If you ever find yourself in a Dublin pub chatting amiably with the fella beside you, here’s some advice: don’t mention the EU.
The EU is one of the most popular institutions in Ireland. In fact according to surveys, Ireland has the most positive impression of the EU of all member states. Britain figures at the other end of the scale.
In 2018, 64% of Irish people had a positive image of the EU and 8% of people have a negative image. (I won’t get into why. It’s complicated.)
Anyway, my point is that by the standards of Irish people, I’m basically David Davis. I’m about the only Irish person I know who’s got something negative to say about the EU.
And here it is: I think the EU will collapse, and Brexit is an important first step.
Here’s what I mean.
The iron law
The way I see it, when you put people together into an organisation of any type, the tendency of that organisation will be to try to grow.
It could be a coffee shop, a church, a department within a company, or a government. It doesn’t matter. Each organisation all try to grow as much as they can.
It’s not something people are even conscious of. It’s not deliberate. It’s just what happens spontaneously when you put groups of people together.
The same principle happens at every level of human organisation. The tendency will always be to grow as much as possible. To gather as many resources as possible.
So an entrepreneur doesn’t make a plan at the outset which says “I’m going to build a chain of 12 garages.” Instead he starts one garage, it goes well, he starts another, it goes well too, and so on. Eventually the 12th garage doesn’t go so well. So he stops.
Why do organisations stop growing? Because something pushes back against them.
For a business it might be their competitors. Or it might be diseconomies of scale — a company getting too big to manage.
Countries try to grow too. They raise armies, send them to the border, and keep pushing until they meet another army. Look at a map of Europe. Every border marks the spot where two armies got sick of fighting each other and called it a day.
And within countries, governments try to grow. 105 years ago, government spending was 20% of the Germany economy, 9% of the UK economy, and 2% of the US economy. Today that number is 48% for Germany, 47% for the UK, and 42% for the US.
What’s held back government spending from rising even higher? Conservative politics, basically. In 1981, governments spent even more as a percentage of GDP in the UK and Germany. In the 80s, conservative governments showed up and somewhat shrunk the size of government.
So business want to grow but they’re held back by diseconomies of scale and their competitors. Countries want to grow but they’re held back by foreign armies. And governments want to grow but they’re held back by conservative politics.
Then there’s the EU.
Ever deeper union
The EU has no natural opposing force. Officially, there’s a principle of subsidiarity in the Maastricht Treaty, which says the EU won’t do anything that’s better handled by nation states. But I don’t buy it. I think high-minded principles like subsidiarity don’t stand a chance against every organisations’ instinct for growth.
The EU will keep growing and taking on responsibilities, not because it’s a particularly bad institution, but because it’s a normal human institution that wants more resources and power like all the rest of them.
And unlike say a nation state, which is hemmed in by other nation states, or a national government, which is hemmed in (imperfectly) by voters, there’s nothing to block it from getting bigger.
Sure, in theory voters could send MEPs to the European Parliament to slow it down. But it’s hard to fight the institution. It’s hard to stop it getting what it wants. Just ask Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor who was forced to accept the euro as the price for German reunification.
It’s hard for voters to say “I want the EU to be smaller please”. Instead, the message that comes across is “I think the EU is bad and I want to leave”.
A bigger EU wouldn’t be a problem if it were what the people of Europe wanted. But I don’t think it is what they want. I think when push comes to shove, Belgians have only a limited sense of fraternity with Estonians or Portuguese. I think people are still fundamentally nationalistic.
It’s an old theme in European history, from Charlemagne to Pope Innocent III. A power tries to unite the tribes of Europe; it overreaches; and the periphery breaks away.
The only way out
So I’m saying the EU is a greedy monster that’s going to try to keep growing forever, and there’s not much we can do to stop it. And I’m saying EU citizens don’t want to be ruled by the EU, when push comes to shove.
What happens next?
Well in that context, you’d expect some unruly nation to get sick of the whole thing and decide to leave.
Realistically, that’s the only thing that can hold the EU back.