The Failure of the E.U.

by Bruce S. Thornton // Defining Ideas

Image credit: Barbara Kelley
Image credit: Barbara Kelley

The European Union has long excited American progressives, who want the United States to model itself after the European body. As each year passes, it has become difficult to understand this admiration. These days the E.U. acts more and more like a bloated bureaucracy staffed with elites armed with intrusive regulatory power and insulated from citizen accountability. The success of Euroskeptic parties in this spring’s European Parliament elections casts doubt on the whole E.U. project.

The electoral victories of nationalist and populist parties in Britain, France, Austria, Denmark, and the Netherlands reveal the chronic dissatisfaction with the E.U., which has grown worse in light of the sluggish economic growth, high unemployment, painful austerity measures, and morally hazardous bailouts that have beset the continent. More troubling for many are the E.U.’s intrusions into national sovereignty, like its increased oversight over national budgets, the Fiscal Compact Treaty that subjects nations to fiscal discipline, and moves to create a banking union with a common supervisor and mechanism for dissolving failed banks. Given these discontents, public trust in E.U. institutions has reached all-time lows.

To add insult to injury, the E.U. Parliament recently named Jean-Claude Junker as European Commissioner. Junker has long been a champion of increased centralization. Selecting the commissioner has traditionally been a privilege reserved for the Council of Ministers, the 28 heads of government that guard the sovereignty and interests of the member states. As the Financial Timesreported, this “crude institutional power grab by the parliament,” ignoring as it did the strong anti-E.U. protest vote in many member nations, “is an affront to democratic accountability.”

Those who champion reforming the E.U. are well intentioned, but their reforms could never go far enough. The problem with the E.U. is that it was, at its founding, grounded in false assumptions about human nature and the role of the nation in creating a people’s identity. These assumptions have for 200 years been accepted as facts, when actually they are questionable ideas challenged by history.

The E.U. is just the latest example of the powerful Enlightenment idea that human nature and civilization, through the expansion of scientific knowledge, are progressing away from the cruelty, oppression, and collective violence created by irrational superstition, religion, and ethnic or nationalist loyalties. Once liberated from this destructive ignorance, people can create political and social orders that will promote peace, social justice, political freedom, and prosperity. Most important will be what Immanuel Kant, in his influential 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace,” called a “federation of free states” that would form a “pacific alliance . . . different from a treaty of peace, . . . inasmuch as it would forever terminate all wars.” Kant predicated the possibility of such global peace on “the uniformity of the progress of the human mind.” A universal human nature progressively becoming more rational and possessing more knowledge about itself and the world can craft a global order that would lessen if not eliminate the evils that had afflicted the human race for all of its previous history.

In the nineteenth century, transnational treaties, conventions, and institutions were created to realize the dream “of establishing and securing international peace by placing it upon a foundation of international understanding, international appreciation, and international cooperation,” as Nicholas Murray Butler, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in 1932. The Geneva Conventions, the Hague Conventions, and the establishment of an international Court of Arbitration had all reflected this ideal. The Preamble to the First Hague Convention in 1899 sounded the Kantian note in it goal to ensure the “maintenance of the general peace” and the “friendly settlement of international disputes,” based on the “solidarity which unites the member of the society of civilized nations” and their shared desire for “extending the empire of law, and of strengthening the appreciation of international justice.”

The assumption behind such internationalism was that the national and ethnic differences underlying people’s collective identities were not as important as the new universal, transnational identity created by the expansion of scientific knowledge, globalized trade, and globe-shrinking technologies such as the steamship, railroad, telegraph, and telephone. More important, this belief in a unified human identity assumed that all people everywhere desired the same things as Westerners––political freedom, human rights like equality, and prosperity. The other aims that peoples historically have more often pursued––obedience to their gods, exclusionary ethnic or tribal loyalty, land and resources violently appropriated from others, unequal social hierarchies and roles, revenge for injuries or dishonor inflicted by others––were deemed remnants of our barbaric past soon to be left behind by the progress of the human mind and the improvement in peoples’ material and political circumstances.

The unprecedented carnage of World War I, in which the peoples of highly civilized Europe killed each other with nationalist and ethnic fervor, did not lessen enthusiasm for such idealistic internationalism. In the two decades between the wars, the League of Nations, which called for collective security, disarmament, and the resolution of conflict through arbitration; the 1926 Locarno Treaty, in which “France and England Ban War Forever,” as the New York Times headline put it; and the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which condemned “recourse to war” and enjoined all settlement of disputes to be sought only by “pacific means,” all included the future Axis aggressors among the signatories and participants. Nor did the even greater horrors of World War II disabuse the West of its idealism, most obviously manifested in the creation of the United Nations, which has done little to save the some 41 million victims of invasion, genocide, civil war, political murder, and ethnic cleansing since World War II.

