The European Union needs a strong dose of John Gray philosophy. The European Project as it has developed over the years needs a strong antidote against hybris. An antidote against imperial overstretch. An antidote against technocratic materialism and the Brussels ‘one size fits all’ tyranny. And a Gray-ish antidote against naïve and dangerous utopian thinking. John Gray’s thoughts (and work) stand for a realistic common sense filter. For modesty. Self- constraint. And self-criticism. That’s what the European Project utterly needs, if it ever wants to be able to reconnect to the hearts and minds of the majority of the European people.
No misunderstanding. History forced us to become Europeans, to be Europeans. The historical legacy of Europe in the 20th century should lead to intensive forms of cooperation, cross-border coordination between European nation states, to overcome national superiority thinking, ethnic definitions of national identity or cultural hostility.
History transformed us, Dutchmen, French, English, Swedes & Poles into Europeans. The bloody European civil war 1914-1945, the Communist and Nazi occupation, have made Europe into a ‘’language community’’. The common language being about war and oppression, persecution and lack of freedom. Being European means that one feels obliged to do everything possible never to let European peoples get into violent conflict, or under occupation, again.
That’s fair enough. Europeans we should be and have to be. But only to a certain extent. To certain limits. Defined by the radius of action of democracy, solidarity, shared values and cultural understanding.
Is Eutopia, the European Dream of Unity, the right and only answer to that? That remains the big question. Especially in these days of the eurocrisis.
Right now, Europe is facing a problematic timing problem. Just at the moment that public support for the EU and the euro is at unprecedented low levels, European political leaders consider a ‘’federal leap’’ unavoidable for rescuing the Monetary Union at all costs, that is to say: they develop new steps towards European integration and centralisation. They build a full political union.
This causes a risky situation, because for the first time, the ’output legitimacy’ (Fritz Scharpf) of the European Union is seriously questioned. Before, the EU guaranteed, more or less, prosperity, economic growth and jobs. People never liked EU-politics. Far from it. It has been meta-politics for policymakers and politicians only. Far too complex and boring to get involved in. But people in general had a positive pro-European mindset and tolerated the outcomes of the Brussels technocracy.
But now, due to the eurocrisis, the EU no longer guarantees prosperity and jobs, but instead produces mass youth unemployment, rescue packages for banks and hostility between European partners, between the North and the South. Because of bail-out transfers and the shadow side effects of labour migration. And just at that moment ‘’the input legitimacy’’ of the EU is further damaged by new ‘federal’ plans, undermining national parliamentary democracy, at a very risky moment in time. This is what I call fatal timing.
This new ‘European overstretch’ (after Big Bang Enlargement and the adventure of an ill-designed EMU) will put the already existing shortcut between the European ’Elite-Project’ and electoral majorities in the member states under enormous pressure. Risking a pan-European populist revolt against the EU.
For that reason, the big worry should be, the planned attack on the European project by the radical right-wing-populists. Bad news is coming from the party political front. The right-wing populist and extreme-right parties recently formed an alliance for the 2014 European elections. The Dutch PVV of Geert Wilders, Front National of Marine Le Pen, the Strache party in Austria, and the ‘’Vlaams Belang’’ party of Filip Dewinter made an agreement for mutual assistance and common campaigning for the European elections.
It is clear that the right-wing populist movement in Europe will try to exploit the mood of Europe-blues – disillusionment with the European project – of the European electorate to the max.
If we look at international opinion polls, an electoral bloodbath indeed may take place. According to a recent Pew Research report, ’The New Sick Man of Europe is the European Union’, a disastrous breakdown of support for the European Union has occurred since the outbreak of the eurocrisis. The average support for the European Union diminished from 60% in 2012 to 45% in 2013. Less than a third of all Europeans think their economy benefited from European integration. Disastrous figures. They suggest huge electoral successes for the anti-European parties at the forthcoming European elections.
What’s worse is that mainstream politics does not seem to have developed yet a new positive story about Europe. Or it must be this story, tweeted on Twitter some weeks ago by Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament. He tweeted this:
’US have one currency, one central bank and one govt. Europe has one currency, one central bank and… 17 govts! Cannot go on like this’.
Martin Schulz, who for sure will become the candidate for the European Social Democrats to succeed Jose Manuel Barroso as President of the European Commission plays a risky game here. For me, this Martin Schulz tweet stands for: the European technocracy trying to enforce European unity on an unwilling European population. Asking for a frontal attack on the European project by populist parties.
It is very bad news when only the right-wing extremist parties exploit the doubts, fears and worries of people about the European Union, while the mainstream parties put the European project in fast forward mode to rescue the euro to all costs. This is asking for big trouble.
The core questions to be asked are:
Will the new European building – the Tower of Babel which our political leaders at home and in Brussels are erecting at the moment – be tenable in the long run, historically, politically and sociologically? That is going to be a close race. Will the ’elite project’ Europe be able to win the hearts and minds of the non-elites, or will it, instead, intensify and magnify the pan-European crisis of populism? Does the EU threaten to transform itself from an anti-nationalistic project into an anti-democratic project, substituting democracy for technocratic expert-rule? Will a German-style fiscal union strengthen mutual European solidarity, or will it, as a sorcerer’s apprentice, unleash the very nationalism which Europe was designed for to overcome in the first place? These are core questions to be asked in 2013 and after.
