Revitalizing the European Idea

THE HAGUE: The idea of European unity used to appeal to the hearts and minds of Europeans. But its reality, the way the Union actually works, is far less inspiring. What is the cause of this malaise and is there an idea that can mobilize future generations and revitalize the European vision of the past fifty years?

Europe’s failures are often blamed on the fact that the Union is an association of states which tend to put their own interests ahead of the common weal. This is certainly true, but there is also a deeper, less obvious cause of Europe’s troubles. The EU is a rules-based government. This may sound like the rule of law, implying transparency and impartiality. In fact, the EU’s rule-making process, reflecting backroom deals among conflicting national interests, is anything but transparent. Decisions of the Council of Ministers are just like treaties: difficult to reach and difficult to alter. The rules that emerge are often too detailed, too rigid, and inappropriate to changing circumstances.

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But the real problem lies with the very idea that social, economic, and political reality can be mastered by general norms. Life is far too complex and changeable to be governed by fixed rules. The Maastricht Treaty, for example, detailed the conditions to be met and timetable to be followed in introducing a single currency. During the treaty negotiations, few foresaw that Europe would suffer a prolonged period of high unemployment. Reducing government spending, as Maastricht demanded, is not the right policy in a recession. Admittedly, Europe’s economies need to make structural adjustments, but emphasizing reduced budget deficits probably prolonged the recession.

The flaws of Maastricht epitomize the belief that all problems can be managed if you enact enough rules. To have an independent central bank that determines the common monetary policy and then have a stability pact that imposes rigid rules on fiscal policy deprives governments of the tools for macroeconomic management. What worries me most is that I don't see mechanisms for correcting error.

What the unblinking commitment to governance by rules ignores is that our understanding is inherently imperfect; the ultimate truth, the perfect design for society, is beyond our reach. Error -- and therefore a mechanism for its correction -- is an essential, unavoidable feature of human action. We cannot devise a system of rules that will anticipate every contingency: we must thus content ourselves with the next best thing: a form of social organization which falls short of perfection but holds itself open to change and improvement. That is the idea of open society, and I would like to propose it as a new organizing principle for the European Union.

The Maastricht Treaty, as indeed, the bureaucrats’ idea of the European Union, is a Cartesian, rationalist construct, and it shares the problems of Descartes’ faith in the supremacy of reason. For fifty years, Brussels bureaucrats moved with precise, logical steps, limiting their goals, and setting firm timetables. When one goal was reached it became obvious that another step was needed. Public support was then mobilized. Step-by-step, the Union progressed to become perhaps the greatest feat of social engineering in history.

The limits of this construction were reached with the Maastricht Treaty. The rigidity inherent in the euro means that the common currency will have to be followed by a common fiscal policy, including a harmonization of taxes on the earnings of capital. But such measures will be extremely unpopular. If so, the common currency may end up destroying the European Union because its deficiencies cannot be corrected by just taking another step forward.

It is time to change course. Since Descartes’s time, we have had ample opportunity to discover that reason has its limitations. When I speak of Europe as an open society, I am thinking about coming to terms with our fallibility. Injecting a dose of British empiricism into Europe’s Cartesian project could do the continent a lot of good.

The idea of open society, with its commitment to freedom and social justice, can perhaps also give Europe the sense of mission that it now lacks. During the Cold War, the presence of a common totalitarian enemy seemed to provide Europe with its moral purpose. But now that the communist menace has disappeared, the unity of the West is also disintegrating. The task before us is to re-energize Europe through an idea that inspires.

What would the EU look like as an open society? There would be a common market, common currency, and common fiscal policy, but also a government accountable to its people. The federal European government can only be acceptable if it is combined with the notion of subsidiarity, necessary to accommodate the rich cultural and national heritage of the continent. Safeguarded by a Bill of Rights and independent judiciary, Europe would be even more likely to succeed than the United States as a prototype of open society. Its diverse nationalities, cultures and traditions are nevertheless not too far removed from each other to be compatible. There is a reasonable balance between the states that comprise it, although after reunification Germany has become a little too strong for comfort. All that is missing is a unifying idea.

Establishing a common vision above petty interests is of particular importance in European defense. Today’s European security issues are no longer simply tied to the interests of individual countries. The conflict in Bosnia illustrates this very well. The war there did not impinge on the national interests of any one country. Nevertheless, the passivity of the rest of Europe may have inflicted more damage to the common European interest than any other event in recent history. It was grievously mishandled because it was not treated as an open society issue.

It is for the people of Europe to decide exactly what kind of Europe they want. The EU as it is fails to meet their needs and aspirations. But what is imperfect can be improved. This is what open society is all about.

Read more from our "Europe's Nobel Project" Focal Point.