The results from the first round of France's presidential election are likely to be over-interpreted as a reprieve for the European Union. The pro-Europe candidate Emmanuel Macron won nearly one-fourth of the vote, with the anti-EU Marine Le Pen nipping at his heels. Macron is now the favorite to beat the far-right Le Pen in the run-off, as establishment political actors and institutions are sure to coalesce around the banker and ex-socialist to topple Le Pen and rebuff her promises of a Frexit.
And so, the increasingly internationalist political class breathes a sigh of relief. Finally, after populist uprisings in Britain and America, the great political project of our time has been vindicated.
I will concede that the ugliness, distemper, and pure blinding amateurism of nationalist and euroskeptic movements can be alarming. But for all of that, they are right. The European Union has to die. And the sooner it goes away, the better for everyone.
Europe's post-war peace has been guaranteed by the hegemony of the last World War's winners, not the institutions of the European Union itself. And at this point, EU institutions are obviously the cause of enflamed nationalism, not the remedy for it.
Nationalism is a persistent feature in the political landscape, but it usually lies dormant. Nationalist political movements come to life in the presence of an irritant or an achievable ambition. The European Union acts as a major irritant to nationalism in two ways.
Number one: A multinational governing project is bound to override the wishes of individual nations, especially less powerful ones. The post-financial-crisis governance of the European Union revealed that the government in Brussels had not dissolved realpolitik. If the choice was between the interests of German bondholders and Greek or Irish debtors, the dispute would always be resolved in favor of Germany. Elect a recalcitrant and rebellious government in Athens if you like; it doesn't matter. The real bosses are in Brussels.
The European Union's structure, in which most decisions are made by the European Commission, is undemocratic. The commission is not elected, and sometimes the leaders selected to it, like England's Neil Kinnock, are politicians who have just lost an election. Similarly, Poland's Donald Tusk ascended to be president of the European Council just before Poland tossed his Civic Platform party out of government at home.
The European project irritates and insults the democratic aspirations of individual nations in other ways, too. Making individual nation states vote repeatedly until they give the "correct" answer on an EU treaty is an obvious instance. But there are others. To protect itself, the pro-EU political class absconds major issues into its "opinion corridor" or "consensus." It simply forbids democratic sentiment to impinge on the freer movement of people into and through the EU.
The second way that the EU enflames nationalism is more subtle. The EU creates the conditions whereby nationalist movements can free-ride on the structures created by multinationalism. By providing the semblance of a defense policy, along with a battery of trade policies and its own central bank, the EU makes it easier for secessionist movements to imagine a future for themselves. Catalan, Flemish, and Scottish nationalists would have a much harder time convincing their regions of the feasibility of a breakaway if America wasn't providing for Europe's security at the continental level, and the EU wasn't making the monetary policy decisions anyway.
We should ask if these assertions of nationalist identity don't trigger others. Is it not a coincidence that a defiantly English-led Brexit won so quickly after a referendum on a Scottish exit from the United Kingdom?
Now that one nation has invoked Article 50, it seems likelier that another one, somewhere in the heart of the continent, will do the same. It may not be France this time. But it could be Italy, or Spain, in the future. Whenever an economic cycle goes into bust and the costs are concentrated in one nation, the reluctance of Germany or other high-performing nations to bail it out will bring euroskepticism to a boil again. Even those who are celebrating Macron's likely victory are doing so only because he blocks Le Pen. Nobody seems to have faith that he can resolve the social tensions in France, or make the economy work as well for those on the "peripherique" in France.
Dismantling the EU will have major economic costs. Unwinding a bad investment is always painful. But it will not cost Europeans everything that they like about the present. The "Europe of Nations" that Marine Le Pen dreams of can still be a Europe with liberal travel arrangements. The Erasmus program that is so beloved manages to reach beyond the strict limits of the European Union as well. The growth in social tolerance and liberality in Europe is a pan-Western phenomenon, led by the culture of the United States.
Prolonging the EU's life would require greater and greater interventions against the democratic publics in larger and more central nations of the union. A peaceful dissolution soon is better than the conflict that these EU-preserving interventions would call forth.