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How to put the European Union in order - Krzysztof Szczerski

Diplomacy requires substantive debate and, above all, thoroughly considered and rational argumentation. This seems particularly important today, when the EU is in a crisis, facing increasingly serious challenges. All too often emotions overpower rational judgment and plain common sense, and voicing radical opinions in sharp-tongued language makes debate difficult, if not entirely impossible.

Efficient politics is constituted by two essential elements: (1) a correct diagnosis of the problem to be solved and (2) appropriate means of intervention. As history shows, Europe was at its peak when its political leaders were able to identify problems correctly and address them competently. Crises, divisions and wars, on the other hand, were all results of false diagnoses and inadequate reactions, or no reaction whatsoever. 

What causes errors of judgment and reaction? Let me concentrate on two issues only – two possible sources of mistakes. One is utopian thinking and wishful thinking. Despite certain similarities, these two are by no means identical. Utopian thinking forces reality to conform to its rigidly set contours, which often involves brutal intervention in the natural course of human life. Wishful thinking, in turn, tends to devour reality as the imagined, postulated world is increasingly perceived as real. Both of these attitudes are most often born in ideological environments, when values and the moral compass shrink, and political actions focus on the realization of some ideological vision, to which all methods of action and means of achieving the goal are subsequently subordinated. Without values, politics always morphs into ideology. 

The other source of false diagnoses and inappropriate actions in the sphere of politics is populism. Populist methods involve a conscious manipulation of the image of reality, e.g. by the use of oversimplification, in order to win the support of great masses of the population. Plainly speaking, these are methods of social engineering, deliberately used to achieve the desired social effect conducive to the realization of a certain political goal. Ideologies and populism are never transparent and refuse to be submitted to any kind of verification. They both serve particular interests and particular political or economic goals. Both are means to political ends.

Ideological frameworks, with the accompanying wishful and utopian thinking, as well as populism occur in European politics today, distorting the image of reality and leading to wrong political decisions. They are by no means new phenomena: there are many records of the incidence of their like in the European past. We know perfectly well that it was not the Jewish people that was the main problem of the Weimar Republic; nor were kulaks, large landowners and the middle class the main problem of the tsarist Russia. Politics in the Germany and the Russia of that time resulted from the leaders’ choice of the wrong path, the path of ideology and populism. Today, as I strongly believe, we cannot afford to deviate from the path values and rationality. We cannot tolerate either ideological or populist approaches.

We must also refrain from wishful and utopian thinking. Within Europe, we mustn’t look out for enemies where there are none; we mustn’t divide those who should act jointly; we mustn’t revive stereotypes which erode respect for other nations; we mustn’t think we know best, without hearing the others’ opinions. We mustn’t see ourselves as better than others. The main problems of today’s Europe are not immigrants from Central Europe seeking employment in the common market, or nations wanting to function within their own countries, within their own cultures and social order. Providing  easy answers to complicated questions does not become great leaders and the elites of great states.

Nations are not Europe’s number one problem. It seems, however, that it is precisely the existence of national member states of the EU that is being identified as the original source of the crises of European integration. It’s hard to decide to what extent this false diagnosis stems from a failure to understand the moment in history in which Europe finds itself today and to what extent from a desire to achieve certain political goals. One way or the other, it doubtless makes many politicians act contrary to fundamental interests of European societies and Europe as a community. There is absolutely nothing wrong in the fact that some societies have a stronger sense of national identity than others, and want to have independent political communities, democracy and law in their own countries based on that sense of identity. The desire to preserve and cherish what is uniquely their own is not hostile nationalism. What is hostile to Europe is protectionism, i.e. favouring one’s own economic interest at the cost of harm to others. This, definitely a problem which the EU faces today, deserves to be called truly toxic nationalism. This is the populist weapon aimed at other countries.

European politics flourished when leaders judged the current situation realistically, uninfluenced by emotions or prejudices, remaining faithful to the values they deemed supreme to current political pragmatics. This formed the basis of the splendid success of European integration after World War II. Politicians deeply believing in Europe’s Christian identity, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi or Robert Schuman, correctly diagnosed the real problems of Western Europe and found the right way to address them. It is the singularity of the phenomenon of European integration, which continues to be a genuine academic fascination for me – I have specialized in the dynamics of the European system since the very beginning of my academic career – that it was steeped in ideas, and yet ultimately pragmatic. Based on the Christian concept of charity (caritas, the love of one’s neighbour) as the means of social sensibility, focusing on forgiving, though not forgetting, it managed to create lasting and effective instruments of international economic co-operation. These foundations determined the dynamic development of the western part of Europe for decades to come. Yes, that is correct: the western part of Europe, because in fact Europe was united only in 2004, following the enlargement of the Western world’s integrative institutions – NATO first and then the European Union – by the Central European states of the former Eastern bloc.

