I have been struggling with the memory of an unpleasant experience. It went like this: I visited Kansas City on business, and on the last day I had to go back to the airport by taxi. The driver was a young man, probably in his early thirties, intelligent and engaged. I always chat with the taxi and Uber drivers. The conversation was pleasant enough, until at some point the driver noticed that I was from Europe and brought the discussion to Brexit. Today, Brexit is practically over and done with, but at that time the initial discussions between the UK and the EU were in full swing; Teresa May was still Prime Minister. I indicated that these negotiations weren’t easy, as both parties naturally had wishes, at which point, this young man said (watch my lips!): “The UK has the very right to leave the EU. The EU is fascist that they want to define the rules for Brexit. The EU is a fascist state.”
I must admit that I was speechless for several seconds. I then tried to explain to him, that from my viewpoint, the EU was founded as a reaction to the terrible wars and fascism of the twentieth century. I explained that the EU is a union that focuses on economic, political and societal unification, all with the sole purpose of defending democracy and human rights – to never let fascism happen again. And the EU has been quite successful at that too, as no war within the EU territory has occurred since 1945 (note: wars have happened outside of the EU boundary over the years, but luckily many of those countries later joined the EU).
He still wasn’t please with my answer, and pointed out that it was fascist to dictate the UK the rules by which they would leave. This shocked me too, as this is the same naivety that many pro-Brexit Brits suffered from. I told him that the EU is one of the largest markets in the world, with approximately 450 million people (living in 27 countries). To get access to that market has big benefits for any third party, and the UK would need to comply to certain rules and restrictions to be rewarded that access. He still didn’t agree. I provided an example, a thought play. Let’s suppose, I said, that New Jersey would decide to leave the USA, what would happen? First of all, there is no clause in the constitution of the USA that would allow this, so the US president would send the army to force New Jersey to stay within the USA (similar as what happened during the US civil war between the north and south). In the EU, the constitution actually has such a clause. However, let’s presume that New Jersey would be allowed to leave: at that moment it would lose all its privileges. No free travel across the border to the neighboring states, no protection by the US army. Sure: no payment towards the central government, but in return also no subsidies or financial benefits from that government, so no access to other US universities, nor to healthcare services or using US insurance. Most importantly: no free trade with the remaining 49 states of the USA. New Jersey would need to negotiate this. Naturally, the USA (as it is much bigger market than New Jersey) would set the agenda in their interest, and dictate many of the rules. The UK may have 67 million citizens and a higher GPO than New Jersey, but still: the EU won’t simply give the UK access to their market for free.
Obviously, the driver rejected this idea immediately. His argumentation was simple: New Jersey was part of a country, my suggestion that it would leave the USA was ridiculous. Whereas the UK was an independent country. And independent countries are allowed to leave with all benefits, hence the EU was fascist. Well, I said, that is what many people in the UK believe, but they will have a brutal awaking.
To be honest, he did have a point, as perception drives reality. The EU (more in wikipedia) is a federation in development, the final step towards a United States of Europe has not been completed. This is illustrated by the paragraph mentioned above, which allows nations to leave the Union. In a real country such a clause is unthinkable.
People see the EU as an assembly of individual countries, but at the same time as a single unit. the view depends on what the situation is, and this is confusing as hell. Examples? The EU is seen as a single unit considering one of the best personal data protection laws in the world (GDPR) that forces all companies (such as Facebook, Google or Alibaba) to comply to if they want to do business with the EU. The EU also aggressively prosecutes monopolies by businesses. The EU has also established very strong human rights, across all nations, but this is already less tangible for the average citizen. Sure, the EU is best known for their unifying laws, such as the curve of bananas – which actually was a request from the banana producers themselves, and would have been implemented in affected countries anyway. In the USA or China, such laws exist too.
On the other extreme, sports is still the responsibility of the member states, rather than of the EU. So Olympic gold medals are counted by country. I didn’t do the math, but I suspect that the EU would blow most other countries out of the water if it comes to the number of Olympic gold medals. The EU has the best skiers through Germany, Austria and the Nordics; the best ice skaters through the Netherlands and the Nordics, the best sailors from French, Belgium, Greece, Italy, Portugal (to name a few) – and the best soccer players from practically all countries. But does anyone in the world count Olympic medals this way? Naturally not, many will say. after all, the EU isn’t a country.
What are the causes for these views within the EU itself? Even within the EU, many people do not feel like Europeans, but feel like Belgians, Italians or Austrians. Europeans still feel very national. Whereas Russians, Americans or Chinese are constantly and efficiently infused (yes: indoctrinated) with patriotism, this is largely absent on an EU level. The EU is a very fact-based organization, with little room for emotion. In addition, Europe does a poor job advertising its merits to the ordinary people.
Interestingly, many Europeans project their anti-government sentiments on the EU. This is what happened during the Brexit referendum in the UK: research has shown that the pro-Brexit voters in reality didn’t know or feel much about the EU, but they did want to punish their own (British) government. So, the more the UK government argued that the EU was the best choice in the referendum, the more the population rejected that idea, and wanted to punish them for past and present sins. This led to the 51% majority (17M of the entire population) that voted for Brexit. Not an overwhelming majority (of which, due to advanced age, apparently 6M have in the meantime died). In the USA, this mistrust of the central government is also well established (most US Americans probably do not realize that their state government plays a big legislative role too – and if not the governor, than the local mayor – somebody has to set up the playing rules).
The EU is still on its path towards full federation, and (to me) this is the best way forward. The EU lives from solidarity among the member states, and this has lead to peace, prosperity, human rights. But until the EU arrives at that point, the perception of the EU will have its ups and downs. During dramatic events such Brexit, the refugee crisis or the Corona pandemic, many people immediately ask: “will the EU survive this?” Probably if somebody sneezes in Zimbabwe, somebody, somewhere will ask “Oh, is this the end of the EU?” Nobody would ask that about the USA, China or Russia (although we actually know from history that no nation can survive forever).
The reality is that EU is going strong. Admittedly, the refugee crisis has not been resolved satisfactorily, this is where the solidarity breaks to pieces (also think: Trump’s wall). Still, I wager that the EU exited Brexit towards a stronger position. The Corona Pandemic led to more solidarity among the member states, and daring decisions for more federalization.
To the taxi driver in Kansas City: No, the EU is definitely not fascist. On the contrary.
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