Can Europe Make It?

Mythic origins or original sin? Euroscepticism and an ever closer reality

Euroscepticism is a strategically invented social construct – much like the myth of “ever closer union” itself – to capture and channel growing popular discontent with the aftermath of the European integration process. 

Liubomir Topaloff
25 April 2014

The European elections are fast approaching, and with them the first time spectacle in the history of the European Parliament (EP) that we see eurosceptic parties with unprecedented popular representation. Based on pre-election estimates by PollWatch, what with the proposed alliance of right-wing eurosceptics led by Le Pen’s Front National and Geert Wilders’ PVV, the centre-right eurosceptics currently united in the EFD and led by UKIP’s Nigel Farrage, still free-floating extremists such as Jobbik, Attacka, Golden Dawn and the like, and the parochial hodgepodge of far left eurosceptics in the United Left/Nordic Green Left group, in the forthcoming European Parliament the anti-EU forces may collectively amass to a significant vote weight – perhaps occupying up to a fifth of all seats – and become the third largest group.

As many commentators try to assess the impact of this reconfiguration for the way the future EP functions, and for the future of European integration, it may be worth saying that euroscepticism is part of a much bigger systemic failure.

Diverse and even incompatible with each other in many respects, the eurosceptic parties share a few common characteristics. First, they have a pronounced antipathy towards the EU, hence, the term “eurosceptic” – a misnomer at best. Next, in their majority, these are small, protest, marginal parties, whose recent popularity rides on a wave, a wild “gut feeling” combination of anti-globalisation, anti-establishment, and anti-immigration populism. Third, while they differ in terms of whom they target with their open xenophobia – some are anti-Islamic, others anti-Semitic, or anti-eastern European, they all share a sense of pronounced nationalism. They long for the restoration of the presumed lost national identity of ‘the people’.

National identity – ethnic or civic based – inevitably builds upon a myth. This is a myth that explains the origin of the nation or the state. All states and societies have a version of this myth, regardless of whether they are multinational states, such as the United States, or ethnonational nation-states, such as most if not all EU member-states. In fact, the etymology of the word “nation” itself comes from the Latin word natio, which means “birth.”

Similarly to its member-states, the EU itself was also founded on such an etiological myth, albeit admittedly much more economistic in nature, centred around the vague and controversial notion of  “ever closer union.” Its legitimacy was based on a mixture of deliverance of promises that were economic for the most part, and the hegemonic reign of its vision for “ever closer union.” In fact, the two are connected: the more closely united Europe became, the better it performed. Arguably, the civic version of this pan-European “nationalism” (for lack of a better word) is only remotely “etiological” in the traditional meaning of the term. But given the fact that the EU is not a state itself, nor is it a nation, a myth of this kind may be the closest it gets to a substitute.

In their essence, all myths are related to origin, ergo etiological. The modern etiological myths of different societies mark some point of emergence of these societies into their contemporary form. Compared to other modern examples, the EU myth does not differ significantly. Take “American exceptionalism” – what Seymour Martin Lipset used to call “americanism” – a kind of ideological mishmash of egalitarianism, liberalism, individualism and republicanism, or take Japanese “pacifism.” In the former case, American “uniqueness” is purportedly linked to keywords, such as “freedom” and “democracy,” intrinsically connected to the from-rags-to-riches “American dream.” The latter was a post-atomic victimhood myth - James Orr famously called it “the first powerfully unifying national myth after defeat,” - that conveniently linked the tragedy and suffering of the hibakusha (the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) to the emancipation that drove Japan’s development for 50 years.  

Much more important is the question about the functionality of the myth, i.e. what is its goal? As Malinowski and other scholars of myths note from an anthropological point of view, the function of the myth is to create faith and express conviction. The modern versions of these myths, including the “American dream,” “Japanese pacifism,” or, for that matter, the Russian pan-Slavism “liberational” myths that have endured since the mid-nineteenth century, alongside the more recent  “ever closer union” EU myth, in and of themselves lack the potential to produce earthmoving consequences. But as Roland Barthes keenly notes regarding the deconstruction of social myths, their power lies in the signs. The meaning and the message are communicated through signs, which are usually elements in a much larger semiological system. They construct an image that is simple enough to be easily internalized in order to break through the hegemonic threshold of commonly held beliefs, but they are also carriers of a complex symbolism that stirs emotions and primes people for action.

