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Flying in the face of the global principle of political legitimacy

The primary principle of political legitimacy in the modern world is that those who make laws and give orders should be co-cultural with those who they expect to obey them. This is a principle that underpins every government but one in the modern world. It is the foundation of every democratic society. Indeed, the construction of a democratic polity will only begin after it is known that whoever might emerge as its rulers must be co-cultural with its citizens.

The most visible political apparatus in the modern world that hopes to resist this principle of political legitimacy is the European Union. This may, according to taste, be considered courageous and innovative, or foolhardy, absurd and dangerous, but it has most certainly been attempted with a blithe disregard for the forces that transformed the political structures of the world over the second half of the twentieth century and for those forces which have led to the formation of numerous new states in the twenty-first, and still threatens to either reshape and split many apparently secure and stable polities.

In the second half of the twentieth century this principle triumphed right across the globe, mainly because of the dismantling of colonial empires, followed by the break-up of the Soviet Union, which led to the formation of 15 new countries, and of Yugoslavia, which led to the formation of five countries. All of these new polities were founded on the co-cultural principle, though some of them were further divided when the people themselves had the opportunity to apply the principle, and to decide who exactly they were co-cultural with. Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia, Montenegro and Kosovo from Serbia. Meanwhile, there were numerous other splits elsewhere in the world. Namibia split from South Africa, Eritrea from Ethiopia, Timor-Leste from Indonesia, and South Sudan from Sudan. We may yet see new boundaries based on this principle emerge from the rubble and slaughter in Syria.

Seemingly secure, stable and relatively long-established states such as Canada, China, Spain and the United Kingdom were not immune from the same forces, as aggrieved sections of their populations questioned the legitimacy of their national governments. This was not because of any particular failings of governance on their part, though the aggrieved naturally prepared lists of grievances, but simply because those who made the laws and exercised power over them were not thought, in one way or another, to share their culture to an acceptable degree.

The EU stands firmly against the principle by which the rest of the world lives. They have done so because of a distinctive interpretation of Europe’s history, or at least of that part of Europe to which the founding countries belonged. It is emblazoned on the wall of the visitor centre of the European Parliament.[1]

Everywhere else in the world where the co-cultural principle of political authority has triumphed, it has been supported, to varying degrees, by popular movements. When the European Union asserted its unique principle of political authority, by contrast, there was not the least indication of any kind of popular or mass movement in support of a new supranational construct that would curtail their existing national governments or boundaries. As the principle has been advanced and institutionalized, most indicators or expressions of popular feeling suggest considerable and growing resistance towards the idea.

From the very beginning, this new form of government has been a project of European elites. Many members of these elites are themselves rather trans-national or supranational, equally at ease in meeting other members of the European elite in gatherings in Brussels, other capital cities and in their own country. They may well therefore be tempted to see themselves as the pioneers and exemplars of a brave new pna-European culture. While those who resist it, and insist that their laws be made by their fellow countrymen and women, applied by courts and judges of their own country, must therefore seem to be simply ill-informed, uneducated or misled by irresponsible, populist politicians.

The main question is whether such a unique system of political authority, so at odds with the rest of the world, will continue to work? And in particular, will it continue to work for the UK?

The experience of the rest of the world is unanimous and says it won’t, and no other group of countries is conducting or contemplating such an experiment.


[1] ‘National sovereignty is the root cause of the most crying evils of our times… and of the steady march of humanity back to tragic disaster and barbarism… The only final remedy for this supreme and catastrophic evil of our time is a federal union of the peoples…’

Quoted in the European Parliament Visitor Centre. From: P. Kerr, ‘The Ending of Armageddon’, 11th Marquess of Lothian, British Ambassador to the United States, on the failure of the League of Nations to halt the Second World War, 26 June 1939.

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