hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 3 January 2019

In 2019 European Liberals Must Become European Realists


“Political realism is aware of the moral significance of political action. It is also aware of the ineluctable tension between the moral command and the requirements of successful political action. And it is unwilling to gloss over and obliterate that tension and thus to obfuscate both the moral and the political issue by making it appear as though the stark facts of politics were morally more satisfying than they actually are, and the moral law less exacting than it actually is”.

Hans J. Morgenthau

Merkel might?

Alphen, Netherlands. 3 January 2019. In her New Year’s speech, and as Germany was set to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Chancellor Merkel called for the defence of the rules based order. What does that mean for Europe in 2019? The four great and uncomfortable issues of European politics in 2019 will be the relationship between immigration and security, between voting and power, between protectionism and productivity and between the real world and the pretend world too many Europeans still prefer to believe exists. Will 2019 be the year in which Europe’s (mainly Western Europe’s) liberal elite establishment finally overcomes its strategic illiteracy and faces up to the new geopolitics of power?  

Implicit in Merkel’s comments is her strong faith in the need for something called ‘Europe’, but what ‘Europe’? The need for a ‘Europe’ is something to which I also remain committed. However, given the geopolitical context in which ‘Europe’ must be fashioned the very idea will need to be rethought in 2019 or it could fail and rapidly if it continues to be the ‘stop the world I want to get off’ Europe it has become. For too long the elite in Brussels and beyond have clung onto a Monnetesque 1940s, post-World War Two vision of ‘ever closer union’ as enunciated in the preamble to the 1957 Treaty of Rome. For much of the Cold War such Euro-Idealism bubbled along under the surface of a decidedly nation-state led Europe as NATO stood to the fore in what was an existential struggle. When the Cold War ended in 1990 Euro-Idealism surged forward with a raft of integrating, centralising instruments. The 1991 Treaty of Maastricht and the creation of the European Union was followed by the 1995 creation of the Schengen Zone and finally the 1999 creation of the single currency and the Eurozone. All of these initiatives were Idealist projects with profound Realist implications that Europe’s elite chose to ignore with profound political consequences.   

Faced with today’s challenges EU institutions look increasingly anachronistic and emblematic of a narcissistic European liberal elite that is eternally holding a mirror up to itself and thus unable to see the illiberal world beyond. It is a Realist world in which Europe must exist, from which Europeans must be secured and defended, and with which Europeans must learn to compete when it no longer sets the rules of the road for the first time in four hundred years. The elite, cocktail party Europe must end in which values are routinely confused with interests, in which power is made ever more distant from the people in the name of ‘freedom’, and in which elite privileges are lazily waved through as a consequence of historical inevitably wrapped in the justifying cloak of globalism. There is no alternative, Brussels proclaims, but more Brussels. There is.

Who makes the rules?

At the heart of the ‘ever more elite Europe’ elite assumption is also a massive and soon to be profoundly mega-tested further assumption: that globalization demands of Europeans ever more aggregation and that aggregation can only work if it is underpinned by political integration and legal arbitration.  The people who are going to test that elite assumption in 2019 are the European people themselves. Across Europe a revolt is underway, often dismissed by the Euro-elite as ‘populism’ this revolt will challenge the very organizing principle of power in Europe – that ever-closer Europe is vital and that such a ‘Europe’ is or can ever be legitimate.  The essential problem faced by those who propound and propose an ‘ever closer Europe’ also implicitly accept the need for less European nation-state and with it less democracy.

Who makes the rules, who enforces them and are they any good at either will thus be the big 2019 questions for Europe in a rapidly-changing world.  For much of the post-Cold War era the European liberal elite were able to offer a trade-off to voters – less democracy for more efficiency, together with a promise of security and prosperity.  ‘Liberalism’ would be implied and entrusted to a distant elite to protect. However, in the wake of the 2008-2010 banking and financial crises, the re-emergence of an aggressive Russia and the threat posed by the likes of Islamic State and Al Qaeda to European society, as well as uncertainty about America’s continued guarantee to defend Europe, the popular assumption of elite competence upon which  ‘ever closer Europe’ was established has been shattered.

The consequence has been that huge numbers of ordinary, decent people who in the past showed little sign of radical political inclinations have lost faith in Europe’s warm words, little action liberal elites. Consequently, the gap between the people and the elite has created a political vacuum which the unscrupulous have exploited to effect and in 2019 look set to exploit further.             

Europe’s sovereignty deficit: between Idealism and Realism

Europe stands in a no man’s land between Idealism and Realism. Given Europe’s history any assumption that pre-supposes an ever-greater concentration of power in a few elite hands is risky as it has rarely ended well.  The problem for Europe’s liberal elite is that even with the power they have accrued to themselves in the name of ‘Europe’ they have proven themselves by and large incompetent or unwilling to deal with the very issues used to justify that power. The result is a kind of sovereignty deficit in Europe in which neither power-emaciated European states nor Brussels have the power or the wherewithal to deal with the big issues Europeans face.

Therefore, if Europeans are break out of the paralysis into which they have been locked by their elites and, paradoxically, preserve the very liberal values that I also uphold as vital to a Europe at peace with itself and the world beyond, its leaders are going to have to become far more Realist.

A call for European Realism

This is a call for a return to European Realism in 2019. It must be liberal Realism with a focus squarely on proving elite competence by finally getting to grips with the issues which are driving Europe and Europeans apart, but Realism nevertheless.  In 2019 the implicit struggle between the European institutions (most notably the European Commission) and the European nation-state must be brought sharply to an end with the appointment of a new European Commission. May’s elections to the European Parliament may well see more ‘populists’ and Eurosceptics elected but, again paradoxically, such a Parliament would act more like a legislative assembly that holds power to account, as opposed to the hitherto rubber-stamping wannabes for ‘ever more Europe’. It is the nation-state that is still central to the political identity of most Europeans and the epicentres of real democracy in Europe, as the likely turnout to the European elections will once again attest.

However, it is in the sphere of competition with the strategic autocrats of China and Russia and intolerant fundamentalists where the need for a return to European political Realism will be most needed in 2019.  Europe’s world is simply too dangerous for the ‘who’s in charge’ debate to continue.  The paradox of Chancellor Merkel’s call for the rules-based order to be defended is that such a defence will require the power of the democracies and that power rests most decidedly with Europe’s states.  In other words, 2019 must be the year Europeans finally accept that their values can only be defended properly by collective action in pursuit of the common interest. Common action? For all but the most marginal of issues, common action is no action at all. Europe’s beloved soft power? It has its uses but unless it is reinforced by hard power in extremis soft power is no power at all.

In other words, Chancellor Merkel, given the world we must face together are you prepared to reinforce your fine words with fine deeds? Probably not.

Happy New Year!                  

Julian Lindley-French

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