Europe: A noble idea

Unifying the nations of Europe was a noble idea. The architects of (western) European unity after World War II – Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, et al. – were noble men. Indeed, nobility was one of their cardinal virtues; in a way, they operated like an enlightened twentieth century aristocracy, a European elite that set out to shape a new and better Europe.

The idea of a united European was of course not new. Its roots lie in the Holy Roman Empire, and its intellectual tradition is more theological than political, more Erasmus than John Locke. The point of European unity was not a social contract, à la Locke. What was envisioned by European thinkers, many of them French, for many centuries, was a spiritual utopia that stood for eternal peace. No wonder, Monnet, Schuman, and Adenauer, were all devout Roman Catholics.

The problem with noble ideas is that they can have negative consequences which would never have occurred to the men who held them. The postwar European order was based on a profound suspicion of the nation-state. Nationalism was blamed for two catastrophic European wars. Henceforth, the symbols of nationhood – flag-waving, anthem-singing, torch-lighting – were best left to the football stadiums. And national sovereignty would gradually become obsolete. We would all be Europeans now, with a common European identity. New European symbols would be invented for the purpose.

But the noble architects of this fine idea tended to have a technocratic view of the world, far removed from the concerns and feelings of the average citizen. Democratic politics were regarded as a nuisance. Politicians were viewed as self-seeking and divisive. What the technocratic mind wanted was unity, unhindered by the conflict of interests upon which democracy thrives. They wanted to carry out grand projects. The European union was to be the grandest project of all, a kind of monument to social harmony and collective enterprise.

This idea had a practical dimension, which bore at least one important fruit: European nations, especially France and Germany, are unlikely to go to war again.

But the Lockean notion of the social contract has been neglected in this grand project. The primary loyalty of European citizens is still to their national-states. However, the more the bureaucratic nobility of Brussels claimed the authority to shape European economic, social, and even political affairs, the more national governments lost the confidence of their citizens. In this climate, populism, often of a nasty kind, was bound to grow.

Now that we are in a period of economic and political crisis, the public mood has turned sour. European solidarity, to the extent it ever existed, is crumbling. The elites are blamed for all our troubles. And the Brussels aristocracy is blamed above all.

And yet the idea of a united Europe remains a noble, as well as a necessary one. Alone, European nations count for little in the world; together they still matter. But a more united Europe cannot be a top-down enterprise. The public must back it.

What is needed is less theology and more thinking about a social contract. The so-called “democratic deficit” of Europe can only be solved with a better balance between the Brussels elite and elected national governments. Perhaps European commissioners need to be elected too. Perhaps national parliamentarians should spend more time in Brussels.

In any event, the idealism upon which Europe was built in the 1950s and ’60s is no longer enough. And economics are not a sufficient basis for progress either. The problem with Europe is political, and can only be solved by politics. This would have run against the instincts of Jean Monnet, but it is the only way to prevent his splendid vision from turning to dust.

Published 7 July 2014
Original in English
First published by Res Publica Nowa 25 (2014)

Contributed by Res Publica Nowa © Ian Buruma / Res Publica Nowa / Eurozine

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