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Eutopianism and the Future of the European Union

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Written by Philip Cunliffe

In much media coverage of Brexit Britain is cast as perfidious and deluded, and the EU as moderate and pragmatic.  Britain’s post-Brexit future is seen as dim.  But a realistic analysis would look first at the EU, and how its irrational and obsolete ‘Eutopianism’ is threatened by the new challenges of the contemporary world.  The real question is how long Eutopianism can survive in the absence of democratic legitimacy.

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Much of the public debate over Brexit has – perhaps understandably – focused on Britain’s fortunes now that we have left the EU, and what we might face once the transitional period has come to an end. Will there be a deal between Brussels and London? How will we conduct our diplomacy? How will we trade and relate to the rest of the world? Will we succumb to autarky and isolation, or can we improve on our connections with the outside world? The notion of sovereign autonomy has frequently been derided as a mirage in a world of highly interdependent economies. In much of the financial press and liberal media, scepticism over Britain’s future is rampant. This is evident in much of the British coverage of negotiations with the EU, in which the EU is always cast as moderate, restrained, reasonable and pragmatic, while Britain is frequently cast as perfidious, irrational, unrestrained and undependable.

Given how frequently this picture is skewed, it is worth looking at events through the other end of the telescope. Instead of thinking about Britain’s future outside the EU, we should also reflect on Brexit by considering the future of the EU. How will this Cold War artefact of the twentieth century, boosted into supranationalism in the flush of optimism following the end of the Cold War, adapt to the world of the twenty-first century, with its new geopolitical rivalries? Doubtless there is much idealism, hope and perhaps even naivety in Britain over the challenges of a post-Brexit future. If this is true of Britain, it would be fair to say that it is at least if not more true of the EU. Idealism, naivety and magical thinking occludes rational and sober discussion of the EU and especially of the Eurozone at least as much as Brexit. In my recent book on the crisis of liberal international order, I call this particularly virulent strain of magical thinking that attaches itself to the EU ‘Eutopianism.’ Eutopian thinking is far more important to sustaining the EU than any ideology – libertarian or nationalist – is to Brexit. Without the Eutopian belief in a harmonious future in which the interests of all the EU’s member-states magically converge, the EU is a paltry and ramshackle thing. How else can we explain the belief in a monetary union without fiscal union, without recourse to magical thinking?

Consider how Eutopian thinking beguiles its believers. Eutopians will insist that Brexit means autarky, poverty, isolation and insular imprisonment, at the same time as they commit to a view of supranationalism that is itself an afterglow of the era of liberal globalisation that is rapidly receding into history, and whose passing will be accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. To cling to this 1990s vision of economic globalisation that necessitates a superstructure of post-national politics is to cling to a fantasy. Or consider the contrast in political vision. Eutopians have frequently derided Brexit as an empty process, absent of political goals and substantive vision, puffed up with the vain conceits of ‘Global Britain’. Yet the same question can be turned on the EU – what is its end-point, its telos? Securing political sovereignty and seeking autonomy through Brexit is precisely that – seeking the possibility of an open-ended process of national self-government that grants us the capacity to make and remake our political and social life as we choose, rather than having it suspended in ossified supranational structures. By contrast the EU is, by its nature, a post-sovereign political system – it cannot claim a future of political autonomy for itself because there is no single actor at its core to claim it, and it is in any case based on rejecting sovereignty.

Although it continues to exercise many Brexiters, the truth is that EU federalism is a spent force, and in its place there is little more than a series of inter-governmental bargains propped up by Eutopian illusion. If ever there was a time to propel the EU towards fiscal and political unity to complement monetary union, by rights it should have been the financial crisis that has roiled the EU since 2015. The fact that no such vision materialised and the EU plumped for a punishing regime of austerity instead, exposes the delusional character of Eutopianism. Yet despite the evidence to the contrary, Eutopians continue to believe that the EU will eventually pull itself out of the swamp by its own hair, like the fairytale Baron Munchausen. The froth over the EU’s so-called ‘Hamiltonian moment’, the agreement for partial mutualisation of the EU’s debt earlier this year (supposedly analogous to the nationalisation of the US debt under Alexander Hamilton in 1791), exposes further the emptiness of Eutopian hopes: invoking Alexander Hamilton in the battered Eurozone of 2020 is to flee a troubled present by seeking refuge in an imagined, providential future.

At the core of Eutopian hopes is the belief in a liberal harmony of interests – the view that political disagreement and competition over power is temporary friction that can be overcome through greater institutionalised cooperation. From this imagined vantage point, we are always transitioning to a deferred future in which all national interests ultimately align and intertwine. Yet the closer we get to the Eutopian horizon, the further it recedes in the distance. If Brexit is based on idealism, it is an idealism rooted in democratic majoritarianism. By contrast Eutopianism thrives in the absence of democracy. The fragile harmony of interests that European leaders have constructed in the form of the EU is essentially a network of inter-elite agreement; it only lasts as long as mass democracy is kept at bay. Doubtless Brexit Britain will be sorely tested in years to come. But when considering the future of Brexit Britain and the future of the EU, the right question to ask is, how long can Eutopianism survive in the absence of democratic legitimacy?


Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent. He is author most recently of The New Twenty Years’ Crisis 1999-2019: A critique of contemporary international relations (McGill-Queens University Press, 2020).

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Philip Cunliffe