A colourful bunch of political animals has emerged in the ruins of the EU’s single currency. Down in the political undergrowth, for instance, you’ll often find an Oborne, a large and irritable beast who doesn’t mind digging in the dirt. “Idiots!” he trumpets, as he tramples over meeker, non-native species.
Meanwhile, up in the trees you can hear the shrill cries of the Hannan. “It pains me to say I told you so,” he twitters, “but I really did tell you so”. And this prickly little creature is a Taleb. What’s he saying? Nobody knows, but doubtless he has just been proved right too.
Surprisingly, given that they seem to view our financial misery primarily as a source of personal vindication, these beasties are currently basking in public affection. The root of their popularity lies in the notion that they are far-sighted political outsiders who have been unfairly sidelined by The Establishment. If only someone had listened to them earlier!
This annoys the EU’s political insiders. They would argue that, if these individuals have been ignored over the years, it is for good reason: they almost certainly belong to one of those categories of public intellectual whom the world can readily do without.
Perhaps they are McCones, named after the hawkish head of the CIA in the 1960s. He happened to foresee the Cuban Missile Crisis, but his ideas about what caused it and how to resolve it were all wrong. The McCones’ problem is that, because they are right about one big thing, they think they are right about everything.
Perhaps they are Pauls, named after the perennial US presidential hopeful who has a habit of saying what everyone else already knows, but in a particularly outraged and obtuse manner. Their problem is they simply haven’t learnt the art of political compromise.
Or maybe they are Clarkes, named after the US official whose warnings about the 9/11 attacks went unheard. It may be because they fire off too many predictions at once, or because they have a penchant for cryptic neologisms, or just because they only have the strength of their convictions after their warnings actually came to pass. Whatever the reason, this group just doesn’t communicate properly at the right time.
Not so, say the outsiders: history has shown the McCones and Pauls and Clarkes of the past to be insightful individuals who just happened to be articulating a message which their governments didn’t want to hear. Such people, moreover, have a key role to play in any well-functioning political system. Their outsider knowledge is a useful counterpart to governments’ serial in-thinking.
Insider knowledge, the knowledge typical of government officials and ministers, is kennen, connaitre — being acquainted with and experiencing political realities first hand. Outsider knowledge, the knowledge typical of the academic or the backbench parliamentarian, is categorised as wissen, savoir — understanding politics from a critical distance.
Insiders see things in a compromised, practical way; outsiders, with greater theoretical clarity. In a well-functioning political system, both groups chat with one another. But if the dialogue between them dries up, insiders are left in their grey swamp of practicalities and compromises, and outsiders only have their black-and-white certainties.
So, is the euro-crisis the result of the way political insiders systematically sidelined critical outside-voices? Or is it down to the way that sceptical outsiders effectively disqualified themselves from the debate? Most likely, neither is the case: insiders and outsiders have an altogether more collusive relationship than either side likes to admit.
In reality, most political insiders love outside thinking. And they love it not because it is good—it seldom is—but because they are snobs. Years spent surrounded by official jobsworths mean they look down on the ideas produced by their administrative colleagues. To them, the outsider perspective seems exotic and untrammelled by practical concerns.
Outsiders find this flattering, and play along, generating ever more outlandish ideas. But don’t expect them to take responsibility when the shit hits the fan. Not our fault, they say, we were just brainstorming. And don’t expect the insiders to take responsibility either — after all, none of this was their idea.
In short: if we really do need these outsiders to get us out of our current political and financial mess, then it is only because they are precisely the kind of people who helped get us into it in the first place.
President Obama may be unpopular in Central and Eastern Europe, but only for speaking the truth about the inevitability of American disengagement. Mitt Romney cannot count on a warm welcome in Warsaw if he pretends this disengagement is reversible.
During his week away, of course, the US presidential hopeful will be mainly concerned to mobilise America’s overseas voters, lightening some wallets along the way. But he wants to do so against a backdrop of cheering foreigners.
That explains the choice of Poland for the grand finale of his tour. Whilst it may not be home to too many American citizens with full purses, Poland has certainly been marked down as a red state on the extended map of America.
Staunch allies of Washington during the run-up to the Iraq War, the Poles were famously annoyed by President Obama’s cancellation of the American missile-defence programme in Central and Eastern Europe and by the President’s recent, flat-footed comments on the Holocaust.
