Europe's trance of unreality

Ivan Krastev
25 June 2008

There is something unreal and profoundly disturbing about the latest crisis in the European Union. In theory the results of the Irish referendum held on 12 June 2008 are a fatal blow to the Lisbon treaty and the prospects of reforming the European Union. In theory the only logical outcome of the referendum should be either a Europe of "two speeds" or a paralysed Europe. In reality, however, nobody believes that the Irish vote will bury the Lisbon treaty. The only genuine question is when the Irish will be forced to vote "yes" after they were so unreasonable as to vote "no".

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The mismatch between theory and unreality suggests that the Irish vote was critically important and absolutely insignificant at the same time. The result is that the referendum outcome is surrounded by a sense of pervasive unreality. This, moreover, relates to the context of the Irish "no" as well as its consequences: for the latest Eurobarometer poll finds that the proportion of people in Ireland believing that their country has benefited from EU membership than that in any other European Union member-state - reflecting the fact that since it joined in 1973, Ireland has received twice as much from the EU budget than it has paid in. Yet it was this same Ireland, the biggest success- story of the European integration project, that put this same project in danger in a referendum where only a little over half of voters bothered to participate.

But the Irish voters are not the only surrealists in the latest European psychodrama. A day before the vote, European political leaders had passionately argued that success for the "no" campaign would be a death-verdict for the Lisbon treaty; a day after the vote, European leaders argued with equal passion that in fact nothing really important had happened and that the treaty's ratification should continue.

Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. He served as the executive director of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by Giuliano Amato
This article was first published in the Polish magazine Europe
Also by Ivan Krastev in openDemocracy:

"We are all Brits today: Timothy Garton Ash's Free World" (September 2004)

"Ukraine and Europe: a fatal attraction" (December 2004)

"The European Union and the Balkans: enlargement or empire?" (June 2005)

"Russia post-orange empire" (20 October 2005)

"The new Europe: respectable populism, clockwork liberalism" (21 March 2006)

"The end of the 'freedom century'" (27 April 2006)

"The energy route to Russian democracy" (13 June 2006)

"Between elite and people: Europe's black hole" (4 August 2006)

"'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style" (16 November 2006)

"Europe's new Ostpolitik: a Polish echo" (21 December 2006)

"Russia vs Europe: the sovereignty wars" (29 August 2007)

"Sleepless in Szczecin: what's the matter with Poland?" (19 October 2007)

"The world's choice: super, soft, or herbivorous power?" (26 October 2007) - with Mark Leonard

European Union leaders' common strategy in dealing with the crisis could thus be described as one of "evasion by trivialisation". By agreeing that the best way to react to a crisis is to ignore it, they effectively redefine it in ways that diminish its reality. The Brussels summit of 19-20 June 2008, full of reaction and discussion as it was, was consistent with the default attitude that the EU never has political problems - it only has communication problems. In Brussels' view there are two reasons for what happened in Dublin: the Irish leaders failed to communicate the necessity of the treaty, and people in any case should not have been asked to vote. Voilà!

It cannot work: for European citizens are bored to death with their leaders. The more these leaders are ready to ignore the sense of crisis and disappointment expressed by the voters, the more voters are ready to reject any idea or policy coming from on high. The problem is less that Euroscepticism is on the rise as that Euro-enthusiasm has disappeared. It is safe to predict that if all European Union member-states were to vote on the Lisbon treaty, the result would be an Ireland-style rejection in at least half. The latest version of the dialectic of European integration - its new social pact - proclaims that people can vote "no" only to a certain extent, and that elites preserve the right not to take "no" for an answer. This process of "evasion by trivialisation" is the core of the EU's crisis.

A model no more

A brief comparison between the crisis in the European Union and the crisis in the United States offers an interesting perspective here, and highlights what should make European leaders truly nervous.

The US economy is in recession. The dollar is weak. Social inequality is rising. Many Americans are convinced that their political system is broken. George W Bush is the least popular president in American history. American power is kept hostage in Iraq. Opinion polls indicate a high degree of anti-Americanism around the world. In general the situation is gloomy. But amidst the gloom, there is a sense of momentum for change and the possibility of an alternative. The energy generated by Barack Obama's campaign makes many believe that America can reinvent itself. The perspective of a first-ever black president entering the White House has invigorated American politics. The "Obama promise" could turn out to be an illusion, but at present thousands of young Americans are excited and ready to do something for America. This period, and American elections more generally, demonstrate the major advantage of genuine democratic politics - its ability to turn fears and frustrations into hope.

