calexit and Texit supporters to free themselves from the shackles of an oppressive Union? Probably not. Politics is not like running a business. President Trump’s bombastic and threatening style runs the risk of reigniting tensions that his predecessors worked hard to contain and extinguish. Opening a Pandora’s box by playing with the fires of nationalism and xenophobia would be to the advantage neither of the EU nor of the USA.