How The EU Elite Paved The Way For Populism

For decades most intellectuals ignored the evidence that the European project had no democratic mandate. We are now reaping the whirlwind

In a now largely forgotten book published in 1982, Redemption by War: The Intellectuals and 1914, the American historian Roland Stromberg detailed how European intellectuals, almost to a man, welcomed the outbreak of the First World War. Things did not improve in the following decades, when scores of Europe’s thinkers fell under the spell of one extreme ideology or the other.

Is it different this time? Intellectuals across the continent seem almost unanimous in their defence of European liberalism which is threatened — as they see it — by Brexit and populism. Support for Leave in British universities ranged from the non-existent to the minuscule; and hardly a day goes by without some prominent intellectual warning of a return to the politics of the 1930s, to which the Saturday Guardian recently devoted a special supplement. Are Europe’s intellectuals on the right side of history at last?

Speaking of warnings, a small platoon of European thinkers did sound the alarm about the process of European integration in articles and books published at the turn of the century. Among them was Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde. Jurist, historian, and former judge on Germany’s Constitutional Court, he is little known in Britain although hopefully not for much longer now that a collection of his essays is available in English (Constitutional and Political Theory: Selected Writings, edited by Mirjam Künkler and Tine Stein, OUP, £70).

In 1997 Böckenförde argued that the path to integration chosen by the EU would delegitimise both the EU and member states. The transfer of extensive legislative and regulatory powers to the EU — he predicted — would lead to “a fragmentation of the care for the common good”. Böckenförde did not accept that the “administrative-technocratic structure” of the EU, manifesting itself “as a mere legal community” and “governance of experts”, could ever provide democratic legitimacy: its “chain of legitimation” is “too indirect . . . too abstract to create closeness”. He concluded with the sobering assessment that the “market-economic approach” — and the then impending monetary union — “will not lead to greater unity, but to greater separation”.

Böckenförde was not alone in these concerns. Sir Larry Siedentop’s Democracy in Europe (2000) warned that democratic legitimacy was at risk in Europe. The “economic model of democracy” — the idea that European democratic citizenship would be the natural outgrowth of the single market and monetary union — undermines “the classic liberal alliance of state and market” by minimising the claims of politics and maximising those of the market. “European elites,” he continued, “are in danger of creating a profound moral and institutional crisis in Europe — a crisis of democracy.” In a Europe of consumers and debased national citizenship, “the way will be open for more extreme movements of the Right and Left to seize the label ‘democratic’ and use it for their own purposes”. For Pierre Manent the separation of democracy from the nation state was the “great illusion” behind the European project, a point he made in A World Beyond Politics? A Defence of the Nation State, published in French in 2001, and in English in 2006.

Böckenförde, Siedentop and Manent are well-known in their countries and beyond. Their arguments were certainly heard. But few European intellectuals seemed to share their sense of alarm. And if they did, they chose to remain silent. Why?

One reason may be that any argument which has something good to say about the nation state is met with a knee-jerk rejection. Richard Rorty took aim at the relentless disparagement of nationhood in Achieving Our Country (also published around that time, in 1997). “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals,” he wrote at the beginning of that book, “a necessary condition for self-improvement.” Political deliberation cannot be “imaginative and productive” unless the people’s emotional involvement with their country is such that “pride outweighs shame”.

This is the book where Rorty made the “something will crack” comment predicting the rise of a “strongman”, which was unearthed after the election of Donald Trump. But the analysis preceding that prediction has not yet received the attention it deserves. Rorty, a thinker of the radical Left in the Deweyian tradition, suggested that a strongman would rise after years in which national pride had been demonised and the bond of citizenship weakened by the “cultural Left” with its “semi-conscious anti-Americanism”. The “cosmopolitan super-rich”, the “smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors” barely think of those left behind in their country as fellow citizens to whom anything is owed. But the forsaken will “sooner or later realise that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or . . . jobs from being exported”. Then, Rorty said, something will crack.

In Europe the rejection of nationhood has been more extreme for reasons that are not difficult to imagine. As Manent wrote, the “historical evil” of the first half of the 20th century has “come to overwhelm European life and conscience to such an extent that European nations, in the name of ‘constructing Europe’, have embarked on a methodical process of self-erasement”.

There is something Orwellian about this collective self-erasement undertaken in the name of historical memory. But it has gone a long way in reshaping the consciousness of European intellectuals and academics. For most of them the main lesson of the 1930s is that any national pride must be nipped in the bud, along with the idea that liberal nationalism might ever have been a positive force in European history. The notion that there might be a relationship between national or cultural identity and democracy must be rejected outright. Indeed, a leading textbook of EU law proclaims: “The sense of a shared identity as a precondition for democracy is a dangerous, even fascistic, idea if it implies that individuals must have certain common traits or ways of seeing the world before there can be a democracy.” Tocqueville “dangerous” and “fascistic” too, then?

