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The cosmopolitan problem

Jon Bright
2 October 2007

Can a political project survive without a people? Do all states need a nation to exist in? Just who are the Europeans anyway?

These are foundational questions for the EU, it seems, yet they're ones without good answers. In Britain, as we frequently write over on OurKingdom, we suffer from a lack of a coherent constitution but rumble on on the back of a still widely held (though thinning) idea of British identity. The EU seems to suffer from the reverse problem - an abundance of fresh political settlements trying to unify an incredibly diverse set of populations and peoples almost 500 million strong, with no firm European identity to build on and general public ignorance of exactly what is going on. The EU's motto, "united in diversity", celebrates at once a wonderful cosmopolitan ideal and the slightly disingenuous way in which it always manifests itself - people cannot be united solely through the fact that they are different.

What might it mean to be European? Well the institution does have a plan. 1993's Copenhagen Criteria define the barriers to entry: any prospective new European state must have a democratic system of governance, uphold ideas of human rights, and have a "functioning" market economy, of a certain standard. So far so cosmopolitan - with a foundation of liberalism, the peoples of the world can unite around certain fundamental ideals (or criteria) and then get on with pursuing their own version of the good life. Can't this be the basis for the project?

The problem with cosmopolitanism, the reason I call it disingenuous, is that it is slightly two faced about the role it wants to play in your life. Can a multiplicity of cultures 'sit on top' of a basis of liberal values? Only if one's culture is not integral to one's personality. For a cosmopolitan, liberalism defines the worldview, the outlook on life. Culture is preference - a choice about where to eat or what music to listen to. Frederic Jameson called this postmodernism - he described a "new depthlessness" to culture removed from context. Whether you want to use such a contested term is up to you. But what does liberal cosmopolitanism do when confronted with someone whos moral compass, whos very outlook on life, is determined by their culture - perhaps in the form of their religion? Are we still able to unite in diversity then?

This is the founding problem of the European project. It claims to be less than it is, trying to sell an idea of administrative union that we need not worry about. But a society's system of government is foundational to its collective identity - and when people feel that this system is being somehow stripped away they perceive it as a loss of their identity, their culture. A move to the metric system was resisted so bitterly in Britain precisely because a system of weights and measures can represent more than just a way of finding out how many bananas you have - in can be part of a culture.

In Britain, apart from when it is making negative headlines, evidence that the EU exists is slim - it has never, to the best of my recollection, really tried to sell itself to the voter, or emphasise its many positive sides. But this is exactly what it needs to do if it is to succeed there - the EU wants to occupy parts of our identity that have long been occupied by British institutions, and it needs to make a case for this. It cannot assume that a union around liberalism is unproblematic for the ideas and cultures of the vast diversity it seeks to represent - or it will continue to meet its current level of stiff resistance.

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