The first united Europe myth was born before WWII. One can see it best through the prism of the Pan-Europa movement and the French Prime Minister Aristide Briand’s reverie regarding a European Federal Union. Dismissed as an impossibility and mocked as naïve at the time, the idea lacked the right context to become reality then. However, in the grim aftermath of WWII, the sheer level of death, suffering, and destruction, as well as the inability of the victors to find any other meaningful solution to the so called “German question,” provided the missing context for a united Europe. So, the myth of “ever closer union” was born and over the following few decades, as recovery proceeded apace, so did European integration. 

Through the institutionalization of the sorrow and trauma of WWII as an emotional deterrent, and the promise for prosperity as a positive bond for cooperation, the myth of a united Europe was first officially embodied in the Treaty of Rome from 1957, for “ever closer union between the peoples of Europe.” It was based on a few ideals. First, based on the collective memory of the war’s horror, there will never be again a war like the First and Second World Wars, caused by the unsustainable and unaccommodated rise of German prowess. Second, a newly united Europe will produce an economic infusion that will result in a Pareto optimal prosperity for all – with many winners but no losers. And third, “ever closer union” will provide for basic ontological security, understood not only as protection from the Soviet threat, but also mainly from the harmful processes of globalization. In short, the myth of “ever closer Europe” was founded on the twin notions of hope and fear, both of which stir strong emotions.

For the first few decades this myth underpinned the need for compromise that led to economic prosperity and restored ontological security. The rudimentary and rough system of economic cooperation and political compromise that was established at Rome was highly redistributive, more characteristic of the kind of social-democratic capitalism that exists today in the Nordic countries. The result was an unprecedented economic development that bridged over the national differences of the EU citizens. But that myth only worked up to a point. Somewhere in the mid-1970s, the Gini index for the period since the Second World War began to curve up. Around the same time, the percentage of GDP in the member states that goes to salaries and benefits visibly began to decrease, while the percentage of profits of the large corporations increased. In the 1980s it became clear that the original deal could no longer carry the European boat up the stream.

As the European project began to slip, policy makers resigned themselves to the necessity for faster and deeper integration. This all culminated in the Single European Act (SEA) of 1986. The bedrock of the new version of this integration – the foundations for a true single market, the seminal four freedoms of movement, and somewhat even more importantly, the establishment of a monetary union – was laid down at that point.

The new reality, however, did not come with an updated version of the etiological myth of “ever closer union” to reflect the switch from positive to zero sum, an inevitable negative externality arising from the deepening of EU integration.

Today the traumatic memories of the war are increasingly irrelevant, distant and hardly speak to new generations of Europeans, or stir emotions. WWI and WWII, the Napoleonic Wars, or the Punic Wars all appear equally distant to the young and even to many middle-aged Europeans – they are just facts in the history books, ornate with exotic details and only rendered colourful through the technological innovations of the History Channel, or the re-enactment of actors. The main emotional bearer of the traumatic memory of war and its grim aftermath, as a fact of life, is becoming gradually but steadily extinct along with the surviving members of the generations who suffered through it.

The role of Germany has also changed once again. It was fashionable to claim that France and Germany were the “engines” of the EU. In reality, in the past Germany was more like the engine, with France in the role of the conductor of the train. Today, Angela Merkel firmly and comfortably sits in the driver’s seat. This fact alone is enough to revive forgotten memories and fears – not exactly an “ever closer union” image one might have hoped for. Not to mention, Germany’s reluctance to tolerate the need for more or less redistributive membership in the Union – a core tenet of the myth.

In the meantime, the second notion of the myth is also becoming gradually debunked – the benefits for all from European integration. Unlike the promised positive-sum outcomes, the accelerated processes of integration have produced well-defined winners and losers. The elimination of barriers for free movement of people, services, commodity and capital across the EU favoured the better educated, the better placed, the more flexible. The “negative” externality of integration is called in this case “freedom” or “liberalisation” – a fundamental element for greater competition.

But the notion of redistribution, on which the vision for “ever closer union” was necessarily built, is by default negated by the notion of “freedom,” and so is the mythical dream of unity. There is no unity without security, both ontological and existential. A quick look at the growing constituents of the leaders among the eurosceptic parties, such as Le Pen’s National Front, reveals the startling mix of “strange bedfellows”: blue collar industrial workers and petits indépendants. We may call them collectively “losers” from the integration process. The former have to face a competition enabled by the right of European citizens to live and work freely anywhere in the EU, while the latter suffer the consequences of the competitive advantage and bargaining power large corporations, chain stores, etc. enjoy in the conditions of a common market.

