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Europe on the Steep Sand Dune of History

The nervous Remain camp frames the issues in terms of pessimism. The emboldened Leave camp in turn emphasises optimism. Take back control! Don't listen to Project Fear! More trade, less Brussels! Fewer immigrants! Yes, leaving is risky - but we Brits like risks! Don't trust Dave!
Reuters Photographer / Reuters

The UK/EU debate is a confusing acrimonious mess because it suits the two sides to avoid tackling on one big core question: what is the strategic vision for the UK within Europe?

The nervous Remain camp frames the issues in terms of pessimism. They scurry from focus-group to focus-group to find new ways to alarm people. Jobs lost! House prices fall! And pensions! Putin will be happy! It's all too risky! Don't trust Boris!

The emboldened Leave camp in turn emphasises optimism. Take back control! Don't listen to Project Fear! More trade, less Brussels! Fewer immigrants! Yes, leaving is risky - but we Brits like risks! Don't trust Dave!

As all the below-the-belt punches and faux facts fly thick and fast, neither side finds it easy to talk convincingly about the strategic dimension. We can barely predict next week's weather. Why waste time arguing about wider trends shaping years and decades?

Nonetheless, our decisions today are part of bigger trends, even if in all the noise it's hard to spot them. Here are three.

First, the European Union is like every other attempted pan-European project of the past 1000 years. It will rise then fall and vanish. It's safe to say that in the lifetime of our children (and perhaps far earlier) it will change beyond recognition if not disappear entirely. The EU eerily resembles Tito's Yugoslavia: a bizarre experiment in 'brotherhood and unity' that proved unable to resolve the contradictions it created for itself, and ended in disaster.

Second, the EU was created amidst machine-age conditions that no longer exist, to deal with problems that no longer exist. It's machinery and general logic are anachronistic: much too heavy, slow, wasteful and inflexible to deal with today's dangerously speedy problems. The EU delivers Mass. Real life demands Velocity.

Third, and most important, the EU can not answer the great challenge of this century: reconciling pell-mell technological transformation with the popular legitimacy that comes from institutional acknowledgement of shared identity. The 'migration' issue is all about this, as Joris Luyendijk recently pointed out:

What if the European project is an edifice with fatally flawed foundations? How does an open society based on equality survive, when every year it takes in tens if not hundreds of thousands of immigrants from countries with no tradition of openness, equality or democratic debate?

No mainstream EU leader has any convincing answer to this question. David Cameron gives an increasingly eccentric impersonation of fat boy Joe in Pickwick Papers: "I wants to make your flesh creep". Sweden's foreign minister Margot Wallström frets that too much democracy is a bad thing: a Brexit vote might lead to a domino effect of other member states wanting a vote and opting out. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble asserts that a post-Brexit UK would not have access to the Single Market, but also warns that whatever the result, "we have to take a serious look at reducing bureaucracy in Europe." As anyone who has worked in the labyrinths of EU process knows, that is simply not deliverable.

The rest of Europe's mainstream leaders would much rather the question was never posed. It's no surprise that different forms of 'populism' are tapping in to public unease around this issue, both in Europe and beyond: Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage, Marie Le Pen, Donald Trump and many others are all selling themselves as strong leaders willing to 'do what it takes' to give answers.

Vladimir Putin presents himself as the ultimate Strong Leader, winning weird admiration in unexpected Western circles for 'standing up for his country's interests'. Putin's supposed glee at the prospect of exploiting Brexit as part of wider European disarray is thrown at the Leave campaign as a key reason to vote Remain. But Putin too has to reckon with nimble networked challenges to identity and legitimacy. He keeps an uneasy eye on demands for Siberian autonomy and other anti-Moscow tendencies within Russia. And his crass Russia-first power-plays in Ukraine have wrecked wider ideas of Slavic solidarity.

Right at the heart of all these questions today are rival incompatible models of integration in a European context. One is based on the Eurozone: radical pooling of sovereignty and risk-sharing that can work only within something like a new state with strong central institutions moving taxpayers' money across the zone to manage asymmetric problems. The other is a notably less prescriptive free trading space run by intelligent intergovernmentalism.

The current EU is a confusing hybrid of both, a doomed attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. It's no surprise that not one other regional economic grouping on Earth accepts the EU's surrender of sovereign decision-making to a powerful centralised bureaucracy within a supranational legal order.

In short, the EU has attempted to climb the steep sand dune of history and is now stuck - any movement sideways or upwards risks uncontrolled sliding backwards. Politicians struggle to make sense of this dynamic insecurity.

The costs of that self-absorbed approach are now apparent across much of the European space, above all in southern Europe where losses caused by the Eurozone crisis are now incalculable. The pro-EU Financial Times grasps this: "We are close to the point where globalisation and membership of the Eurozone in particular have damaged not only certain groups but entire nations".

The biggest strategic advantage of a Leave vote in the UK referendum is that it compels Europe's leaders to look anew at first principles: to start working out a new strategic framework for the continent's shared policies in the coming decades as Asia and Africa exert their fast-growing economic weight.

Something like Europe 2.0 is achievable. There is no easy painless risk-free way to get there. But at least a UK Leave vote opens the opportunity to move in that direction under controlled conditions that respect national democratic instincts.

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