Saturday, April 05, 2003

Europe, Anti-Europe

Europe is a rather complex, sometimes confused, often self-contradictory place, which makes studying it rather amusing. Over the last couple of weeks I posted two pieces on the European subject, one making a claim about the imminent (and rhetorical) death of the European Union, the other pointing to a blatant, though muted, about-face by a French political commentator regarding the nationalist aspirations of Iraqis all in the service of belittling the Americans.

Responses to these articles, especially those from Europeans, were mixed, though generally they fell into two categories. The first group, in quite diplomatic tones, assured me that I had misunderstood the raison d’être of the EU. The second group, slightly less diplomatic, accused me of being an American patsy terrified by a Europe that will soon overtake the US in both economic and military dominance. As it turns out, I tend to agree with both criticisms because both reflect something of Europe’s current reality, but they also demonstrate the inherent, even naïve contradictions that now dominate Europe. It is this situation that I shall reflect upon today.

As I see contemporary Europe there are two things taking place simultaneously, two things which are opposed but in another respect form a logical sequence. The first reality is a Europe-wide phenomenon – a radical obsession with human rights, legalism and moralistic abstractions to the detriment of a healthy political life on either the European or national level. The second is a contrary but related occurrence – a heightened identification with the peculiarities of national cultural and social traits, often with little reflection or thought about such identification.

Let’s begin with the first development. When I first wrote a week or two ago that the European Union was dying, I referred explicitly to the fact that the EU has no political reason apart, it would seem, from acting as some sort of counter to the US. As I mentioned, some Europeans later wrote to tell me I had misunderstood the purpose of the EU, that it was only meant to be a free trade zone, and on this level, integration was proceeding as planned – Europe was becoming one. The problem is this point actually confirmed what I was saying. Europe is becoming more economically integrated, but economics is not politics, and it seems that those constructing the new Europe are aware of this, as they, contrary to what many Europeans appear to believe, do want to build a political Europe – a fact they repeat endlessly in their rather droning speeches.

But here we run into a problem because the political Europe the politicians and bureaucrats seek to build isn’t political. Rather, it would be more appropriate to call the new Europe anti-political. Just as there is anti-matter, so would Europe be the anti-polity.

What could this mean? Well, as I’ve mentioned before, the European Union was founded with two specifically political purposes in mind. (Incidentally, on this point there were some critics who thought I’d confused the EU with NATO. To see why I haven’t, I ask that they now follow my reasoning.) The first political purpose was to prevent France and Germany from engaging in yet another devastating war. The second political purpose was to create a bulwark against Soviet expansion. The means for achieving these political goals, however, were not really political but economic. Perfectly in tune with the view of thinkers such as Montesquieu and Constant, the founders of the European Common Market, which included France, Germany, Italy and Benelux, reasoned that the best way to prevent future war between the French and Germans was to link them through such strong economic ties that war would be deemed far too costly and destructive a folly to undertake ever again. This related directly to the second goal of stopping the Soviet advance. On this score, the first task was simply to ensure that West Germany would not become a neutral state between the liberal democratic West and the Communist East. Once again, economic ties would ensure that West Germany would look to the West as its home. The second task was to build a strong West European economy with a relatively decent standard of living for all its residents. The idea here was to counter the communist claim that the lower classes were economically oppressed in the West. If it could be shown that West European capitalism combined with the welfare state could provide a better life for all its citizens than could communist central planning, then the West would win. All that would be needed was for the West to wait for the eventual demise of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union attempted to compensate for Western economic superiority by lying, by telling its people that the West was imperialist, that it was bent on destroying them, that it was determined to oppress the peoples of the Third World, etc. The interesting thing is that no one in Eastern Europe, not even the Soviet top brass believed the lies. On the other hand, there were plenty of gullible adherents in the West, most notably in the universities of Paris, Cambridge, Oxford, Rome and the US, not to mention an odd group of anti-liberal clerics wandering the corridors of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Though the Soviets no longer believed the lie, they continued to live under it, and the result was the complete destruction of anything even remotely approaching healthy political life in the Soviet Union and its satellites. Unwilling to admit the superiority of the Western economic and political system, the Soviets wove fabulous tales of Western decadence rather than deal with their own problems. When such a corrupt system finally began to change in the 1980’s, the cynicism it had sown overtook the possibility for reform and the whole edifice collapsed.

