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Has the European Union's Political Experiment Failed?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-06-07 09:55:22
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"Europe has transcended a thousand years of war, but 27 nation-states will never grow into one”

                                                                                                   –Joseph Jaffa

"For more than 10 years … Europe has conducted an experiment in the impossible."

                                                                                                  --Niall Ferguson

"European leaders are getting there and they need to not lose any further time..."

                                                                                                --Peter Mandelson

"We need a true democratic process… in which the European Parliament has to play a central role."

                                                                                                 --Daniel Cohn-Bendit

On May 25th, in Toronto, Canada, four prominent Europeans conducted a passionate no holds barred debate concerning the sixty year old political experiment called the European Union. The full two hours debate can be watched on line at the “Munk Debate” Website. I highly recommend it to the Ovi readership.

The issue debated was this: “Be it resolved the European experiment has failed.” Such a  pessimistic statement immediately roused my curiosity, since I too have  a passionate interest on the subject and have written a book which explores it (A New Europe in Search of its Soul). I viewed the debate and came away enlightened but also dismayed and puzzled. I’d like to share with the Ovi readership the sundry reflections which follow. However, let me first supply a brief biographical note for each of the debaters.

Josef Joffe is publisher-editor of the German weekly Die Zeit. He is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, TIME and Newsweek. In 2007, he was appointed Senior Fellow of Stanford's Institute for International Studies, and has taught at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and the University of Munich. In 2005, he co-founded the foreign policy journal The American Interest in Washington with Zbigniew Brzezinski and Francis Fukuyama.

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford. A prolific commentator on contemporary politics and economics, Ferguson is a weekly columnist for Newsweek and a contributing editor for Bloomberg TV. He is the author of numerous bestsellers including The Ascent of Money. Last year he published Civilization: The West and the Rest, also a Channel 4/PBS documentary series. He is a regular contributor to television and radio on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2003 he wrote and presented a six-part history of the British Empire for Channel 4. The accompanying book, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, was a bestseller in both Britain and the United States. The sequel, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, was published in 2004, and prompted Time magazine to name him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Peter Mandelson is a Member of the House of Lords, and Chairman of Global Counsel, a strategic advisory firm, and Senior Adviser to Lazard. Lord Mandelson was elected to Parliament in 1992 and entered British government in 1997, serving as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In 2004, he became EU Commissioner for Trade, until 2008 when he re-entered the British government serving as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills until 2010. Mandelson was a key figure in New Labour, and one of the most controversial political figures of his generation. His autobiography, The Third Man, published in 2010, was a Sunday Times Number 1 bestseller for 5 consecutive weeks.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit first rose to public prominence as a leader of student revolts in France in the 1960s. Half a century later he remains a highly influential voice in Europe serving as the co-president of the Greens/Free European Alliance Group in the European Parliament. He sits on the Parliamentary Committees for Economic and Monetary Affairs and Constitutional Affairs. He is also co-chair of the Spinelli Group, a European parliament group dedicated to the federalist project in Europe. In 1984 Cohn-Bendit became a member of the Green party and there was one of the most determined opponents of eco-socialist fundamentalism. In 1999 Cohn-Bendit became the leading candidate of the French Greens (LES VERTS) for the European Parliament. In 2004, he was candidate of the German Greens for the second time, and was leading candidate of the European Green Party which was founded in Rome in February 2004. He is also a substitute in the Subcommittee on Security and Defence.

As all the above official biographical notes clearly indicate, we are dealing here with four influential erudite European intellectuals (respectively a German, a Scott, an Englishman and a French Jew), steeped in European political history and cultural anthropology at both the practical and the theoretical level. The pro of the above mentioned  resolution was defended by Jaffe and Ferguson, the con was proposed by Mandelson and Cohn-Bendit. That kind of line-up seems to me the first interesting characteristic of the debate; namely this: the two defenders of the resolution can be properly be defined as right of center conservative intellectuals. The two who oppose it, on the other hand, can be defined as left of center liberal intellectuals.

All this leads to my first reflection and puzzlement: throughout the debate not once was a founding EU father or his principles and ideals ever mentioned. It was as if the moderate centrist vision of the EU founding fathers did not exist or if it did, it was by now irrelevant. This is the time of extremism and intransigence. At the outset Jaffe brought out the myth of Zeus and Europa,  as if he wished to return to origins, but in reality that became a metaphor for counseling the goddess Europa to return to terra firma and settle down on a more prosaic and less ambitious life. Let’s go back to making Mercedes Benz cars, so to speak…for the economy is all there is, by bread alone does man live, and the EU is nothing but an economic enterprise right from its beginning. And yet, I dare say, that was the place where the debate ought to have begun. On the exploration of what precisely was the overarching cultural vision of the founding fathers, and if sixty years later it is still possible for us to retrieve such a vision.

But let us proceed with a few more metaphors offered by the debating panel. Ferguson offered the rather funny metaphor of the High School chemistry experiment done by students who know little if anything about chemistry. Six elements are mixed at the outset, and nothing happens. Six more are added, and nothing happens. More elements are added, up to 27 and suddenly there a terrible explosion and its attendant disaster. The experimenters did not know what they were mixing and the results were predictable. Ferguson, in fact, has been predicting them, in vain, for the last ten years or so; so he claims. This too turns out to be a rather prosaic way of saying “I told you so, but nobody paid any attention.” Here too the implication is that the founding fathers really did not know what they were doing or they would not have embarked on an experiment destined for failure. Be that as it may, the image of Cassandra would have probably been more appropriate than the one of incompetent high school students. What one kept hearing throughout the debate was this thought: Europe has had its ultimate civil war (the two world wars) but now there is no Lincoln on the horizon to bring us together and the Germans do not want to carry all the burden of stagnant economies. So it’s everybody for themselves protecting one’s economic interests. Here is good old nationalism raising its ugly head again.

