Can Europe Make It?

Europe needs some old ideas

If Europe is not for something then it is good for nothing. I propose that we think of Europe as being for flourishing.

Darian Meacham
24 June 2014

The much anticipated Eurosceptic tsunami arrived in the third week of May with the European Parliamentary elections.

The results were as expected, if not worse. Far-right and/or virulently Eurosceptic and often anti-immigrant parties made large gains across the continent, taking outright victory in France, UK and Denmark, with impressive showings in many other countries. In the United Kingdom and France, both UKIP and the Front National managed to claw voters away from left and right mainstream parties by combining immigrant bashing with populist and accurate rhetoric about mainstream parties selling out the interests of middle and working class voters to international corporations, who no matter how bloated their revenues have never met a tax loophole they could not slip through.

This, along with taking easy pot shots at the Brussels elite worked at the ballot box. Never mind the rather inconvenient fact that UKIP, the FN and other similar parties tend to be more neoliberal in their economic policies than the parties they accuse of selling out. UKIP candidates list EU working time, maternity leave, annual vacation leave and pay regulations as prime reasons to leave the EU. No matter, UKIP could happily claim to have no policies other than a British exit from the European Union and a closing of the borders.

In times of crisis, fear and loathing often seems enough – though it is also hard to deny the ugly visceral truth as Nigel Farage harangued European Council President Herman van Rompuy or Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras in the chamber of the European Parliament, accusing them of abandoning democratic principles. The terrifying aspect of a crisis of democracy is that moment when the anti-democrat becomes the voice of democracy.     

The waters have now receded to reveal a harsher European political landscape, more insular, xenophobic and insecure. It should be a landscape that looks drastically different, one that calls for new debates, discourses and actions.

Remarkably, starship Brussels, floating calmly above the mêlée, seems blissfully unchanged. The immediate aftermath of the election has been a pseudo-political battle over who will take the helm of the European Commission for the duration of the next parliament. The candidate supported by both mainstream conservative and social democratic contingents within the European Parliament is Jean Claude Junker, an old conservative Europe hand, and a man I doubt that even a fraction of European voters had heard of prior to David Cameron’s opportunistic and ineffective opposition to his candidacy for the office of president of the commission.

It was a pseudo-political battle not only because Cameron failed to present an alternative, but also because for him battles are fought with tabloid one-liners; politics is theatre and preferably farce. For the powers he opposes, political battles are fought in back rooms deep within the sealed corridors of power, where all night summit meetings can proceed unimpeded behind a security perimeter secured by riot police and razor wire.

Through all of this the mantra remains the same, Europe needs growth, and it will take fiscal discipline (read: cutting social provisions), and competitiveness (read: cutting wages and labour protection) to get it. Growth, even the hint of it, has become the sacred idol of a politics reduced to economic management. Governments are expected to rise and fall according to its fluctuations, regardless of whether the majority of people feel any impact from it. New ideas are worthy of the name only if they are new ideas for growth. Growth, damned growth and statistics are what matter.

But the idea of growth has become disconnected from the only anchor that could ever provide it with political meaning, human flourishing. If growth is not aimed solely and squarely at human flourishing then it has no role to play in political discourse. Growth is of course measured in GNP and it’s worth recalling the words of Robert Kennedy in 1968 on what GNP measures and what it doesn’t:

"Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.


It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. 


It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.


It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. 


And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. If this is true here at home, so it is true elsewhere in world."

So perhaps it is not time for new ideas, but for some old ones: flourishing, care, solidarity, justice (to name a few possibilities). The idea of flourishing or living-well first found its political expression in the work of Aristotle who posited it as the aim of social and political life. The debate in Europe needs to be not about how best to generate growth – taking for granted that growth will lead to flourishing, for as Kennedy eloquently points out, the two often have nothing to do with one another - but what do we mean by flourishing, what does it mean to live a good life?

This is not a political afterthought, something to be discussed over dinner after the books have been balanced, it is the first and perhaps the only real political question. It is only after we have engaged in a discussion about what it means to flourish that we can start to situate the role of economic growth alongside other concepts like equality, justice and solidarity.

The discussion of what human flourishing means and how to achieve it is what philosophers since Plato have called ‘care’ – ‘care for the soul’ in Plato’s terms. Care for the soul may seem a million miles away from our modern materialist and secular worldview, but it refers to an investigation of how best to ensure the flourishing of not only our material lives, but our intellectual and emotional ones as well.

There is no doubt that the project of care oriented toward flourishing is a collective one. Even if our idea of flourishing is only to be left alone, we cannot accomplish that by ourselves. This means that the project of care requires us to consider what kind of solidarities will be necessary to flourish, and in what these solidarities will be grounded. Language, national or regional identity, or even a shared project of care are among the many possibilities, and all present their difficulties. How solidarity is constituted and how it functions as a motivator for action will be a key if not the key question if the European project is going to reorient itself away from the secondary concerns of growth and profit and toward real human flourishing.

Justice deserves a last word here. Political Economy, what we now just call economics, grew out of moral theory. Morality concerns itself with questions of justice. This order of emergence hopefully serves to remind us that economy is always a means to justice and never an end in itself. Perhaps it is best to understand justice as ensuring that everyone has the capacities and possibilities necessary for leading a flourishing life.

If Europe is not for something then it is good for nothing. I propose that we think of Europe as being for flourishing. We don’t need to be sure of what precisely we mean by flourishing, although I think that most of us already agree on most of the basics – education, housing, health care, family, social and cultural life. The possibility of debating what we mean by human flourishing and deciding how, politically, we aim to get there may indeed be a part of what it means to flourish in the first place.

Hopefully the contributions that form this editorial partnership will contribute to this debate by introducing and elaborating some of the ideas that will form it.

We do not need to be embarrassed at the simplicity of the notion that flourishing comes first. Few Americans would blush at the thought that at its core the United States is for freedom, no matter how complicated and problematic that idea turns out to be when concretely manifested, or how far we currently are from that regulative ideal. Perhaps Europeans need to shed some of their insecurity and cynicism and proclaim Europe to be for something. We don’t need to worry about over-simplification; politics always turns out complicated.  The self-proclaimed realists will scoff, but they always do.  Derision and over-complication are political weapons too – “we’d love to shut down these overseas tax havens, but it’s more complicated than that”. The question to ask is if Europe and the European project are not first and foremost about flourishing, then what on Earth could they be for?  

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Europe: the very idea, an openDemocracy editorial partnership supported by Social Science in the City, a public engagement initiative at the University of the West of England

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