This brings us back to the European Union. The EU, consisting of the original six, had a political mission to be achieved through economic means. This is why it differed from NATO. NATO was a strategic alliance simply, and therefore used military means, not economic ones, to achieve a political goal.

But today France and Germany are unlikely to go to war and the Soviet Union is no more. As a result, NATO’s future is rather unclear, but so is that of the EU. The United States was vindicated when the Berlin Wall fell, but Europe was thrown into an identity crisis. Oddly enough, most Europeans haven’t really taken account of this dilemma. I suspect the reason is that they are somewhat anaesthetized precisely because the EU has been an economic success in relative terms. As far as Europe’s citizens are concerned, if you can really use a political term in this context, they are generally pacified, happy consumers. They shun war whenever possible; they concern themselves with their pensions, with their vacations, with their ever-shortening work weeks. They abjure religion and want only to live in perpetual peace and security which have themselves become their religion. The economic means used to achieve the EU’s political goals have become the goals themselves for the mass of Europe’s population. Europeans are more Kantian than Kant, they are Nietzschean last men. This isn’t to say that they are principled pacifists. Indeed, they aren’t really principled at all. They will send their armies, such as they are, to fight, but not with any particular sense of pride.

If this sounds harsh, I don’t mean it to be. It is understandable that a continent that has seen so much war throughout the twentieth century, including colonial wars that led to the end of imperial status for every European nation (on this point, Russia seems to be the only European nation still attempting to hold on to what’s left of its empire as the war in Chechnya attests) should hate war. But even here there is a problem, because most people alive in Europe today knew nothing of the great wars of the twentieth century – they were born after those wars. Most West Europeans at least, have never really known war. It would seem then that their love of peace has more to do, not with an experience of war, but with an education in pacifying commerce and self-interest.

It is precisely the EU as economic force (and here again, we have to note that the economic model used in Europe had a great deal to do with central planning, a type of central planning appropriate to a cold war) that has contributed to the depoliticization of Europe. As the EU grew from the original six to its planned membership of 25, the possibility of constructing any sort of political identity has receded further into the background.

But if Europeans overall are happy to live secure in their economic paradise, there are those who still seek to create what they call a “political” Europe. These include the architects of Europe, people who think Europe needs to integrate on the political as well as economic level. However, like the European masses, these people aren’t really interested in building a political Europe. Rather, they seek to construct an a-political Europe based on legalistic abstractions, human rights, international law, civil society organizations and international agreements. They want to fashion institutions and procedures at the European level that mimic political institutions, but in fact have no political context. In general, these people are often the old leftists, those who were distressed to see the demise of the Soviet Union, those who, at best, saw the United States as the Soviet’s moral equivalent, just another super-power now elevated to the dangerous status of hyper-power. These are people who once believed the Soviet propaganda and now seek to build a Europe that is more or less a watered-down version of communism. In order to do so, they borrow some of the economic tools of capitalism but they put them under the control of an extensive regulatory system based in Brussels. Similarly, they seek to overcome the threats posed to such agencies by unruly and often stubborn electorates though the creation of a web of bureaucracies and pseudo-judicial bodies working in concert with unrepresentative civil society organizations, none of which will ever answer to elected politicians. The goal is a de-politicized political Europe. It will have the power of a polity, but it will have none of its representative institutions. And in this regard, it will make no difference whether or not the European Commission is elected or otherwise as the bodies that actually implement and formulate Europe’s regulations will never be accountable to these elected officials in any case. There will be great calls for solidarity and social justice, but none for liberty or fraternity.

And here lies the key to current differences between the US and Europe. Europe’s population wants only its economic security without political worries. The EU wants its de-politicized “political” institutions and procedures, but the US asserts its political will, which includes everything from exercising its sovereign right to go to war, to refusing to submit to extra-political judicial authorities like the International Criminal Court. The US still has a healthy political life, while Europe is actively seeking to overcome politics altogether. A prime example here is Europe’s rather recent love affair with the United Nations. As we’ve seen during the controversy over the war in Iraq, Europeans, both at the EU level and among the populace, are adamant that the US has undermined international law and the integrity of the UN. From Jacques Chirac to Pope John Paul II, we hear a common chorus insisting that only the UN can legitimize the use of force. On the one hand, this is a historically new phenomenon since both France and the Catholic Church have traditionally had little love for the UN, and it should be pointed out that the US is the only country that has ever attempted to obtain UN approval for international military action. The list of countries that have not includes all permanent members of the Security Council along with such diverse nations as India, virtually all the Arab states, Turkey, Argentina, most African states, Vietnam and Pakistan, and the list continues.