It sounds, then, like a sure thing for Mitt. Yet, Poland is unlikely to provide the pictures the campaign needs, and it’s not just because Warsaw is virtually empty of people during the holiday season.
For one thing, Poles are not currently minded to distinguish between different brands of American politician. If Governor Romney comes and bashes the incumbent’s record, he simply risks fuelling a blanket atlantiscepticism.
For another, Europeans have got wise to American electoral diplomacy. If a candidate makes a point of visiting a place during an election campaign, they know he expects this to be the highpoint of his popularity in the region. He will not be back any time soon.
Add to this the fact that Varsovians have an inkling of what is expected of them by the Romney team, and it jars with their own self-perception. They do not want to find themselves painted as the people of 20 years ago, hungry for American-style liberty and leadership.
There is, in short, an understanding that American disengagement from the region is irreversible rather than a question of political choice, and people here have no reason to prop up a fantasy. Times have moved on and so have the Poles.
This shift in thinking will be music to the ears of a government keenly trying to recalibrate its foreign policy. After the initial shock of the missile-defence cancellation, the government in Warsaw has accepted the idea of US disengagement first grudgingly and then with rather more enthusiasm.
Its recognition that Poland must stand on its own two feet has already paid off, allowing the government to develop a healthier and less deferential relationship with the US. This in turn has led to progress on thorny issues such as visa requirements for Poles visiting the States.
But it has also required of Poland a more significant investment in the shaky European Union. The logic is clear, if harder to sell: in an unforgiving international environment, the EU needs to be reformed and strengthened so that it is capable of providing security for its members.
With its economy growing, and defence spending fixed by law at 1.95% of GDP, Poland believes it can play a key role in that process. Yet, it also knows that its defence capabilities are rather small, and that its European partners are still more useful to it than it is to them.
Romney’s visit thus comes at an acutely sensitive moment. If he pretends that the US is still prepared to invest politically and militarily in the region, he could do lasting damage to Poland’s ambitions: he would raise popular doubts about the real necessity of investing in the EU, and he would give rise to suspicions about Poland’s commitment to the EU amongst its partners.
A weakened US badly needs a strong Poland in a strong EU. Will Governor Romney have the nerve to admit it?
A decade ago, under pressure from heads of state and government, Europe’s interior ministries adopted rules to boost social rights for immigrants. But they did so unwillingly, viewing the EU directives on long-term residence status and family reunification as a dangerous intrusion into their discretion.
It should come as no surprise, then, that these two directives are today badly implemented, with states such as the Netherlands, Germany and Austria doing little to hide their dislike of them. And, although the EU now has robust powers to improve transposition, the Commission has hardly used them in this sensitive policy area.
Moreover, as the Sheffield-based academic Diego Acosta describes, national courts dealing with infringement cases are being outmanoeuvred by interior ministries: the ministries simply grant discretionary rights to the immigrant complainants, putting a speedy end to their cases and thus to the prospect of an improvement in national transposition.
Three reasons for restriction
Interior ministries dislike the EU directives for three reasons. First, they view them as detrimental to their capacity to select the foreigners who enter the EU and stay: rights of family reunification can prevent governments from choosing immigrants on the basis of their professional qualifications; rights of residence can prevent governments from imposing integration conditions on immigrants who want to settle.
Second, the directives may discourage immigrants from leaving the EU. Interior ministries have recently embraced the idea of “circular migration” in which immigrants are supposed to return home after a short time in the EU. In this, they have formed something of an unholy alliance with development ministries, who support temporary migration as boosting “brain gain” in sending countries.
Third, the directives may be abused by immigrants. Family reunification rights are seen as encouraging false marriages, with prospective immigrants getting hitched simply so they can enter the EU. Some member states also believe the reunification directive allows too much scope for forced marriages. For that reason, they would like to raise the age at which spouses may enter the EU.
Three false logics
Analysis suggests that the first logic is flawed: although restricting family reunification and residence rights may indeed allow governments to select the immigrants they want, this does not actually help the economy.
“Kinship migrants” joining their families in the EU can take advantage of social networks not available to the highly-qualified immigrants selected under European schemes. As a result, they show upward social mobility as they settle in, whilst highly-qualified migrants tend to go downhill. Families, it turns out, are simply better at screening for the long-term productivity of immigrants than are businesses or governments.
