Bill Jamieson’s finely honed critique of President Barack Obama’s intervention in the Brexit debate in ScotBuzz last week contained a delicious double irony. It is also a fatal flaw in the case for quitting the EU.
He observed, quite rightly, that neither the USA, nor its neighbours Canada and Mexico, would dream of foregoing their sovereignty in order to build an EU-type union embracing the whole of North America and much of Central America.
So President Obama’s advice to Britons to stick with their, according to out-ers, severely impaired sovereignty and embrace the EU rather than voting to leave and reclaim the kind of sovereignty the US enjoys makes no sense, to put it politely.
The first irony is that the United States of America is exactly the model that the most zealous of European superpower builders have in mind for their dream of a United States of Europe.
Free movement of people, goods, capital, and services which are all vital to the creation of the most successful economy the planet has seen, a liberal democracy, a single currency which has become the world’s principle currency – all this and much more are in the minds of European idealists.
I recall a joke with a serious edge that was used in the debate about whether the EU should have a single currency or not.
Americans would ask if there was anything they could do to help Europe’s economy grow faster relative to the rest of the world.
The jokey European response was that the US could abandon the dollar and allow the 50 states their own currencies.
This leads on to the second irony – that the USA, far from being the perfect example justifying the retention of national sovereignty, is in fact the product of, and an exemplary argument for, the abandonment of sovereignty.
The American revolution was won in 1776 by the original 13 colonies, each one of which promptly declared themselves to be “free and independent” not just of their British colonial rulers but also of each other.
They united, not in a new American nation, but in much looser confederation, the articles of which declared that “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence” in a “firm league of friendship with each other”.
That sovereignty, and the difficulties of persuading the “free and independent” people of those states to give up their new-found sovereignty in favour of a federal constitution, is why it took 13 years to agree, in 1789, the American constitution.
I note this only to make a conceptual point, and certainly not to advance a manifesto for further European Union or indeed to advocate an American-style United States of Europe.
The concept is only this – that economic and political unions can work and indeed the example of the USA suggests that they can work extremely well for their citizens.
But to try and reproduce the American constitution in Europe would be a terrible mistake.
The historical and cultural circumstances are entirely different. Federation nearly didn’t work in America – the civil war of 1861-65 was because seven states tried to go back to the 1776-89 confederacy to maintain their right to keep slavery.
And there remains a deep suspicion amongst many Americans of the federal government, just as there is here in Britain of EU institutions.
So would it make sense for California or any of the other 49 states to secede from the American union? The question is, of course, too ridiculous to need an answer.
But that’s the logic of the out-ers – Britain and all the other EU member states would all be better off if the EU was dismantled. The assertion is absurd and America shows why.
Peter Jones is a freelance journalist based in Edinburgh and writing mainly for The Economist and The Times. firstname.lastname@example.org