Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Trouble with Europe

NEW YORK – According to the latest opinion polls, the big winners in the European Parliament election later this month will be right-wing populist parties that share a common loathing of the European Union, most notably the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom’s Independence Party. Though the Euroskeptic right may not win a majority of seats, its collective strength is a blow to the cause of European unity. Why is a project that began with such high hopes in the wake of World War II running into so much resistance?

The success of right-wing populism in Europe stems not only from unease with the EU, but also from a surge of resentment against liberal/left elites, who are blamed for many sources of anxiety: immigration, squeezed economies, Islamic extremism, and, of course, the alleged domination of the “Eurocracy” in Brussels. As is true of Tea Party voters in the United States, some Europeans claim that their countries have been taken away from them.

People feel politically helpless in a world that seems to be increasingly ruled by big corporations and faceless international bureaucracies. The appeal of populism is its claim that things would surely get better if only we could be masters of our own homes again.

What has broken down in many countries is not just confidence in European institutions, but the underlying liberal/left consensus that emerged from the catastrophe of two world wars. After 1945, Christian and Social Democrats shared an ideal of a peaceful, united Europe, with continental solidarity – a commitment to economic equality, the welfare state, and multiculturalism – gradually replacing nationalism.

This ideological edifice began to be seriously dented in the 1990’s, after the collapse of the Soviet empire discredited not only socialism, but any form of collective idealism. Neo-liberalism began to fill the vacuum. At the same time, more and more immigrants, often from Muslim-majority countries, settled in European cities, resulting in social tensions, to which mainstream parties were unable to respond adequately.

Warnings about racism, or “xenophobia,” were no longer convincing in an atmosphere of economic decline and sporadic terrorism. That is why populist demagogues – with their promises to defend Western civilization against Islam, fight “Brussels,” and “take back” their countries from the leftist elites – have done so well.

But this reaction will hardly help European countries thrive. To compete with rising powers on other continents, a common European foreign and defense policy will become increasingly important. And a shared currency, however flawed its conception, demands common financial institutions, which will be impossible to establish and sustain unless Europeans regain their sense of solidarity.

The question is how? What, for example, can convince relatively wealthy northern Europeans, especially in Germany, that their tax money should be used to help southern Europeans in times of crisis?

Unfortunately, pan-national movements do not have a good track record of nurturing a common sense of belonging. They are either too muddled (pan-Arabism), too dangerous (pan-Germanism), or both (pan-Asianism).

Most of the founders of pan-European institutions, such as Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, and Jean Monnet, were Catholics. Pan-Europeanism comes more naturally to Catholics than to Protestants, because they have traditionally found a sense of belonging in the Roman Church, which often coincided with the idea of Europe. Those who created the European Economic Community in 1957 were, in some ways, the heirs of the Holy Roman Empire.

But this cannot be the model for Europe, whose citizens include members of almost all faiths, as well as many who claim no religious adherence at all.

The kind of ethnic solidarity that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to whip up in the former Soviet empire is certainly not the answer for Europe, either. Ethnic nationalism became a toxic political strategy in the twentieth century, leading to genocide and ethnic cleansing – a legacy that suggests how dangerous Putin’s enterprise is. In any case, Europeans never were ethnically united, and never will be.

Some European leaders, such as former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, dream of a European cultural community. Verhofstadt speaks of his love of French wine, German opera, and English and Italian literature. All have their attractions, no doubt, but will hardly suffice to unite Europeans in a political or economic sense.

The only thing left, then, would be a kind of social contract. European citizens should not be enticed to give up a degree of national sovereignty on religious, cultural, or ethnic grounds. Nor should they be asked to devote some of their taxes to helping other countries out of love and reverence for European flags or anthems. They should be persuaded that it is in their self-interest to do these things.

People would have to be told by their national leaders that some problems can be addressed only by pan-national institutions. Will they be convinced? This question goes back to the old debates of the Enlightenment: John Locke’s social contract, based on enlightened self-interest, versus David Hume’s view that tradition and cultural prejudice are the essential glue of society.

My sympathies are with the former. But history has shown that the latter may have the stronger pull. Then again, history has also shown that traditions are often invented to serve the interests of ruling classes. This has been the problem of European unification: it was always a venture driven by members of a political and bureaucratic elite. Ordinary people were only rarely consulted. And now the populists are reaping the benefit.

Read more from "Europe's Ever-Closer Disunion"

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    1. CommentedCelt Darnell

      I'll take national sovereignty thanks.

      Hume was an empiricist; Locke was not.

      Hume wins.

    2. CommentedGiorgi Kankava

      Is it so clear what is a person's "enlightened self-interest"? If Locke presented it to us, the problem with which the paper is concerned would haven been resolved in the past--it would not be a problem at all; "love of French wine, German opera, and English and Italian literature" is a good thing, yet it cannot exhaust it, indeed. however one would claim that nationalism is out-dated and just "populism," the fact remains that it has got the one into troubles so far. The paper is a good example of this kind of things. Actually, it is a flaw of nationalism studies in the end. What is nationalism? How personal "self-interest" is connected with it, if ever, and if yes, how this echos at a political level? Politically, we have known nations and their nation-states. Imagine now that the connection is positive. Then how you could establish a European state without establishing a European nationality at once? Is it thinkable given the current state of affairs, though? The problem is that neither on the right nor on the left there is no clear understanding of why it matters at all--only sentiments on the one hand and explanations incapable of leading to consensus with the former, on the other. It seems that until the answer is absent the trouble with establishing a realistic or reliable European integration project will endure. Knowledge is power-no?

