With its decision to leave the European Union, the United Kingdom has a rare opportunity to turn away from isolationism and strengthen world trade. The Brexit vote was widely seen as a narrow choice between European collectivism and British nationalism. But a third choice exists for the U.K.: creating an alliance of northern European nations.
A new Northern Union trade and security alliance would include nations that, like the U.K., bristle at the E.U.’s suffocating bureaucracy and its endless demands for cash. Finland, for example, bleeds money to subsidize the E. U.’s spendthrift southern members and Brussels’s never-ending schemes for rescuing the Euro. The nearby Scandinavian countries wonder why they should stay in the E.U. if the U.K. is no longer in the club. In fact, one Scandinavian country already goes it alone: Norway has unrestricted free trade via the European Economic Area (EEA) and maintains its own currency, in high demand worldwide. Iceland followed Norway’s path until beginning negotiations to enter the E.U. in 2010, but the tiny island republic, just emerging from bankruptcy, has wisely broken off negotiations with Brussels. Iceland isn’t averse, however, to forming a security partnership—especially one that offers an alternative to joining a 27-state behemoth. The Dutch, like the Finns, grudgingly pay their ever-rising dues to the E.U. But what if the Dutch could find a way out of the Brussels trap? What if this new way were free of national chauvinism and consistent with a constructive strategy of global outreach?
Even Scotland’s separatist movement would lose much of its escapist appeal if Edinburgh were to join with Dublin, Belfast, Cardiff, and London in a Northern Union. Fresh courage is being felt in Ireland. American firms continue to take root there as they seek to avoid the high taxes back home that put them at a disadvantage against their East Asian competitors. Though Dublin has never been shy about pocketing European funds, Ireland fears that Brussels might wipe out its tax advantages.
Small nations, such as Estonia, along with regions of existing countries, such as Flanders in Belgium, might also find reason to join a Northern Union. How much more hopeful would Flanders be about its future if it could break away from the Belgian federation (and from clueless Wallonia) and join a new economic and security union?
The German state of Hamburg would also be a candidate for membership. Today, Hamburg not only must pay taxes to Brussels; it also dishes out hefty sums to other German states such as Bremen and Saarland to help pay for their wasteful spending. Residents of this city-state at the mouth of the Elbe feel a mixture of anger and despondency. However, if Hamburg were to become the Northern Union’s gateway to Europe, its new position might rekindle the city’s Hanseatic spirit. From 1664 to 1864, Hamburg’s westernmost borough, Altona (population 250,000), served as Denmark’s continental port. If Hamburg joined a Northern Union, the city’s north German neighbor, Schleswig-Holstein, would quickly follow suit. With its Danish minority (plus its highly prized dowry, the Kiel Canal), Schleswig-Holstein would be warmly welcomed.
And no one would accuse Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein’s 4.5 million Germans of heading back into a dark and dangerous past. With independence from Germany, they would be a minority within a larger federation, with no nationalist ambitions. They could pursue their dreams of economic success and prosperity without being shamed or slandered by the nomenklatura who rule in Brussels. Though historical comparisons have their limits, one can’t help but think of the ethnically German Baltic cities of Danzig, Elbing, and Thorn that, in 1454—and for nearly 350 years thereafter—took shelter under the crown of the Polish-Lithuanian Rzeczpospolita to escape the exploitation and violence of their compatriots, the Teutonic Knights.
No region should be forced to remain part of a suffocating, undemocratic European Union whose intrusive controls they firmly reject. The U.K.’s breakaway won’t cause the long-term chaos that many predict. On the contrary, it will, I believe, reenergize much of the global economy that has been stagnating under the E.U.’s rigid influence. The Brexit vote has a clear explanation. It’s not only that the U.K. dislikes pouring money into Brussels’s bottomless barrels; it’s that the E.U. bureaucratic monster has proved resistant to any reasonable change of course. Internationally minded Brits resent that keen competitors such as Switzerland, Australia, or Canada can import talented people from anywhere around the globe, while at the same time retaining the power to defend their borders. In short, the U.K. wanted its sovereignty back.
Could a Northern Union of the U.K., Ireland, Flanders, the Netherlands, Denmark, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Estonia, along with the German states of Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg, have any hope of succeeding? Sure. The multicultural Northern Union would stretch across a land area of 3.83 million square kilometers (the world’s eleventh-largest political entity) with a population of 120 million (the world’s seventh largest, most of whom speak English as a first or second language). This population is the demographic equal of three Canadas or five Australias, whose economic effectiveness and smart immigration policies the Northern Union would seek to emulate. The N.U. would have a $5.7 trillion economy, the world’s fourth largest.
With the exception of Sweden and Finland, all prospective members of the Northern Union belong to NATO. With British nuclear arms as its backbone, the N.U. wouldn’t be intimidated easily. Two N.U. aircraft carrier groups, for assuring the freedom of the seas, would be affordable, too. With a common currency and its wealth of oil, gas, and hydropower, along with abundant shale gas, the N.U. 11 would vie with Japan for the global economy’s bronze medal, behind the United States and China.
The formation of a Northern Union would create a friendly—but determined—rival for the Brussels regime. The E.U. would lose €7 billion a year in contributions. The northern rebels could run their own lean administration with a fraction of that outlay and use the remainder to improve their global competitiveness. Forced to compete themselves, E.U. nations would thus begin to implement real economic reforms. Instead of vengeance from an abandoned E.U.—feared by those who opposed Brexit—Europe would see real progress in regaining the self-healing power of economic advancement, which has long been crippled by endless subventions and E.U. bailouts.
With the formation of a Northern Union, a significant number of European nations may come together again, not under an undemocratic mega-bureaucracy, but as a union of free and prosperous states. This new union will have learned an important lesson: a divided continent of former enemies does not necessarily have to be governed by a “Europa über alles” in Brussels. Little Switzerland—rich and secure, with four distinct language cultures—has known this secret for centuries.
Photo by fpdress/iStock