Europe might not be dead yet, but the patient is on life support and all its vital signs seem to be crashing. Serial crisis meetings between French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel issue little more than vague hopes of a resolution, whispers of stronger economic governance and promises to meet again soon for the next muddle-a-deux. Even the French leader, that arch-federalist, can only dream of the creation of Eurobonds to save the EU’s ailing economies: ‘One day, perhaps’, he has said.
Meanwhile the European Central Bank (ECB) has now bought up €110 billion of government bonds since May of last year (€22 billion last week alone) and some say the European Financial Stability Facility (the EFSF) will need a cool €1 trillion to bail out the Eurozone as the rot spreads from Greece to Spain and Italy. France’s AAA credit rating looks decidedly threadbare given its massive exposure to the debt of those three countries. Germany, the economic heart of Europe, faces a collapse in business confidence following the announcement that GDP grew by just 0.1 per cent last quarter and the Bundesbank refuses to back the ECB buy-now-for-more-time ‘plan’, stressing the moral hazard that is being created for the prudent financiers of Northern Europe.
It is not just German bankers who are breaking European ranks. As a price for guaranteeing EFSF loans to Athens, Finland is just the first country in a queue to have concluded a bilateral agreement with Greece that will force it to beg for additional EFSF financing to meet its collateral obligations. On the world stage, EU members were split over intervention in Libya. Danish customs borders went up in early July bringing a poignant end to the Schengen agreement and over 10 years of free movement within most of Europe. Across Europe resentment has found expression in populist parties that can obtain up to 20 per cent of the national vote. The mirage of a federal, integrated EU has been blown away revealing a desert of meaning where a pro-European vision should stand.
The aim of the founders of the EU project may well have always been fiscal as well as monetary union. But they didn’t say so, at least not in public. Now ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet is calling for an EU ministry of finance, Sarkozy and Merkel flirt with ‘true European economic government’ and even Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, speaks of the ‘remorseless logic’ of fiscal union. Yet this closer union is being talked up at precisely the moment when the European project seems to be falling apart.
Behind all this talk of closer economic integration, an elected Eurozone government, and concomitant weakening of national sovereignty, looms a fateful question: Just who is going to sell this to national voters, and how? Apparently 65 per cent of Britons polled are against further bailouts, along with 59 per cent of Germans, and 47 per cent of the French. After popular hostility to the treaties of Nice and Lisbon who would risk another Irish-style ‘No’ vote? EU treaties lack any method for getting rid of the Euro, but who would suggest renegotiating them?
In the good times, the EU seemed to be working so who would fix it? Now it is clear that cheap financing has been masking an underlying failure to grow productively in many countries, notably in the south. No wonder national interests are coming to the fore and faultlines emerging. After all, how long can Germany keep signing the cheques before something gives?
Yet while the current sovereign debt crisis is the most visible expression of Europe’s problems, it is not what is breaking the European project apart: rather it dramatically exposes the lack of any political dynamic, evident for many years, towards closer integration. How could there be when there is no shared idea of a Europe into which to integrate? Even that grand old supporter of the EU, the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, recently pronounced that the ‘process of European integration, which has always taken place over the heads of the population, has now reached a dead end’ and accused the leaders of the EU of ‘doggedly persisting with their elitist project and the disenfranchisement of the European population’.
David Marquand, an academic and former MP whose political career spanned Labour, the Social Democrats and the Liberal Democrats, also recognises, as does every commentator now, the logical impossibility of a European project of monetary without fiscal union, terming the EU ‘intellectually and politically schizophrenic’. In his new book, The End of the West: The Once and Future Europe, he usefully traces the EU’s step-by-step procession towards closer and closer integration – always without winning popular support for the process – from its foundations in the Franco-German Coal and Steel Community of 1951, an organisation expressly designed by Robert Schuman as a supranational body to ‘make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible’.
Marquand notes that the postwar rapprochement between France and Germany was bought at the expense of (and disdain for) ‘the messy, vulgar, clamorous irrationality of political life’. After all, the EU project appealed to the German political elites as a much-needed way of boosting their moral authority after the war, but their support for it has always been purely pragmatic rather than being a love affair with the ideal of Europe.
Marquand also describes the increasing retreat into technocratic rationalism of the Eurocrats and the creeping erosion of national sovereignty. Now, for example, some two-thirds of national legislation is initiated by Brussels and rubber-stamped by national governments looking to avoid the responsibility of shaping laws that reflect the wishes of their peoples.
Marquand identifies finds three key problems for the idea of Europe: the stubborn persistence of ethnicity and identity; the lack of European-wide governance and authority; and how to define the civilisation and even the territory of Europe.
The first is flagged throughout the book with talk of ‘renascent nationalism’ coming back to haunt a Europe still in thrall to an outdated idea of the nation-state. For him the nation is either still ‘premodern’ – ethnic, homogeneous, usually in eastern Europe, and dangerous – or ‘postmodern’ – disintegrating under the weight of competing identity claims from smaller ethnic groupings within the nation. Either way, nation-states don’t work as the building blocks of a European project. As he puts it, the ‘combination of premodern provincialism with postmodern globalisation and Europeanisation has fuelled a moral crisis – a crisis of identity, meaning and purpose’.
It is certainly true that there is a crisis of identity and meaning in the European project but this is due less to the persistence of the nation-state and national self-determination than it is to the erosion of these ideas. As it is with individuals, so it is with international bodies: any grouping is only as strong as its members.
Marquand’s solution is to appeal to diversity as an end in itself. He blames Islamophobia on a doomed aspiration to assimilate Muslim ‘others’ into the ‘Western’ values he so deplores in the book. All he can offer instead is the politics of the multicultural playground: we should all learn to get along and play nicely.
