Who can punish a country? Who would try?

Relations among countries are different from relations among individuals in several ways. A country is a great deal more complex, more dynamic, more resilient, and less predictable than any individual. That has implications for those who see foreign policy as an appropriate venue for moralistic cruelty.  Methods that might reliably break the will of an individual and reduce that individual to an object lesson to deter others from following their example might not be at all predictable in their effect when applied in the international sphere.

This may seem obvious, but has apparently escaped the notice of the political leaders of the continent of Europe. Two recent pieces, from Matthew Lynn in The Spectator and from Clive Crook on Bloomberg, make this point quite effectively.

Mr Lynn argues that, as time goes by without any progress towards a deal between Britain and the remainder of the European Union to reduce the economic costs of Britain’s exit from the Union, an ever-increasing number of economic actors assume that there will be no such deal and prepare for the worst-case. If in 2019 that worst-case comes to pass, virtually all of the costs will have been baked into the markets. While the costs will be considerable and may trigger a steep recession, most of them will be one-time costs. Therefore, that steep recession may well be followed by a steep recovery.

It is a near-certainty that at least some of the remaining members of the EU will be in recession while Britain is undergoing its post-Brexit recovery. If there is a strong anti-EU movement in any such country, Britain will indeed be a potent example to encourage that movement. That encouragement will be potent even if Britain’s post-Brexit recovery peters out before returning the country to its pre-Brexit levels of prosperity. The more flagrantly unco-operative the rest of the EU has been with Britain during this period, the deadlier any sign of life in the British economy after 2019 will be to advocates of ever-closer Union.

Mr Crook, an opponent of Leave in last year’s referendum, says that the very difficulty of the exit process is causing him to rethink his position. Mr Crook writes:

The difficulty of disentangling EU law from U.K. law, and putting the U.K.’s international commitments back on a sovereign-country basis, is becoming all too clear. The threat of enormous disruption is real. Yet the scale and complexity of this task also show how deeply and broadly the EU has penetrated British governance. Few would argue that Europe’s system of democratic accountability has developed to a commensurate degree. So the harder it is to exit, the more glaring the union’s “democratic deficit” seems.

For many British commentators, in fact, the coming disruption means this was never a matter of weighing long-term pros and cons of EU membership: There was no real choice, in their view, except to remain. But that draws attention to another problem. The irrevocability of EU membership was not previously advertised. Until recently, Article 50 in the European treaties was supposed to affirm that participation in the project was voluntary, contingent and subject to popular consent. Now it’s portrayed by Remainers as a kind of suicide clause.

Remember that the European Union is a work in progress. “Ever closer union” remains a guiding principle, and, with the creation of the euro, deeper integration has become a practical necessity as well. It’s happening — haltingly, messily, and leading in the end who knows where. But if quitting the EU now is hard, how much harder will it be in ten years, or 20? And by then, what kind of union will the EU be?

Thus, on the one hand, the costs of Brexit in 2019 will be high; on the other, it might be now or never.

The current stalemate, in addition, has arisen partly by EU design — which undercuts Remainers in another way. Europe’s chief negotiator has a mandate to achieve “sufficient progress” on the exit payment, the status of EU citizens in the U.K., and the Northern Irish border before moving to discuss the future relationship. This makes a deal much harder to strike. Complex talks succeed through bargains made in parallel across the full range of issues in contention — not in rigid sequence, with the hardest questions up front.

Presumably this staging was deliberate: It’s taken for granted that the EU wants to punish the U.K. for deciding to quit, partly to teach other restless members to behave, and partly because Britain just has it coming. I see the reason in such thinking — but it doesn’t advance the EU’s larger purpose of a closer union based on popular consent. You can strengthen obedience by making examples and threatening reprisals, but you don’t build loyalty that way, and loyalty is what the EU most sorely lacks.

In closing, Mr Crook asks if the rest of the EU truly thinks that it would be better off with a “beaten and resentful enemy” than with a “prosperous friend, trading partner, and military ally just off its coast.”

Considering the EU’s behavior in, to take only two examples, Italy in November 2011 and in Greece in the summer of 2015, I’d say it is rather clear that the EU is led by people for whom popular legitimacy is not a first-order practical concern. So a country in which the majority of the general public sees itself as a “beaten and resentful enemy” of the EU might not be a problem for the people who set EU policy, so long as that majority is incapable of translating its resentment into action that might impose costs on the interests the EU serves.

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