At the European Union, then known as the European Community, I was one of the few Americans ever to be a staff member of the European Commission, its executive and regulatory agency.
Earlier, I had been a student at the College of Europe, the post-graduate school that prepares high-ranking EU and national officials. Later, I became a Brussels-based journalist covering the EU.
In those days, the purpose of European unification was clear. Having launched two world wars, Europe decided to link the economies of its countries so closely that they would be unable to launch a new conflict. France and Germany were the principal drivers.
The U.S., having participated heavily in both world wars, had a major stake in the success of the European effort. Not only could another devastating war be avoided, but also it would have a new and powerful ally. So there was no conflict of interest if an American helped the Europeans work together.
Beyond practical efforts, both the College and the Community sought to create a European consciousness. New leaders would see themselves as much as “Europeans” as French or German or Italian.
In the early days, the “European idea” began to take shape just as its founders had hoped, though somewhat more slowly. The major European power not included was the United Kingdom, and it wanted to join.
As a reporter, I sat across a pub table from Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister, who had come to Brussels to seek membership. But France’s President Charles de Gaulle saw Britain as America’s ally, not really European. He made sure Britain was not admitted. After he departed, the UK joined.
Even at its best, Europe would be a confederation of strong nations not a federal system like the U.S. Instead of requiring new members to accept its existing “constitution,” as in the U.S., the EU kept renegotiating its deal.
The EU created a single market in which goods and services could flow freely across national borders without limits. As had happened in the U.S. from the outset, workers could cross borders to find jobs. Not surprisingly, workers from poor areas have been moving to relatively rich countries.
The only American parallel was the “Great Migration” when millions of African-Americans moved from the South to northern and western cities, a movement of people allowed by the Constitution.
The European Commission has issued a myriad of detailed rules governing all aspects of the economies of member states. They are meant to assure fair competition and a level playing field.
But the Commission goes quite far both in scope and detail. To take a relatively minor example, it requires all countries to use daylight savings time. That’s not done in the U.S. where even now two states skip the hour change.
The problem for some in the U.K., where elections can change national policies, is that the Commission is appointed, not elected. The European Parliament has little real power. The Council, where each country is represented, sets major policy, often by unanimous vote.
The result is that the Commission system is technocratic more than democratic. So long as the 28 member countries retain power, this is the almost inevitable result. In short, the countries can make a new Europe, but their creation raises new concerns.
One way of dealing with differing views is to allow different levels of involvement. While most of Europe adopted the euro as its currency, Britain kept the pound. Many countries allow passport-free travel among themselves, but not Britain.
So Brexit happened. Older Brits dislike the influx of Polish and Rumanian workers and the loss of control by the elected U.K. Parliament. Brexit voters counted the cash and found the U.K. paid more than it got. Unlike the U.S., where the Civil War answered the question negatively, European countries can quit the EU.
Brexit, and right-wing EU opposition elsewhere, could reopen the entire European question. The ideal Europe, about which I studied and which made for me good friends across Europe, may work only for some countries, especially those present at the creation.
Driven by younger people whose adult consciousness has always included the EU, the core group could move ahead, possibly by adopting more democratic mechanisms.
Britain probably has the choice of being in an outer circle or seeking even closer ties with the U.S. and Canada, which offer a European-sized market but share its opposition to the kind of independent power exercised by the Commission.
The Brexit crisis makes the U.S. more than a spectator. It must care about the outcome.