This record of failure would not have surprised political theorists from Thucydides to the American framers. In that tradition, human nature is permanently flawed by what James Madison called “passions and interests” that necessarily conflict with those of other people or nations, and often lead to violence between them. For example, John Adams in his Defense of the Constitutions of the United States in 1787 wrote, “Though we allow benevolence and generous affections to exist in the human breast, yet every moral theorist will admit the selfish passions in the generality of men to be the strongest. There are few who love the public better than themselves, though all may have some affection for the public . . . Self-interest, private avidity, ambition, and avarice, will exist in every state of society, and under every form of government.” Nor did these realists believe that better education or prosperity could permanently rein in these flaws of human nature, for dangerous world of “imperious necessities,” as Thucydides called the tragic contingencies of human existence, would always create stresses that prove “a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.” The gruesome carnage Europeans inflicted on each other in the twentieth century proved Thucydides correct.

Equally suspect is the assumption that national identity should be weakened and marginalized because it is irrationally exclusionary and parochial, and as such incites zero-sum conflicts between peoples. Particularly after World War II, the evils wrought by fascism and Nazism supposedly proved that nationalism is inherently bellicose and thus hinders the spread of universal human rights, tolerance, and the rational adjudication of disputes, all of which would eventually result in global peace and prosperity. This tarring of nationalism with the brush of fascism and Nazism was one of the mechanisms for selling the transnational European Union and the weakening of national sovereignty it required.

But this assault on national identity was not just historically dubious, but blind to the role the nation-state played in creating the collective identity and solidarity that made liberal democracy possible. For as French political philosopher Pierre Manent has emphasized, “The sovereign state and representative government are the two great artifices that have allowed us to accommodate huge masses of human beings within an order of civilization and liberty.” Shared language, history, mores, folkways, cultures, values, political virtues, and landscapes give people­­––bound as they are to a particular, concrete place and time in which they pass their daily lives––the foundations of their shared existence that transcend their individual differences. To quote Manent again, “If our nation suddenly disappeared and its bonds were dispersed, each of us immediately would become a stranger, a monster, to himself.” Without those complex “ties that bind,” a people cease being a coherent political community, and become instead a congeries of fragmented, discrete groups with irreconcilable interests and aims.

The tiny elite of cosmopolitan, globetrotting writers, journalists, professors, businessmen, and Eurocrats may live in a postmodern, post-national world, but the mass of ordinary Europeans do not. This stubborn nationalist sentiment becomes vocal at times of crisis, such as during the financial meltdown in 2009, when hardworking, thrifty Germans protested bailing out indolent wastrel Greeks, and the Greeks in turn evoked the brutal German occupation of their country during World War II as justification for demanding that Germany rescue their broken government.

Moreover, Europeans still have to live with neighbors who are passionate about their nationalism, none more so than Russia. The EU “postmodern” foreign policy based on “supranational constraints on unilateral policies and the progressive development of community norms,” as Oxford’s Kalypso Nicolaides puts it, has so far been impotent in the face of Vladimir Putin’s irredentist ambitions in Ukraine and elsewhere. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continuing violence and subversion in eastern Ukraine have dismissed the economic sanctions and diplomatic warnings that are no match for the Russians’ wounded national pride.

The growing strength of frankly nationalist, Euroskeptic political parties, evident in their success in the recent European Parliament elections, testifies to the continuing hold national identity has on millions of Europeans. Given the conflicting “passions and interests” of human nature, this disparaged and disregarded nationalism is unlikely to remain content with sporadic protest-votes or flag-waving during soccer championships. How it will manifest itself in the future––through peaceful political change, or through violent reaction––is still an open question. But there is no question that the E.U. has little for the U.S. to emulate, and much to avoid.

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15 thoughts on “The Failure of the E.U.”

  1. Proudly Unaffiliated

    Great article. Particularly liked the Kant reference and one can see how, in the Enlightenment, some would embrace and indeed be comforted by an evolving person/society no longer trapped in the dark ages. It amazes me that so many people still believe that people/society can be perfected by “better” governments or governance. The evidence to the contrary is now so great to the contrary that one would think such a notion would have long ago been summarily dismissed. Sure, we all as individuals run on hope, but it is up to us as individuals, not some snake oil salesman dressed in a nice suit who reads from a teleprompter to promise us Hope and Change, to make anything out of it. Simple and obvious, but it eludes so many…why?