Of course, it should be evident to all that the UN has no such legitimacy. But even more importantly, we need to realize that international law itself has no right to the worship it is currently receiving. The UN is not the holy of holies. It is a tool for achieving a semblance of international order. When the forces underlying that order change, that tool must also change, but it cannot become the unquestioned arbiter of all disputes. The reason for this is that the international law it supposedly upholds is itself nebulous. International law is not the same as laws enacted by national governments. In the case of international law, there are no elected representatives meeting to deliberate on and debate the content and substance of these laws. Instead, we have a ragtag group of entities ranging from democratic nations to totalitarian dictatorships, medieval fiefdoms to absolute monarchies, imperial states to tribal conglomerations, theocracies to oligarchies. It is most certainly a stretch to claim that all members of the United Nations are nations in the modern sense of that term. As such, international law has no commensurate political context. Similarly, the adjudication of international law completely sidesteps any forms of accountability. In modern democracies, the judiciary is one branch of the government along with the legislative and the executive. It has a specific function and it is limited to ruling on laws enacted by the other branches. In the case of international organizations and bodies such as the International Criminal Court this is not the case. These organizations adjudicate without reference to political limits. There are no means to balance their power, and they are more or less free to make up the content of international law as they go along. Certainly they are constrained by treaties and international agreements, but these are highly fluid instruments and are increasingly devised not by national diplomats but by unelected civil society groups, non-governmental organizations and bureaucrats. In addition to which, we have to note that any concern for equal representation is thrown out the window. Unfortunately, it is precisely before this a-political throne that Europe’s governing class bows. Moreover, it is an ideology to which Europeans are themselves being educated.

As I’ve noted, this brings Europe and European opinion into conflict with the US, in a manner not unlike the conflict that brewed between the West and the communist world. On this point, the most telling development is precisely the increasing attempt by the European media and educational system to misrepresent, distort and lie about the US, reflecting the pattern of lies that once dominated the Soviet Union. Now I’m fully aware that all countries engage in a degree of propaganda, extolling the merits of the homeland while belittling others. However, it’s only when this practice becomes endemic, when it becomes a fundamental part of the national consciousness, that it becomes a danger both to the world at large and to the health of the nation itself. Increasingly, this is happening in Europe as regards the US. Europeans can disagree with the war in Iraq, and they can dislike George Bush, but what we are now seeing is outright manipulation of the facts in order to cast the US as an imperialist, racist and dangerous power where democracy and dissent are quelled, while throngs of starving and oppressed people live in poverty without health care or public assistance. This malady taking hold in Europe was evidenced in the example I gave in my last post, an example which shows that, no matter what the realities of the war in Iraq, no matter how much commentators must contradict themselves, the overarching goal will always be to show the unabashed evil which is the United States. This is a game which, thankfully, some European leaders are resisting, but it is one that Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder, and even the Christian religion, is now playing to the hilt.

This then is the first major movement I see occurring in Europe: at the European level, there is a turning away from political life both to economic consumerism by the public, and to de-politicized politics on the part of those determined to construct a new “political” Europe. The two elements are part of the same anti-political movement, and oddly enough are the result, in part, of the attempt to reconstruct a pacified economic Europe, though not necessarily an economically free enterprising Europe. Today, the de-politicization of Europe proceeds apace, but with an increasingly political US on the scene, and lacking the Soviet Union as a counter, Europe is naturally attempting to define its non-political politics in opposition to the US. In order to do so, it must engage in the construction of lies about the US, both in terms of its domestic politics and its international role, because political realities are part of human life, and even the mighty European construction cannot overcome them.

The second movement I see occurring is opposed to this first movement, but also its logical outcome. This would be a re-nationalization of Europe, but one in which Europe’s anti-politics merges with each nation’s particular social and cultural traits to produce various strains and forms across the continent. As this post is already rather lengthy, I’m going to save my comments on this second phenomenon for my next installment; however, as I’m heading off to Canada for two weeks, I won’t be posting until I return. And when I do, I’ll come back with some comments, not only about Europe, but about the political scene in my homeland, such as it is.

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