As for the development benefits of migration, anecdotal evidence suggests that these are actually best achieved by immigrants who have settled long-term in the EU rather than by temporary migrants.
After all, long-term immigrants with a secure status are permitted to spend extended periods away from the EU without losing residence rights there. This means they are better placed to invest in their countries of origin. Moreover, during their time in the EU they tend to accrue skill-sets beneficial to development and good governance—social science qualifications, for example—which are less prevalent in countries of origin.
Finally, the reality of forced marriage is more nuanced than interior ministries claim. Analysis suggests that the phenomenon is best dealt with by offering women an exit from the unwanted marriage and by reducing the broader social pressures on them by means of education and dialogue. A strict immigration regime, by contrast, can leave women trapped, especially if they are dependent upon their spouses for their residence rights.
Means before ends
The evidence thus suggests that many core goals of European immigration policy can be met by a relatively hands-off approach or by empowering immigrants through secure rights. By inference, it also suggests that interior ministries are more concerned about their discretion than about their stated policy goals.
A concern for the means rather than the ends of policy has been a consistent feature of EU immigration policy. The European Parliament, for instance, is often more focused on gaining competencies than on the content of policy. And NGOs fall into the trap, first highlighted by the thinker Jeremy Bentham, of focusing more on the question whether individuals’ rights are met, than whether this is actually beneficial to them.
Yet, if interior ministries focus on the question of discretion even at the expense of their own policy aims, it is probably because they have a higher goal in mind: they wish to reassure the public that they have things under control. After all, analysis shows that citizens in countries with hands-on, selective immigration policies tend to be more relaxed about newcomers.
That’s all very well of course. But surely the best way to make citizens at ease with migration is to encourage them to be flexible, independent and entrepreneurial, rather than trying to remove these characteristics from immigrants by means of excessive control.
Don’t look. Can you say what’s on the 5, the 10 or the 50 Euro banknotes? Thought not.
On each, a bridge-and-window motif mumbles “linking” and “openness”. The European stars edge apologetically off the page. The map of Europe, with its blurred east and its southern shadow, can’t quite muster the energy to be controversial.
The design on the Euro notes has gone down in history as a massive defeat for Brussels—the generic flavourlessness proof that the peoples of Europe really don’t have anything in common.
From today’s perspective, of course, this blandness looks like a happy accident: if the banknotes had featured, say, Beethoven or the Brandenburg Gate, even the impoverished people of Greece might be tempted to set a light to them, along with the German flag.
And yet, no matter how bland the result, design is design, not accident. The committee that gave the Euro its look made some very deliberate choices.
For example, the committee made the decision to eschew not only recognisable figures—Europe’s da Vincis, Cervantes and Beethovens—but all figures full-stop. There aren’t even little stick-people on the bridges or in the windows. This marked a break with the entire tradition of European banknote design.
Moreover, the generic architecture they eventually adopted was not the design that had resonated most with the public during preliminary polling—that honour went to altogether more abstract and colourful patterns. The committee was prepared to defy public opinion in its choice.
What were they up to? Analyst Jacques Hymans suggests that Brussels’s political weakness had made committee sensitive to a fact which still escapes most central bankers in the member states: in an age of individualism, citizens dislike official interference in their sense of identity. The committee realised that it had to be subtle.
The choice of generic European architecture followed a straightforward logic of course. The notes were supposed to portray “anywhere Europe”. Citizens would see local examples of the kinds of architecture depicted on the notes and make the connection. What the prized local landmark lost in uniqueness as a result, it would make up for by being part of a European whole.
But this was more than just an attempt to loosen citizens’ ties with their local environment. The absence of human figures on the notes meant that the citizen was effectively the only person involved in this process. Citizens were being invited to place themselves at the centre of the European landscape and to forge their own personal connection with it.
This invitation to create an individually tailored European identity, one that would be added to every time the citizen travelled to a different Euro-member country, is precisely the kind of clever-clever post-modern idea one does not expect from the Brussels bureaucracy. And yet, it chimes exactly with the contemporary Brussels lifestyle.
Unlike the federalists who flocked to the institutions in decades past, few of today’s EU administrators actively identify with the Union’s official symbols, its flag or hymn. Their identity is based rather on their own very individual experience of Europe. It is about their ease at passing from one country to the next, about dipping into local culture.