  2. Mr Hanson your penetrating insight of history and human nature is right on! EU and Americans that follow those stupid ideas of humans having or acquiring the ability to obtain perfection by their own forceful acts over time without any external intervention is doom to fail! The bible, self-proclaimed as God’s word, has been correct from the beginning! All human beings are born in sin (passions and interests) and this perilous state (human nature) can NEVER be eradicated by ANY human implement of his/her making. The accomplished works of Jesus Christ has paved the way for truly taming the human condition now (get born again and apply biblical principles) and it’s total eradication of it in the near future (the coming rapture/gathering-together of the body of Christ). Perhaps EU and Americans should go back to these basic truths that the majority of our founding fathers understood and believe.

  3. I have only recently discovered this website and am amused at the on-going arrogance of American’s who feel the EU is incapable of forming together to create and effective European Union. I suspect King George though the same thing about you not so many years ago. Yet you managed to break free from British rule. But even after that great victory, your original founding states still favored their own interests over a unified America as was evident 70-years later in your Civil War.

    And while you question the capacity of Europeans to manage ourselves or join together you fail to recognize that same bureaucracy is exactly what has maintained, supported and sustained Europe as it is today; an economic force second only to the US with a superior education system, health care benefits for all citizens, a public transportation systems and standard of living that exceeds that of your own.

    While German may have only existed as a nation since 1872, it’s culture and history go back 2,000 years and our children can literally walk the streets Romans built, while American children avoid playing in their streets for fear of kidnappings, or drive-by shootings, something unknown in even the worst parts of Frankfurt, Amsterdam or Milan.

    The Bible, by the way, was made widely available courtesy of Johann Gutenberg not your televangelists and their “pay your way into heaven” programs. While we embrace similar Christian values, we also believe God first enabled us with a free will, not with certain inalienable rights. A will that is subject to obedience to God, not man. Not the will of some over few, but the right of free will of each over himself.

    We believe, and practice, exactly what the Bible teaches; that a society and it’s people are accountable for the general welfare of all citizens, which is why we have national health programs, promote a general retirement system and are willing to pay higher tax rates to ensure when we retire, we don’t end up as greeters in Wal-Mart.

    And while you point to the relationship between Greeks and Germans, let’s not forget how states like West Virginia and most of the mid-west continue to turn into a growing wasteland of abandoned factories, homelessness, rampant drug use and violent crime only seen in places like the Middle East. While the uber-rich technophiles in Silicon Valley push their liberal agenda on the rest of the country. I believe Mr. Hansen himself pointed to the significant differences between East Palo Alto, the single largest source of crime in the Bay Are which separated from million dollar homes in Palo Alto (home to Stanford University) by Hwy-101.

    Don’t forget it took over 100 years for America to join all its states, which included a Civil War that nearly destroyed your young Union and took over 620,000 lives. The EU “experiment” may have only been around for the past 20-years in earnest efforts but don’t think it can’t happen.

    And by the way, the Russians aren’t the only ones with nationalist pride. Don’t forget Germany, France, Italy and all European countries have contributed to the world in the arts and sciences in ways you can’t even count. Remind me again which scientists were responsible for the space program. Does the name Wernher von Braun ring a bell? We too have a sense of national pride, but we don’t feel the need to wrap ourselves in a flag or parade the streets to celebrate ourselves.

  4. Mr Horst, you missed the point! The issue is not that the EU or America cannot developed a society that can function and serve their citizens well. The issue is that the EU and America is deluded if they think that through continual refinement of science, technology, sociological and psychological development they will be able to annihilate the innate human condition to do evil. Hence, in the life of any country, if they fail to heed this fact they will eventually fail no matter what level of advancement they were able to attained.

    As for the bible, I agreed free will is the key, however, the bible does not promote the idea that a believer’s sufficiency is solely to be depended on the state (it can help at times) it is suppose to be solely depended on God. Remember the illustration Christ gave of how God is able to feed the birds so we should not worry on the manner of how we are to be fed. If God can create the universe then he should have no problems making it possible for his believers to be fed.

  5. Mr. Horst you have no clue as to how life is like in my town in California. Kids can play in the streets but more commonly play on school baseball fields. You poke holes in your own myths, conjured up by your ignorance. Have no desire for your transport system or your socialist medical system with its rationing and death panels.

  6. Mr. Rosario, it has been the advancements in science and technology, not religion, that has brought us into a world where people can now have access to clean water, electricity, medicine, sanitation and all the benefits we take for granted in our daily lives. I believe you will find it was the steam engine, not a church, that was the single greatest improvement to our world.

