Friday, December 19, 2003

Thoughts on the EU

Since I've written before on the issue of Europe and its "identity crisis," I'd thought I'd chime in a little bit on the recent collapse of talks on finalizing the proposed European Union constitution. My thoughts were crystallized by a couple of intriguing posts; one by Maria Farrell over at Crooked Timber, the other by Nick Barlow at A Fistful of Euros. Nick's piece is better I think; while Maria's comments provide an interesting take on some dynamics internal to life in the divided patchwork of nations which is Europe today, Nick's puts the larger issues which are at the heart of the struggle over the EU into what I see as their appropriate context.

For Maria, the big story is that Italy blew it, demonstrating once again that the European Union is often more hurt than helped by the excessive involvement of larger states (namely, France, Italy, Great Britain and Germany) who are "always running off in triumvirates, or quadriviates or what have you every 5 minutes and declaring themselves the engine of Europe." Maria doesn't get into the particulars of the debate in Rome, which dealt at length with the relative voting weights of countries of different sizes within the constitutional structure, but it surely must be part of her thinking when she emphasizes the need to recognize "the big role that smaller countries play in greasing the wheels of the European machine." As she concludes, "as of 1st May next year, small countries will be in the majority of EU member states...and we're here to stay." Her attitude is certainly an admirable one, one that fits well with the aggressive stance taken by some of the larger "small" countries, such as Poland and Spain, in defending the agreements by which they first entered the EU. One might even attribute to it a kind of "republicanism" of the sort which informed the original creation of the U.S. Senate: namely, that every body of citizens, in their separate states, has a sovereign standing on the basis of their particular identity and the particular contributions they can make to the union overall. Unfortunately, Maria uses that discomforting word "machine" when referring to the EU in general, and I don't think that's an innocent term. There isn't anything organic to Maria's interest in working out the relations between smaller and larger European countries; the problems facing the EU, and their resolution, exist for her on what seems to be an essentially organizational or institutional plane. And looking at the U.S. Senate, or any kind of federal arrangement within a single union, without also thinking theoretically about the "identity" (historical, moral, cultural, even spiritual) of that union is simply begging for trouble. (The fact that such a common understanding of the res publica is no longer a particularly strong feature of American constitutional thinking is one of the reasons why such nominally or outwardly "republican" arrangements like the senate, or the electoral college, strike so many as unfair and incomprehensible: absent an organic perspective on the polity itself, all that remains is internal democratic struggles, in which case why not just level out all particular differences under a single system?) (This is not, by the way, to expressly defend these arrangements; it is only to point out what is necessary to appreciate and evaluate them.)

Nick does a better job of appreciating and evaluating the real nature of that "trouble" which as-yet-somewhat-identity-less Europe actually faces in its efforts to build a better union. Quoting at length an article by Max Hastings, Nick talks about why it is imperative that Europhiles like himself present an "alter-European" argument: one that, in other words, defends the idea of the EU, but backs away from this particular manifestation of it. "The problem comes," he writes, "from the fact that while there is a growing sense of a common European cultural identity, it's in danger of being swamped by an overly techno-bureaucratic notion of integration being imposed from above....at some point in the future, there will be [a] belief [in a common European identity] present, but that it is not plausible to assign that belief and expectation now." Nick also correctly notes that the "Europe" on behalf of which its member states will ultimately be willing to rethink their own sovereignty in relationship to must offer something positive, something which is essentially a cultural and popular affirmation, rather than an elite declaration of what Europe isn't (i.e., Bush's America). In this context, I would agree with one of Nick's commentators, who asks just "what is so terrible about a 'two speed' Europe" in the first place. I think this is an important question. Many dislike this idea; the notion that France and Germany (various described or self-described as the "core" of the EU, the "avant-garde" of Europe) would go ahead with further integration, without necessarily drawing other European nations into similar arrangements, seems to many as a recipe for bullying. No doubt lingering bitterness fire much of this suspicion; so do the legitimate fears of smaller European countries. On the other hand, it must be noted that this isn't just a "big power" European pact: it is widely understood that Belgium, Luxembourg and perhaps the Netherlands would join France and Germany in any such arrangement. In other words, what we're talking about here is the French-German-Benelux--that part of Europe which already has gone farthest in developing what might be considered a "nationality." Forget about Maria's focus on Europe's strategic machinery; think about this instead, for example, in the context of the debate over the appearance of some reference to Christianity in the EU Constitution: for better or worse, hostility and sympathy to the idea breaks down very neatly along various existing national lines, with France, Belgium and Luxembourg being among the idea's strongest opponents. Now, as I just wrote, I'm not very impressed with secularism as a cultural marker of identity--but one can't dismiss its presence as a real cultural commonality. Simply put, some parts of Europe are much closer to being able to pull off a historical embrace of a kind of "European nationality" than others; why should one object to the further development of a union in such places, where the necessary identity is at least plausible? That may depress some Europhiles, for whom the whole idea is to go "post-political," and be "united in diversity." Good Herderian that I am, I don't think such unity is impossible. But it is far more likely to be possible when there is some communal--or go ahead and say it: national--identification with what that public "unity" substantively is. Consequently, if the current failure of EU talks sparks a greater desire to build on the substantive unity that already exists in (some) places, rather than waiting for it to appear in all places, I wonder if this debacle won't turn out to have a very important silver lining after all.