Many officials talk of practicing a kind of ‘variable nationality’: they disguise just enough of their national, and adopt just enough of the local identity necessary to access bits of European culture usually open only to natives.
The USA saw a similar phenomenon during its own political and social consolidation. The sociologist Richard Peterson has called it “cosmopolitan omnivorism”: the emergence of an identity based on openness, the acceptance of variety and above all upon individual pick-‘n’-mix.
The Americans had tried to base their identity on narrow collective characteristics just like other countries of course, but their society was simply too fluid and heterogeneous. As a result, identity and social status were accrued not through exclusion, chauvinism and snobbery but rather through individuals’ openness to new things and their sheer capacity to consume variety.
This phenomenon is increasingly reflected in the EU’s own political agenda. Policies such as the “connecting Europe facility”, designed to improve transport and internet links between member countries, or the reduction of roaming charges on mobile telephony, aim to facilitate the large-scale, individual consumption of European variety.
The Euro notes may be bland, then, but they do express a very distinct philosophy. It is about the sense of personal empowerment that comes from loosening one’s national attachment. It is about being free to choose one of an infinity of potential European identities.
Ten years ago, European immigration policy was run almost exclusively by interior ministers – shy nocturnal creatures who viewed mobility as something deeply threatening. If immigrants weren’t bogus asylum-seekers, they were almost certainly welfare-shoppers or, at the very least, irregular.
In the last few years, however, the EU’s economic, foreign and development ministries have encouraged their colleagues to think again: the immigrant masses may be huddled, it seems, but many of them are distinctly white-collared too.
This realisation that the skilled and wealthy also migrate has allowed the EU to begin recalibrating its relations with third countries, particularly in eastern Europe – Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine – and now in North Africa too – Tunisia and Morocco. Travel and migration between the EU and its neighbourhood is increasingly seen as a common good, leading to mutual exchange and prosperity.
There’s been a similar change of thinking regarding the migration of European citizens within the EU. Even at the last round of enlargement, northern member states waited with dread for the influx of poor immigrants from peripheral new members. But despite their lack of language skills and their distinctly foreign-looking qualifications, many of the immigrants who came turned out to be top notch.
Mobility is thus becoming something of a bedrock for the EU’s relations with its citizens as well as with the world beyond. This is not to say that European citizens exactly welcome these immigrants (as Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent statements and a potential revision of free-movement laws prove), but after the drastic drop-off in immigration rates to many EU states in 2009 there is a slightly pathetic sense of relief that well-qualified people still want to come.
There is, however, one small fly in the ointment: the well-qualified individuals who immigrate must also have emigrated from somewhere. This has political implications. Recent research draws attention to the phenomenon of ‘trapped populations’, a poor and immobile section of the global population abandoned to an uncertain future by their more mobile countrymen.
This research points out that the structural challenges facing countries worldwide – climate and demographic change, national debt, economic decline or inequality – are essentially territorial. The mobile rich can avoid them simply by moving to a different area. The immobile poor are the ones who will have to fix these problems where they fall.
Of course, the reality is a little more nuanced: much migration today is ‘circular’ – people return home after a period away. The mobile elites, it seems, don’t have the good sense simply to abandon their poor and immobile compatriots, but rather return home to help them out with new skills and capital.
Yet, such nuances will not prevent emigration becoming more politicised, even within the EU. Already citizens in southern and south-eastern member states fret about it. No wonder. If reports are to be believed, the brains in Spain fall mainly down the drain.
For the first time in ten years, more people are reported to have left Spain than immigrated. Romania’s population is said to have shrunk from 21.3m to 19m in the space of a decade. Population and migration statistics are notoriously unreliable of course but, for an excitable media, no figure is too unlikely. Has anyone seen the 1.21m Greeks widely reported to have abandoned ship in 2010?
As for northern Europe, it has withstood the financial crisis relatively well so far, and immigration rather than emigration remains firmly the issue. But there too a creeping concern about national decline is making people worry about brain drain.
In 2005, when Germany experienced net emigration for the first time in 40 years, the widespread soul-searching showed up national sensitivities. Denmark, France and the Netherlands have all seen a net loss of managers and scientists to other EU members. Woe betide the mobile elites when the economic crisis really hits.
