hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 6 July 2015

Time to Rethink Europe


Vienna, Austria. 6 July.  European leaders must confront change or it will engulf them. Two hundred years ago this month Austria-Hungary’s Foreign Minister Prince von Metternich said; “Any plan conceived in moderation must fail when the circumstances are set in extremes”.  Metternich was the dominant figure at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, which took place in the Hofburg Palace here in Vienna, and which had been called to rethink ‘Europe’ in the wake of Napoleon Bonaparte’s failed attempt to impose a form of European elite universalism. It is time again to rethink ‘Europe’.

Now, I fully accept that my citing of the Congress of Vienna as an analogy has more to do with history than politics.  The Congress after all was a triumph of ultra-conservatism and involved Russia, which would not be a good idea today.  However, the Congress was needed precisely because of the structural social and political pressures that had led to the spawning of Bonapartism, the corrupt universalism Napoleon espoused.  Indeed, Bonapartism emerged from the 1789 French Revolution with a universalist message that resonated far beyond the borders of France, rocked Europe’s many ancien regimes, and arguably in time (long time) emerged triumphant.

Contrast that with today.  The Greek crisis (and a possible Grexit) is but one example of the many structural pressures that are beginning to tear the European Union apart.  Many Greeks see themselves in the vanguard of a deepening battle between ordinary Europeans and Europe’s elite, many of whom are neither elected nor legitimate – the ECB’s Mario Draghi for one.  Whilst these same Greeks tend to ignore the fact that Greece signed up to the rules of the Eurozone the Greek crisis has finally torn open the fault-line at the heart of the EU between democracy and technocracy, and between national and parliamentary sovereignty and European supranationalism.  Indeed, I recall my exchange last year with Italy’s former ‘technocrat’ prime minister Mario Monti when he suggested to me that there were other forms of government than democracy.

It is that sense of ‘illegitimate Europe’ which is also implicit in the Brexit debate, the sense of a distant elite ideology being imposed on the individual in the name of ever closer elite integration, and which is doing so much damage to the idea of ‘Europe’ in which I still believe.  It is also political pressure that will continue to grow if the balance between democracy and decision-making is not restored and quickly.  Such an elite sea change seems unlikely as all concern expressed is dismissed routinely as 'populism'. Indeed, a decade ago Europe’s elite simply ignored popular concerns expressed in France, the Netherlands, Ireland and Denmark at the time of the Constitutional Treaty.  Instead of listening the euro-elite simply changed the label and rammed through a new EU ‘constitution’ in the form of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty. 

The concerns of the people were right.  Europe’s nation-states have become emaciated but no other form of legitimate ‘governance’ has emerged to replace it.  Lisbon was a treaty too far for it critically undermined national parliamentary sovereignty without replacing it with any form of legitimate governance in its place. The consequence is that for the past decade ‘Europe’ has been gridlocked by its internal political contradiction; half super-Alliance, half supranational federation.  

The Euro is the most obvious emblem of Europe’s political deadlock.  For a single currency to work there must be a single treasury and thus a single government.  In the absence of such a ‘government’ too many nation-states have been reduced to the political equivalent of children let loose in a candy store and behaved like it, Greece to the fore. However, it is not just the single currency that has suffered as a consequence of an ill-conceived elite political project. Europe’s political deadlock has also accelerated European strategic decline that has in turn destabilised wider Europe and encouraged the rise of opportunists such as President Putin.

If Europe’s leaders are honest with themselves the real message of the Greek crisis is that the ideology of elite Europeanism has been rejected and with it the idea of distant technocratic power. If Europe’s leaders are honest with themselves they will admit it is time to return to a new balance of intergovernmental powers in Europe; the EU as super-alliance rather than proto-federation.  If Europe’s leaders are honest with themselves they will admit that if the growing structural pressures are to be addressed a new treaty is needed that sees power returned to member-states from Brussels so that the child-like irresponsibility so apparent in the Greek crisis is ended.  Sadly, the truth is that Europe’s opaque, self-interested elite are incapable of being honest with themselves or their peoples.  And so the European Project will stumble on until it collapses in the face of history as plans even if conceived in moderation collapse in the very self-willed extremis a refusal to face political reality will inevitably generate.  All Europeans will lose as a result. The danger as ever in Europe is the danger of extremes. The danger that Europe will lurch again from extreme universalism to extreme nationalism.  

The Hofburg Palace still defines Vienna, the beautiful signature city of a once great empire that died in 1919 because it no longer reflected the political reality that it had tried so long to resist.  Bonaparte’s final defeat at Waterloo on 18 June, 1815 saw not the emergence of a pluralistic, legitimate Europe but a new balance of power between autocracies and partially legitimised aristocracies that itself collapsed into horror in 1914. 

Today as in the past seismic shifts in European politics happen because elites for too long refuse to adapt to change.  As Metternich said, “It is useless to close the gates against ideas; they overlap them”.  The simple truth is that for most Europeans their nation-states still define their identities and their democracies and Europe's elite can no longer simply ride roughshod over either.

Vienna is a warning from history to Europe’s elite Europeanists that they ignore at their and indeed our peril.


Julian Lindley-French

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