The history of European integration after 1945 proves that every new generation of Europe’s political leaders is presented with a similar challenge. Their task is to meet the citizens’ expectations and to preserve the values which constitute the core of the internal and international order; the values that politics must not violate, as they are pre-political. What politics must do, in short, is serve the citizens, respecting the values they uphold. In this triad – citizenry, values, politics – politics takes the last place, not the first.

To anyone who would question this assumption, let me suggest an intellectual experiment. Let us now reverse the order of the hierarchy in the triad. Agreeing that citizens should be subservient to certain political goals – that politics comes first, and citizens second – leads to totalitarianism, as we know perfectly well, for instance from the history of the Third Reich or Soviet Russia. It is not by chance that the examples I give come from outside Poland; in the Polish tradition, subjugation of society to the state is a foreign concept. This is evidenced by the fact that the only time when totalitarianism functioned on Polish territory was during the Nazi occupation, as a system forced on the people from outside following the act of aggression which ended Polish sovereignty. Whenever the Polish state was reborn, the tradition of freedom on Polish land, along with the republican and democratic traditions were reborn with it.

Furthermore, an assumption that politics outweighs values, allowing for unlimited manipulation of the latter, would amount to an affirmation of populism. Undermining the foundations of social order or consensual regulations of international co-operation in the name of current goals, dictated by political pragmatism, never ends well. Rendering values relative by revoking their superlative importance leaves humans in an axiological vacuum. This mechanism is finely described by Hermann Rauschning (incidentally, born in Toruń, the city of Copernicus) in his acclaimed book Die Revolution des Nihilismus [published as The Revolution of Nihilism in the US and as Germany’s Revolution of Destruction in the UK].

The above remarks are not mere academic theorizing. Let us take a look at European politics today. It is plain to see that the hierarchical order of the  triad under discussion – values, citizens, politics – is reversed; thankfully, this doesn’t take radical forms yet. European politics is in a crisis caused by the  inability to address the citizens’ needs. The EU citizens feel, as they have every right to do, that the Union does not guarantee the security and freedom which it was meant to provide. After all, security, in the sense of both physical safety and economic security, was the primary goal of the EU.

What Europe needs today is positive solutions to the main problems of the citizens of the member states. Europe must again be an answer rather than a question. It mustn’t go on multiplying doubts: it must start collectively finding solutions. All those in favour of the European integration process – myself included – need an efficient Europe, that is, a Europe which addresses Europeans’ aspirations and needs. It is not enough just to repeat that the European Union is vital and necessary; the citizens of the European Union must be convinced of it. Words will not do; there is a demand for action.

To be efficient, Europe must rely on four unities and four freedoms. The four unities are: unity of the law, unity of the institutions, unity of the market and unity of the budget. Undertaking a reform of the European Union, we must not only defend these unities, but strengthen them, too. Any kind of division in any of the four domains – of acquis communautaire, of institutions, of the market and of the budget – subverts the idea of European integration.

Within the unified law, institutions, market and budget, we should enjoy four freedoms: the freedom of employment (of movement of persons), the freedom of trade, the freedom of services, and the freedom of movement of capital.

The problem of European politics today is that both the four unities and the four freedoms are subject to considerable political pressure. What we have in Europe is a “double loop” of populism. There is the populism of the political margins, supported in various European countries by a few to a dozen per cent of the electorate. But there are also member states in which populist groups, while marginal on the scale of the entire continent, can realistically see themselves in power. So far, populism of this kind has been losing in democratic elections. Nevertheless, it is a real presence in many European countries and mustn’t be ignored.

Meanwhile, there is the other type of populism: institutional populism, or mainstream populism that already has achieved legitimacy. Its representatives, who occupy a mainstream position on the spectrum of political positions, have a legitimate say in matters of government. This type of populism is equally, if not even more, destructive to the unity of the European market, institutions, law and budget because – unlike the other, marginal type – it is perceived as acceptable and demonstrating reformative powers. It generates ideas which threaten the unity of the European law and institutions, the common market and budget, or the freedom of movements, services, trade and capital. These ideas are put forward in the name of fighting the ostensible social dumping on the market; what they really stand for, though, is protectionism and national economic egotism, which are contrary to the idea of the common market or common security, including energy security. It is essential for us to remember, then, that we must defend the four unities and the four freedoms against populism – not only against the populism of the margins, but also that of the mainstream, which has been shaping the direction and outcome of the debate on European politics and has begun to influence the EU legislation, as illustrated recently by the posted workers issue. In order to save the four unities and the four freedoms, we must find the right solutions to the challenges that Europe is facing in four spheres.