The point, then, is this: much migration these days tends to be ‘circular’ and beneficial to all concerned; fears about mass emigration and brain drain are usually overblown. Yet, this will not prevent emigration emerging as a political cleavage, potentially as divisive as other emergent economic, generational and environmental cleavages which are essentially territorial in nature.
The EU, with its sudden clap-happy enthusiasm for mobility, has picked a deeply controversial issue upon which to base its relations with its citizens and the world beyond.
After years of self-denial, EU policymakers are outing themselves as technocrats. From now on decisions will be scientific and evidence-based. The years of European vanity projects, dogma and ideology are over.
Even our parliamentarians have given the idea of technocracy an enthusiastic I Like This. In a resolution on Wednesday, for example, the European Parliament called for an evidence-based assessment of the EU’s counterterrorist policies.
It all goes to show how much we want to believe that European decision-making is a logical and linear process – a process in which law-makers identify the problems that require EU-wide treatment, adopt the right solution and then tweak it in the unlikely eventuality that it does not work properly.
The trouble is that EU decision-making has its own very particular logic, and it doesn’t quite match the ideal.
Political players in Brussels usually start by drawing up a solution. Then they look for a problem to justify it. Then they try to identify a European dimension to that problem in order to justify action at the EU level.
Imagine a Las Vegas casino full of gamblers playing on fruit machines, and that is pretty much how law-making in Brussels works. The political players spend their time trying to line up their preferred solution with a favourable problem and political level.
Science and evidence do not prevent this kind of abuse; they only disguise it. After all, “objective evidence” can be found for just about anything, especially when the preferred answer is clear.
European counterterrorism policies such as the 2006 data-retention directive throw up many examples of this kind of casino technocracy.
In 2005 interior ministries cited the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London as evidence of the problem of unmonitored telecommunications traffic. They called for the EU to create an obligation for communications firms to store data on customers and to pass these data to security authorities if requested.
The need to act at an EU-level was clear, they said. Not only did the fight against terrorism require cross-border cooperation; any new rules on data retention would create costs for firms, potentially leading to a distortion of the EU’s internal market if adopted on an individual national basis.
Today, the arbitrariness of the directive is clear. For one thing, the directive is still a solution in search of a problem. The legislation does not actually set out the reasons for which the data are stored, and every member state uses the data for different purposes. In hindsight, the fight against terrorism does not seem to have been much of a priority for negotiators.
For another thing, the rationale for adopting an EU measure has proved rather hollow. The directive has actually distorted the internal market. Law-makers never clarified whether telecommunications firms should be compensated for storing data. As a result some firms are; others aren’t. Moreover, with less than 1% of successful data requests cross-national, it seems the directive was not tailored to cross-border cooperation either.
That doesn’t mean that telecommunications data might not play a useful role in combating terrorism, let alone that an EU-wide measure makes no sense. It merely suggests that policymakers had different priorities when drawing up the directive.
Whisper it: many interior ministries had been calling for more generous national powers to fight crime, but had found their plans blocked by courts, justice ministries and NGOs. These domestic opponents were not present in Brussels, so why not try for an EU measure?
Here, then, comes the €375,245-question: would an “evidence-based evaluation” of the directive at least help adapt this measure to its proper purposes?
We are about to find out. Earlier this year, the Commission reviewed the directive and will shortly present a proposal for its reform
The signs are not good though. Interior ministries have already signalled that they have little appetite to reopen the dossier. They suspect that the European Parliament has already decided what kind of reform it would like and is simply picking out the evidence to support its agenda.
The political window which made agreement on the directive possible has closed, and there will probably be little movement on the issue. This time there’ll be no luck with the fruit machine.
The UK and Germany agree on core economic goals – fiscal discipline, increased competitiveness and the summary execution of unreliable Mediterranean partners. So why not work together to solve the Eurozone crisis? In his visit to Berlin last week, the British Prime Minister called for quick and decisive joint action.
It was not to be. The pro-European idealists David Cameron remembered from his last Berlin trip were gone. The Germans who now greeted him might look the same right down to their intense-looking spectacles, but this is a new species. Gone is their will for action.
This was not the first failed rapprochement between the two countries. Indeed, so pointless have Anglo-German summits become that commentators compare them to meetings between moths and light bulbs: a strange urge draws the British to Berlin where they knock about with some clever idea before fluttering off feeling misunderstood. And, hallo, there they are again a year later as if they had learnt nothing.