    I challenge you to show me where any religion made life better for people. Notice I said “religion” not salvation, as those are two very different things. With regards to our social responsibility, Acts 20:35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive”. 1 John 3:17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? I think these two passages alone make it clear we are commanded to take care of each other.

    Mr. Howard, I lived and worked in Silicon Valley for 10-years, so yes, I know exactly what I’m talking about. I’m quite aware that there are safe neighborhoods in the US, but my point was we don’t have the level of social unrest and violence in our streets as you have in your country. Ask yourself this, do you feel safe enough where you live to walk from your house to a gas station at 2am in the morning? I do in my town. The BART system was a good attempt at mass transportation, as is the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) from Stockton to San Jose but service is limited and still thousands sit in traffic on the 580 and 101 freeways every day because there isn’t enough public transportation available. By the way, how long have you lived in Europe? Perhaps you can enlighten me on the differences between California, Germany or Italy or the Netherlands.

  7. I would just speculate that Mr.Horst doesn’t know nearly as much of America as he thinks. His comments reflect the wounded pride of a once great civilization trapped in a downward spiral and failed experiment which Mr.Thornton rightly identified.

    The great leaps in material progress in the last century were almost exclusively American. There was a reason for that. The World Wars crippled the greatness of Europe and transnational sophistry was exactly the wrong regenerative mechanism.

    Ironically Mr.Horst’s cherished Europe might have a chance if he would drop the silly caricature based America bashing and focus on the actual issue. Forces greater than some Brussels based nanny state will eventually make themselves the drivers of events. The question is are you prepared to understand why?

  8. Karl Horst (Germany)

    Dear Mr. Vaughn, While America has certainly contributed to discovery and inventiveness, I would encourage you to read up on where most of the basic inventions and theoretical development in the sciences actually came from. Do the names Archimedes, Newton, Tesla, Watt, Darwin, Bessemer, Bayer, Einstein, and Von Braun sound familiar?. These basic foundations of science were all 100% European in origin. The Americans, and everyone else, built on these existing ideas, discoveries and theories. This isn’t boasting, it’s just a simple historical fact.

    There’s no wounded pride at all, just the opposite! I’m quite proud of what Germany and other Europeans have accomplished in the past 70-years in peace, not just from war. There’s no America bashing implied, simply an observation of what our respective countries have accomplished or not accomplished and the conclusion that we should learn from things that work, just as we learn from what doesn’t work.

    It took America nearly 100-years to Unite your states. Let’s not forget we’ve only been at it for a bit over 20-years with the EU. And as Mr. Hanson will confirm, even your own founding fathers had serious concerns as to whether they could keep it all together and your Civil War came very close to ending that experiment. We will see, in time, if our experiment in unification will work as yours did.

    To quote one of your own…

    “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up.” — Thomas Edison (1847-1931)

    1. Mr. Horst you’re clinging to hopes that just aren’t there. You still haven’t submitted a rebuttal to the central point that Mr.Thornton made regarding the inherent instability of a unit like the EU.

      Like the arbitrary lines drawn in the Middle East after WWII there remain cultural, historical and sectarian differences embedded in these geographic boundaries which provide for continued violent conflict and no sense of universal fraternity.

      You share the enlightenment ideal that Thornton alluded to. Namely, that if you give it enough time and enough purging of historical self conceptualization you can join the peoples of Europe together under one banner. Will the multitudes abandon their individual histories just because Brussels says so?

  9. Karl Horst (Germany)

    Dear Mr. Vaughn – The “inherent instability” is a relative issue, based primarily on the current differences between our northern and southern neighbors. While we have our language and cultural differences, I think most would agree they haven’t gotten in the way of free-trade or open borders for EU members. In fact, these foundations of EU membership make our countries exactly like your States in many ways; they grant ease of movement (no border checks) and just as someone from California can move to New York to live and work, Italians can move to England, the French to Spain…exactly the same idea. Before the EU, however, this simply wasn’t possible.

    Just as your Federal government deals with issues not specific to the States as specified in your Constitution, each State maintains its ability operate independently from every other State, which is why for example the speed limit in France is 120kph and in Germany 130kph. We function independently at one level, but jointly under another.

    As with US Federal laws, the EU serves to establish agreements for tariffs, common defense, economic policy, standardization (weights and measures, product label information, etc) and other issues which cover the member states at a higher level. Of course our members are free to agree whether or not they wish to abide by the EU Parliament which is why you have Finland, Norway, Iceland and Switzerland operating differently than the main members. All are EU members, but each can choose to what extent they participate. That’s why there’s no border checks crossing from Germany to France, but there are from all the others into Switzerland.

