Don't blame Brits for the Brexit: The EU strayed from its roots in post-war unity to become a neoliberal technocracy

There is no understanding the Brexit vote without understanding the ideals and purpose the EU discarded

Published June 29, 2016 9:58AM (EDT)

 (Reuters/Dylan Martinez)
(Reuters/Dylan Martinez)

Countless thoughts tumble forward as news of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union sinks in. Among the larger of these is one that reaches back to the 1940s, when the world was at war and Roosevelt in his third term. FDR had trounced a Republican named Wendell Willkie in November 1940, and it is with Willkie the thought begins.

He was a civilized Republican, Willkie, way back when this was not an oxymoron. He was, indeed, a Midwestern Democrat until 1939, when he made one of those moves across the aisle opportunists now think nothing of. After the 1940 election, no surprise, Willkie instantly made common cause with Roosevelt: Both were interventionists at a time this term meant something different, too. In August 1942, FDR sent Willkie on a world tour to represent America’s commitment to the war against the Axis and report back to Americans his thoughts (and those of both Roosevelts) as to the world that was to be.

In 1943 Willkie published a book called “One World,” and it sold in the millions. Not many readers will remember it—I was barely a thought in my just-married parents’ minds—but some will at least know of it, surely. As the title implies, “One World” expressed an idea of postwar unity in the community of nations based on human liberation (a term Willkie favored) and an end to all claims of racial and ideological superiority. Roosevelt’s abiding vision of the postwar era, readers will recall, rested not on American primacy but on co-existence and partnership.

This kind of thinking, believe it or not, was much favored among Americans at the time. The war, as Willkie put it, was understood as “a war of liberation.” Only after Truman assumed the presidency did the fear of fear itself trump confidence in Washington and the Cold Warriors rise to power.

Willkie was not alone in his aspirations. Very far from it. But he did well expressing those of very many. And it is these that have just died a death on the English Channel’s northern shores.

Liberation, Willkie insisted, was about the defeat of the Nazi and imperial Japanese armies only by the narrowest definition. “Are we yet agreed that liberation means more than this?” he asked. “Specifically, are the thirty-one United Nations now fighting together agreed that our common job of liberation includes giving to all peoples freedom to govern themselves as soon as they are able, and the economic freedom on which all lasting self-government inevitably rests?

A few pages later, this:

A true world outlook is incompatible with foreign imperialism, no matter how high-minded the governing country….  Freedom is an indivisible word. If we want to enjoy it, and fight for it, we must be prepared to extend it to everyone, whether they are rich or poor, whether they agree with us or not, no matter what their race or the color of their skin.

Nobody reads “One World” anymore, and Willkie resides in history as a limp-wristed political wanderer wanting in all toughness. He could not know it, but his kind were shortly to be mauled. Our world is in splinters, of course, and is that the maulers made.

He was exceptionalist in the American grain, if mildly so. I am not sure about one nation “giving” freedom to another, and “as soon as they are able” is a primitive artifact of another age. But the core sentiments are clean. And they are on the whole right. Parenthetically, it is remarkable to read a Republican noting the connection between the temptations of imperial adventure abroad and “what we have practiced within our own boundaries—something that amounts to race imperialism.” Finishing off the thought, Willkie added, “Today it is becoming apparent to thoughtful Americans that we cannot fight the forces and ideas of imperialism abroad and maintain any form of imperialism at home.”

Thoughtful Americans. What extravagant presumption.


I quote from “One World” at a little length for two reasons.

One, we get a taste in Willkie’s pages of the thinking that led to the founding of the European Union’s predecessor institutions, the first of these being the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. It goes down like exotic wine when put against what the E.U. has made of itself. There is no understanding the Brexit vote without at least a passing knowledge of the ideals and purpose that are now wholly abandoned. How those running Brussels and Frankfurt, seat of the European Central Bank, can hold their heads up with this forsaken history as their proscenium is entirely beyond me.

Two, in Willkie’s thoughts we find a pretty good record of just where the European project went wrong. Think about a few of those key phrases: “…whether they are rich or poor, whether they agree with us or not, no matter what their race or the color of their skin.” How do these sound next to the E.U.’s standard m.o.? By comparison it is intolerant of all difference, dirigiste in the worst sense of the term and presumptive of an ideological superiority that brooks no deviation. Who, 70-odd years ago, would have made such an outcome a dream? Who would have expended any effort in behalf of the E.U. as we have it?

For the record, I was long an avowed advocate of European unity. Its core problem had long been evident by the turn of the century, when Joschka Fischer, foreign minister in Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic cabinet, gave his famous “United States of Europe” speech in Berlin. “It is this process of European integration that is now being called into question by many people,” Fischer asserted. “It is viewed as a bureaucratic affair run by a faceless, soulless Eurocracy in Brussels—at best boring, at worst dangerous.”

So it was at bottom a political problem, as Fischer read it. As I did, it was also structural: The unelected bureaucracy in Brussels had accumulated too much power and the elected European Parliament in Strasbourg had too little. (When was the last time you read about a legislative vote in Strasbourg, do tell.) This problem could be fixed by political means, at least in theory. But it was not and would not be, as the Greek crisis 14 years after Fischer spoke made disgracefully plain. Remember? We all watched as Brussels, the central bankers in Frankfurt, and those who lined up behind Wolfgang Schäuble, Chancellor Merkel’s appalling finance minister, ignored the democratically expressed will of the Greeks and shoved them to the wall in the name of neoliberal economic orthodoxy.

I got off the E.U.’s bus as Greece’s fate unfolded. The original ideal of democratic unity bears as much relevance to what the union is now as Wendell Willkie’s book does to America as we have it. This is not a coincidental comparison, as I will shortly argue. There is no supporting the E.U. as it is now constituted. One may as well support the State Department or NATO as they now operate—and this I will argue, too.