First of all, in the political sphere. I am a great believer in a Europe based on representative democracy and responsive government. What it means is that Europe should rely on greater responsibility of the governments and EU institutions before the societies of the European countries, all having parliaments to monitor those in power. National parliaments are not just an accessory to the European system of government. Increasing their role is key to Europe becoming again a place of representative democracy and responsive government, i.e. government whose mission is not educating their citizens, but representing them, that is: expressing their opinions and interests, receiving and respecting the messages from citizens to the ruling elites. That is why I don’t support the idea of some specially established provisional popular assemblies initiating a debate on the future of Europe. All European societies already have representations – the parliaments; these are the appropriate forums for the debate on the future of Europe. Even if, in some of these parliaments, there are parties we do not particularly like – and think they don’t belong in a parliament at all – we cannot avoid parliamentary-level debate on the future of Europe by means of some institutional tricks allowing us to limit the inclusion of those whose views are not to our liking. I am against establishing some disposable bodies, European quasi­-conventions, to be formed exclusively of those whom we (arbitrarily) appoint as great sages in European affairs and give the right to participate in the debate. Short-term, we could perhaps make our lives easier this way; but passing national parliaments over, censoring such opinions on the future of Europe with which we politically disagree, would amount to undermining the very foundation of democracy. Also, we mustn’t forget that democracy is a system protecting the rights of those passed over and largely excluded from political debate in the alternation of power. It means that those whom we eliminate now, will come to power sooner or later and eliminate us, the advocates of European integration; and maybe even put an end to the integration process itself. That is why the only platform for a debate on the future of Europe are national parliaments, as legitimate representation of the people. Europe badly needs legitimacy today, as well as a wide-spread sense of the citizens’ regaining influence on European politics. This is what parliamentary control is for and what governments are for: to do what is expected of them as representatives of the citizens’ interests (or, at any rate, the interests of the majority which emerged in the process of democratic elections). In a democracy there is no other source of power than electoral victory, followed by carrying out the will of the citizens.

In the political sphere, another important thing to bear in mind is that European unity is not achieved by multiplying central organs and agencies. Unity is not a fruit of growth of the centralized European bureaucracy. Calling for a reform of Europe, we needn’t motion for a dozen new EU institutions. According to the treatises, unity stems from loyal co-operation of the member states. Europe has to embrace loyal co-operation again: loyal, i.e. based on trust and safe in the assumption that no country will act against the interests of another; on mutual respect; working hand in hand; and – let us not forget – integration. We mustn’t condone projects invested in the idea of divisions, as they would undermine the integration process, and as a result lead to lower trust levels; and trust is crucial for political co-operation. It is lack of loyalty that upsets European unity. Even a thousand new agencies would not succeed in increasing mutual trust and repairing the cracks in unity when the root of the problem is a loyalty deficit. I could give any number of examples, but the one that we have been watching for over ten years is blindingly obvious: the lack of loyal co-operation in the interest of common energy security of the countries of the European Union.

Unity is also achieved by overcoming all kinds of internal divisions already existing in Europe. Though striving for unity, the EU is divided by many internal barriers: there is the eurozone and the Schengen Area, and various social models. There is, first and foremost, the still existing division into the more and less developed European countries. The dividing lines cross, running as they do along two axes: East-West and North-South. Striving for unity should involve levelling these divisions. It is vital that we do not categorize each other following those lines, and that we do not cut ourselves off from the rest of the EU, e.g. the Schengen area versus other EU countries, the North from the South, or the East from the West. That is how European unity grows. The Three Seas (BABS) Initiative is a good example of a unity-fostering project: it ignores all the above-mentioned lines of division. It comprises countries from the eurozone and the Schengen area, as well as those outside them, countries from the North and countries from the South. It is a classic illustration of an EU-born initiative overcoming all of the EU’s internal barriers.

Another important sphere is the economy. The common market should remain the instrument of economic freedom. It mustn’t be used to regulate competitiveness by passing legislation aimed at blocking some countries’ competitive edge over others. Turning the common market into an instrument of regulations targeting competitiveness is acting against the idea of European integration. This is happening today with regard to energy and the labour market. In effect Europe is ill, and the illness is economic hypocrisy – Europeans constantly hear the phrase “common market”, yet it is used by some as a catchword to introduce regulations going against economic freedom. In the economic sphere, what must be preserved are two solidarity-strengthening horizontal policies: the common agricultural policy and the cohesion policy. They are two important sources of Europe’s cohesiveness.

The eurozone should attempt to become stronger – on the condition, however, that this should not (a) introduce new economic barriers in the EU as a whole, and (b) increase the cost of joining the eurozone or put extra political pressure on member states to join. This is important insofar as citizens/voters must be convinced that they want to join the eurozone; the final decision should be left to each member state and based on a calculation of its economic cost. It is also worth noting that the negative image of the eurozone, a consequence of its last crisis, makes it hard to persuade voters in the states outside the zone to join it willingly. While they had nothing to do with the emergence of the negative image, now it is often demanded pf the states that they just ignore it and simply join the eurozone, never minding their own citizens in whose opinions the negative image is quite a big factor. I think that the eurozone must not only restore its positive image internally, but also act toward restoring it in potential new member states. The eurozone must be attractive to Europeans. And this must be obvious to the voters.

