Interview with a Skeptical Europhile: Ronald Granieri on Brexit and the Future of the EU

The European Union’s slow-motion crisis is starting to pick up speed. The flow of migrants, both from war-torn countries on Europe’s periphery and from poorer EU countries to wealthier ones, is causing bickering over borders in an alliance where borders were supposed to vanish. Thomas Piketty and others have suggested a separate parliament for eurozone countries only. The United Kingdom will hold a referendum in June that could lead to “Brexit” ­– the first case of a country actually leaving the EU. We spoke to Dr. Ronald Granieri, Director of Research and Lecturer in International Studies at the Lauder Institute, for his insights on what’s next.

You said that the EU is a great historical accomplishment but no one will admit that they like it. Do you consider yourself a europhile?

I do. Although commentators suggest people are either simply europhiles and euroskeptics, I think of myself as a skeptical europhile. A lot of people who consider themselves europhiles don’t want to admit when things aren’t working because they are afraid that plays into the hands of the skeptics. I think you can admit where the European Union is not working terribly well but still believe that it’s a good idea and that it should work.

The whole idea of European integration is to make sure Europe stays globally relevant. I think that’s a worthy goal in an ethical and idealistic way, but it’s also very practical. You have huge continental states like the United States, like China, even big potential superpowers like Brazil or India. The idea that any single European state by itself could play a comparably large global role is unrealistic. Europe needs to find a way to come together. Just because it’s not working doesn’t mean it can’t work. It certainly doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t work.

How do opinions in the EU vary across the business world?

Depending on what branch of the economy that you’re in, there are real advantages to European integration. The financial industry is pretty pro-European and pretty pro-EU, even though nobody’s going out on a limb to say that. If you’re in a business that’s involved in transnational trade, the EU makes a lot of sense. A lot of opposition comes from industries that are not necessarily transnational – local producers who are afraid that ease of trade means that goods can come from other places, workers who fear that once local jobs leave nothing will replace them. Opponents of the EU are often critics of globalization as a whole, and that crosses ideological lines: There are a lot of right-wing nationalists who are anti-EU, but also people on the far left who are concerned about globalization.

If you’re preparing for a business career, how should you be thinking about a potential unraveling of the EU?

I don’t think that the European Union is going to completely go away, even if Britain leaves. Something this big doesn’t collapse all at once. But that’s not an argument for complacency. In fact, complacency led us to this crisis. For a long time, because Europe looked like a boring, self-satisfied, slow-motion process, people just took it for granted that it would keep on going, that there would be ease of movement within the EU. The challenge for students at the Lauder Institute, and for people who want to imagine themselves as being thought leaders in the future: They have to realize that political and economic orders don’t descend from the heavens and run on autopilot. Those orders have to be created by people and maintained by people. If businesspeople think it would be better for Europe to be united, they need to say that – and to be willing to put their money where their mouth is.

Last thing: Would you bet that Britain will leave the EU?

Up until Boris Johnson came out in favor of Brexit, my feeling was this was probably going to be a close vote ­– 51/49, 52/48 – in favor of staying in, because people would shrink back from the unknown. I think it is very much on the razor’s edge right now if you are going to have popular, telegenic people like Boris Johnson – and Michael Caine! – come out in favor of Brexit.

This is where David Cameron needs to step up. The British political elites who felt like they needed to hold Great Britain together when Scotland was thinking of seceding were willing to put aside their political differences to argue that people were “better together.” Saving the EU is going to take a similarly positive message. The British, and also their European friends, are going to have to articulate why Europe is a good idea. We can’t just assume that the laws of gravity are going to mean that there’s always going to be an integrated Europe. It’s going to have to be something that people create, something that people are willing to fight for.