The Price of Disunion

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For Dalibor Rohac, the debate over the European Union—and, more precisely, the United Kingdom's membership in it—is not an abstraction. A Slovak born at the tail end of the Cold War, he experienced his country (Czechoslovakia) liberating itself from the yoke of Soviet tyranny. Like many Central and Eastern Europeans of his generation, he grew up to be a free market enthusiast and admirer of Margaret Thatcher, beloved not only for her economic philosophy but also her uncompromisingly moral stand against communism.

Earning a graduate degree in Britain and progressing through fellowships at libertarian-leaning think tanks, he "internalized the canonical criticisms of the European project" that one regularly encounters in such milieus; namely, that the European Union is a hopelessly corrupt and inefficient institution managed by high-handed bureaucrats whose goal is nothing less than eliminating the nation-state.

Over time, however, Rohac came to appreciate the benefits, if not all the intrusive trappings, of the European Union. Towards an Imperfect Union: A Conservative Case for the EU is his succinct and compelling argument for European integration and unity at a moment of severe distress and challenge. Published on the eve of the referendum on Britain's relationship to the EU, this book could not have been released at a more critical time.

In important ways, Rohac's personal journey resembles that of Radek Sikorski, the Oxford-educated former Polish foreign minister who, prior to his government service, worked at the American Enterprise Institute, where Rohac is now based. Delivering a speech before a friendly British audience in 2012, Sikorski enumerated how he could "tick every box required to be a life-long member of London's most powerful Euroskeptics' club," from his fierce anticommunism (and resultant suspicion of ideologies insisting upon the sacrifice of national sovereignty to supranational governance structures) to his cabinet position in a government that "won plaudits for its financial rectitude." Yet coming of age in the part of Europe that endured communism convinced Sikorski of both the "logic and justice" of the EU. Complaining about the body's (albeit many) quotidian annoyances—as British Euroskeptics are wont to do—is simply not a luxury these Europeans can afford.

For many politically conservative Europe-watchers (this author included), a definitive moment in shaping attitudes towards the EU was Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine. The West was taken completely by surprise, and its lackluster response to Moscow's ongoing subversion by way of disinformation, pipeline politics, and old-fashioned Soviet-style "active measures" has revealed its dangerous divisions. Preserving freedom in Europe against an aggressively revanchist and revisionist Moscow will require greater solidarity on the part of the EU's 28 member-states.

One clearly gets the sense that Russia's belligerence in its old stomping grounds sent a shiver up Rohac's spine, but his defense of the EU is much deeper than a mere ad hoc response to Moscow's latest antics. An economist by training, Rohac is ultimately convinced by (and convinces us of) the EU's pecuniary benefits, enumerated in three realms.

It secures the functioning of the European single market, restrains protectionist and authoritarian impulses of politicians, and provides a platform for peaceful collaboration between European states.

By sustaining a free-trade area and promulgating regulations that promote competition, the EU restrains national politicians' worst impulses. The much-reviled European Commission in Brussels acts against economic distortions and protectionism; without it, Rohac writes, "national policymakers would be more often tempted to tighten the screws of economic regulation to protect their domestic industries than to deregulate." In essence, the European Union is an economically liberal (in the European sense) project, which is why the far left (like British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose support for the "Remain" campaign is perfunctory at best) has always been suspicious of it, rightly seeing the EU as hostile to economic nationalism and protectionism.

Though it may not be readily apparent to Western Europeans, who have enjoyed democracy, peace, and open trade longer than their Eastern neighbors, the EU's high democratic standards and economic vitality—which, while anemic since the 2008 crash, nonetheless remains attractive—jointly act as a "commitment device," enticing aspirant states to get their political and economic houses in order. Coming from a country that lived through a quasi-authoritarian rough patch between independence and EU membership, Rohac knows whereof he speaks when he praises the body's alluringly liberalizing effect.

What makes this volume a "conservative case" is that, in the grand sweep of European history, the past 70 years of steady integration have been the most peaceful and productive. This is not, Rohac argues, a coincidence, and those Euroskeptics who believe that not merely halting but reversing the integrationist trend would produce even better outcomes are falling for a "nirvana fallacy." That's usually a criticism directed at starry-eyed leftists, but here it fits: For far from being "conservative," undoing the EU would be fundamentally radical, as it is "difficult to think of any more ambitious, larger-scale alteration of the existing political order in Europe than that of discarding the project of European integration altogether."

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