Twenty five years ago—as the Balkan wars were descending into hell—Jacques Poos, the then-Prime Minister of Luxembourg, declared that “the hour of Europe has dawned.” That declaration followed the unification of Germany and accompanied the unravelling of the Soviet Union in its last throes. Many welcomed the notion that a uniting Europe no longer bound by the Cold War would be now able to take charge of its own future. Sadly, that moment did not come fast enough to prevent thousands of deaths on the doorstep of Europe during the rest of the decade.
A quarter of a century has passed since Minister Poos set that ambitious marker. Europe has indeed become more than it was in 1991, bigger, wider, and deeper. Yet the decision of one of its most important members to withdraw from the European Union does not signal another dawning of Europe. It is better described as a sobering wake-up call after a night of binge drinking.
On June 23, the referendum in the United Kingdom over its membership in the EU was narrowly won by those who advocated leaving, the first such decision taken in the over-six-decade history of the European movement.
It is new territory for both the UK leadership and its 27 fellow EU members. And no one really knows how it will unfold. Indeed, there are even signs that the UK Parliament will try to rescind the decision or even call for a second referendum. Confusion reigns.
The impact of Brexit is both local and global. Apart from the challenge facing the EU, the ripple effect throughout the world in the markets, stock exchanges, and currency exchanges was massive. The efforts in political and military circles to pursue damage control are also in full gear, particularly within NATO. Many saw the significance of the British decision encouraging a similar set of initiatives emerging elsewhere in EU member countries. Indeed, the coherence, capabilities, and commitment to a new form of shared sovereignty within the EU appears to be imploding.
Among leaders in Europe and the U.S., there was a widespread assumption that the referendum would fail in the face of heavy-duty opposition arguments from EU leaders as well as the White House. But the political, economic, and social fissures within the UK were reflected in the outcome. The clashes of interests, anxieties, and ideology generated an explosion rocking the continent with more emotions at work than explanations. Both the UK and the European Union are now in uncharted territory. And so is the course of transatlantic relations.
The reasons that Brexit was chosen by a majority of voters in the UK will be dissected continuously for a long time to come. The fact is that there is contagion in the air in other countries in Europe. Everything from economic anxiety to identity politics to anger with political elites and institutions will be in the mix of the diagnoses. That contagion is already infecting the U.S.
But the main concern should not be fixated on one referendum or even one election. The lessons which should be drawn ought to be about the malaise of liberal democracies coping with governance, social equity, and decision-making capacity in a new age of complexity.
Brexit supporters were responding to those challenges just as many similar anxiety-filled political voices are being heard in other parts of Europe. Leaders are struggling to respond, or even worse, exploiting the rage for their own purposes.
For now, Germany represents some stability in this European storm. While it has its own version of political blowback in its right wing movement the Alternative for Germany, Chancellor Merkel is not going to be challenged until the Germans go to the polls in the summer of 2017. While it is unlikely that she will face a challenger who can defeat her, the turmoil ricocheting around Europe between now and then will create the same anxiety that many are feeling in the UK, France, and other liberal democracies in Europe. It is possible that by next year, the UK will have left the European Union. In that case, the role that Berlin will have to play to sustain the European project will grow, largely because there’s no one else to fill it. The challenge Germany will face is making that palatable for the other 26 member countries.
In many ways, this is a time when there could be another “hour of Europe,” redefining the basis of its purpose.
The drive to put Europe together to avoid the catastrophe of war was once articulated by a British leader—Winston Churchill—who in 1946 proclaimed “There is a remedy which would in a few years make all Europe free and happy. It is to recreate the European family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety, and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”
There needs to be another call now, and there is no other country which has been more dedicated to the creation of the spirit of what Churchill called for than the Federal Republic of Germany in the European Union today. Indeed, it was through and in Europe that Germany’s path after World War II was forged. Germany is the largest stakeholder in the future of a united Europe.
The lessons of the last 70 years have shown that the model of the United States will not be what Europe would follow. The mosaic of history, culture, language, and legacies in Europe does not mirror that of a country so different in its evolution.
But those past few decades have also demonstrated what is possible among countries that do recognize a common stake in the future. Right now, there is an urgent need to recall and reaffirm those common stakes and goals. It will fall to Angela Merkel to help articulate that message together with those leaders who see the dangers ahead if they fail. They need only recall how Europe looked a century ago or seventy years ago.
This is indeed a moment when the hour of Europe could be dawning or dimming.