The British referendum on its membership in the European Union has reignited a debate, not only about the United Kingdom's role in Europe but also about the present, and the future, of the union. Euroskepticism is on the rise across the Continent, and the bloc's leaders, hampered by their own diverging views on how Europe should be managed, seem unable to stop it. Meanwhile, supporters of the "leave" and "remain" camps in the United Kingdom, despite their opposing opinions, agree on one basic point: Attempts to federalize the Continental bloc are doing member states more harm than good. But at other points in Europe's history, federalism seemed to be the answer to healing the Continent's wounds.
In 1941, a group of Italian political prisoners drafted a secret document proposing a solution for Europe's perpetual state of war and political violence. The document, called the "Ventotene Manifesto" after the island on which it was written, argued that only the creation of a federal Europe would bring an end to the massacres that kept erupting across the Continent. During the next decade, the Ventotene Manifesto and the European Federalist Movement that it inspired gave rise to plans for the European Communities, an idea that seemed promising at the time. Professional politicians and clashing nationalist sentiments had led Europe to death and destruction. By contrast, turning power over to technocrats who could administer the Continent free of the dictates of their own national interests would keep those problems from recurring. In other words, if nationalism was a poison, federalism (or supranationalism) was the antidote.
Ironically, Europe's current political crisis follows the same debate that dominated the 1940s and 1950s, only in reverse. After six decades of Continental integration, federalism has become the problem, and the nation-state its solution. This does not necessarily mean adopting nationalist policies and their xenophobic variants — though some parties have gained ground doing just that — but restoring the prerogatives that individual states should not have lost in the first place. One of the pro-Brexit camp's main arguments during the referendum campaign was that the British Parliament had ceded too much authority to unelected officials in Brussels. As a result, they contended, irrational EU regulations were undermining British businesses. Some Brexit supporters have reasoned that American voters would probably not tolerate the U.S. Supreme Court subordinating its decisions to the rulings of a foreign court, as EU member states do.
One could argue that the United Kingdom does not represent the European Union, and, to a certain extent, this is true. After all, Britain is an island, and maintaining some distance from the Continent is a key part of its national strategy. London has been skeptical of the European project from its inception, interested more in the bloc's common market than in any federal aspirations. Nonetheless, surveys show that Euroskepticism is the new normal in most EU member countries. A recent study by the Pew Research Center showed that the European Union was viewed favorably by only 51 percent of the people surveyed. In the 10 EU countries selected for the survey, a median 42 percent of people want more power returned to their governments, while only 19 percent advocate giving Brussels more authority. Support for the European Union is particularly low in Greece — not surprising given the country's financial crisis — but it is also low in France and Spain, which play a bigger role in managing the bloc.
At the core of the arguments for and against a federalist Europe lies the issue of identity. Most countries have a national identity, or at least certain elements that unite its people and hold the state together. In some cases, the common sense of belonging is hard-won. It took a civil war to fully unite the United States, and Italy went to war multiple times between the 1860s and the 1940s in hopes that a national experience would forge a national identity. But Europe's manifold competing — and often conflicting — national identities have precluded a single Continental one. It is hard to imagine many EU citizens going to war to defend the European Union.
This explains why, despite its many positive attributes, the European Union is losing the battle for its citizens' hearts and minds. Undoubtedly, the bloc is a remarkable achievement. Six decades ago, the Continent was at war, and three decades later, it was divided by the Iron Curtain and haunted by the threat of nuclear war. Today, one can rent a car in Portugal and drive all the way to Estonia without facing any border controls. EU citizens can study, work and retire anywhere they want in the Continent. Even so, increasing numbers of voters see the European Union as an alien, or even hostile, institution. For EU leaders, this has made for a constant struggle to balance national sovereignty with continental accord. The European Union is at once too centralized and not centralized enough, and this middle ground is becoming increasingly untenable.
The British referendum, just one of many symptoms of Europe's fragmentation, has likely put the federalist thesis to rest for the time being. In the early stages of the EU crisis, the political debate revolved around deepening integration to save the bloc. That strategy has apparently failed, and the focus will shift to slowly dismantling some aspects of the European Union in order to keep it alive.