    3. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Mr. Buruma, Bill Clinton said in his 1992 presidential campaign: "It's the economy, stupid"! And this may as well be "the trouble with Europe"!
      More than half a century ago, it was the disastrous aftermath of World War II which underlay the imperative to forge stronger ties among nations in Europe to guard against any such devastation recurring. French statesmen Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman were the architects of the principle that the best way to bring nations closer together was by developing economic ties.
      Today it's the economy again, that might spoil this spirit. In times of economic downturn, citizens in each country believe they should look out for themselves. As nationalism is on the rise, so are resentments towards the EU policies, especially in economic issues. A tug of war between nationalism and European federalism is unfolding ahead of the election.
      Pundits predict that "the big winners in the European Parliament election later this month will be right-wing populist parties that share a common loathing of the European Union". True, yet although they share the same anathema, they don't always have the same agenda and they try to outdo each other.
      Recently an open warfare has broken out between two of Europe's leading Eurosceptics. Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front (FN), has accused Nigel Farage, head of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) of labelling her party "racist". Farage had rejected ties with the FN for its "anti-Semitism and general prejudice".
      Le Pen belittled the UKIP, saying its members were "a bunch of drunks and racists", a phrase used by David Cameron and insisted Farage were no better. She blamed it on an old rivalry "between France and England", as both couldn't agree on who should be the top dog after the election. Indeed recent polls have showed that Eurosceptic groups are posing a threat to established parties. UKIP and FN are said to come top in their own countries. Likewise Italy's Five Star Movement and other far-right fringe parties elsewhere.
      But the Le Pen-Farage row also highlights the difficulties that Eurosceptics may have in forming a cohesive bloc in the European Parliament. UKIP has rejected ties with parties with far-right reputations, like the FN and Geert Wilders' Dutch Freedom Party (PVV). Yet in turn, others like Germany's Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) distances itself from UKIP, saying its views are too extreme.
      Paradoxically FN seems to garner support in France among immigrants, who might vote for this party. Le Pen's rhetoric is based on using policies of the left - like protectionism - to wrest sympathy from left-wing parties. She reckons the FN will be able to ally with the Dutch PVV as well as nationalist parties in Austria, Italy, Belgium and Sweden.
      The question is whether the tensions over anti-EU policies and the traditional prejudices between national interests and pan-European populist movements would be an obstacle to any meaningful co-operation between Eurosceptic parties.

    4. CommentedMichael Remler

      Let us think the unthinkable: Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders etc are right. Let us say the thoughts the Euro elite thinks is at best proto-fascist. The indigenous peoples of of Europe like French, Dutch and other local tribes have rights that should be enforced to protect their their fragile culture and lifestyle from the depredations or transnational organizations and squatters from over crowded neighboring civilizations they find alien.
      Breathes there the man with soul so dead
      Who never to himself hath said,
      This is my own, my native land!
      And, doubly dying, shall go down
      To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
      Unwept, unhonored , and unsung.

    5. CommentedThomas Beyer

      The Euro was a big mistake. Germany not only exports VWs, BMWs and Bosch equipment but also unemployment to its weaker neighbors. Italy, Spain, Greece, Ireland all need their own currency to compete effectively. This lack of adjustment of currencies coupled with a huge fourth layer of bureaucracy stifles most European nations.

      Unlike China or US where everyone speaks the same language and shares similar culture , Europe is far more divergent, as shown by 12+ languages and different vastly different cultures.

        CommentedMark Taylor

        The Euro in itself was not the mistake, the error was in how it was implemented. Far too ambitious, far too many countries, and far too many of those countries included due to political expediency rather than economic common sense.
        The weaker European economies (i.e the PIIGS) did not have the modern, efficient industries that could compete with their more effective northern neighbours. Thus they lacked the strength in exports to maintain a stable and sustainable balance of payments. That Brussels allowed it to go on for as long as it did suggests a degree of collusion or incompetence that beggars belief.
        Though hindsight might be a wonderful thing; did none of them possess the foresight to suggest a much smaller, more workable alternative? Notably one that included, France, Germany, The UK, Benalux, and possibly Denmark. Six to seven first rate, first world economies with a combined population of around 250 million people. The economics would have been sound, but the politics would have made it an impossibility.

