Europe's missing link

Adam J Chmielewski
24 August 2005

2005 has proved a bad year for supporters of the integration and expansion of the European Union. The majority of voters in the referenda in France (29 May) and in the Netherlands (1 June) rejected the EU’s constitutional treaty; the subsequent summit in Brussels (16-17 June) failed to agree the union’s budget for 2007-2013.

The prevailing opinion in European and world media is that these events have inflicted a severe blow on EU institutions, as well as revealing sharp, troubling divisions over the union’s very identity and direction. Some commentators (like Gwyn Prins in openDemocracy) suggest that monetary union and the euro are doomed; others declare that enlargement is at an end. Few note that the Europessimists’ referendum victories were no landslides, or that the EU’s budget debates have always been fractious.

Also in openDemocracy on the mid-2005 European Union meltdown:

Krzysztof Bobinski, “Poland’s letter to France: please say oui

John Palmer, “After France: Europe’s route from wreckage”

Aurore Wanlin, “European democracy: where now?”

Theo Veenkamp, “Dutch sign on Europe’s wall”

Simon Berlaymont, “What the European Union is”

Krzysztof Bobinski, “Democracy in the European union, more or less”

More seriously, European political leaders (possibly excepting Tony Blair) have displayed remarkable lack of leadership in response to these events. In face of challenges that should inspire, they seem ready to give up on the best idea Europe has ever had: the project of European unification by democratic consent.

A misfortune can also bring benefit, however. The crisis of 2005 has opened a public space to restart the debate on the future of the European Union and of democracy in Europe. This discussion, taking place among citizens across the continent, in a wide variety of forums – including openDemocracy’s debate – will be decisive in helping us to choose whether we Europeans are to save this project, or abandon it altogether. But if we are to save it, what must we do?

An avoidance

The European Union has until now functioned in two dimensions, the historical-political and the economic-pragmatic. Each has involved a major, often burdensome responsibility: preserving the continent’s peace and ensuring its people’s prosperity. In order to continue discharging these responsibilities, I believe the European Union must enter a third, geopolitical-strategic dimension – and embrace a responsibility for human security and wellbeing far beyond Europe.

The European Union has had one good reason for refusing this third dimension: historical guilt. Europe showed its ugliest face to the world in the first half of the 20th century, mostly through disastrous efforts to influence the shape of the world. Why try to do so again?

But this justification for Europe’s avoidance of strategic engagement has also acted as a convenient dual pretext. It left the task of securing the global order to the United States, while allowing Europe to continue developing its elaborate and popular social programmes.

Europe has now entered a different moment in its history, one where its own interests and those of the rest of the world combine in new ways. An active European strategic role has become necessary for world security, and it may also contribute to its own peace and prosperity.

A blockage

In recent decades, the economic-pragmatic dimension of the European Union has become more prominent than the historical-political. Both “old” and “new” members of the union have seen it primarily in economic terms. This view has been reinforced by popular expectations and claims which the union has sought both to raise and to satisfy. The result has been to make the EU as a whole a mechanism of social democracy.

The downside is evident: ever-growing economic demands, a lack of dynamism, low productivity, ossification of the labour market. But opposition to the Agenda 2010 plan produced by the government of the EU’s powerhouse, Germany, shows how difficult it is to persuade old, lazy Europeans to forsake the privileges they won.

Under these pressures, it is very difficult for the economic-pragmatic dimension of the European Union to continue to do its work. The regional and social inequalities that result create further tensions and fears. At this point, the historical-political dimension is called into question too. As dissatisfaction with the economic and social policies spreads, spectres from the European past are reawakened, making the achievement of European peace seem less plausible than a return to its fractious, even nightmarish past.

A discrepancy

Aspirations offer a true picture of deficiencies. The Lisbon agenda outlined in March 2000 commits the European Union to becoming “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-driven economy by 2010” – based on knowledge, capable of sustainable development, offering more jobs and more social cohesiveness. The Lisbon strategy to realise these aims comprises seven “dimensions of competitiveness” – headed by “the creation of the information society for all” and “the European area of research and innovation”.

Similar ideas are found in the manifesto of “new social democracy” agreed between Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, and again in Agenda 2010. Such reform plans stem from a conviction that the most efficient way to boost the union is to develop scientific, cutting-edge research as a source of innovation and economic competitiveness.

These ideas are very far from fulfilment; even the authors of the Lisbon strategy acknowledge the “serious danger” of failure. The Americans with whom Europe tries in vain to compete are laughing, and no wonder: about 40% of the European Union budget is still spent on agricultural subsidies, outstripping by far spending on scientific research.

The discrepancy between European aspirations and European realities suggests that the European Union has entered the 21st century as a victim of traditional, largely French, agrarianism. The EU will put its modernising ambitions into practice only when it musters the courage to reformulate its priorities.

The dimensions on which the EU currently operates also generate new, transnational antagonisms. These include a range of quarrels between advocates of different visions of Europe:

  • Europe as federal superstate vs Europe as community of nation-states
  • Europe of solidarity vs Europe of national egoisms
  • Europe of spirit vs Europe of accountants
  • Europe’s core vs Europe’s peripheries
  • Europe’s deepening vs Europe’s expansion

To acknowledge the geopolitical-strategic role of the European Union would be the starting-point of overcoming these disputes. If the EU entered this third dimension, it could seize the opportunity to redefine itself in terms of the responsibility for the world it avoided in the postwar decades. The European quarrel between spirituality and accountancy – like so many other quarrels – has its solution in responsibility.

