There is a huge misunderstanding around the referendum on Brexit, and it is that with the UK leaving the European Union we will go back to the nation-state — or, as brexiteers put it, that ‘we will take our country back’. The fact is that there is no ‘back’ in the nation-state. Most European countries have not been nation-states for centuries, expect for very brief periods. They were either empires, or parts thereof. The states that were heads of empires, such as Great-Britain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands, had easy access to raw materials, a captive market in their colonies, and an outsized global influence because of their metropolitan status. The European project was the remedy they found to alleviate their post-imperial decline; and quite an obvious one too. When they could, none of these countries spent much time outside in the world from losing an empire to acceding the EU or its antecessors. My country, Portugal, lost its colonies in 1975; by the following year we were asking to enter the Council of Europe, the year after that we asked to be accepted by the European Economic Community. That the UK was trying to enter the EEC half a decade after the Suez crisis is not mere chance; that de Gaulle vetoed UK’s accession goes to show that he wanted to keep for France the comparative post-imperial advantage of access to a then-common European market.

The exceptions to this rule, such as Spain, Germany and Austria (i.e., countries that lost their empires long before there was an European project) have had telling trajectories that include civil war, being cut to size, losing itself in revanchist dreams, terrible dictatorships and widespread state-sponsored murder. If one adds Russia and Turkey to that list one can see that the post-imperial hangover can be quite lasting. As for the countries that were parts of empires in Eastern Europe, well… they didn’t have much sovereignty until they acceded the EU, did they? Contrary to common perception, EU-accession was and is the main way for countries like Lithuania, Slovenia and even Hungary to secure their status as independente nation states.

The truth is that the EU is not inimical to the nation-state. For some of the European nation-states, actually, the EU has been the only respite from being dominated, invaded and unrecognised for a century after WWI. For Europe’s historically oldest and most fortunate independent countries, however, the European project has also been the greatest boon immaginable in an era characterised by the emergence of the rest of the world’s societies and economies in post-colonial states that quite often much outsize in population and potential even the biggest European countries. The EU is an inescapable market of 500 million consumers and a club of 28 of some of the most advanced democracies in the world which has secured continued relevance for European countries at a global scale. Four EU countries, and the EU itself, sit at the table at G8 summits. In fact, the UK is now represented twice at these summits, but after leaving the EU and its economy taking a hit or Scotland leaving, the UK will risk not being represented at the G8 either directly or indirectly. Surely, at the UN’s Security Council the UK would keep its permanent seat — at least until UN reform — but it would be overcome in influence by a France that would, per the EU treaties, also represent the rest of the EU as whole among owners of a veto at UN level.

In any case, national sovereignty matters little if individual sovereignty or citizenship is not respected. In this respect the EU is very much at the forefront of what one can do with the Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Treaties and the EU Charter. Where else in the world, for example, could a single Austrian young man by the name of Max Schrems defeat Facebook in a court ruling of the EU Court of Justice? And even if this could be achieved at national level, would an affected multinational comply? Not if they can ignore the country and its market, as the case of Google News against Spain shows. Remember: even the biggest national markets in Europe are smaller by comparison with the rest of the world in which these multinationals operate. Only by the combined force of its 500-million strong market can the EU impose standards and enforce rulings against companies that are more powerful than many states. I know it does not feel that way most of the time, but if you don’t believe that in the fight between an individual’s right and a multinational corporation the EU fares much better than the rest of the world, go ask a peasant in Peru or a gun-violence victim in the NRA-dominated USA.

But isn’t the EU out of touch and too technocratic? Wouldn’t it need a big democratic overhaul in order to be up to the standards that we as 21st-century citizens demand? And isn’t it — so we’ve been told — irreformable? Yes, yes — and no.

I’ve been five years in the European Parliament, from 2009 to 2014. I’ve seen the EP gain the power to squash international agreements — and use it: against EU-US agreements on gro\unds of data protection, for instance, and against Morocco because of the rights of occupied Western Sahara. I do not know of many national parliaments that would dare overrule their governments, which in many cases have locked-in parliamentary majorities, in cases of international agreements. Today the EP is our best chance that the Transtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership either adheres to good environmental, labour, and consumer-protected standards or gets rejected outright by MEPs. I’ve seen it happen, and I do not doubt that it can happen again.

During those five years I also saw the Presidente of the European Commission go from being chosen behind closed doors to being indirectly elected in a procedure that is akin to US-style primaries. Although far from perfect, this procedure means that in 2019 we can boot Jean-Claude Juncker from the EU’s top job by not voting in parties that belong to his European People’s Party. And it goes to show that — again, although far from being a full democracy as it should — the EU is indeed capable of being reformed in a way that compares quite well to the immovability of most of our national systems (think the UK and the House of Lords).

And even on austerity, the subject that has been closest to my heart, being a national — and a quite patriotic one — of a country that has suffered the indignities of the Troika and is still appalled at the wrong-headedness of the European response to the euro-zone crisis, I think it is completely bereft of objectivity to say that this response did not change over time. Consider the differences between the European Central Bank during the Jean-Claude Trichet rule and with Mario “whatever it takes” Draghi, or the times that the hardline of German ordoliberalism lost in both the ECB board and the EU Court of Justice, or the possibility that Spain will soon join its voice to the anti-austerians in Portugal’s and Greece’s governments, and you have some reason to hope. And in the case you think I am being to optimistic, please refer back to the historical record: just think how many trials-and-errors it took for the US to overcome the Great Depression of how many decades (and a Civil War) it took for the dollar-area to consolidate itself in the USA, and maybe you’ll see that in the most severe crisis of the last 80 years the EU did fare terribly, but that there is a learning curve that can be followed.

So, all in all, let’s dispel some of the biggest myths around this referendum. The country that nostalgic brexiteers want to take back was an Imperial Metropolis whose colonial privileges are not on offer anymore. The EU has been a solution for the European nation-states, and not their undoing. And, in any case, we can change — via political pressure and both national and EU elections — what the EU gets wrong.

Why the UK — that has grown 69% since the beginning of the single market and does not have to worry about the euro — would choose to leave the EU and enjoy its post-colonial hangover in solitude is beyond the reasonableness of any outside observer with the obvious exception of Mr. Putin. Because — to praraphrase Winston Churchill’s own paraphrase of an anonymous wit about democracy — the EU is indeed the worst solution to Europe’s problems, — apart from all the others that have been tried from time to time. We will miss it if we break it.

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