(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., October 18.)
Let’s start with a brief history lesson.
What is now the European Union originated in 1957 as the European Economic Community. It had just six members: France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy.
It began as a customs union and common market, the aim being to promote free trade and economic co-operation. Neutralising the historic enmity between France and Germany was a crucial objective.
The EEC’s founders, eager to avoid a repetition of the horrors of World War Two, theorised that countries that were inter-dependent in terms of trade were less likely to start shooting at each other. And so it turned out.
But the ultimate goal always involved more than trade. From the start, the concept of supranationalism – the creation of a multinational political union with broad powers delegated to it by member states – was central to the EU’s evolution.
Accordingly, the EEC morphed into the European Union in 1993, reflecting the reality that its interests were now political rather than simply economic. That was followed in 2002 by the introduction of a common currency, the euro.
Along the way, membership expanded far beyond those original six countries. The EU now consists of 28 member states (soon to reduce to 27 with Britain's exit) with a far more diverse mix of ethnicities and cultures than was originally envisaged.
And as the EU has expanded, so tensions have emerged – perhaps inevitably, given that many of its member states have little in common, culturally and historically.
The first fault lines were exposed during the global financial crisis, which highlighted disparities between the rich industrial countries of Northern Europe and less resilient member states such as Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Resentment of their subservience to dominant economies such as Germany was a key factor in the emergence of populist nationalist parties in Greece and Italy.
Since then, strains within the EU have been greatly magnified by conflicting attitudes toward the massive tide of refugees and asylum-seekers flooding into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa.
Liberal, affluent Europe, led by a Germany that is still anxious to atone for Nazism, considers it has a humanitarian obligation to provide for the newcomers. But dissenting EU countries such as Hungary and Poland insist on the sovereign right to decide who should cross their borders.
As a result of these tensions, nationalism is again on the rise in Europe. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s understandable. When push comes to shove, these dissenting countries resent being subjected to rules imposed from outside.
All this suggests that the old-fashioned nation-state, forged by its own common history, culture, language and sense of identity, is not easily erased. This is not what the visionaries who founded the EU were hoping for, but it’s hardly the first time grand, idealistic projects have had unintended outcomes.
And then, of course, there’s the British experience, which tells us a lot about the true nature of the EU and the imperious mindset of the Grand Viziers who control it.
The British people voted by a margin of 52 to 48 to leave the EU. Concern about uncontrolled immigration was one factor, but there was also understandable resentment at being subjected to an ever-increasing set of arcane rules and regulations imposed by a remote bureaucracy that was seen as un-representative and unaccountable.
Ah, but the men who run the EU don’t like having their power challenged. They have gone to great lengths to frustrate British attempts to negotiate a fair and honourable exit. It’s obvious that they mean to make an example of Britain by punishing the country for its impertinence.
Their behaviour toward the British prime minister, the beleaguered Theresa May, has been bullying and vindictive. The fact that May personally favoured staying in the EU hasn’t saved her from the taunts of arrogant Eurocrats such as Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, who humiliate her at every opportunity – even to the point of putting mocking pictures on Instagram.
The message to other EU member countries is that they can expect similar treatment should they dare consider leaving. But the more striking message these men send to the watching world is that the protection of Fortress Europe takes priority over the democratic right of the British people to decide their own future.
That surely tells you something about the monster the EU has become, and how its ideals have been corrupted. As the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wryly observed recently: “The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving.”
You have to wonder how many countries would have joined the EU had they realised what it would turn into – a surreal Hotel California where you could check out any time you like but never leave.