Pulitzer Prize winner Albert Scardino on why the UK should have heeded lessons from America

PUBLISHED: 13:48 28 July 2016 | UPDATED: 18:03 28 July 2016

Albert Scardino

Albert Scardino


Early on in the referendum campaign, I heard a Leaver argue that the EU could never become a world power like the US. He said that yes, Europe had a comparable economy with a similar number of people, but the two had nothing else in common. The US was originally a collection of 13 colonies, he said, protected on one side by the Atlantic and on the other by the Appalachian mountains. It grew from there with a common language, a federal government and a common racial and religious background. The EU is nothing like that, he said.

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He was right on two points: the number of original colonies and their location on the Atlantic Ocean. Other than that, the early history of the two unions looks remarkably alike. If either could have been counted a success at 60 (1849 for the US, next year for the EU) Europe looks set to take the prize. Henny Penny may be right, the European sky may be about to fall, but you wouldn’t bet on it based on US experience in nation-building.

By the time the US turned 60, it had expanded from 13 states to 30, many of them carved out of the original 13 (Maine, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi from Massachusetts, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia). Five others came after buying the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon (Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa and parts of Texas), with 11 more carved out later on. Still others had been found in the spoils of war from Mexico (California and the rest of Texas).

The pattern of expansion of the EU in its first 60 years follows the same curve, from six states to 28. The EU didn’t buy Eastern Europe from the USSR, but the results were similar to the Louisiana Purchase: East Germany into West, Czechoslovakia into two, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, Bulgaria.

After 60 years, the US was no stable imperial power. It had been invaded and its new capital of Washington burned by the British. It had faced and suppressed at least two violent rebellions, one on tax in Massachusetts and another on ego in North Carolina. The majority in half of the country lived in dread of rape, murder or revolt by their enslaved workforce. Brutal laws of racial suppression resulted, many of them leaving a stench that lingers.

The constitution had established three co-equal branches of government, the executive, the legislature and the courts, with a complex set of checks and balances intended to keep any one from dominating. But in 1831, the Supreme Court ruled that the government must respect the presence of separate but dependent nations of Native Americans within its borders, starting with the Cherokees in the Great Smokey Mountains. The Cherokees were farmers, with a written constitution and a bicameral legislature. Virtually every Cherokee citizen was literate in his own language.

President Andrew Jackson ignored the court. He sent the army to round up the Cherokees and tens of thousands of other native people to land beyond the borders.

It was an ethnic cleansing over an area larger than Nazi Europe, against a percentage of the population greater than that of Jews under the Nazis. Of those forced out of their treaty-secured homes and marched hundreds of miles west, half died from disease, exposure and starvation. It was a pattern of native extermination that would be repeated again and again over the next 60 years, and then maintained for a further 60.

By 1849, the country’s 60th year, despite crushing the native nations in the Southeast, the army had not yet managed to subdue the Comanches. This nation of about 20,000 people controlled an area within the United States as large as France.

For nearly 50 years during the 19th century, the Comanches stopped white westward movement dead still. Their line was as rigid and as permanent as the Iron Curtain, over a similar length. Their superb horsemanship allowed them to travel hundreds of miles in a matter of days to strike at specific settlements. Their weapons included the tools of terror – rape, murder, torture, kidnapping.

The country’s political leadership had a vision of Manifest Destiny, with America spreading from the Atlantic to the Pacific. To achieve it the US had to go around the Comanches. The southern tier of states would not be completed for another 70 years, with the addition of Arizona and New Mexico in 1912.

“Ever greater union” has faced nothing comparable. Franco’s Fascism and Salazar’s despotism were buried with them, leading to an almost seamless accession into the union for Spain and Portugal. The Soviet Union fell without a shot. The Balkan wars of the ’90s brought back genocide and religious persecution to Europe, but not to the EU.

Though English was the most common tongue during the early years of the US, Spanish matched it across its southern and western sides; French along the Quebec boundary and across the Louisiana Territory; German in parts of Pennsylvania, the Ohio and Missouri valleys and areas of Texas. Dozens of native languages remained in common use up to the removal of the Southeastern native nations. By contrast, English became the language of the EU by general agreement, and millions of Europeans have striven to learn the language of trade and government.

As for fiscal and monetary life, by 1849 America’s central bank (and its currency) had been formed and collapsed twice. Scores of different currencies circulated side by side with the dollar. Boom, then bust much more severe than the 2009 financial crisis, came along every decade.

Compare that to the resilient Euro and the European Central Bank. Despite the strains of Greek debt and weak banks in Italy, Spain and Ireland, despite the refusal of Britain and others to join the common currency, the Euro circulates almost exclusively within its zone and the European Central Bank has built an early history of success as the EU’s core financial institution.

Even the most tangential UKIP MEP hasn’t demanded the return of gold coinage, the way many did in the 1840s in the US, including the president.

The strains of immigration, even the floods from Syria and across the Mediterranean from Libya, won’t destroy the European Union.

As America’s 60th birthday neared, millions of immigrants from Ireland, many bringing with them typhoid and cholera, came pouring into every port, with no money but with assumed loyalties to the Papacy. At its peak, nearly 1% of the population arrived each year, a number equivalent to 5million annually to the EU today.

Right behind the Irish came Germans fleeing continental revolutions, then Italians, Poles, Scandinavians, Mexicans, Chinese and Japanese, but that would come during the second and third 60 years. These later waves triggered legislation restricting Asians and Mexicans, then setting quotas for nationals from all countries, but the immigration process carried on.

Internal migration unsettled the early years, too. A growing river of people escaped slavery by running away, the first of many floods, South to North and East to West. On reaching the North these migrants immediately became free citizens but still vulnerable to kidnapping and re-enslavement. Not exactly free movement.

The European Union suffers nothing like America’s original sin, slavery, a British introduction that by 1850 threatened to tear the young nation in half. It took a civil war to resolve that split, the world’s first industrialised war, in many ways a religious war between a Roman Catholic north and a Protestant South.

Britain may edge away from the EU, not too quickly or too far, mind you. Hungary may install a proto-dictator. Poland may refuse to participate in the financial rescue of weaker states. But only 12 years after its 60th birthday, America tore itself to pieces. South Carolina attacked the central government and rallied 10 other states to establish a new country where slavery would be preserved.

When the killing ended, America started all over again, with a new constitution, a new industrial economy, a booming population of many races, creeds and national origins. New candidates joined as territories, then as states. The pace of change accelerated, yet it took another 100 years to address the racial divide, to become the dominant global player.

Will Ever Closer Union become Manifest Destiny? Looks promising from here. It just takes time.

Albert Scardino, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a freelance commentator on American affairs living in London.

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