A questioning

The last sixteen years have witnessed several spectacular signals of global transformation:

  • the liberating wave of 1989 that unseated communism – rather unjustly symbolised by November’s fall of the Berlin wall rather than by June’s breakthrough victory of Poland’s Solidarity movement
  • the terrorist assaults on the United States of 11 September 2001
  • the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the wider “war on terror”
  • the enlargement of the European Union by ten new countries in 2004.

Among this unique sequence of events, the policy and practice of the United States administration since 9/11 is crucially important for the new dimension that Europe needs to acquire. The landmarks of this US approach are its tendency to pre-emptive and unilateral action, its aggressive missionary rhetoric, its belief in the efficacy of military solutions, its lack of respect for international institutions, (including the United Nations and the International Criminal Court), and – especially – its maltreatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.

These attitudes extend to a patronising or contemptuous approach to Europe. A high official of the US administration summarised US policy toward European integration in a word: “disintegration!” John Hulsman on openDemocracy offers another: “cherry-picking”.

In response, Europe has found in America a negative point of reference. Some Europeans have even begun to question the moral difference between regimes equally prepared to denigrate, torture and even murder prisoners – and in the very same prison, Abu Ghraib. They ask whether the moral rectitude that underpins United States policy has given its agents a sense of impunity. The logical conclusion of such questioning is for Europeans to establish a new, positive understanding of themselves and their position in the world.

A vision

There is growing evidence that just such a mental transformation is underway. It may even be that the reaction in Europe to the scorn and hubris of the United States reflects not the dissolution of the “west” (it is doubtful in any case if the “west” was ever such a unified reality), but the exposure of ever-present underlying differences that have long lain unnoticed.

Since the cold war polarisation between (good) west and (evil) east ended, there have been strong ideological efforts to replace it by a new global antagonism between occident and (Muslim) orient. This attempt has not been completely successful, for the internal schism within the west/occident is sharpening: between (in only slight caricature) a post-Christian Europe from Venus with Immanuel Kant as its guidelight, and an America-reborn-in-Christ from Mars with Thomas Hobbes as its inspiration.

The “innocent” America, it might be said, is intensifying its outdated occidentalism, a mindset that reinforces its post-9/11 manichean vision and global ambitions; “guilty” Europe, forced by history to forsake its own Eurocentrism, is gradually regaining it, albeit in another (“post-postmodern”) form.

The emerging alternative visions are becoming starkly apparent. The US offers a missionary, military, unilateral route to imposing unity on the world, one infused with occidentalist dogma. The European Union, in its very existence as an independent agent with rich experience in peacefully overcoming historical conflicts and enmities, could offer a far stronger promise: world unity built on negotiated, political, multilateral compromise.

A future

A key part of this third dimension of European Union activity is the inclusion of Turkey. The accession of Turkey to the European Union could help stabilise the middle east and enhance security in the wider region. The refusal of Turkey to support the US over Iraq reflects a rethinking of its own that makes it a more suitable partner of the EU than ever.

Turkish membership would open new economic perspectives for the union. True, its poverty and the problems of its Kurdish minority would present major challenges in the early years, but this is more than compensated by the opportunities of building relationships with a dynamic, youthful market. There is also a vital oil factor: important pipelines from Iraq to the west pass through Turkey, carrying an increasingly expensive commodity whose high price owes much to American foreign-policy failures. Europe needs to support Turkey’s potential to contribute to its own, to Europe’s and to the world’s stability, and all this can best be done if the European Union offers Turkey a place at its heart.

Adam J Chmielewski is professor of philosophy in the Institute of Philosophy, University of Wrocław, Poland. His books include Popper's Philosophy: A Critical Analysis (1995), Incommensurability, Untranslatability, Conflict (1997), and Open Society or Community? (2001).

This article is adapted from a paper he delivered at the third Wrocław University International Summer School in July 2005

The theme of the gathering was “Dimensions and Responsibilities of the European Union”

That other giant on the EU’s fringes, Ukraine, is in a different position, despite the hopes raised by its “orange revolution” of 2004-05. It is unlikely to become a European Union member for the foreseeable future, mainly because Europe’s dependence on Russia’s energy resources require it to preserve good relationships with Russia and respect Russian strategic interests.

In this respect, Poland’s advocacy of early Ukrainian membership of the union visibly lacks credibility and altruism, and is as misplaced as its more recent bout of anti-Russian (or anti-Putin) hysteria; these may be more of an obstacle than an aid to the Ukrainians’ hopes. In any case, the EU’s geopolitical-strategic turn should avoid a new enmity with Russia.

A fresh internal policy on investment, science and the market; a coherent alternative to United States policy and attitudes; new thinking on Turkey, Ukraine and Russia; an understanding of world polarities that rejects west/east simplifications – these are components of the necessary third dimension of EU thinking. After the setbacks of 2005, they can be the foundations of a democratic correction to the stifled, bureaucratised, defensive outlook that has characterised the European Union’s operations for too long.

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