It would be a shame to spoil this perennial fun, but all the same, before their next trip to Berlin the British might like to pause and wonder why their attempts at rapprochement have never worked.
The reason is simple really. Although they agree on many overarching aims, both countries pursue their political goals in fundamentally different ways. Germans like to think before they act. The British aren’t so keen.
It’s easy to see why the British ignore this difference: they have often attributed their way of doing things to their German ancestors. When the ancient Germans saw off the Romans, the British tell themselves, they preserved the relaxed Anglo-Saxon attitude towards complexity, disorder and the unexpected.
British political culture is still something of a rearguard battle against the Romans. Too much rational reflection, say the Brits, only leads to cynicism, introspection and scepticism. Overzealous attempts to apply science to society lead only to fatalism, unethical behaviour and simplistic efforts to tidy up a complex reality.
They can’t quite believe those ruddy German barbarians would think otherwise. Yet that is the case. Kant and co. certainly recognised the dangers of too much reasoning. But instead of falling into anti-intellectualism, laissez-faire and muddling-through as the English did, German Enlightenment philosophers tried to provide a rational footing for spontaneity, faith and enthusiasm.
Their whole-hearted conversion to rationalism has left the Germans with a capacity for idealism which is quite beyond the British. But it also means that if the rational logic behind their idealism unravels, Germans can fall into drastic scepticism. And it is at just such moments that they look enviously across at the unthinking English, wonder what might have been, and then wish them every failure.
The German government’s frosty reaction to Cameron’s charm offensive bore all these traits. Berlin already suspects that it has fallen prey to an irrational idealism about the EU. It was therefore well prepared for a patronising lecture from the British Prime Minister on the comparative merits of muddling through. When Cameron instead exhorted Berlin to rediscover its irrational enthusiasm, it was like a rag to a bull.
If the Germans are to find their way back to European action, it will be via a well-trodden Kantian path and not through British intervention. First, they will recall the old lesson that too much thinking can lead to unhealthy scepticism – the lesson that too much rationalising can lead to distinctly unreasonable behaviour.
If examined too closely, for example, European “solidarity” and “trust” may well look like a mere front for Mediterranean free-riding; “European integration” might these days look like the recipe for Europe-wide political disintegration; the technocratisation of European democracies might well seem a reasonable countermeasure. But these are mere tricks of the mind which must be resisted.
Then Berlin will seek out what it views as a rational basis for a renewed pro-European idealism. As Angela Merkel and a leaked memo made clear on Friday, this will be rooted in a sober stocktaking of the EU and its comparative strengths and weaknesses. It will not be based on the superficial displays of ‘bazooka power’ demanded by the British.
And, with that, the Anglo-German non-conversation will continue. It’s a shame really. Proper dialogue between them could make Berlin and London critically examine their own respective political cultures and their noxious side-effects. It is no coincidence that the EU’s crisis is driven by unregulated markets and overly individualistic inter-state relations on the one hand, and stifling one-size-fits-all regulations on the other.
An opinion poll on global threats might not seem an obvious cause for celebration. Last week, the European Commission nonetheless declared itself cheered by the results of Special Eurobarometer 372. Respondents had ranked various looming disasters in a satisfactory manner.
Europeans, it appears, are increasingly discerning about their environmental and financial meltdowns, their water shortages, demographic collapses, pandemics and nuclear proliferations, even if they are still disappointingly poor at spontaneously coming up with new global threats of their own (Question 1a).
One issue the poll did not probe though: just how fed up is the public with these constant existential crises? The apocalyptic tenor of EU politics – nervous politicians praying for European salvation and prophesying war – is becoming rather draining. The newspapers are full of commentaries on the relentlessness of our crisis-driven politics.
Of course, politicians dislike the suggestion that they use disaster as political capital. But if they deny being apocalyptic in their handling of these challenges, they are actually blocking out a large part of their shared heritage. European culture is rooted in the politics of disaster and salvation.
Rewind 500 years and there was a widespread mood in Europe of resignation and fatalism. Greek philosophy had proved persuasive in its claim that a golden age had passed, that the world was decaying, and that to try to alter the situation would be to tempt fate.
This thinking was increasingly opposed by a strain of radical Protestantism which leaked into politics through events such as the English Civil War. The secular notions of apocalypse and salvation that emerged spawned the modern idea of progress. Self-improvement, it was now argued, would permit humanity to stave off disaster.