In this state of oblivion and confusion, all appeals to national sovereignty and democratic self-government become suspect. If we go along with them, descent into fascism will be all but unstoppable, as Philippe Sands seems to suggest in a recent review of Laurence Rees’s The Holocaust. Sands recalls Primo Levi’s pithy summary of the logic of fascism: once most people manifest the belief that “every stranger is an enemy”, that belief will become the major premise of a syllogism and “at the end of the chain, there is the Lager”. Sands assimilates the Leave campaign’s souverainiste language of taking back control to the major premise in that syllogism. But in doing so, he misunderstands Levi’s point about the distinctive nature of fascism. And it bears recalling that Levi joined the partisans as a member of the Partito d’Azione, which had its origins in the 19th-century liberal nationalism of Mazzini and Garibaldi. The idea of a chain of inference linking Garibaldi to Goebbels — and the concentration camps — would have horrified him.

Another reason for the failure of Böckenförde’s, Manent’s, and Siedentop’s prescient analyses to resonate more widely in the European intellectual sphere is that faith in technocracy has replaced faith in democracy. In the field of EU studies, no one embodies this trend better than the Princeton academic Andrew Moravcsik. When Siedentop’s book came out, he dismissed it as having a “whiff of Oxford high-table history” and teaching us “very little” about the future of the EU.

Confronted with the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty by both the French and the Dutch in 2005, Moravcsik insisted that the problem of democratic legitimacy, which was then troubling the electorates too, was exaggerated. “Far from demonstrating that the European Union is in decline or disarray or in desperate need of democratic reform” — he asserted — “the crisis demonstrates its fundamental stability and legitimacy.” As late as April last year, Moravcsik wrote that the Brexit referendum lacked “real significance” because “the government would probably do just what EU members . . . have always done after such votes. It would negotiate a new agreement, nearly identical to the old one, disguise it in opaque language and ratify it. The public, essentially ignorant about Europe, always goes along.”

Even those who accept that something is wrong with EU institutions are for the most part only prepared to admit that some change to the “administrative-technocratic” structure can fix the problem. Coralie Delaume (a journalist) and David Cayla (an economist) do not agree. In their La fin de l’Union Européenne (Michalon, €19), which is causing a stir on the other side of the Channel, they argue that the “democratic deficit” cannot be “corrected with some clever institutional bricolage”. Indeed, the problem runs deeper. The European project was constituted in an undemocratic way, premised on the transfer of legislative functions to unrepresentative institutions whose powers grew and grew over time.

Clement Attlee saw this clearly from the outset. In 1950 he rejected British participation in the Schuman Plan with these words: “We have always been willing, and are now, to enter into . . . international arrangements, but the point of this plan was that it was something entirely different from the international arrangements. This was to set up a supra-national authority.” An authority, he added, that is “utterly undemocratic and is responsible to nobody”.

The undemocratic foundation of the EU risks corrupting representative government in Europe. As Delaume and Cayla recall, in 2008, three years after the French rejection of the Constitutional Treaty, more than three-quarters of French parliamentarians approved the Lisbon Treaty. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing candidly admitted at the time that Lisbon was essentially the same thing as the Constitutional Treaty. It is difficult to imagine, Delaume and Cayla point out, “representatives more disconnected from those they are meant to represent than these ones”. Delaume and Cayla correctly predicted that British MPs would not repeat the error of their French counterparts. Indeed, the Commons vote on Article 50 was almost a perfect mirror image of the French vote of 2008: more than three-quarters of MPs voted to uphold the will of the people rather than to overturn it.

The euro may have been the final straw for the EU. It increased the power of the technocrats, and exposed the impotence of national democratic governments. It even turned the EU against one of the central — possibly the central — raison d’être of the European project: the containment of Germany. Remember how it all began: the European Coal and Steel Community, established in 1951, was designed to place those strategic resources outside exclusive German control. The euro has, however, steadily amplified German power in Europe over the last two decades, in some ways in spite of Germany’s economic performance rather than because of it (British GDP was less than half German GDP in 1995; it is more than 80 per cent now). Far from being contained, Germany now exerts disproportionate influence over the fiscal, monetary and immigration policy of the rest of Europe. As Sir Craig Oliver’s account of the Cameron negotiations reveals, it was to Merkel that the British government would normally turn to find out if a particular proposal would be met with a Ja or a Nein.

That the euro would strengthen Germany should have been clear from the outset. It was to Denis Healey, Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1974-1979. He wrote in his diaries that he had been “fairly agnostic” about Britain joining the first step towards monetary union, the Exchange Rate Mechanism, until he discussed it with Manfred Lahnstein, the Permanent Secretary in Germany’s Finance Ministry. Lahnstein explained that he supported the ERM because it was in Germany’s national interest. “His argument was, as always, simple and powerful,” wrote Healey. “The mechanism would require the weaker countries to intervene on the currency markets to keep the stronger currencies down, and vice versa; this meant that France and Italy would have to pay to keep the Deutschmark lower than it would have been in a free market, thus keeping Germany more competitive, and other countries less so.” The euro removed the inconvenience of interventions in the currency markets to secure Germany’s advantage over the rest of the continent. But it still followed Lahnstein’s logic.

