LONDON -– Some fine ideas are rather like a beautiful object with a time bomb inside. The ideal of a unified Europe, though not designed to explode, could well disintegrate nonetheless. To understand why, it helps to revisit the intellectual origins of the European Union.
One of the EU’s main architects, Jean Monnet, a French diplomat and economist, spent much of World War II in Washington, DC, as a negotiator for the European allies. After Germany’s defeat, he was convinced that only a united Europe could prevent another devastating war in the West. “There will be no peace in Europe,” he wrote in his memoir, “if states are reconstituted on the basis of national sovereignty.” Almost everyone on the European continent, exhausted by war, and faced with the shattered institutions of their ravaged nation-states, agreed. Only the victorious British, with their old institutions more or less intact, voiced skepticism, not so much about continental unity as about their own participation in Europe’s ambitious project.
Of course, the ideal of a united Europe is much older than Monnet’s scheme. If not as old as ancient Rome, it certainly goes as far back as the tenth-century Holy Roman Empire. Since then, the European ideal has gone through many changes, but two themes remained constant.
One ideal was that of a unified Christendom, with Europe at its center. The Duke of Sully (1559-1641) conceived of a Christian European republic, which the Turks could join only if they converted to Christianity.
The other ideal was eternal peace. In 1713, another Catholic Frenchman, Charles-Irénée Castel, abbé de Saint-Pierre, published his Project for Perpetual Peace in Europe. There would be a European senate, a European army, and the larger member states would have equal voting rights. In fact, the ideals of eternal peace and Christian unity were identical in the minds of the early pan-European thinkers. Peaceful unification was a religious notion, a Christian utopia. Never meant to be confined to the European continent, it was, like Christianity itself, a universalist aspiration. National borders ought to be abolished in God’s earthly kingdom.
After the Enlightenment, the rationalists easily adopted religious universalism. The French nineteenth-century statesman Alphonse de Lamartine wrote an ode to European unity along rationalist lines, entitled the Marseillaise of Peace: “In the course of enlightenment, the world rises to unity/I am the fellow citizen of every thinking person/Truth is my country.” As France’s foreign minister in the revolutionary year of 1848, Lamartine published his Manifesto for Europe, promoting not just European unity, but that of mankind.
The European ideal has parallels in other parts of the world. Chinese rulers, to this day, have been obsessed with central control, continental unity, and social harmony – that is, a society without political conflict. The idea that people’s interests can and do naturally conflict is not readily admissible. Mao’s idea of permanent revolution was an aberration in the history of Chinese political thought.
It is not difficult to imagine why the notion of a borderless, peaceful world in which political divisions and conflicts were overcome was deeply appealing after WWII. Many blamed nationalism as the ultimate evil that had almost destroyed Europe. A world without political strife seemed like a recipe for bliss. Monnet was a born technocrat, who hated political conflict and almost made a fetish of unity. (In 1940, when Hitler seemed indomitable, Monnet suggested to Winston Churchill that France and Britain might be rolled into one country.) Like all technocrats, Monnet was also a born planner. In this, too, he was a man of his time. Many people believed already before the war that economies and societies should be planned as much as possible. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was one example; so, in a much more sinister way, was the fascist state. And so, still, is China, ruled by engineers and other faceless technocrats.
The post-1945 ideal of a united Europe was very much a planner’s archetype, a technocratic Utopia. And, certainly for Monnet and the other founders of postwar Europe, it was an entirely benign, even noble, ideal. The problem with technocrats, however, is that they tend to be oblivious to the political consequences of their own plans. They proceed as if politics did not exist or did not really matter.
Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, is a case in point. Her recent statement that she feels no sympathy for the suffering Greeks, because they should have paid their taxes, has been widely criticized for being not just unfeeling, but hypocritical (as a diplomat she pays no taxes herself). In fact, it is the typical sentiment of a technocrat who lacks political sense.
Crippling economic austerity, imposed by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels and Washington, is not only a social calamity; it is also poses a dangerous threat to democracy. When people lose faith in democratic institutions to protect them, they will reach for extremism.
And so, barring a miracle, the time bomb within post-war Europe’s beautiful ideal is about to explode. The limits of technocratic utopianism have been reached. Fiscal union – that is, more imposed unity – may well be the rational answer to the current financial crisis, but it is a technocratic answer which would do nothing to make Europe more democratic, and would most likely provoke an extremist backlash.
Technocracy, it seems, can work well as long as most people feel that they are benefiting materially, as was true in Europe for almost 50 years, and might still be true in China. But its legitimacy cracks as soon as a crisis erupts. Europe is feeling the consequences today. Who knows what might happen in China tomorrow.
Ian Buruma is professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College, and the author of “Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.” © Project Syndicate 2012