A project with no name


A project with no name

Why the EU can only define itself by what it disdains.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Long-reads Politics

One of the curious outcomes of Brexit is that it is frequently depicted in the media as a direct body blow to what is called the ‘liberal world order’. In a Foreign Policy article, one commentator evoked an image of the world order crumbling under the impact of hordes of international Brexiteers. ‘I wonder if the West is sleep-walking towards “illiberal democracy”’, he wrote, ‘the ideology championed by Hungary’s Viktor Orban, emulated by Poland’s Law and Justice, and implicitly endorsed by Trump and many of the Brexiteers’.

This is not an unusual charge. Indeed, EU advocates often imply that any challenge to the EU is comparable to the attacks on democratic institutions in the interwar era. They often conclude their melodramatic portraits of the illiberalism of the EU’s critics with the illiberal assertion that those who defy the authority of the EU are the enemy of liberal democracy. For example, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, recently said that Poland’s arguments with the EU showed that it had ‘different values and different strategic aims’ to those of liberal democracy.

This conflation of the values of the EU with the idea of liberal democracy is integral to the rhetorical and political strategy used by European unifiers since the 1970s. One of the key arguments EU supporters use to justify their existence is to assert that those who question the project of European political unification are the contemporary equivalents of the xenophobic and racist extremists who plunged Europe into the First and Second World Wars. This means that those who contest the authority of the EU are not considered legitimate debating partners; as far as Brussels is concerned, so-called Euroscepticism, like the fascism to which it is likened, represents a direct threat to peace and stability.

In a speech delivered in Berlin in 2010, Herman van Rompuy, then president of the European Council, argued that ‘Euroscepticism leads to war’. He then issued a rallying cry: ‘We have to fight the danger of the new Euroscepticism.’ Van Rompuy’s claim that Euroscepticism incites war rests on the belief that it encourages the revival of aggressive nationalism. But van Rompuy doesn’t stop at reasserting that nationalism is dangerous; he also claims that national sovereignty is a ‘lie’. Having dismissed national sovereignty, he can then portray the EU as the only institution that can save the continent from a descent into the aggressive nationalism that dominated the first half of the 20th century.

Since the 1970s, the systematic condemnation of Euroscepticism, nationalism, populism or any serious opposition to the EU has played a critical role in the realignment of politics within member states. At the risk of simplification, the self-conscious process of defining the EU as an institution opposed to nationalism drew the left towards the EU and turned sections of the right towards the nation state. In this transformed, polarised landscape, any substantial criticism of the EU was dismissed as a right-wing threat to the stability of Europe’s liberal order. That, until recently, Euroscepticism was confined to the margins of public life is testimony to the influence of the EU-wide, mainstream elite consensus against it.

Ten years ago, social anthropologist Maryon McDonald conducted interviews with EU officials in Brussels, and noted that there were serious limits to the kind of criticisms that could be raised with them. Any substantial critique of the EU risked being condemned as, by definition, an extreme right-wing position. She wrote:

‘Since the 1970s especially, it has become increasingly difficult in Europe to criticise the EU without appearing to be some lunatic right-wing fascist, racist or nationalist, the one often eliding with the other, or simply the parochial idiot of Little Britain. The serious side of this is that the EU has, quite literally, encouraged neo-nationalist racism in Europe. That has often seemed the only space available in which criticism of the EU has been possible. A new space of serious criticism is therefore badly needed.’ (1)

The hostile reaction of large sections of the British establishment to people who voted for Brexit shows just how pertinent McDonald’s observations were. The growing presence of right-wing nationalist movements throughout Europe today is, in part, the unintended consequence of the EU’s attempt to close down debate. By consistently condemning serious criticism of the EU as racist, the EU has enhanced the reputation and authority of far-right movements. Popular discontent with the EU, deprived of any mainstream outlets, has therefore often been channelled through the one, largely right-wing movement that does express anti-EU views. Populism owes its emergence, then, not to some nationalist impulse, but to the failure of the EU to permit serious debate on the future of Europe.

An uneasy relationship with democracy

Since the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, the project of European unification has sought to depoliticise public debate. The legacy of two world wars had left the political classes of Western Europe apprehensive about the dynamics of mass politics. Such concerns led them to adopt institutional and constitutional arrangements that were designed to insulate them from the volatility of public opinion and the pressure of the masses. As political scientist Jan-Werner Müller observed: ‘Insulation from popular pressures and, more broadly, a deep distrust of popular sovereignty, underlay not just the beginnings of European integration, but the political reconstruction of Western Europe after 1945 in general.’ (2)

Motivated by the imperative of avoiding the upheavals of the interwar era, and by an intense sense of suspicion of mass behaviour, the European elites ‘fashioned a highly constrained form of democracy, deeply imprinted with a distrust of popular sovereignty – in fact, even a distrust of traditional parliamentary sovereignty’ (3). Postwar constitutional settlements sought to limit the role of parliament through assigning significant power to the judiciary and newly constructed constitutional courts. Bureaucratic institutions also gained significant influence, especially through the medium of the European unification.

The establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1958, followed by the launching of the European Union in 1993, continued the tradition of depoliticising contentious issue and adopting a form of technocratic governance. Until the 1970s, the success of this approach was underwritten by the postwar boom, an unprecedented era of economic prosperity. The heightened geopolitical tension during the Cold War in the 1950s and 60s also helped strengthen the EEC’s claim that it was essential for the maintenance of security.

The ideologues of European unity have explicitly sought to depoliticise national sovereignty and devalue democracy. They argue that, in a modern globalised world, national parliaments and constituencies are ill suited to deal with the complex challenges of governance – many of which transcend borders and are global in character. From this perspective, pragmatic considerations lead to the replacement of the demos with the wise counsel of the technocrat. As Andrew Moravcsik, a professor in international relations, outlined:

‘The apparently “counter-majoritarian” tendency of the EU political institutions insulated from direct democratic contestation arises out of factors that themselves have normative integrity, notably efforts to compensate for the ignorance and non-participation of citizens, to make terrible commitments to rights enforcement, and to offset the power of special interests.’ (4)

From this standpoint, the existence of popular pressure serves to distort the running of the institutions of the EU.

In the context of the Cold War and of relative economic security, the technocratic project of European unification faced little pressure to justify itself. But that has changed over the past three decades. In 2013, the EU’s publication of the report, New Narrative For Europe, and the book Mind and Body of Europe, explicitly recognised that the end of the Cold War represented a challenge to the standing and relevance of the EU. The Luxembourg MEP and prominent advocate of the EU, Viviane Reding, stated in Mind and Body of Europe that:

‘In recent years, the experiences of war, of totalitarian regimes and the Cold War have gradually lost their immediacy in the eyes of the general public, which is to say that those horrors are losing their legitimising force. More and more Europeans regard the experiences of the 20th century – rightly or wrongly – as a thing of the past. The alarming results of the most recent European elections are proof of this trend: the fact that 25 per cent of the European electorate voted for extremist and anti-European parties shows that they must have somehow “forgotten” the reasons for which the European Union was built. This presents a particular challenge for a new narrative for future European integration. It needs to give “heart and soul” to Europe and help prevent people from repeating the mistakes of the past as citizens are increasingly swayed by dangerous, populist rabble-rousers.’

The call for a new narrative for European unity was driven by the recognition that, in the post-Cold War era, the EU could no longer rely on the passive acquiescence of the European public. EU leaders grasped that their traditional practice of technocratic governance needed to be supplemented by a political narrative that could capture the imagination of citizens.

At the time, José Manuel Durão Barroso, the president of the European Commission, argued that the era of passive acquiescence, or what he called ‘implicit consent’, had to be replaced by a more open engagement with public life. In May 2013, he said:

‘We are at a point in time when European integration must be pursued openly, transparently and with the explicit support of the citizens of Europe. The times of European integration by implicit consent of citizens are over. Europe has to be ever-more democratic. Europe’s democratic legitimacy and accountability must keep pace with its increased role and power.’

Barroso’s acknowledgement of the end of implicit consent raised an important question: how does the EU inspire people to adopt a more explicit identification with it? Unfortunately, the EU bureaucracy’s answer was not, as Barroso suggested, more democracy; rather, it was to launch a public-relations exercise in which the EU was rebranded with a ‘new narrative’.

Economics is not enough

The call for a new narrative for Europe was motivated by the recognition that not only could the EU no longer count on the Cold War to help legitimise its standing, but it could also no longer rely on the stabilising influence of economic prosperity to retain the passive support of the public. The linking of the fortunes of the project of European unity with the economic stability and wellbeing of the continent became increasingly problematic from the economic crisis of 1973 onwards. From that point, it became clear to the EEC’s leadership that it needed to find some kind of explicitly political or cultural justification for its existence. The EEC responded by attempting to use culture in an effort to win hearts and minds (5).

From the 1970s onwards, the EU has launched a series of cultural initiatives to supplement its economic authority. So, while the EU-sponsored report, The Spiritual and Cultural Dimension of Europe, published in 2004, did recognise that, with the end of the Cold War, the EU’s authority would continue to rest on its economic competence, it also recognised that something else was needed to endow this institution with legitimacy.

The report concluded that the principal challenge facing the EU was a political one, and that the viability of the project of unification depended on its ability to establish a political foundation for its authority. It warned that the ‘internal cohesion that is necessary for the European Union’ cannot be provided by ‘economic forces alone’:

‘It is no coincidence that economic integration is not enough to drive European political reform. Economic integration simply does not, of itself, lead to political integration because markets cannot produce a politically resilient solidarity. Solidarity – a genuine sense of civic community – is vital because the competition that dominates the marketplace gives rise to powerful centrifugal forces. Markets may create the economic basis of a polity and are thereby an indispensable condition of its political constitution. But they cannot on their own produce political integration and provide a constitutive infrastructure for the union. The original expectation, that the political unity of the EU would be a consequence of the European common market, has proven to be illusory.’

