European Elections Special

Root Treatment

I doubt that a European narrative ever existed. Just listen to the speeches given by European politicians like Angela Merkel.

We are told that the idea of Europe has withered and died. But the writers of Europe’s obituaries have succumbed to a basic misconception: They presuppose the existence of a convincing European narrative during the early years of the European Union. I doubt that such a narrative ever existed.

What we call the “European Union” emerged out of the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993 and built on the various organizations that had come to form the “European Community” over the previous decades: the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Atomic Energy Community, and especially the European Economic Community, which was established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957. For decades, the focus of European cooperation was on economic policy. Transnational agreements eradicated import tariffs and facilitated the free flow of goods, money, and people within Europe. The history of the European Union is a history of increasing freedom of movement.

Always a technocratic construct

Germany – an enemy to most of its neighbors during two World Wars – was treated as a core participant from the beginning. While the historical tensions between Germany and France had clearly been replaced by Cold War tensions between West and East by the 1980s, this must nonetheless count as progress. The countries of Europe were no longer afraid of their German neighbor.

The process of European integration has brought about fifty years of peace in central Europe (although current events in Ukraine have made the limits of pacification painfully evident). But it has also had its downsides. The one-sided focus on economic questions remains one of the key birth defects of the European Union. It has yet to be overcome. The EU promised economic progress and prosperity to its member states, but the crisis of the past years has exposed the core weakness of the European construct: Neither the representatives of transnational institutions nor national governments have succeeded in creating a durable European identity or a European narrative. The argument about “peace through prosperity” sustained the European project for decades, but it has now lost much of its argumentative power.

The European Union has always been a technocratic construct. Indeed, the websites of most EU institutions accurately resemble the functional dynamics: They are visually dull and hard to use. Even today, European institutions are highly bureaucratic and perceived as disconnected from everyday experience. It’s no surprise that complaints about “those in Brussels” have become commonplace and are now being used by skeptical citizens as well as by politicians in search of a scapegoat. This, too, is the consequence of historical developments. Policy-makers in the 1950s were enthralled with the idea of an efficient technocratic mode of governance. In 1954, the French philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul penned an impressive and depressing portrait of a thoroughly technocratized society in his book La technique, ou l’Enjeu du siècle (translated as The Technological Society).

The most persuasive interjection

The lack of a persuasive European narrative continues to present a challenge despite the strengthening of the European Parliament. Public proclamations and discursive rescue efforts offer no real remedy: Public discourse relies on shared social identities, which remain absent in Europe fifty years after the rise of transnational organizations. The nostalgia for national currencies illustrates the dilemma: Many Europeans dwell fondly on their memories of the Deutschmark, the franc or the lira and regard the euro as a cold and impersonal currency.

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas never tires of reminding us that the European Union is not only not producing a shared discourse, but is actively avoiding a discourse with Europe’s citizens. When technocrats govern, the exchange of arguments is relegated to the periphery. The most efficient policy wins over the most persuasive interjection.

The cluelessness of politicians is evident in their public comments. On February 27, 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared before both houses of the British parliament amidst much media fanfare. Many expected her to propose solutions to the European gridlock, or at least to take a firm position vis-à-vis Great Britain. Instead, Merkel began (as she often does) with a personal anecdote. She recounted her first trip to London after the fall of the Berlin Wall, her visit to Hyde Park, a concert performance at Royal Albert Hall. “It was a fantastic trip”, she declared. But Merkel (who grew up in Eastern Germany) quickly skipped over the benefits of freedom of movement and transitioned seamlessly from individual rights to economic liberalism):

Freedom of opinion, freedom of faith, freedom of the press as well as the four freedoms of the single market – the free movement of goods, the free movement of persons, the freedom to provide services and the free movement of payments and capital – these are the key prerequisites for democracy and prosperity, and they belong together!

A programmatic European vision

No mention of a shared European identity, of a shared cultural heritage, shared values, visions, and histories. To Merkel, the European project is rooted in the ideology of neoliberalism. All other areas of policy-making have to be subsumed under the economic agenda. She continued:

All member states of the European Union should ensure that all their European policies – whether energy and climate policy, the shaping of the single market or the management of external trade relations – be measured in terms of whether or not they help enhance Europe’s economic strength.

Such statements don’t suffice for a programmatic European vision. They are too German and insufficiently European. Beyond a discussion of neoliberalism, Merkel generally avoids programmatic statements and retreats into vapid phrases. It is telling that she had to rely on someone else’s words whenever she spoke about the “idea of Europe”. In 1986, then German President Richard von Weizsäcker gave a speech before the Houses of Parliament in which he defended European integration. Almost three decades later, Weizsäcker’s words are called back into service to bridge the silence of the present. Merkel quoted him three times.

Read more in this debate: Vazrik Bazil, Adrian Armstrong.


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