Emmanuel Macron walked into the courtyard of the Louvre to celebrate his landslide win Sunday in the French presidential election to the strains not of “The Marseillaise,” France’s national anthem, but rather to the “Ode to Joy,” the anthem of the European Union. It was an important symbolic choice, signaling that Macron’s victory is also the EU’s victory.
Indeed, the EU dodged a bullet. Marine Le Pen had vowed to take France out of the Eurozone and to hold a referendum on France’s membership in the European Union. Coming after the success of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, a “Frexit” likely would have been fatal to the EU. Macron’s victory, by contrast, strengthens the EU. He is even in favor of deepening the ties among EU member states into the realm of fiscal, not just monetary, policy.
How you feel about this depends on how you feel about the EU. Some Anglo-American conservatives support it, others oppose it. My own thinking on the subject has changed over the years. I used to be a Euro-skeptic, fearing that the giant bureaucracy in Brussels was an anti-market force imposing statism across the continent. In more recent years, I have come to conclude that such concerns are overblown—most government regulations and all tax and spend policies are still made in the national capitals. Brussels has merely become a convenient whipping boy that national politicians can use to shift blame for unpopular policies.
The conservative British newspapers have long specialized in demonizing the EU. Boris Johnson, now the foreign minister, was a pioneer of this art form when he was the Daily Telegraph correspondent in Brussels in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Johnson delighted his readers with fanciful “stories headlined ‘Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same’, ‘Threat to British pink sausages’ and ‘Snails are fish, says EU’. He wrote about plans to standardise condom sizes and ban prawn cocktail flavour crisps.”
Tabloids such as the Daily Mail and the Sun have specialized in this genre, propagandizing British conservatives against the EU—and, in the process, convincing many non-British conservatives, too.
If the EU were all about standardizing condom sizes, it’s hard to see why it has any reason for existence. But the reality is far more complex. Robert D. Kaplan offers a persuasive counterpart to this vilification in his New York Times op-ed, which described the EU as an important stabilizing force on the eastern and southern frontiers of Europe. He notes that the Balkans, in particular, remain a tinderbox two decades after the Dayton Peace Accords ended the wars of Yugoslav succession.
[I]t is only the European Union that can stabilize the Balkans. Only if Serbia, Albania, and Kosovo all become members of the union can the ethnic dispute between Serbs and Albanians truly be solved. Within the European Union, Albania and Kosovo will have no need of unifying on their own. But if they were to attempt unification, it could become a casus belli for the Serbs. A similar dynamic holds for the continuing contest between Croatia and Serbia for influence in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is peace for everyone in the former Yugoslavia within the framework of the European Union. There is only protracted conflict without it. Indeed, the European Union offers a world of legal states instead of ethnic nations, governed by impersonal laws rather than fiat, where individuals are protected over the group.
The EU plays an equally important role in Eastern Europe, which is why I discovered last year that leaders of the Baltic Republics were anxious for Britain to reject Brexit. Sure, NATO is important, too, in deterring Russian aggression, but the EU helps to subsidize impoverished, nascent democracies, allowing them to develop into full-blown liberal democracies despite Russian interference.
Even with the EU’s expansion, there is democratic backsliding going on in Hungary and Poland, where populist-nationalist rulers have taken power. Imagine how much worse the situation would be if the EU were not there to promote democratic norms and to use the power of its purse to encourage these struggling states to stick to the democratic path. It takes no great feat of the imagination to suppose that, absent the EU, the democratic experiments in Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War could have turned out to be as short-lived as those after the end of World War I.
None of this is to deny that the EU is more statist than it needs to be, nor to deny that it is in need of reform. But I believe it is a cause for celebration that the EU has survived, having withstood yet another challenge from the far-right. On the whole, and despite its manifest flaws, the kind of trans-national integration promoted by the EU is far preferable to the virulent nationalism that was dominant across Europe before World War II and that could arise again if the EU simply fades away.