At this moment, the EU is at an existential crossroads. In the coming year, I fear, there will be a harsh black and white polarisation about Europe. You are either 100% pro-EU, or you are 100% anti-EU. Friend or foe. In that case, there will be no place for a moderate story about Europa, making connection to the large majority of the European population, which is neither fanatically nationalistic, nor fanatically ‘europistic’.
This is very problematic, because I think the whole contemporary negative development of the European project goes far deeper. I think John Gray is right in another dimension. He is well known for criticizing faith in progress, and especially the scientific-humanistic management of progress. As I understand his writings there is no natural human progress. There is obviously progress in science, in technology, in knowledge. But there is no progress in ethics, in politics, in morals, let alone behaviour.
I am afraid that this is exactly what we are witnessing today: the end of political progress. The end of democratic progress. In political science, we already talk about a new process, the process of de-democratisation. Everywhere, we see a retreat from post-war liberal democracy, and the rise of authoritarian modes or styles of politics. Think about Putin in Russia. Orban in Hungary. All the macho-political leaders in the Balkans. Berlusconisation.
We witness the rise of the authoritarian style of politics, disguised by democratic elections, bringing into power corrupt oligarchies, a mix of politics, business and organised crime. The late Ralf Dahrendorf, the German-British political thinker, warned that the 21 century could become the authoritarian century, and he may be right.
Everywhere we see an erosion of traditional party democracy and representative democracy. We encounter book titles like Democracy in Retreat, the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government and indeed: more and more, the EU is surrounded by fake-democracies and authoritarian regimes.
My great worry is that the EU is not the exception to that process of authoritarian de-democratisation, but that the EU itself, being a hybrid superstate and supermarket at the same time, managed beyond the borders of political democracy, is a symbol of that: technocratic authoritarianism at the expense of national democracy.
By history, we are forced to be Europeans; to a certain extent. To a common sensical extent. Becoming European can never mean the laconic self-abolition of the nation state, of national identity. Unless you want to get rid of democracy and the solidaristic welfare states, which can only operate on a smaller scale than in the European empire of 500 million people. The EU, which in the words of John Gray, is a ‘failed utopian project’ is in serious trouble and in urgent need of reform and reset.
My final reflection. The great misconception is to think that Europe equals Brussels. Europe does not equal Brussels. Instead, Europe = Barcelona, Stockholm, Riga, Bratislava, Utrecht. Not the complex labyrinth, the ‘corridors of power’ in Brussels only. That’s a very artificial way of looking at Europe. It is a-cultural and a-political.
The second misconception is to think that ‘an ever closer Union’, a more uniform EU, equals Eutopia. That in itself is a dangerous utopia of exclusion. All those who do not support the idea of a unified EU, or do not fit in, or criticize it, are excluded or demonised for being anti-Europeans, nationalists, extremists. Friend or foe. For or against. That way of thinking presents a ticket for disaster.
What we need, in the end, is a more modest Union. Back to the European Community! For that the antidote of John Gray’s philosophy is indispensable.
This modest Union should be in line with the new direction of EU-reform that is likely to be taken according to the Dutch Subsidiarity Review of the Dutch government, an answer to the groundbreaking and notorious Cameron speech on Europe. The Dutch government set out the results of its review of EU competences, under the slogan ‘European where necessary, national where possible’, claiming that in the exercise of its competences the EU is not adequately respecting the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality in practice.
By making its review, the Netherlands have stated that ‘creeping’ European Union interference in the politics of member states should be halted in favour of cooperation only where it is necessary. It said ‘the time of an ever closer union in every possible policy area is behind us’.
One could criticise the Dutch Subsidiarity Review for being a diversion, a diversionary tactic. Instead of focussing public attention and democratic debate on the ‘creeping’ federal leap – the unprecedented centralisation and uniformation due to the rescue of the Euro by all means – the Review diverts the Dutch electorate’s attention to minor issues such as school milk, trans-border tunnels, etc.
One could also argue, as The Economist did, that not the Review itself, nor the Dutch list of ‘no-go areas for Brussels’ is momentous, but that this exercise symbolises the Dutch public’s exhaustion with the idea of Europe, an overall trend in European public opinion. The relevance of the Dutch Subsidiarity Review is that, with all its limitations and weaknesses, it tries to depict ‘Another Europe’. A more modest Union. Breaking with the idea of TINA Europe – There is no Alternative for an ever closer Union – and opening windows for a potentially reformed EU, based on a more optimal balance between national democracy and EU-level. No Union, A Community.
Against that background, the idea of a reformed EU in the direction of a (more) modest Union is important, both in the Netherlands and in the EU as a whole. To answer growing euroscepticism, to diminish the gap of EU-support between academic professionals and non-academic professionals. To stop an a-political, technocratic ‘Ever Closer Europe’ and instead to open up the debate about alternative Europes.
Without such a fundamental debate about the future of the European project, the pan-European revolt of populism will gain more and more momentum.
This text is based on a presentation by René Cuperus, a Reply to John Gray, at Treaty of Utrecht/House of Eutopia Debate. 5-9-2013. Utrecht NL.