What Europe? Whose century? Which project?

Ian Christie
2 April 2003

Michael Lind’s fine article in the April 2003 issue of Prospect magazine sees the diplomatic debacle in the western alliance and the EU over Iraq as far more than a straight US-Europe division. In this alone, it is a huge improvement on the widely-promoted analysis from Robert Kagan, with its ludicrous distinction between Martians and Venusians.

Lind grants the present divisions the subtlety they deserve. They run, after all, in at least three main directions simultaneously: within the EU and its applicant states, between Atlanticists and those who want to see the EU as a counterweight to the US; and within the US between coastal liberals/midwest Euro-Americans and the politically (though not numerically) dominant Southern/Texan/Mountain hard conservatives.

There is an echo here of my own sketchy ‘culture war’ theory of emerging clusters of polarising values in the west and beyond – ‘high stakes’ (aggressively commercial) vs ‘shared values’ (consensually social democratic) vs ‘natural orders’ (defensively environmental).

Both Americans and Europeans are split between the first two; in the European case, there is also a division within the ‘shared values’ category between people who want to go it alone and those who want to make accommodations with a ‘high stakes’ world whose energy they envy and admire (even if without admitting to it).

The key point about the ‘high stakes’ culture is that it treats with disdain any concessions offered to it by ‘shared values’ types like Democrats (in the US) and New Labour (in Britain) – it neither wants, nor needs, nor is grateful for them. In fact, the US variety sees Europe as doomed to decline and is openly contemptuous of European consensual values – a kind of Texan-Marxist view of history.

For a staggeringly vulgar but energetic view on these lines, see Mark Steyn in the Spectator on Europe’s stagnation: his latest column includes this line of analysis – “What hope is there for a continent that refuses to reproduce or spend enough to defend itself or project its power? Best hope scenario for Europe in 2070 – Vienna with Swedish tax rates; worst case scenario for 2070 – Sharia in Eurabia”.

It’s gross, it’s crude, but it a faithful representation of the moral temperature of George W. Bush’s ‘high stakes’ culture.

No will, no skill, no vision – no future

The problem the rest of us face is in part the lack of skill and willpower for consensus-building. Tony Blair has failed to persuade the EU to support his policy of constructive engagement with the US, and the ‘old Europe’ alliance of Chirac and Schröder over Iraq is just temporary, representing no deep agreement on the strategy ahead for the EU. Moreover, the diplomatic ineptitude of the Bush administration is typified by the maladroit, careless uninterest of Donald Rumsfeld in relating to countries that cannot be bribed, bludgeoned or attacked.

Bush and his team have undermined and now repelled many of those who could have built bridges with ‘old Europe’, and the dismal lack of top talent in EU governments has led to serious stagnation in the Union’s own strategic development and a poor capacity for long-term thinking.

The EU has an intrinsic problem competing in speed of policy response with a winner-take-all national government as in Washington. But even so, the fragmentation and lethargy in the Union and in the Commission are exceptionally worrying. The utter failure to engage the public since 1989 – a once-in-a-generation opportunity – and the shambles that has been the enlargement process, are vivid illustrations of a problem that goes deep into the very purpose and meaning of the European project as it has come to exist.

Running on empty

It gets worse. The Europe editor of openDemocracy, Paul Hilder, recently referred to Yeats’ great poem The Second Coming. The worst are indeed full of passionate intensity at present. They have been for quite some time. The most coherent worldviews on offer are those of the Rumsfeld crew and of al-Qaida, so far as we can discern the latter. Dreadful as they are, these have a coherence and excitement that recall the energy of Marxist stories of the future back in the 1900-30 period.

The Project for the New American Century is an initiative of real political genius. None of the parties or coalitions of the centre-Left and Greens has managed anything of similar vigour and coherence in the post-1989 period.

The Project for the New European Century, anyone? I give you instead – Romano Prodi’s private seminars with Euro-intellectuals like Will Hutton in search of a ‘soul’ for Europe. Of course, Giscard might amaze us all when he unveils the Constitution’s final draft. Best not to bet on it, though. Maybe openDemocracy can be the forum the EU itself cannot create?


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