    The economic challenges with the Euro are also very similar to what’s going on in the US. We have heavily industrialized countries like Germany, France and to a lesser extent Italy, While Spain, Portugal, Greece, southern Italy and most of the nordic countries are agricultural and the UK leads in services rather than consumer products. Very similar to your south (still primarily agriculture I believe) and the north, north west (industrial) areas. Europe is generally divided in the same way, industry in the north, agriculture in the south.

    I think you would find that Europeans still question the effect of the Euro as a common currently but I must say it makes the exchange of goods and services much easier than when we were still on the Franc, DM, Lira or Drachma. But let’s not forget that the problems in Spain and Greece were their own making. Nearly identical to the collapse of your housing markets (where the banks were responsible for questionable loans and financial products). Their economic strengths were much less advanced than ours, in the same way California and Texas economies overshadow West Virginia or Hawaii.

    So while we have our differences, there are a number of remarkable similarities.

    1. Mr. Horst,

      In response to Mr. Rosario you cite Acts 20:35 and I John 3:17 as supports for social responsibility. You previously suggested , “We [ Europeans] believe, and practice practice exactly what the Bible teaches; that a society and it’s people are accountable for the general welfare of all citizens, which is why we have national health programs, promote a general retirement system and are willing to pay higher tax rates to ensure when we retire, we don’t end up as greeters in Wal-Mart.” It seems a stretch to suggest those verses, when taken in context, are a direct support for a predominately bureaucratic approach to compassion. You seem to be separating I John 3:17 from verse 18, where the individual with material possessions in verse 17 is instructed to show love with “action” and not “words or speech” [NIV].

      I doubt Mr. Rosario would disagree that it is, “advancements in science and technology, not religion, that has brought us into a world where people can now have access to clean water, electricity, medicine, sanitation and all the benefits we take for granted in our daily lives.” However, you did not seem to take his point about the “innate human condition” seriously enough to address it. You skipped Mr. Rosario point about the non-material component of the human condition completely.

      In regard to governance, presuppositions about the prime reality of human nature seems to determine most political positions. The progressive supposition that human nature is intrinsically good and is ever evolving toward transcendence leads to far greater faith in benevolent bureaucracy than does the belief that mankind, while created in God’s image, is not becoming transcendently good in an ever evolving process.

  10. Mr Thornton, well written as always. My only confusion is your opening paragraph. You first question why Progressives in America continue to pine for such an arrangement here in the US, and two sentences later you answer it; because of the elites and its bureaucracy, and the fact that it *doesn’t* have to answer to the populace. The Progressives in the US see themselves as the hereditary heirs to the *same* governance.

  11. I wouldn’t agree that the “innate human condition [is] to do evil”. This is a preconceived idea that all people are bad, when in fact all societies have both good and bad people. It’s the ability for every individual to come to terms with the advantages of “good” behavior over “bad” behavior regardless of their social or political standing in their community; it’s what differentiates between civilized societies from uncivilized ones.

    As I mentioned, I lived and worked in the Silicon Valley for over 15-years so while not a “native”, I have a pretty good understanding of how Americans tick. From my observations, Americans seem to have a very competitive “winner vs. loser” attitude where the “winners” (i.e. those who obtain the American Dream…whatever that may be) are somehow superior to the losers; the homeless, the unemployed, the less desirable members of society, those who use public transportation.

    Unfortunately, the homeless, unemployed and less desirables are all a part of our respective societies. They always have been and always will be. How we treat them says a lot about how we value them as human beings. Here in Europe, we prefer to contribute to a social health care system that provides for everyone, even at the most basic level, regardless of social or economic status.

    Having driven through the non-touristic areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, I’ve seen first-hand the impoverished neighborhoods and tatty trailer parks with derelict cars in the yards. People who obviously have no or limited access to something so simple as good health and dental care. How a country as rich as the US can think it’s okay for any citizen to be denied something as simple as good healthcare is beyond me. Why would you not want to contribute to a system that provides health care for everyone? Even third world countries have general hospitals that are supported by the state and benefit everyone, and deny no one. You Americans have to contribute to a retirement program (Social Security) which benefits everyone, so how is contributing to a social health care system any different?

    While America can certainly claim greatness for its achievements, taking care of one’s own doesn’t seem to be one of those claims. For a society that prides itself on achievement, it seems to me the acquisition of material possessions, even to the point of excess, outweighs the need to provide for those less fortunate. While I will admit Germans are not a nation known for charity as you Americans, at least we take care of our own first.

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