The second problem Marquand identifies is what is commonly known as the ‘democratic deficit’, the lack of legitimacy of the European elites. He sees this as a result of Europe’s leaders only engaging in ‘low’ politics - economic integration and shared infrastructure - and not the ‘high’ politics of foreign policy, defence and what Europe stands for. In Marquand’s view, this leads to the absence of consent for European institutions which lack any ‘moral authority to pursue the general interest’.
Again, there is truth in this, but the stark reality of the EU is that unless it was rooted in ‘low’ politics it would not exist. With economic integration coming undone, a time may well come when the EU can’t even manage low politics anymore.
Marquand’s solution here is even more lacklustre than his first. In desperation he turns to Habermas’s idea of a public realm: ‘Peoples only emerge with the constitutions of their states’, as the sage of Frankfurt has it. Marquand imagines he is being risky by suggesting that the demos should be created by democracy, not ‘democracy by the demos’. But he is only betraying his fear of the people, the mass below, with his preference for the creation of more structures and rules from above.
Marquand reduces democracy to being a way of adjudicating between competing claims of individuals who just won’t get along, much like a marriage guidance counsellor - or a judge. It means ‘accepting difference, rejoicing in difference, and negotiating difference’. Marquand stresses the complexity of modern life and proposes democracy as a tool to manage competing identities and differences.
What gets lost here is the possibility of the people creating something together - a unity - not by respecting difference, but through arguing against differences they deem to be wrong, tolerating the existence of opposing views but granting them the honour of heated debate and disagreement rather than the suffering patronage of respect. Marquand seems so fearful of the people and in particular of popular leaders that his pale imitation of democracy hides behind the skirts of the law.
Allowing more referenda on the European project, as Marquand argues, would be a good thing. But rather than call on Europe’s elites to ‘gamble on democracy’, the solution Europe really needs is for the people to demand referenda. The deficit here is popular apathy towards Europe, not a top-down denial of democracy.
His hostility to democracy is made even more explicit when he turns on the autonomous decision-making subject at its heart: the voter. The free will of the voter is written off as just an illusion of liberal free-market ideology. In reality we are determined, he argues, by ‘ties of kinship, education, ethnicity, religion, locality, and occupation’.
Here we get to the heart of his argument. The free-willing subject is bad: ‘Western’, American, individualistic and greedy; groups and collectivities are nice: ‘Eastern’ and pluralist. In short, he thinks the end of the ‘West’ (as he obsessively scarequotes it) is long overdue.
Unlike Gandhi, who at least joked that Western civilisation would be a good thing, Marquand wants us ‘Westerners’ to ‘abandon our self-centred and patronising belief that democracy and free discussion were exported to a backward “East” by a progressive “West”, and reconstruct our mental universe to take account of the indigenous Indian tradition of public reasoning and religious toleration that long antedated the “Western” presence in the subcontinent.’
In this he agrees with Gandhi in stating a nostalgic preference for premodern Indian village traditions. (Presumably, he doesn’t include suttee in that.) He wants us to dismantle our erroneous Enlightenment and modernist beliefs in reason, progress and economic growth. According to Marquand, it is better to live like a feudal Indian peasant. His hostility to the idea of the ‘West’ would be remarkable were it not so widely shared today. He moves without qualm from sneering at the sacrifice of the 300 Spartan dead at Thermopylae – for ‘freedom’ – to blaming everything on rampant individualism and greed and then turning on Americans – symbolic of everything he dislikes about the ‘West’ – for their unremitting sameness.
Contrary to Marquand, standing up for the idea of the West does not entail conniving with or being naïve about the horrors of Western imperialism and racial thinking. The West has always stood metaphorically for a series of ideals that remain worth fighting for, like freedom and individual self-determination. Because these ideas are human and universal, they are open to us all, Westerners and Easterners alike. Just because we are not as civilised as we should be does not mean that we should give up on civilisation and embrace the primitive. It means simply that we should become more civilised. And because Europe plumbed the depths of barbarism in the last century does not mean that it has not historically reached the highest peaks of civilisation in art, culture and religion.
Hostility to the idea of the West always seems to boil down to hostility to freedom and that always means, in reality, hostility to the freedom of the many. No wonder that supporters of the EU are so wary of populist movements and real democracy. And no wonder that its opponents – eurosceptic and xenophobic though they may be – are given licence to wave the banners of freedom.
The problem is not barbarians at the gates – whether it is the True Finns or Gert Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands or Jobbik in Hungary. These movements are rather better understood as expressions of the contempt of European elites for the people. The rot is within. The only solution can be to enter into a grown-up public discussion about the kind of Europe that we – the people – want to live in. Despite flirting with, and misunderstanding, the idea, the Western idea, of Republican liberty, Marquand does not grasp the fact that it is based on free men living in free states.
Searching for a way out of the crisis engulfing the EU, Marquand calls on us to become ever less ‘Western’ and to further embrace the very politics of diversity that have created such hostility to the illegitimate Eurocracy in Brussels. Such calls, however well meant, will not revive the corpse of European integration. They will pour more oil on the fires of popular resentment.
The real potential for tragedy resides in the fact that while the EU continues to create an anti-EU backlash, no one will be pro-European. Marquand has so little faith in the ability of a common vision of being European to bring people together that he has to arbitrarily exclude Russia and Turkey from his idea of it: the former for being too archaically authoritarian, the latter - with supreme irony - for being too modernist and secular rather than for being too Islamic.
Whenever EU leaders tell us what to do, how to vote and what to think, whenever the people are held at arms-length from decision-making, chastised for their stubborn aspiration to better their lives, whenever we are told off just for being us, we should remember Bertolt Brecht’s famous poem, written after the bloody repression of popular discontent in 1953 in Stalinist East Germany.
After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
This review was first published in the spiked review of books, August 2011.