The European Parliament hemicycle (debating chamber) in Strasbourg.
Photograph: David Liff, Wikimedia Commons

Last year’s Brexit vote presented enormous opportunities for nation-sate democracy. A return of decision-making to elected MPs in Westminster—often called the mother of parliaments—is indeed an exciting prospect to any who feel Brussels suffers from a democratic deficit.  As the post-Brexit vote era unfolds, however, it has become clear that equally important opportunities are presenting themselves to proponents of European integration.

In particular, there is growing momentum towards pan-EU candidate lists at the next European parliamentary elections, in 2019. After it leaves the EU, the UK also leaves behind its 73 seats in Strasbourg. Rather than bickering over who gets these seats, EU federalists such as Guy Verhofstadt, and even French President Emmanuel Macron believe pan-EU lists serve the joint purposes of keeping the peace and deepening integration. French officials claimed that “[at] a time when the UK is leaving the union, such a reform will also send a message of unity and confidence in the European project”.

More democracy is never a bad thing, especially in the case of opaque organisations such as the EU. However, attempts to engineer pan-EU democratic institutions ignore a key factor preventing them from ever working: there is no European demos.

One essential ingredient for functioning democracies is that majorities rule and minorities accept results, within a framework of rights. In most mature democracies, this ingredient is evident. For example, as incensed as some in France may be about the election of Emmanuel Macron (or any past president, for that matter), there is no mass movement for secession by those regions in which he did not receive a majority of votes. French voters have elected him, and all must—and most do—accept his presidency over the next five years.

What is true for France, the United Kingdom, or other mature democracies, is not for the European Union. Greeks will not accept the institutionalization of budgetary oversight desired by most Germans, Dutch, and Finns. Likewise, those same Germans, Dutch and Finns will not accept the transfer union desired by many Greeks, Spaniards, Italians, Portuguese and others. Poles, Slovaks, Czechs and Hungarians will not accept the mandated redistribution of migrants headed for Germany, Sweden or Austria, despite the EU and some national leaders wishing it.

In short, when people occupying a geographic space feel part of a national, ethnic, or linguistic community (a demos), they are more likely to accept democratic decision-making.

Such cohesion has emerged where people feel part of such a community, and has not where they are forced to do so. This may be why questions remain about national unity in so many parts of the world (e.g. Spain, Canada, Somalia). It is also why there can never be a pan-European democracy.

Even the “Fathers of Europe” were not blind to this. Jean Monnet, seen by many as the architect of postwar European integration, said that “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” It was clear to him that integration would never emerge from below, but could only be imposed from above. Accordingly, this is how the successive Brussels-based organisations (from the European Coal and Steel Community to today’s EU) have managed to accumulate further powers.

Lastly, the institutions that govern successful national democracies were not created in a vacuum. Rather, resilient governance structures reflect the culture, history and values of the people abiding by them. This is why Switzerland, Ireland, Finland and others have traditionally been neutral countries, preferring not to engage in warfare beyond their borders. It is also why some, such as Sweden, prefer larger welfare states than others, such as the United States, or more or less military spending. Different value structures, grounded in history and culture engender different democratic institutions. Such shared values do not exist across the dozens of cultural, national, and linguistic groups that share the European continent.

Diversity has always been Europe’s greatest strength, not forced unity. The ability for different peoples to govern themselves differently has bred the innovation that allowed Europe to succeed. It’s what sent Portuguese caravels to far sides of the world; it’s what laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution; and it’s what will ensure a more prosperous, democratic Europe for future generations.

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