The reaction to 11 September damaged the liberty of those living in Europe who found themselves targeted as suspect terrorists while seeming to do little to ensure the security of the wider community. More recently a second emergency, rooted this time in the financial and economic collapse of 2008 onwards, has caused a further unraveling of Europe’s constitutional project, even threatening the gains of past generations of European idealists. In today’s Europe universal liberty and security have no meaning for many even if their shape is retained in structures that in truth mock rather than deliver democracy and human rights. This talk traces the origins of the crises that have afflicted so directly the breadth of liberty and human security in the Union, demonstrating their roots in ‘viruses’ that have been present from the start of the European movement but which have now spiralled out of control. The lecture ends by asking what can be done to prevent the full decline of the region into a state of neo-democratic/post- democratic unfreedom, one in which capital unbound from democracy thrives at the expense of the people.
The state of freedom in Europe
What resources does Europe in general and the European Union in particular have to resist a world in which as one scholar has put it ‘core democratic institutions, such as parliaments or recurring elections, stay formally in place while the substance of political decision making is no longer determined by active citizens and their representatives’? And we should add while the law comes and goes as neo-liberal exigencies demand, and human rights rhetoric grows ever louder as its real impact on the ground diminishes ever further? Pushing the point even more, is it right that as the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has said, ‘one cannot but be afraid of the possibility of a new, however temporary, settlement of social conflict in advanced capitalism, this time entirely in favour of the propertied classes now firmly entrenched in their politically unconquerable institutional stronghold, the international finance industry’?
This crisis in Europe has not come from nowhere: it is a creature of three fundamental weaknesses that have dogged the Community since its modest inception in the 1950s. First there is the never-resolved question of national identity. The European project has been strong enough to make progress towards the idea of a Union but never strong enough to make it matter on the ground. Where once nation states pirouetted around their sovereignty while conceding enough to facilitate European progress, now increasingly states build walls – metaphorical and real – to defend their national interests, displaying chauvinism as a matter of pride rather than of reluctant electoral necessity.
Second there has been the unresolved question, raised when the issue of a European Constitution was mooted but left to one side at that time, of whether the European space is a Christian one or at least a culturally Christian one (whatever about belief in the risen Christ). The antagonism to Moslem peoples that we see across Europe today reflects a deep-rooted sense of their being different, one that has been greatly exacerbated by the attacks of 11 September and the politically-inspired atrocities that followed within Europe in (for example) Madrid, London, Burgas in Bulgaria and Paris. Europe may not have re-embraced its Christianity but it has increasingly developed a tendency to articulate values rooted in the past and which reflect the post-Christian secularism of the moment in a way that for all its invocations of universalism is just as divisive (and marginally less honest) than the religious partisanship of the past.
Thirdly there is the Union’s long attachment to the moral force of the market, benign enough when it was a merely an aspirant Common Market seeking to make war impossible in a region that had been a killing zone for generations, but deadly now when the neo-liberal virus of market power has not only destroyed the economies of many European states but then insisted on further destruction as a remedy for the damage it has already done: like asking a poisoner how to solve a problem which has been caused by his own application of strychnine; naturally he will suggest more poison. It is the neo-liberal contagion wreaking havoc outside Europe that together with big-power-induced instability that has sent desperate people towards Europe in what looks like it might be millions.
Can Europe cope? The refugee crisis that burst fully in 2015 and just alluded to may indeed be the final straw for the Union, the point at which the three viruses of national selfishness, racist intolerance and the decay of life-chances produced by neo-liberalism the world over come together in a perfect and destructive storm. There is pushback in the courts from time to time, both at Luxembourg and in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The European Parliament may be relied upon to raise the issues of democratic engagement that are missed elsewhere, indeed can sometimes manage the occasional bite despite the leash on its powers severely curtailing its movement. Social movements influence public debate as well, though less than such aspirant social movers would like. The fact that for many the best way of moving forward is to rely on the democratic energy of ‘the people’ may be evidence of despair or determined optimism, or indeed both. We must hope that the high point of the fever is upon us and the patient is about to begin recovery. Optimism of the will is vital exactly when the intellect sees no escape from pessimism.