Saturday, December 17, 2005

Public angst

One feels rather sorry for European public intellectuals (a concept developed by the egregious Jürgen Habermas). It is so difficult to create a European idea, particularly if you do not want to discuss the one aspect of European history that may be said to have united that unruly Continent, at least ideologically: Christianity.

European history has few unifying factors and European countries have few interests in common, that they do not share with other countries as well. The European “idea”, such as it is, can be described vaguely as the idea of the West that has been spluttering since the Battle of Marathon. But the European Union wants to have a European idea that is all its own and has nothing to do with the West, defined by David Gress as “From Plato to Nato”.

Alas, in the rapidly approaching post-NATO world, the European public intellectuals as well as the European politicians are trying to define their idea in opposition to the rest of the West, in particular, in opposition to the United States. How that can possibly make Europe strong is anybody’s guess.

Back in 2003, as I reported on the Bruges Group website, there was an essay, correctly described in today’s Financial Times magazine by its founding-editor, John Lloyd, as “silly” by the aforementioned Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida.

As I wrote at the time and still believe the whole exercise reeked of early twentieth century obsession with political manifestos. Its main point, astonishingly enough, was

“A further aspect of the "civilizing" role of the new European consciousness, according to Habermas and his co-theoreticians is the Europeans' ability and desire to trust the premier agent of secularization - in itself a welcome aspect of this new consciousness - the state. Americans, on the other hand, they imply, not having gone through all the horrors of the last century, (mostly, one may add inflicted on individuals and peoples by the state in its various forms) do not trust the state and, therefore, presumably, do not accept fully the "civilizing" process of secularization.

Moreover, all the various horrors of European history have given the Europeans a stronger sense of threats to personal and bodily integrity. (Undoubtedly, that is why its first manifestation, according to Habermas, was a demonstration to preserve the power of a very bloody tyrant who had rather less than complete respect for other people's personal and bodily integrity. Though, of course, he thought and, if alive, still thinks very highly of his own, so he may well agree with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida.)”

In his article John Lloyd points out that recent developments (those famous referendums for instance) have made all those grandiose pronouncements of the phoenix-like rise of new European consciousness silly. More than that:

“But it was silly even before, in its thoughtless arrogance: to write, as they did, that “for us [Europeans] a president who opens his daily business with a public prayer and associates his significant political decisions with a divine mission is hard to imagine” is to blithely pass over what we Europeans do not have to imagine.

We do not have to imagine a political leader like the prime minister of Italy, who owns or controls nearly all of his country’s television channels and who has promoted legislation to exempt him and his associates from prosecution; or a president of France, who won re-election with millions of votes from those who, faced with a choice between him and a racist demagogue, voted for him under the slogan “better a crook than a fascist”. Both, as past presidents of the European Union, have been leaders of us Europeans. Give me the preacher.”

It seems that the Bruges Group was not the only one to respond to that daft manifesto at the time. The great and the good, in the shape of Timothy Garton Ash and Ralph Dahrendorf did, too. And their view was not that different from ours:

“A renewal of Europe “will never be accomplished by an endeavoured self-determination of Europe as un- or even anti-American”.”

So how is this renewal of Europe (in its new guise of not being part of the West) is to be accomplished? While Lloyd would probably not be too happy with the idea of Europe as the EU opting out of the West, the direction he points to in his desire to find fruitful European ideas, is not one many of us want to travel.

“Before and during the British presidency, a group called Policy Network lived up to its name by putting together a network of policy thinkers to try to reflect on what we Europeans regard as one of our strengths - the construction of a “social” Europe. Its organisers have succeeded in engaging men and women who have been, are, or are likely to be, in the policy staffs of Europe’s leaders in a joint exercise in imagining what Europe must do to live up to its real difference from the US - the provision of a social net that holds up almost everyone to a minimum standard.”

Not, I think, a particularly inspiring idea, though, in the scheme of things quite necessary. The only problem is that it argues a surprising ignorance about the situation in the United States, where there are various provisions and the minimum standard in all, even the poorest, states is higher than in most of Europe. Shame on Mr Lloyd.

Let us, however, look at Policy Network, the intellectual salvation of Europe. In the first place, this is a think-tank, launched on EU money, one assumes, and with the support of Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, Giuliano Amato and Göran Persson. Hmm. The Royal Society it ain’t.

In the second place, as one glance at its website will tell the reader, it is obsessed with progressive governance (wot dat?) and the terrible problem of retaining the European social model. After all the many splendid (and not so splendid, some being downright ghastly) ideas that have come out of Europe throughout the centuries, we have been reduced to this: the European idea has become a series of frantic attempts to preserve the European social model with no understanding of the need for economic underpinning.

Whatever happened to the many subtle theological debates? To the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, the agrarian and industrial revolutions? Where did all those political ideas of individual freedom and the relationship between man and state disappear to? All submerged in the highest model of all: the European social model.

John Lloyd seems less than totally impressed by the silly nattering of the European chattering classes:

“The problem was, I am told, summed up well by a leader who is at the core of Europe - Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg, in an intervention at the Hampton Court summit of European leaders in October. We know, he said, what to do in reform; we think we know how to do it; we don’t know how to win elections if we do.

There you have the real ghost at the European feast: its awful presence has encouraged leaders - such as France’s Jacques Chirac and Germany’s former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder - to identify Anglo-Saxonism as the enemy within and without. Habermas and Derrida spoke for them. The Policy Network people, no less concerned to retain European values, speak not for the silly bogeyman of an Anglo Saxon neo-liberalism/conservatism, but for a Europe alert to its own, rather than the Great Other’s, failings. It’s that impulse that will save us: the rest is displacement activity.”

While I agree about the rest being displacement activity, I would say that concentrating the European “idea” or European “values” in something called the European social model is such a depressing and pointless exercise, it is not surprising that so many indulge in the more exciting game of anti-Americanism.

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