Finally, while the Soviet Union is gone, the threat from globalization is undercutting the sense of security of many European citizens. Declining demographic statistics, inability to balance social entitlements and benefits with the necessary economic performance needed for their provision, and the acute clash in values produced by the lack of both vision and political will to deal with fears of rampant immigration, especially at certain hotspots in the EU, creates an enveloping sense of profound existential, ontological and identity insecurity. Many European citizens ask themselves whether equality for all in an “ever closer union” is both a good thing and the right thing to pursue.

The root cause lies in the failing of the etiological myth of origin, which spelled out a common vision that is no longer attainable or tangible. It is the passing of the idea, which for decades provided a rationale for political and economic action. It is the debunking of the vision of an "ever closer" future for all, which for decades claimed to be creating a common value system and identity. In short, euroscepticism and the myth of “ever closer union” are the two sides of the same coin. What the EU desperately needs today to halt the rise of euroscepticism is a new etiological myth to replace the old one, and to rally behind itself the coming generations of Europeans.

Fear is powerful so long as those who experience it can imagine and anticipate the consequences that will arise from that source. But like the drifting away of concentric circles produced by the ripple effect of a stone thrown into a pond, we observe today the passing of post-WWII civic myths around the globe, including the EU myth. Today, the post-war trauma is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Furthermore, just like democracy itself, when the economy no longer delivers, the image of prosperity becomes an empty shell, depleted of content. The belief in social justice is destroyed, and the myth of origin can no longer command loyalty and emotional attachment. In such times of crisis people tend to resort to older, culturally conditioned identities.

What we observe today in the EU is a consequence of the return to more tangible ethno- and cultural nationalisms. People may grumble against their political systems, national governments and states, but ultimately they remain bound to them by the ties of language, shared history and culture. What keeps them connected to the EU is the lingering pragmatic assessment of the benefits that still flow from it. But not much more.

In this context euroscepticism – more of a symptom  – is one external manifestation of the disintegration of the EU’s etiological myth. Unlike what many claim, it is not a manifestation of some inevitable historical dependencies, issues linked to the rise of nationalism, the artefact of the recent centre-periphery clash, a reaction to the growth of an out of proportion immigration issue in Europe, or a manifestation of anti-globalization. Certainly, these all have some role to play. Rather, it is a strategically invented social construct – much like the myth of “ever closer union” itself – to capture and channel growing popular discontent with the aftermath of the European integration process.

The live link

The live link between all these causes is the role played by the eurosceptic political parties. They are the main actors "kicking the can" down the road. When they attack the EU institutions and the mainstream pro-European political actors at the levels of intermediate and precipitating causes, they are in fact taking advantage of the political and economic conjuncture to do nothing less than debunk the myth of Europe, piece by piece.

Pressured by the political monopoly of the mainstream parties, eurosceptics have little to no chance of entering government either independently, or as part of a coalition. Their only survival strategy is to spearhead popular and often populist attitudes and visions. They are opportunists deconstructing the myth of Europe to improve their own standing. Eurosceptics amplify the topic of Europe into a salient issue, pushing it straight into the heart of the domestic political agenda by selectively blaming all evils on an ailing and corrupt EU, while strategically omitting the benefits it produces.

Like the boy who cried that the king has no clothes, they ring the alarm by attacking one by one all the structural elements of the current EU myth – security, equality, prosperity for all, and unity – debunking it piece by piece. But, by doing so they also construct a new myth of their own, about the “evil” EU. This anti-myth is no different from the foundational myth they try to deconstruct. With one major difference – it comes equipped with no common good, as enshrined in the myth of “ever closer union.”

Regrettably, the current pro-European elites are ill-equipped to counter the rising power of euroscepticism. For one, to put it mildly, they are dead boring if not incomprehensible in the way they communicate the main virtues of the integration process. They hardly spark emotion, do not command enthusiasm, let alone the loyalty that compels support, dedication and sacrifice. Europhiles may be able to come up with viable and working policies, to stamp out corruption, and reduce red tape. But unless they come up with a new founding myth – one that speaks directly and unequivocally to the younger generations of Europeans and stirs their emotions – they will have inevitably to face the eurosceptics on the worst possible terms for them – populist outbidding.

Euroscepticism is, among other things, a function of democracy. Demonizing it will not help. Today the pro-European elites have two alternatives before them: to accept the status quo and fight for the fading “ever closer union” myth at the polling stations, or to come up with a new vision for a united Europe without alternative. The former seem less and less equipped to sustain trust, support, and legitimacy especially among the young and the disillusioned.  The outcome from the EP elections in May will show which way this issue goes. Regrettably, one can sense the direction already.

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