This energy for change is missing in Europe. There is no alternative that can mobilise the sentiments of the people. The very strength of the European project - its focus on piecemeal engineering and institutional reforms - can also become (and be seen as) its key weakness. This makes Europe boring and unattractive. I know many Europeans who are eager to go to America and campaign for Obama but I do not know anyone who was excited to go to campaign for the "yes" vote in Ireland. Today the world is shaped either by visionary authoritarian leaders or by powerful grassroots democratic movements - and Europe is lacking both. Europe has once again become the "old world".

European elites, by translating catastrophe into mere "turmoil" and by treating any "no" vote merely as a future "yes" vote, run the risk of becoming a victim - rather than making itself the agent - of the major contemporary global transformation. "Europe cannot continue to be a giant Switzerland", writes Kishore Mahbubani, the self-appointed prophet of the Asian century; at least "the Swiss can feel secure because they are surrounded by Europe" (see "Europe is a geopolitical dwarf", Financial Times, 21 May 2008).

Europe is not surrounded by Europe. While European Union citizens live in a bubble of security, they experience rising psychological insecurity about their future on a daily basis. Tony Judt is right when he asserts that the EU cannot realistically promise its members a future as comfortable and as prosperous as in the past. Indeed, the legitimacy of the European project was until now rooted in the EU's success in delivering prosperity and security to its citizens - along with the feeling that EU is the model for the world. In the 1990s, Europe was indeed - in a way that the disintegration of Yugoslavia even accentuated - both the "old continent" but the "new world".

Today, the first two of these classical sources of the EU's legitimacy are hardly questioned anymore. The European economy is doing well, but it is reasonable to expect that it will lose part of its competitiveness to the rising Asian economies. Europeans take their security for granted, even as the concept has profoundly changed in this decade; the European public is now much more scared by the flow of unwanted (but desperately needed) immigrants - many of them non-documented - than by an imagined invasion by foreign armies.

Sleepers, awake

But the third ingredient of the European Union's legitimacy is now in question - and the fact that the EU cannot any longer promise to its citizens that the rest of the world will model itself on Europe could become a more dramatic "fall" than threats to prosperity and rising feelings of insecurity. It is no exaggeration indeed to claim that in the years to come, the European elites will be at the epicentre of an ideological earthquake.

For the last decade, European public opinion assumed that the spread of globalisation is synonymous with the decline of the nation-state and of nationalism as a political force. The European Union was in this sense a "foretaste" of the way the world of the 21st century would be organised. The European elites were tempted to read their own experience of overcoming ethnic nationalism and political religions as a universal trend. "The end of history", an American intellectual catchphrase, also described European reality in the 1990s (Yugoslavia was again a sort of negative confirmation here): old continent, new world.

Among openDemocracy's articles on the European Union's constitutional argument:

Simon Berlaymont, "What the European Union is" (23 June 2005)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (27 July 2005)

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations expressed it well: "Europe represents a synthesis of the energy and freedom that come from liberalism with the stability and welfare that come from social democracy. As the world becomes richer and moves beyond satisfying basic needs such as hunger and health, the European way of life will become irresistible" (see Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century [Public Affairs, 2005]). But what until yesterday looked universal in European experience today is starting to look exceptional. It is enough to look at China, India, and Russia to see that both ethnic nationalism and religion have returned to shape global politics, and that the political regimes these states have built or building are an alternative to liberal democracy not a replica of it.

Russians, Chinese and Indians (and not only they) are more puzzled than fascinated by the European Union. Europe's postmodernity, post-nationalism and secularism are making it more and more different from the rest of the world, and less a model for it. Across much of the the non-European world, the resurgence of ethnic nationalism and of religion is having an increasingly impact; and these forces are also more present within Europe itself. In such circumstances, it is not difficult to predict that the crisis of the universality of the European model can become a profound crisis of Europe's political identity.

The conclusion must be that for the European Union to deal with the current crisis in Europe with the default attitude of "evasion by trivialisation" is a mistaken strategy. The truth is that the future of the EU will be determined not so much by its success in finding workable compromise; it will be determined by its success in finding new social, political and intellectual energy. In a world shaped by popular authoritarian leaders and powerful democratic grassroots movements, Europe is in urgent need of alternative sources of energy. And this time it is about human energy.

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