The third sphere in which Europe should generate solutions rather than problems is its civilizational vigour. Europe must not be a faded community: in today’s world, with global competitiveness of ideas, it too must be an attractive idea, as it always has been. In the Europe of today, political regulations are very often misleadingly called values. Values, however, are something entirely different from political regulations. Regulations arise from the ongoing political debate and are subject to the arithmetic of the majority vote. Values, on the other hand, are something more deeply rooted and reaching beyond politics. Europe has recently focused on political regulations and called them values, and thus has become a faded community. This chaos must end, otherwise we will lose on the global market of ideas.

The fourth and last sphere is the debate on Europe’s place in the world. What is called for here are clear positions on three elementary issues. First of all, its stance in relation to its nearest neighbours. Today Europe is afraid of its neighbours, regarding them as threatening. We see a threat in the South and in the East, and therefore either withdraw from neighbourly relations or fail to address a problem such as relations with Turkey. There can be no strong Europe without a stance on the neighbourhood issue, without a soherent policy on neighbourly relations. Part of this policy must be a policy of open doors to Europe. As president Andrzej Duda has rightly said recently, Brexit will be a tragedy for Europe if Europe assumes that, from now on, the Union can only be left. That would mean that the EU can only become smaller in the future; it would never be bigger than it is today. Brexit must be counteracted by an open doors policy. If we begin to think that the union is full and states can only leave it now, never join, it will be the end of European integration – and a serious political, but also intellectual crisis.

Secondly, there is the important issue of Europe’s strategic cohesion. To be an actor on the global scene, Europe must be an alliance and not merely a configuration of interests. Today it is often nothing more than a fluid configuration of interests rather than an alliance of countries undergoing the process of integration. The question is, are we able to create an awareness of the need for such an alliance in Europe?

Thirdly, I do believe that if Europe is to be global, it must become transatlantic. What we call Europe exists on both sides of the Atlantic, just under different names. If Europe remains continental, it will be peripheral. If it is to have global impact, it must become transatlantic.

The four unities and four freedoms discussed first, as well as the four spheres mentioned now – political, economic, civilizational and global – form a map of problems which Europe faces today and to which solutions must be found pretty fast; what is more, solutions which will be approved by the citizens of Europe. Ultimately Europe is made up of its citizens; it is commonly assumed today that what binds Europe together are its citizens, who treat European unity as part of their everyday lives. European institutions, therefore, must not ignore the voices of European citizens, especially those dissatisfied with the status quo. Europe has no other citizens, in fact, than the citizens of its member states. There is such a thing as EU citizenship, but it is secondary in nature: an individual has to be a citizen of one of the states in order to become a citizen of the European Union. Having no citizens of its own, the EU cannot afford to alienate the citizens of its member states. It did that once and they responded by voting against the membership of their country in the union. The EU cannot afford to alienate citizens, since without them it would be just an empty shell. It mustn’t alienate states either, because it has no territory of its own: there is no such thing as independent EU territory, there are only the territories of its member states. If a state should decide to leave, in its best national interest, the EU would lose the leaver’s territory. And if it lost all territories, it would cease to exist. Perhaps institutions would survive without the member states and without territory. We cannot rule it out. It is well-known that, according to the laws of bureaucracy, an office with over a thousand employees could function as long as two weeks after the end of the world, propelled by its own momentum: the document flow within the office. Only after two weeks would the clerks start noticing that nothing has come in from the outside world, not an applicant, not even a letter – and would finally realize that the world had ended. Given the size of European bureaucracy, it might take a month – or perhaps even a year, who can say? In order to prevent this from happening, Europe must deliver solutions instead of questions.

If it fails to do so, it will be like the Buddenbrook household – always ready to celebrate its permanence, unaware of the beginnings of internal decay. Therefore, let us keep Thomas Mann’s words in mind:

Fortune and success lie with ourselves. We must hold them firmly — deep within us. For as soon as something begins to slip, to relax, to get tired, within us, then everything without us will rebel and struggle to withdraw from our influence. One thing follows another, blow after blow — and the man is finished [transl. H.P. Lowe-Porter].

I do believe that together we can write a different story for Europe; I believe that there is nothing we will allow to slip, that we will not relax the ties which bind us and that we will not get tired of each other.

Text translated by Agnieszka Pokojska (b. 1975) Polish translator. Ryszard Kapuściński’s Prize Laureate (2011)

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