Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Cry freedom

It may be hard to visualise the EU in terms of a battery cage, but it can be done. For me, in fact, it is relative easy as, in an earlier career, I had more than a passing familiarity with battery hens, working as I was at the time for a trade association representing egg producers.

One of our major concerns, as you might expect, was the growing and increasingly vociferous animal rights lobby which campaigned against the keeping of battery hens, claiming that producers were depriving the hens of their basic freedoms.

However, not a few of our producers pointed out that that their hens seemed perfectly content within their cages and, from my own observations, it often seemed as if the hens themselves were unaware of their bars.

Walk down the narrow galleries between the banks of cages and there they would be, with their heads poked through the bars, clucking and squawking as the mood took them. We could see their bars; they could not.

But what was particularly fascinating was that, on occasions when birds were released, their first instinct was to get back in their cages. Some groups who specialised in liberating redundant birds and putting them on the range, reported that the hens had to be introduced slowly to their new lives, and trained to deal with them. In other words, freedom did not come easily and they had to be schooled to appreciate it.

In this context, the comment piece by Janet Daley in today’s Telegraph has a special resonance.

Entitled, "Freedom? Why Europe's not bothered", her thesis the ideals articulated by George W Bush stem from the 18th Century age of enlightenment in Europe and were exported to America and beyond.

Thus, she maintains, while Europeans themselves undermined their own great democratic project with their ancient hatreds and their aristocratic nostalgia, the naïve Americans kept the dream intact, building it into a written constitution (which was an 18th-century idea itself). She continues:

Europe has pretty much given up on the whole undertaking now: we tried it and it ended in the Terror. We went through our phase of proselytising democratic revolution with Bonaparte and look where that ended. Spreading freedom? All that amounts to is killing off one generation of autocrats and replacing them with another. Trust the people? They are just as likely to follow a fascist demagogue as to perpetuate the sacred principle of justice.

Better to make your cynical peace with the worst aspects of human nature than to pretend that free men will always choose good over evil. Much better to make a mutually profitable trade-off behind the scenes than to expose political decisions to the popular will. What evidence is there that the people actually know what is best for them? Most charitably, the European philosophy of government - shortly to be permanently installed under the EU constitution - is paternalistic. At worst, it is arrogant and authoritarian.
Whatever it is, Daley writes, Europe no longer has a belief in real democracy of the kind that Americans recognise - government of the people, by the people and for the people - at its heart.

That is why, she says, Jacques Chirac - the very embodiment of corrupt European political cynicism - and George Bush can never, ever find true common ground. When the President tries to give credit where it is due - to the European authorship of democratic revolution - it sounds faintly sarcastic. Thus, American talk about spreading freedom is not just gauche; it is a reproach.

Daley has a pessimistic view of the future. It is too late to change, she believes. Europe has had disillusionments too great to permit a return to that purist belief in the transforming power of democratic institutions:

Europeans cannot be trusted to govern themselves. Their affairs will be administered by an EU oligarchy. And if they do not trust their own populations, European leaders are scarcely going to support handing out freedom to anarchic tribal societies that scarcely know what the right to vote is for.

Europeans have found something better, and more readily controlled, as a substitute for personal liberty. They have found wealth: mass prosperity and the kind of government-subsidised economic security that their countries, traumatised by generations of war and unrest, have never known.
Now they are not even fit to defend themselves, Daley concludes, or to sort out a mess in their own Balkan backyard. "Why should they join in any crazy scheme to bring peace to the rest of the world?" she asks.

And there you are back to your hens. Used to the comfort and warmth of their cages, with a regular supply of food and all their needs attended to, the European have got used to their bars – they no longer notice them. And when they meet their free-range cousins, they recoil in horror at tales of the wide open ranges and all the perils that go with them.

That is the divide. To the Americans, freedom still means something. Back in the old country, the "citizens" run to the cloying embrace of "mother Europe" and if, perchance, they are released from their gilded cages, their first and only instinct is to get back inside.

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