Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ian Buruma on Europe's Crisis

Ian Buruma has an interesting article on the European Union for Project Syndicate, "Is the European dream dead?" (December 8th, 2011).

I say "interesting" because it echoes some of the points that I've made over the past few years in occasional posts. For instance, I've noted the need to enhance European identity if the EU is to survive, though I believe that such strengthening is possible if grounded in the traditions of Western Civilization, broadly interpreted and deepened, though this won't be easy, and doesn't appear to be working very well at the moment, as Buruma notes:
Since the EU is neither a nation-state nor a democracy, there is no "European people" to see the EU through hard times. Rich Germans and Dutch do not want to pay for the economic mess in which the Greeks, Portuguese, or Spanish now find themselves.

I wouldn't go so far as to declare that no European people exists. The Greeks, after all, got in for being who they are, one of the fountainheads of European Civilization. But the nations of the EU are flirting with nationalism and its risks, which I consider a latent danger in the European psyche, as Buruma also notes:
Instead of showing solidarity, . . . [the northern Europeans] moralize, as though all of the problems in Mediterranean Europe were the result of native laziness or its citizens' corrupt nature. As a result, the moralizers risk bringing the common roof down on Europe's head, and confronting the nationalist dangers that the EU was created to prevent.

National identities are not necessarily inconsistent with Western identity, but extremist views of nationalism will wreck the European project and set European against European. One way to increase a sense of European identity would be to give the people of Europe a greater role in EU politics. I've long argued that the EU suffers from a "democratic deficit" and thus needs more democracy . . . but how? Buruma has similar thoughts:
Europe must be fixed politically as much as financially. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that the EU suffers from a "democratic deficit." The problem is that democracy has only ever worked within nation-states. Nation-states need not be monocultural, or even monolingual. Think of Switzerland . . . . But democracy does require that citizens have a sense of belonging.

Is a stronger sense of belonging possible? Can Europe draw upon common traditions beyond its national differences for the sense of belonging needed to make a democracy work well enough for a greater sense of belonging to develop? Buruma also wonders:
Is this possible in a supra-national body like the EU? If the answer is no, it may be best to restore the sovereignty of individual European nation-states, give up on the common currency, and abandon a dream that is threatening to become a nightmare.

But there is a price to be paid for such a break-up:
Still, even if disbanding Europe were possible, it would come at enormous cost. Abandoning the euro, for example, would cripple the continent's banking system, affecting both Germany and the affluent north and the distressed countries in the south. And, if the Greek and Italian economies face difficult recoveries inside the eurozone, consider how hard it would be to repay euro-denominated debts with devalued drachmas or liras.

Quite apart from the financial aspects, there would be a real danger of throwing away the benefits that the EU has brought, particularly in terms of Europe's standing in the world. In isolation, European countries would have limited global significance. As a union, Europe still matters a great deal.

What, then, can be done? Buruma speculates:
The alternative to dismantling the EU is to strengthen it –- to pool the debt and create a European treasury. If European citizens are to accept this, however, the EU needs more democracy. But that depends upon a vital sense of European solidarity, which will not come from anthems, flags, or other gimmicks devised by bureaucrats in Brussels.

For starters, affluent northern Europeans have to be convinced that it is in their interest to strengthen the EU, as it certainly is. After all, they have benefited most from the euro, which has enabled them to export cheaply to southern Europeans. While it is up to national politicians to make this case, the EU's governing institutions in Brussels, Luxembourg, and Strasbourg also have to be brought closer to European citizens.

Perhaps Europeans could vote for members of the European Commission, with candidates campaigning in other countries, rather than just in their own. Perhaps Europeans could elect a president.

Buruma sees the difficulty, but reminds us of the stakes:
Democracy may seem like a mad dream in a community of 27 nation-states, and perhaps it is. But unless one is prepared to give up on building a more united Europe, it is surely worth considering.

We find Europe caught between a potentially impossible deeper union and a recognizably catastrophic threatening crack-up.

Which will it be?

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At 6:41 AM, Blogger dhr said...

do not want to pay for the economic mess in which the Greeks, Portuguese, or Spanish now find themselves

Thank him for 'forgetting' Italy

Anyway, you (plural) are right: the EU has been thought and built exclusively on economical bases, Marxistically supposing that they were the firmest bases...

At 6:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Has the EU been a Leftist project? I didn't have that impression. Of course, from an American perspective, all of Europe is to the Left . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:38 PM, Blogger dhr said...

Has the EU been a Leftist project?

Oh, no, not strictly, but after Marx any ruling 'philosophy' has been an economic one.

At 3:45 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, the economy is rather important, and is what now drives the political process . . . assuming that Europe wants closer union.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:56 PM, Blogger dhr said...

is what now drives the political process

This is part of the problem, not of the solution, though. Worldwide, I mean.

At 4:06 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But the necessity may drive nations to find a means of cooperating . . . or would, were there no outliers who want other, less admirable interactions.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:21 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

"Left" is a clumsy phrase. Adjust your hermeneutic filter by calling the "it" Weberesque (after Max Weber) and I think you can better describe the phenomenon in Europe (and elsewhere): It is Weberesque technocracy.

BTW, how does one properly formulate Weber's philosophy into an adjective? Weberesque? Weberian? Weberean?

At 9:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"Weberian," I think.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:34 PM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

Nationalism in both the European core and periphery was far more virulent a force from the late 18th through the mid-20th century than it is today. So nationalism does not seem like much of a suspect, let alone a singularly dispositive factor in the threatening demise of Europe.

I think you also need to distinguish between European civilization and political Europe. That the project for unifying Europe politically (both in a strictly political sense and insofar as there is centralized political regulation of fiscal affairs on a Europe-wide basis) is under threat does not necessarily mean that European civilization/culture is similarly threatened. European civilization/culture has withstood tremendous intra-European divisions and conflict in the past.

That is not to say that European civilization/culture is not also threatened, but that the principal threats to European civilization/culture per se lie elsewhere than in putative resurgence of nationalism and/or the current troubles of the Eurozone.

At 3:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Nationalism is still virulent in some parts of Eastern Europe, though that might have faded a bit except for the Balkans. But I suspect that it's still latent in Europe generally. That's part of what's dividing Belgium. I don't want to exaggerate, but the possibility that it could again flare up isn't gone.

I grant the distinction between saving the EU and saving Europe, but I think that Buruma makes a good point in noting that a unified Europe matters very much in the world, but individual European countries matter little.

The real threats to Europe's survival are two: 1) demographic decline and 2) Islam's rise. Moreover, these pose a problem whether the EU survives this crisis or not.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:53 PM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

I also don't mean to derogate the potential for European cultural reinvigoration following on or simultaneously with progress on the European political project. Nor do I derogate the importance of demographic factors, especially insafar as they implicate Islamism. But it seems to me that perhaps equally important is the enormous weakening in the cultural/civilizational self-confidence of Europe that seems to have taken place in waves of various proportions, e.g. fin d'siecle laments about degeneration at the turn pf the 20th century, the impact of WW1, the debacles of 20th century totaliatarianisms and the lingering doubts in so many quarters about Western values and their defensibility and the rather disappointing reactions on both what orwell would have termed the pansy left and the Colonel Blowhard right to that issue of values.

At 8:33 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think we agree. A basic problem for the West is a loss of confidence in itself. The EU has partly contributed to this by its misunderstanding of multiculturalism. Europe is multicultural, but only moderately so, within a common civilization. The EU, however, has gravitated to a radical multiculturalism that makes excuses for honor killings, female 'circumcision', polygamy, antisemitism, and endless more. With such weakness, the West cannot survive.

Jeffery Hodges

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