The battle between sceptics and progressives has been running ever since. But it has retained a distinctly old-testament flavour. Just as biblical salvation could not come without terror and calamity, so it seems political progress today cannot be achieved without fear and crisis.
Take those Eurobarometer results. EU officials actually congratulated themselves on the worsening of climate fears since the Copenhagen summit. They interpreted this not as a sad indictment of the EU’s diplomatic performance at the 2009 talks but as a useful catalyst to more progressive policies.
Academics point out other oddities in the way politicians deal with crises:
1. the initial reactionary response. Just as biblical disasters were interpreted as a judgment on the state of humanity, so crisis today triggers a drastic stocktaking of existing progressive policies. The demographic crisis, for example, caused a reassessment of even common-sense measures such as improvements to healthcare and the labour-force participation of women.
2. the radicalism which follows. In order to restore faith in progress and the obligatory notion that we will be better off than our parents, a radical rethink is ordered. The desire to reassure voters about their children’s prospects after the financial crisis has, for example, powered the British government’s most radical economic policies.
3. the refusal to accept the unfairness of disaster. Biblical disasters hit only the wicked while the good were saved. Modern crises, by contrast, are distinctly unfair, affecting the innocent and allowing free-riders to escape. It is thus imperative to impose reason and justice on them. Sinners, such as bankers, must be converted or punished.
Back at the Euro-crisis, these symptoms are clear. Sinner states are being punished. The policies that launched the Euro have been written off, and radical new measures proposed. Where political progress has been achieved, it is only with the aid of a relentless series of disasters. And all the while, from the sidelines, the sceptics wait for the Euro’s collapse and rehearse their told-you-so’s.
The deadlock in the Eurozone as a showdown between northern European Protestantism and Greek-style fatalism? That would be a little too neat. But the EU would certainly save a lot of time and money if those who believed in the inevitability of a break-up were a little less fatalistic and if those pursuing further integration did not make progress quite so contingent upon disaster.
Strange reports from the European Commission. In the middle of meetings on the future of Europe, officials are disappearing—simply being willed out of existence. The phenomenon affects any official who advocates the use of devious methods to improve the EU’s standing with its citizens and with the markets. Commission workers who, for example, suggest the Union should resort to political theatre or finally learn to ‘spin’ information are simply frozen out.
There is a name for this kind of behaviour: groupthink. In groups, people will cheerfully deceive themselves as to the precariousness of their situation and aggressively censor out the obvious solutions (as well as anyone who proposes them). Given that EU decision-making occurs under almost perfect laboratory conditions, it would have been a miracle if Brussels were not a hotbed for this sort of thing.
Happily, our eurocrats are in fine company. Over the years, groupthink has been identified as the cause of some really first-rate catastrophes—from Pearl Harbour and the Bay of Pigs fiasco to the Challenger space shuttle disaster. In each case, the important decisions were being taken by a close-knit group who did not want to endanger the fragile consensus between them by raising even the most obvious objections or alternatives.
The usual spur for this kind of collective self-censorship is cognitive dissonance—the instinctive rejection of any idea which clashes with a group’s picture of itself. Back in 1941 for example, the Pacific Fleet refused to prepare for a Japanese attack because the admirals were desperate to think of the US as mighty and terrifying rather than nervous and vulnerable.
The same sort of thing is at work in Brussels. If Commission officials prescribe a wholesome tonic of democracy, transparency and unfiltered information, it is because more devious methods of promoting the EU run counter to their picture of the bloc as an organic, reasonable and benevolent polity.
Unfortunately, this means that the EU is currently being kept afloat only by its own double standards. Officials in Brussels loudly rule out the use of devious PR-practices but desperately hope the Commission representations in the member states fully exploit the leeway given them.
Even without all this misplaced self-censorship, the European Union would face a steeper survival-challenge than most. Policymakers in more established polities merely have to fight off their critics; EU officials have first to persuade people that theirs actually is a political system. The clue is in the term ‘eurosceptic’: popular hostility poses less of a problem these days than does sheer disbelief.
In the same way as people are asking themselves whether the bits of coloured paper in their wallets really do amount to a currency, so too they are wondering whether the abstract and cerebral European Union really amounts to a political system. Brussels can rely on nothing more coercive or tangible than persuasion, habit and spectacle to convince publics that the laws it produces really do count as laws.