But it did not stop there, Ferguson further proceeded to impugn the very idea that, if nothing else, sixty years of EU has brought peace to a continent and a civilization prone to constant fratricidal wars. He boldly proclaimed that it was NATO, not the EU which provided the necessary security umbrella under which Europe could prosper and thus unite politically. So the credit ought to go to the Americans who in practice provided that security. Never mind that the founding father’s vision was based on a concept of soft cultural democratic multicultural power rather than a hard-nosed confrontational power to be pitted against the Soviets’ ambitions. Multiculturalism was in fact attacked by Fergusson as a misguided application of misguided immigrant laws.

At this point, Kohn-Bendit presented his contrary opinion counter-attacking Ferguson with this opening statement: “I never heard more stupid ideas in my whole life…” which gives the reader an idea of the acrimonious uncivil tone the debate assumed, in some way mirroring the very painful fractures within the EU polity. In any case, Kohn-Bendit pointed out that the EU experiment was one of the most noble experiments ever tried in the political history of human kind; that in fact it was necessary to confront the geo-political global realities of post-world war two Europe. Its failure would bring untold pain and suffering not only to Europe but the whole world.

It was then Jaffa’s turn who came up with another intriguing and revealing metaphor: that of the ascent to Mount Everest. Mount Everest being the summit symbolizing the giving up of national sovereignty and the transcendence of a pernicious nationalism. He said that in this party of climbers there are 27 people; two or three are well prepared for the ascent in every respect: economic, political, culturally, but the rest of the motley crew is not and will ultimately bring down the whole group on the way up. This is happening right now as we speak. The wiser path is an orderly retreat and a less ambitious enterprise which accepts its limitations. The message, at least for this viewer was clear even if not openly stated: if the rest of the unprepared crew were wise they would let the members with the experience and the wisdom lead and decide whether to continue the ascent or to withdraw in an orderly fashion. And who might those leaders be? It is not too hard to figure that one: Germany, of course, or perhaps France, or perhaps the UK. It occurred to me that I was witnessing a real oxymoron or perhaps a paradox: somebody speaking of transcendence of nationalism by using nationalistic arguments.

The counter argument came swiftly from Mandelson and Cohn-Bendit who pointed out that the era of colonialism, imperialism and paternalism was long over and what was really urgently needed is a reforming of the political system to make it more transparent and more democratic and more responsive to the people. Basically, they are saying that the European project is not a failure but it needs reform, better management and procedures and an elimination of certain corrupting elements. The problem lies with the politicians ill equipped to be real leaders and not with the people starved for a vision. And so it went back and forth.

But to repeat, not once in the whole debate did I hear the vision of the founding fathers discussed and debated. The bickering and incivility went back and forth for another hour or so. What could have brought a measure of unity and cohesion to the discussion of a fragmented failing project was exactly that vision. The whole debate turned out to be a discussion of whether or not the EU would survive the collapse of the euro and the second most powerful economy in the world. At the end  of the debate I was left dismayed and dumbstruck. I had witnessed, in the form of a debate, the deep divisions that exist in the polity called European Union.

As the debate ended the moderator reminded the audience, 90% of whom had said before the debate occurred that they were open to a change of mind, to vote again and indicate whether or not their mind had in fact changed. Here are the results: before the debate 44% of the audience of several thousand had been for the pro, that the EU experiment had failed, and 36% were against that proposition. After the debate there were 45% for the pro (basically unchanged) but 55% against the pro. And this is the silver lining, as I see it. There were 19% rational people in that audience who were persuaded to change their mind by the debaters defending the con. Now, if that translates in 19% of the 300 million people of Europe (some 60 million) motivated enough to revisit the founding fathers’ vision of the EU, there may still be a residue of hope that saves us from cynicism and nihilism. The alternative offered by the right-wingers as the more realistic is indeed unacceptable; for we have seen that movie before in the 30s leading directly to Nazism and Fascism and the catastrophe of the Holocaust and World War II.


After viewing such a disturbing debate I have decided to take a second look at my book on the EU and the various articles I have contributed to Ovi in the last five years or so, on the vision of the EU founding fathers [see for example http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/7919 http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/7512   http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/3068 http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/2377 ] not to  play Cassandra, but to return to origins, to a fresh reflection on the crucial issue of the future of the EU.    


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Emanuel Paparella2012-06-07 11:52:23
A footnote: one of the wiser questions during the debate came from the audience which seemed more level-headed than the debaters. A lady asked Josef Joffe this question: are you aware that many mountain climbers have died not on the way up but on the way down? Another was about Greece, Italy, Spain and the EU federalism and it offered this insight: federalism is tested by money, that is to say, not when things are going well but when there is an economic crisis and the central government has to help not just one or two states but the whole federation.

Lady d'Albert Schaerer2012-08-01 01:08:01
Dear Sirs
Europa has turned in a Absolute Mess ,
Financially ,far to many Emigrants ,to many drag-er on overpopulation ,Crime and unemployment ,the biggest burden is carried by the
German People ,but for how long will this poor cow be alive to be milked

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