Kiran K. Patel

 

On his book Project Europe: A History

Cover Interview of April 14, 2021

A close-up

By studying the history of the European Union, the book argues that the current crises are not as unique as we might think. Even Brexit is not as singular and unique as often thought. In fact, Algeria left the EC in 1962, Greenland in 1985. Long before the 2016 referendum in the United Kingdom and Brexit that followed in 2020, European integration turned out to be a potentially reversible process, despite the talk about an ‘ever closer union.’

Admittedly, Greenland and Algeria had not joined the EC as sovereign states, but within the context of European colonialism. Their conditions differed significantly from Brexit or the occasionally discussed Grexit. Still, the processes in which they left the EC holds important lessons for today.

Both cases reveal that leaving the EC or the EU was never easy and that the search for national sovereignty often turned out to be disappointing. Algeria moved from a super-soft to a super-hard and from there to a softer constellation again. For several years in the 1960s, it retained a precarious special status, almost as if it was still part of the EC. Then, its privileged position crumbled, and European protectionism created insurmountable trade barriers with massive negative consequences for Algeria’s economy. From a low point in the 1970s, EU-Algeria relations slowly improved again. In contrast, Greenland’s exit was consistently soft and since then, relations have intensified further. The experience of Algeria and Greenland demonstrates that a new settlement will only be the basis for the next phase, and not the once-and-for-all, clear-cut solution that the exit camp likes to imagine.

Secondly, examining instances of withdrawal from the EU conveys an important message concerning the history of the European Union. Disintegration has always been part of the EU’s political normality; Brexit is not a fundamentally new challenge though many have thought and said that over the past years. Brexit only challenges the standard story about European integration with its logic of ‘ever closer union’, which is a powerful narrative the EU itself has forged and helped to disseminate.