Friday, June 10, 2005

Where Now for the New EU?

Well, actually, I'm not going to answer that question as it relates to the constitution! Such questions are dealt with to a far higher degree than I could manage at A Fistful of Euros, The Fundamental Principles of the European Constitution and, with a far more local bent, at About EU. Anyway, I'd hate to be accused of being Brusselsbureaucraticesque!1

Instead I'll just share an idea that I heard being debated between two friends (a German and a Hungarian) when I was in Brussels, relating to the status of May the 8th in European history. I'm sure people like Paul have come across this before. Essentially, for people from Western Europe (perhaps those of us on these islands excluded, who continue to us the triumphalist 'VE Day' tag), May the 8th is regarded as a day of liberation. It is the day that Nazi rule was overthrown and long-term and stable democracy established across Europe. For (western) Germans especially, the day is focused on the emancipation that they experienced from totalitarianism.

For those people unfortunate enough to have lived towards the East of the continent, however, May the 8th marked the beginning of another - far longer - period of totalitarian repression. For them it wasn't a day of liberation at all.

Instead, it represents a continuous period of illegitate rule. And, I should say, once we take the holocaust aside, Nazism and Stalinism seem to belong in roughly the same moral categories. That is, as a deliberate piece of industrialised murder, I think it belongs in a thankfully underpopulated moral category that can be distinguished from the murderous ravages of Stalinism and (I'm stretching a bit here) maybe even from the brutality of Rwanda-style genocides. Though this is all an intuitive impression I have - correct me if you take umbrance to any component of these thoughts.

Still, I wonder if this is going to prove one of the major issues for those of us interested in common political identities (by which I mean having ideas sufficiently in common so that people can collaborate in a shared political space) to tackle in the coming decades: not only the radically different experiences of the 20th Century, but the very different collective memories that have been built around these experiences.

That is not to say that people in accession states hold us westerners responsible for abandoning them to Soviet power

(although Hungarians seem (justifiably?) aggrieved at western passivity in 1956). Rather, I am suggesting two things. First, on a political level, easterners may approach the idea of freedom in very different ways to those in the western half of the Union. Second, on a historical level, the story of the Union cannot remain a simple linear tale of the recovery from WWII, but must include the east as more than a 'unit' in stasis until 1989.

On the first point, I'm not suggesting that easterners are less accustomed to freedom, or are less motivated by democratic procedures. On the contrary, I suspect that easterners are more enthused about these things in certain ways. My point is rather that they may be more willing to embrace the less regulated markets than westerners. Of course, this is a gross generalisation - there are perfectly libertarian westerners, who are rather hostile to state intervention. And there are perfectly interventionist easterners, both from conservative and from liberal perspectives. Nevertheles, I do wonder if easterners are understanably wary and suspicious of the state in a way that westerners, who are accustomed to the post-war social settlements, are not. Will this lead to tensions? If I'm correct, then it's inevitable.

Of course, such tensions are no bad thing. The post-war settlement is certainly not working properly, only in part as a result of the libertarian wrecking-job in recent years, and some new settlement that guarantees freedoms without abandoning those who benefit least from society is required. Perhaps this will come from the new member states. At the same time, it would be a pity to surrender to the idea that the state is a generally malign force, only suited to incarcarating drug addicts and wasting Arabs, as some people seem to think. I think a new settlement is inevitable. Whether it'll be just or not is open to question.

On the second point, I think we face just as important a challenge, not unrelated to the first one. In order to fully understand the place of the accession states, we (by which I mean all Europeans) need to understand the new ideas that accession brings to the table. We also need to discuss the vision that we have for the Union as it is now. In other words, it's not for the easterners to fit into the old story. We should come up with a new one to suit our new dispensation.

And May the 8th seems like a good place to start. Instead of merely regarding it as 25 national moments, we should also think about what it means for messy, complicated Europe as a whole. A club with new members is, in many ways, a new club. And the recognition of this requires some hard work.

Update: A colleague points out that the term 'westerner' denotes Americans as well as 'western' Europeans. Quite right: I was being a bit sloppy there. Anyway, that conflation might itself suggest some differences between old and new member states that we'll need to contend with.

1 Though I should say that I'm a fan of bureaucracies by first principles: if you want to have a single market, you do need to regulate the convergence towards it. Complex markets don't happen by magic: they are functions of bureaucratic interventions.

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