What future for Europe?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Does the EU aspire to becoming a country or will it always remain a "project"? [Justus Blümer/Flickr]

One of the European Union’s main problems is that we are not sure what it actually is. Žiga Turk asks whether it is a free trade area, a giant NGO based in Brussels dedicated to Europe, or perhaps a country in the making.

Žiga Turk is a professor at the University of Ljubljana who has twice served as a minister in the Government of Slovenia and is secretary-general of the Reflection Group for the Future of Europe.

This editorial was originally published by BlogActiv.

Brussels vs. Bratislava

The answer popular in Brussels is that Europe is a project. A project is something that is not static, which is being developed, and has not yet reached its final form. As long as Europe is a project, it is possible to talk about the future of Europe. As long as Europe is a project, it can be illustrated as a bicycle – standing upright as long as it moves forward. The euro crisis, the migrant crisis and Brexit have slowed down this bicycle, or maybe even reversed its direction. But a bicycle cannot be ridden backwards. And this is the problem to be addressed by the EU’s national leaders this week in Bratislava: how to get the bicycle going again.

As they have done many times before, they will debate the future of Europe, more precisely the future of the European Union. The point is that if the European Union wants to be more than a free trade area or a non-governmental organisation if it wants to gain the attributes of statehood, it needs a solid foundation.

Many agree that the EU should move in the direction of an ever closer union. And everyone agrees that a solid foundation is needed. The disagreement is over what the essence of this foundation actually is. Another disagreement is between the right and the left. The right sees the EU founded on the common market. The left sees it founded on social justice and solidarity.

This article is about another kind of disagreement. I will argue that the future of the European Union cannot be based on an ideology, neither left nor right, and that ideology cannot form the foundation of a union with the ambition of gaining the attributes of a country.

Ideas vs. feelings

I understand ideology as a rational system of ideas – the product of an enlightened human mind. Examples of such systems of ideas are socialism, free market, environmentalism, multiculturalism, a framework of human rights and the rule of law etc. Ideologies are the results of reflection. Many are good; some are also bad.

That ideology cannot be the foundation of a country is the main message of Samuel P. Huntington’s (of Clash of Civilisations fame) book Who We Are. He argues that countries based on ideology fail. For example Czechoslovakia, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. My former home state of Yugoslavia was held together by the socialist ideology and the ideology of brotherhood and unity of nations. Ditto, Czechoslovakia and the USSR.

Alternative to ideology are feelings, instincts and culture – everything that is pre-rational, subconscious, which is not the result of a complex intellectual exercise, but which people simply have in their blood and genes. Those moral foundations provide, according to Jonathan Haidt, the basis for group cohesion and are the basis of nation states. These foundations include kin, religion, language, history, and nation.

In Yugoslavia, Slovenians, Croats, Serbs, Albanians, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Bosnians wanted to live in different countries. Disintegrating feelings based on language, history and religion were stronger than the cohesive effects of the socialist ideology, the Yugoslav common market, the free movement of people within Yugoslavia and a common currency. In Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union too, instincts trumped ideology, the common market and a common currency.

Elites vs. the rest

This superiority of Stone Age instincts over intellectual achievements is hard to swallow for intellectuals and other reasoning people. It seems impossible that in the 21st century, pristine senses of tribe and nation prevail over the achievements of the human mind, such as the free market, common currency and social justice. But only to intellectuals. Most people do not bother trying to understand the reasoning behind why it is “good” to have the widest possible community to achieve social justice (or the free market). Ideologues from both the centre-left and the centre-right have a common problem.

The majority of people take a shortcut and listen to their instincts. These instincts tell them that Germans will not pay for social justice in Greece, while they may be willing to tolerate taxes to achieve social justice in their German homeland. These instincts tell them to charge customs on imported goods if this helps save German jobs. It does not help much if intellectuals explain that open markets (or social justice) are good for all. Somewhere deep down, people feel something. And there is a limit to how far and how deep political elites can run countries against such feelings.

This divide between the reason of the elites and the instincts of ordinary people explains Brexit, Sanders, Trump and the whole host of populist movements in the EU member states. In good times, most people tolerate or largely ignore ideology. The elites may be convinced by the rationality of the arguments even in bad times. But not the rest.

It is intellectually appealing to base the future European Union on the common market, human rights, social justice and solidarity. But in my reading of Huntington, it will not work.

Geography vs. civilisation

If the European Union is to become a closer union – and I think in some areas it must become stronger – then this will not be possible based only on ideological, rational, and enlightened foundations, no matter how fond of them the intellectuals are.

More Europe is necessary for the protection of our external borders, to maintain security, support for the free market and the rule of law. But the foundation should be our European identity: who we are, how we are, and how we are different from that which is not Europe. Elements of this identity are religion, civilisation and culture.

A closer Union could be accepted by European citizens if this Union is seen as the guardian of European culture and civilisation. Or, if it sounds more politically correct, European “values”. Multicultural Europe seems a good idea to those who are not part of European culture and to the enlightened minority that hopes noble ideas can trump basic human instincts.

In reality, however, a Europe founded on ideology is bound to fail.

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