It might therefore be helpful for officials to stop picturing the EU as a real polity pursuing a convincing mission that will be accepted if only the very reasonable European public receives enough information about it. How about thinking of the EU as a make-believe polity with a make-believe fiat currency, which can be sustained only by appealing to the strange irrationality that drives modern life?
Over the centuries many a self-styled enlightened regime has faced the dilemma whether to use apparently unfitting methods to bolster itself. In the sixteenth century, Machiavelli used a simple formulation to help his political masters overcome the inevitable cognitive dissonance. He told them that if a new regime was glorious, it warranted establishment by inglorious methods. The high purpose justified the low means.
A post-modern Machiavelli would probably choose a rather different formulation. Academics, from Austrian anarcho-capitalists to French politico-sociologists have shown that no political system is benign, organic or reasonable let alone glorious. If that’s so, EU officials can presumably stop kidding themselves and feel at liberty to use inglorious methods to establish theirs.
As the Eurozone crisis grinds on, stereotypes have emerged as the EU’s only truly reliable currency. Hardly a day goes by without some new crisis-summit at which hoary old national prejudices are trotted out.
It’s an odd turn of events given that the current crop of European leaders was elected precisely because they didn’t fit the mould. France has an exhibitionist president with a Hungarian surname. Germany’s chancellor is a woman from the east. The UK has elected as Prime Minister an old Etonian in an age when nobody thought this possible any more.
Yet, as soon as they set foot in Brussels, these same leaders seem to make a virtue of conforming to their own national stereotype. Sarkozy puffs himself up into the pint-sized Frenchman with expansive plans; Merkel becomes the cool, calculating German; Cameron is the slippery and inscrutable Englishman.
What’s more, our politicians have been giving vent to some distinctly stereotypical views about one another as well. If southern member states are suffering from the financial crisis, northerners mutter, it’s because they are feckless and lazy. If northerners have their books in order, reply southerners, it is only because they are so uptight. And both northerners and southerners seem to view easterners as sponges, out for what they can get.
The advent of eurostereotyping will be music to the ears of sociologists. In their theory of ‘system justification’, sociologists have plotted out the four easy-to-follow steps by which people use stereotypes to create new hierarchies and inequalities. According to the theory, even individuals disadvantaged by a political system will uphold it if presented with a sufficiently appealing stereotype. EU politicians are shaping up to be a pretty neat case study.
Step 1: group-building. Being part of an in-group is cosy. Members tend to be forgiving of one another. They will write off as anomalous bad behaviour by a partner whilst viewing the negative behaviour of outsiders as confirmation of their general uselessness. The desire to be part of the EU’s in-group would explain why our leaders have been loudly communicating their northern credentials.
Step 2: justification. According to the theory, we all need to believe that the world is a fair place. Members of an in-group therefore look for reasons why disadvantaged outsiders deserve their poor treatment. Northern EU states paint southerners as feckless, lazy and wholly deserving of their situation.
Step 3: collusion. Even people disadvantaged by a political system want to believe in its fairness. So they rely on stereotypes to justify their position at the bottom of the pile. Southerners who wish to feel better can thus tell themselves their situation is the result of a desirable Mediterranean lifestyle choice – better than being an uptight northerner.
Step 4: denial. Insiders cannot forever ignore the fact that outsiders exhibit many of the same talents and strengths as them. But faced with this challenge, the in-group won’t do the obvious thing and rethink its prejudices – that would mean giving up its own privileged status. Instead the in-group will persuade itself that the challengers are shallow and ambitious. Irked by easterners’ claims to be good and reliable Europeans, northerners will paint them as shallow upstarts only interested in sponging off the EU.
Our leaders, then, are well on their way to becoming stereotypical stereotypers. Or at least they seem to be. Yet, sociologists are also keen to point out that not all stereotyping is negative and inaccurate. When social systems expand to take on a large number of lesser-known members or when events become too complex to handle, stereotyping is an indispensable mental crutch – a shortcut for processing fast-moving situations.
In other words, in the wake of EU enlargement and the financial crisis, the prejudices which the EU’s northerners, southerners and easterners are developing about one another may be perfectly accurate – a useful mental crutch. And in that case, we really are in trouble.