    6. CommentedGerry Hofman

      The Euro skeptics are no threat to Europe. What they will do is lay a basis for the emergence of an Opposition in Parliament, which up to now is still completely missing. What they will also do is bring the fears, opinions of the common people to the foreground,which so far are completely ignored, thereby strengthening the democratic process.
      Furthermore, the skeptics in their current form cannot persist. Aside from the obvious contradiction of putting MEPs in place who's stated objective is to dismantle the very structure they are elected to, they also show their contempt by being absent from the proceedings while accepting the very generous remunerations. This obvious contradiction will be their undoing.
      The rise of the populists is obviously based on the dissatisfaction of the people with the various policies and solutions that are forced upon them, so It is not the integration process that is in danger but the ruling elite's sole domination of the political process, their ideas and ideals, and the ignorance of the common people's wants and needs. For Europe to properly develop it must put the founding ideals to the side and start working with the population's situation on the ground.

    7. CommentedMK Anon

      What unifies Europe? Well, we could start with something called "democracy". Basic rules are that every country can put a veto on any law or change.
      So let's look for example at the most prominent case: the european constitution. It was rejected by two referendum, and however, 99% of its content was enacted. How democratic is that? And now, there are no more referendums

      Democracy should also let poeple call referendum. In many countries, more than half thepopulation is against the TTIP.. but they will do their best to impose it anyway. What about the new regulation that allows worker to be on country A for social security, but work on country B? The ultimate goal is to make countries in competition, not cooperation. Was there a referendum for that? What about the "bokenstein" law? Was there a referendum? What about a REAL financial regulation that would definitely get rid of speculation or high frequency trading? Don't you think that 99% of the population would stand behind such policy ??

      Now in brussels, there are 700 MPs and more than 4000 registered lobbiest, most of them from big corp. Draghi himself is a former goldman sachs director

      I just have one thing to say: it is totally outrageous to have to vote for far-right extremesit parties in order to get "democracy" !! No traditional party stands for democracy anymore. And I mean what I say: there is no democracy anymore.

    8. CommentedWilliam Wallace

      The broader trend behind today's populism is the close of the window of prosperity opened by the industrial revolution. While the Black Plague made labor scarce, and later developments made skilled labor positions possible, those higher incomes are disappearing as we return to an age of concentrated capital and over-abundant, and therefore exploited, labor.

      Increasingly, it appears that the rise of plural economic society was a bubble of its own, resulting from a specific mix of labor supply, demand and technology. Mass employment of skilled and semi-skilled labor is now a thing of the past in the West, with the surviving industrial core unable to generate sufficient employment.

      The welfare state was an answer by the elites to the threats of socialism and communism. With those vanquished, there is no disguising the myriad attempts on both sides of the Atlantic to privatize and/or eliminate social protections. In a chilling return to the past, even heretofore progressive voices are beginning to advocate the end of the minimum wage as the best way to increase employment.

      All the while, the achievements of the cash-flow enabled are taunted as examples of individual initiative in isolation from society, as if those with wealth had invented all the cultural and physical infrastructure key to their achievements. It is their financial well-being that is and has been totally protected from loss or erosion.

      These folks place a pea on top of a pyramid and call it a monumental achievement. Rather disgusting, actually.

      The neo-liberal economic revolution is beginning to be perceived for what it is, a cold doctrine of protection for capital and of aggression toward labor.

      I am reminded of the cynical conservative support in Germany for the Nazi party as a way to head off more liberal movements. That such a move should prove inevitably wrong and disastrous for all is something that ought to be kept in mind by those now financing the Tea Party and its European equivalents.

    9. CommentedVal Samonis

      The EU is a Crooked Pisa Tower that needs to be rebuilt from fundamentals or we will have a catastrophe, a repetition of the European history!

    10. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      Our main problem is that we still try to solve everything from top down.
      The whole European Dream was lost because the founding leaders only cared about markets, finances and profit, ignoring the diverse, many times chaotic nature of the continent the author is describing.
      Economists like Thomas Pikketty try to offer solutions using economics, this article is offering either political solutions or some kind of a social contract.
      But nobody is thinking why would people accept anything, why would people want to change, when they lost trust, they turn back to extremist ideologies and are prepared to vote for separation?
      Before we want solutions, before we want to ask people's opinion (provided the public still matters) those people need information, need a chance to understand where they are, what conditions they are facing and they need a truly free choice to make a decision.
      We are at very fragile crossroads, we do not have many chances to get the next steps right, if we make the wrong turn we could run off the cliff, triggering one of the many destructive scenarios surrounding humanity today.
      In a global, mutual manner, open free and transparent for everybody, we all have to start a discussion, information exchange about the global, integral system we evolved into, with all of its consequences and principles.
      We have to help people to start sensing, tasting what it means to be interconnected and interdependent so they could devise systems to make it work optimally.
      We all have to discuss and understand without bias and lobbying what it means to exist in a natural system that cannot be exploited in order to fuel a totally artificial and unsustainable economic and financial model.
      Finally we have to start building from the ground up, in full awareness of our external and internal conditions, being ready to fundamentally change everything we built or believed in before.
      There is no more time or chance for instinctive reactions, or "kicking the can" or "burying the head in the sand" policies.
      We are in an unprecedented state nobody has experience for, we do not have the tools or methods.
      But if we try understanding this new evolutionary state and work out a solution for it mutually together, we will succeed and elevate ourselves onto a previously impossible and "not even dreamed of" level of life.