Saturday, June 04, 2005

Europe's Foundational Ambiguity

So, two referendums into the ratification process, and two fairly resounding "no"s, with the very real prospect of a kind of "domino" effect on those still to hold ballots on the subject, if, as seems increasingly unlikely, they actually go ahead. Even more worrying, perhaps, is the recent controversy over the Euro, expressed most dramatically by the calls from the Italian Social Security Minister for an improbable reintroduction of the Lira. Schroder and Chirac attempt to call together a meeting of the original 6 countries, presumably to try to push ahead with with deeper integration amongst themselves, but the Dutch and Italian leaders refuse to attend. More generally, the Union seems set to be split down the middle in what looks like being an acrimonious row over the future economic direction it should take, with France and Germany on one side, and the UK and a number of new accession countries on the other. Add to this already potent mix a healthy dose of uncertainty - it is quite possible that none of Schroder, Chirac, Blair or Berlusconi will be in office two years' hence - and the scene seems set for the final implosion of the entire European project.

Such runs one, we might call it "pessimistic", narrative of the current and future events. That it exists should not be surprising, given that it is precisely this doomsday scenario that was painted by "yes" campaigners in the referenda in order to scare people into voting for the Constitution. There is, of course, another way of telling the story. This one seems to be favoured by more moderate voices (on both sides of the yes/no divide), who see in this apparent failure the reassertion of democratic control over the European project. A recurring theme here is that now, finally, we get the chance to have a mature debate on the issue, and decide on the kind of Europe that we, the European public, want to live in.

Both of these narratives strike me as potentially disastrous for the European project. The first, if allowed to dominate, may well allow a critical mass of (quite unwarranted) criticism to build up that may, as the prophets of doom suggest, derail the entire endeavour. This would indeed be a tragedy; anyone denying the remarkable achievements that the European Union can boast is quite simply taking them for granted. It is too easy for those of us lucky to be born in the latter period of the 20th century, for example, to overlook the significance of the fact that armed conflict between the members of the Union now strikes us as unthinkable. In this, then, those preferring the second, more optimistic version of events have my support. This remarkable and exciting European project must continue.

It is, however, the idea that we now need to decide "which direction Europe should take" that I want to take issue with. Firstly, pragmatically, it strikes me as seriously naive for anyone to believe that a debate, no matter how mature and reasonable, can provide an answer to this most vexed of questions at this most vexed of times. A brief look at the events of the last few days should be sufficient to illustrate this. Internally, the French "no" relied for success upon the combined votes of two diametrically opposed sectors of the political spectrum; externally, the Dutch have (and the Brits would have) voted no for a completely different set of reasons than those of the French socialists who now trumpet the likelihood of a "social Europe". It seems clear that any attempt to debate our way to a clear, unambiguous and homogenous "vision" for the future of our supra-national polity will be more divisive than unifying; indeed, it may be the very thing that preticipates the doomsday scenario that its advocates seek to play down.

This idea of formulating such a vision of Europe's future also, however, seems to me to be flawed on a more theoretical level. Europe was founded, and has progressed, not on certainties about the future but rather on creative ambiguities. Even its early formulations, as peace through economic interdependence, is not without obvious conceptual tensions; these have become even more evident, not to mention complex, as the Union has transformed itself into the fully-fledged, yet sui generis, polity in which we now live. The dichotomies of neo-liberal/social welfarism, or, more broadly, economic/political union are perhaps the most evident examples of this; and yet, the Union has been able to become what it has not in spite of these controversies, but rather precisely because they are, and remain, controversial. A Union that had settled these issues long ago would simply not have been able to command the level of public support that it has taken to get to where we are now; and indeed, correctly or otherwise, it seems to me that it was a perception, correct or otherwise, that these issues would no longer remain controversial upon adoption of the new Constitution, that drove many on the French left to reject it. The success of the Union is premised, in part, upon its ability to be most things to most people.

And nor is this indeterminacy one of its many weaknesses; rather, it should be viewed as one of its greatest strengths. For it represents the possibility, the promise, of the political; a promise that many feel has been all but removed from the domestic arena. Any attempt to push through a homogenous vision of the future of Europe, even if it did not bring the whole edifice crashing down, would nonetheless represent the reification of a partisan and inevitably shaky "consensus", an essentially arbitrary snapshot of public opinion taken at an essentially arbitrary time, into a timeless "path" for future generations to follow. Any attempted constitutionalisation of this process, moreover, would symbolically "precommit" us to this path; "We the People" would have spoken in a miraculously unified voice, in order to remove from the scope of the political certain questions that must remain up for grabs if Europe is to be in any meaningful sense "democratic". It is not my intention to suggest that such as strategic depoliticisation of key issues is what the Constitution was intended to effect; however, it was undoubtedly perceived as such by large portions of the French left. As Slavoj Zizek has noted in a recent article in The Guardian, the tactics employed by the "yes" campaginers, which often resembled the experts lecturing (and now chastising) the ignorant, can only have served to increase this impression.

Any "decision" on what Europe is or should become would be a tragedy for, indeed antithetical to, the European project. Without this creative ambiguity, this fundamental indeterminacy, the promise of democratic politics must always remain one of empty and strategic rhetoric rather than the emancipatory ideal that it claims to represent. Europe's future can be and must remain sketched only with the lightest of brushes if our "post-national" polity - something to be celebrated - is not to be governed by "post-political" doctrines - something to be deplored. Any decision on the future of Europe is thus, by definition, the wrong one.


Anonymous said...


I am scared.

You are really scaring me.


Euan MacDonald said...


You're going to have to give me a bit more to go on than that.