Britons made a mistake when they voted their Brexit last week. But this judgment reflects practicalities alone, not principle. Of what I know of Jeremy Corbyn’s views, mine are roughly aligned. There is nothing to recommend remaining in the E.U. except the timing of a departure: The political ground needs serious cultivation such that leaving will serve instead of harm those disadvantaged by E.U. membership but further harmed by a precipitous split from it.


How did Europe regress from the “One World”–ish thinking of the early originators of unity after the war to a set of institutions one can argue it is now best to scrap? What does Brexit suggest for humanity’s capacity to gather in the name of common principles and shared 21st century tasks?

These are the interesting questions.

To begin with, Europeans had a bad Cold War. It was not as bad as what Americans suffered through, but over time Europe’s postwar leaders learned to fall in line behind Washington, where the Pentagon, Allen Dulles’ C.I.A. and the new national security apparatus were doing most of the thinking that mattered. East–West discord came to shape European politics just as it did America’s. Europe was an instrument or a front line in Washington’s war with the Soviets—choose your descriptive. But the threat came not from the Soviet Union, we need to note; Moscow was far too busy recovering from the war years’ devastation. It came from what would later be called “Eurocommunists”—that is, left social democrats. When the Italians held their first postwar elections in 1948, the C.I.A. subverted them. This we learned from documents released only in the 1990s.

Think of the E.U.’s evolution. The Coal and Steel Community became the European Economic Community with the Treaty of Rome in 1958. A period of enlargement, sometimes choppy, followed. The French under de Gaulle famously objected to British membership and suspected the growth of supranational power—both in the context of America’s increasing influence in Europe. In 1992 the Maastricht Treaty created the E.U. as we have it. All of this was preceded by the creation of NATO and its concept of collective defense under an American umbrella, in 1949.    

Lay this progress side-by-side with a chronology of the Cold War. Is it possible to imagine the E.U., by the time it was called such, had avoided assuming America’s ideological hue? Perry Anderson, the British writer and critic, pointed out in an interview published in this space last year that Europe’s postwar leaders were the first to come of age with no experience of Europe as a freestanding pole of power, no record of thinking for themselves as their predecessors had. It is an astute observation and does much to explain Europe’s otherwise baffling obsequiousness—baffling to me, anyway—during the lifetime of almost anyone reading this column.

A year before the North Atlantic Treaty was signed, The Truman administration announced the European Recovery Act, familiarly known as the Marshall Plan. This was a four-year project worth roughly $125 billion in today’s dollars. It was not, as commonly understood, an act of supreme selflessness on America’s part. It was a Cold War strategy intended to dilute the appeal of European Communist parties, notably those in Italy and France. It also marked the first export shipment of neoliberal economic principles to the Continent—deregulation and freer trade prominent in the cargo.

At the risk of telescoping, there is a straight if dotted line between the Marshall Plan’s economic orthodoxy and Europe’s wholesale, I would say craven adherence to the neoliberal model since Reagan and Thatcher reigned in the Anglo–American universe. At times one could scarcely believe one’s eyes, given the Continent’s distinct intellectual tradition and the place customarily awarded the state. By the time financial and economic crises hit in 2010, the technocrats running Europe were like new religious converts—truer believers than the believers. Their faith in neoliberal austerity was strong enough to overcome any amount of open-and-shut evidence that it was the wrong prescription—this for the simple reason it is a faith exclusive of all serious thought.

This is the Europe to which Britons have just said, “No, thank you.” It is not ruled by reason and has no ideals: Ideology substitutes for both, as it does among us Americans. Market value is its only principle, and democratic process is fine so long as it does not intrude upon this principle, as any Greek will tell you. Britons may have made a short-term, tactical mistake, but one can in no wise blame them for it. The true error is Europe’s.

Some years ago an acute thinker named Partha Chatterjee published a book called “The Politics of the Governed.” In it he took Foucault’s concept of “the governmentalization of the state” and ran more miles with it. Chatterjee wrote of “governmental technologies,” as follows:

“It is not surprising that in the course of the twentieth century, ideas of participatory citizenship that were so much a part of the Enlightenment notion of politics have fast retreated before the triumphant advance of governmental technologies that have promised to deliver more well-being to more people at less cost…. This regime secures legitimacy not by the participation of citizens… but by claiming to provide for the well-being of the population…. All of this made governance less a matter of politics and more of administrative policy….”

Good roads in exchange for democratic process, to put the point only a little too simply. Wal-Mart prices instead of public space.

The brilliant Bengali wrote with India in mind, but not entirely. He missed only one thing: Governmental technologies are not generally going to withstand a popular vote. Few Britons will put it in such terms, but they just made their choice on precisely this question. It was Prime Minister Cameron’s mistake to offer them the opportunity to choose and the E.U.’s misfortune that he did.

Europe is unlikely to be the same from here on out, but who can say what shape this will take? As to humanity’s capacity to coalesce in the face of shared challenges, it is too soon to see far into the future, in my view. One hope this is a chapter in the story, but not the final chapter.

One other question is also unanswerable but now worth watching: If the E.U.’s influence and its place in America’s security framework shrink, have we just witnessed a step toward the parity between West and non–West that paying-attention people should accept as an inevitable feature of the 21st century? Such an outcome is to be hoped for, certainly, since so many of the world’s problems plainly lie beyond the capacities of the West alone to resolve. And it seems more than plausible to me, though no more than that.

“Our Western world and its presumed supremacy are now on trial. The big house on the hill surrounded by mud huts has lost its awesome charm.”

That is Wendell Willkie writing 73 years ago, believe it or not. As then, so now. In those days even Republicans were sometimes prescient.

By Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at His web site is

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