In pointing out the limits of economics as a means to maintain and develop the political unity of the EU, the report echoed the pithy sentiment of Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission: ‘Nobody falls in love with a growth rate.’

The quest for legitimacy

Throughout its existence, from its earliest form in the EEC, the EU as an institution has always faced the challenge of justifying itself and securing a degree of legitimacy. One of the responses to this challenge has been to expand its range of activities, into culture and education, because economics alone cannot provide the foundation for its political authority.

The project of political unification has increasingly rested on developing the cultural appeal of the EU. It has placed particular emphasis on attempts to forge a European identity and to elaborate common European values. Take a 1993 report by Belgian MEP Willy De Clercq, on EU information and communications. ‘For the first time’, he wrote, ‘[there is] a break in the traditional support of European citizens for the cause of European integration… For the first time, it would appear that the worthiness of the “good project” – in other words, European construction and integration – is being questioned.’

The De Clercq report warned that ‘the European Community is in a critical situation in terms of confidence, credibility, desirability, economic performance, peacekeeping capability, public approval and public support’. De Clercq drew attention to the remoteness of the EU project from the lives of ordinary people:

‘The European Community was doubtless conceived with the wellbeing of Europe’s citizens in mind, but the concept was based far more on the will of statesmen than on the will of the people. Consequently, many of the citizens of Europe have the impression that something about which they know very little, and about which they have not been consulted, is being foisted on them “de haut en bas“, by “Brussels”.’

It was one thing to recognise that among the public ‘there is little feeling of belonging to Europe’, but it was quite another to do something about it.

De Clercq proposed the usual mix of public-relations and branding exercises to win hearts and minds. However, the report’s recommendations to invent a set of European values that could forge an appealing European identity was characteristically abstract and shallow. Its discussion on the ‘positioning’ of the European brand was based on the public-relations model of selling consumer goods and evaded engaging with the fundamental question of the political aspirations of the people of Europe, and of reconciling the question of national sovereignty with the project of unification.

In the decades following De Clercq’s report, there have been numerous attempts to reshape the image of the EU. But the EU’s cultural, and increasingly educational, activities are governed by little more than the imperative of public relations. Consequently, the many attempts to cobble together values and statements have had little effect on the outlook of European peoples.

Despite Barroso’s call to be more open to engaging with the aspirations of the public, the EU continues to rely on implicit consent – or passive acquiescence. It self-consciously eschews politics, preferring instead to depoliticise the issues that excite the public. Indeed, the frequently noted tendency of the EU to expand into new domains of community life, and its unrestrained appetite for regulating anything that moves, is in part an outcome of the EU’s attempt to justify its existence as an indispensable technocratic authority. Even its claim to stand for cosmopolitanism in opposition to narrow-minded nationalist forces is undermined by its failure to give meaning to a genuine universalist outlook. Its narrative has little to do with the cosmopolitanism of an Enlightenment thinker such as Immanuel Kant. The EU feels much more comfortable with the superficial value of diversity than an internationalist outlook.

In fact, the EU’s cosmopolitanism is a means to free itself from having to engage with national sovereignty and local pressure. It hides behind the supposed expertise of transnational institutions to avoid putting its legitimacy to the test. That is why the project of political unification is rarely addressed explicitly – it is why it has become a project without a name.

Despite decades of PR campaigns, the EU has failed to elaborate a positive account of its project. It subsists instead on a negative justification for its existence, portraying its critics as nationalist extremists or populist demagogues. And it feeds on people’s insecurity about a return to the bad old days of wars and political insecurity. One of the most troubling aspects of the EU’s negative project of identity construction is its targeting of national loyalties and affiliations. Unable to supply the people of Europe with a positive European identity, the EU has opted instead for discrediting national feelings of belonging. In doing so, it has strengthened cultural insecurity rather than legitimated the ideal of European unity.

The most positive consequence of Brexit is that the EU’s strategy of relying on negative justifications for its legitimacy now stands exposed to greater public scrutiny. European unity is a positive ideal. But it needs to be built through the people of the continent, and not through elite-sponsored PR exercises. What the experience of the past decades demonstrates is that the challenge facing genuine liberal-minded people is to cultivate a sense of European unity on the foundation of respecting the sovereignty of its different nations.

Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His latest book, Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter, is published by Bloomsbury Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon UK.)

Picture by: Jaap Arriens, published under a creative commons license.

(1) ‘EU policy and destiny: a challenge for anthropology’, by Maryon McDonald’, in Anthropology Today, Vol 21, issue 1, February 2005, p4

(2) Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe, by Jan-Werner Muller, Yale University Press, 2012, p40

(3) Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe, by Jan-Werner Muller, Yale University Press, 2012, p128

(4) Cited in The European Union And The End Of Politics, by James Heartfield, Zero Books, 2012, p56

(5) See Clash of Cultures: Two Milieus, by Wolfram Kaiser, in the European Union’s ‘A New Narrative for Europe’ project, Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 23:3, p374

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Long-reads Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today