Perhaps most damning of all is that the euro has justified the humiliation of Europe’s South, Greece especially. The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit argued that a decent political society is one in which institutions do not humiliate. In the eyes of many Europeans the EU now fails this basic test of political decency. One of the faces of this failure is Martin Schulz, former President of the European Parliament and unanimously elected leader of Germany’s SPD in March. After the Greek referendum he said that it was time for a “government of technocrats” to replace those in Athens who had defied Brussels. Yet, far from reviling him as an anti-democrat, Europe’s intelligentsia seems to have already crowned Schulz as the face of the EU’s post-Brexit future.

The euro may have worked for Germany in an economic sense, but it has not solved its identity problems. Far from it. In another recent contribution to the debate on Europe, The End of Europe (Yale, £18.99), James Kirchick — who, unlike Delaume and Cayla, laments the possibility that the EU may collapse — writes an insightful chapter on Germany’s identity crisis. The post-war Germany of the Rhine founded by Adenauer has been shifting its pivot eastward. With the election of an American President who seems more than happy to reciprocate Germany’s growing disaffection towards the United States, Kirchick may be right to think that Germany will find itself tempted to reconsider its Westbindung and explore a new Sonderweg.

The election of Trump has prompted the rediscovery of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here — a dystopian political novel in which a fascist defeats Roosevelt in 1936. The protagonist, a newspaper editor called Doremus Jessup, is struck by a realisation: “The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t the primary fault of Big Business, nor the demagogues who do their dirty work. It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.”

The EU is no tyranny or dictatorship. But democracy is in crisis in Europe. True, the blame does not lie only with the EU: according to recent polling for the Journal of Democracy, youth disaffection with democracy runs high in EU and non-EU democracies alike. The post-referendum myth of an idealist British youth outvoted by a cynical older generation, however, may need some revisiting now that we know that only 30 per cent of under-35s in Britain think it is “essential” to live in a democracy, as opposed to 75 per cent of those born in the 1930s. Europe is less well-placed to deal with this crisis, divided as it is between supranational institutions that are at best undemocratic and increasingly anti-democratic, and national institutions that have lost so much authority that they fail to command respect. Conscientious, respectable but lazy-minded pundits have not acquiesced in the rise of tyranny, but might they have enabled this dangerous situation to arise?

Had the EU been faced with sustained intellectual scrutiny and widespread criticism, some errors might have been avoided. Now European intellectual elites too often find comfort in politics of fear. The humdrum refrains linking Brexit to the rise of fascism and the 1930s provide welcome moral legitimacy to institutions whose political legitimacy is faltering. What better way of banishing the ghost of the EU’s failures — the unemployed and the underemployed, the hopelessness of a whole generation of southern Europeans, the humiliation of Greece, the antidemocratic institutions — than to think that only you stand between Europe and a new Machtergreifung? Or, as Guy Verhofstadt implied in an interview on Radio 4 recently, that EU citizenship is necessary to be part of “European civilisation”? He was echoing Donald Tusk’s comment that Brexit would threaten “Western political civilisation”.

Fixing the EU’s original constitutional errors was never going to be easy. But in this intellectual climate of irrationality and fear, it would be difficult to embark upon ordinary reform, let alone re-found the project on different premises. Alarmingly, the gap between public opinion and intellectual opinion is widening. According to the Pew Research Centre, in all major European countries there is a clear majority supporting the repatriation of powers from Brussels. Yet, in the latest high-profile initiative — the appeal for a “March for Europe” in Rome to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome — 300 European intellectuals and academics are demanding the exact opposite: the transformation of the European Commission “into a fully-fledged government”.

Make no mistake: undemocratic and illiberal politicians are taking advantage of this crisis. Even after Geert Wilders’s unimpressive election results they should not be dismissed lightly. Their support is growing because, as Manent wrote 15 years ago, with the opinion of the media and respectable political parties “nearly unanimously in favour of Europe, almost without reservation”, the other alternative — the defence of democratic nationhood — has been “left to extreme parties that are not quite as respectable”.

Support for European integration almost without reservation has been the default position for most intellectuals and academics — a consensus which has helped to create the conditions for the rise of extreme parties. Too many failed to appreciate that by scorning the nation they were holding democracy in contempt too; that they were allowing the EU to exist in an intellectual space virtually free from serious criticism; that they were bringing democracy into disrepute  with their indifference to the anti-democratic vote in the French Assembly approving the Lisbon Treaty, to the UK Labour government’s betrayal of its manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on that treaty, or to the Greek bailout referendum of 2015.

By putting all the blame for Brexit on the people and none on the EU, they are instrumental in the EU’s perseverance with error. And, in what may be a last-ditch attempt to hold the EU together — through fear rather than consent and hope — they are now enabling a supranational millennialist demagoguery which risks being met only by its national equivalent. 

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