Interview: Muddling through won’t do

Christian Joerges on the new book, The End of the Eurocrats’ Dream: Adjusting to European Diversity.

Q: Professor Joerges, why is it no longer possible to govern the EU as it has been governed in the past?

The past was characterised by the expectation and confidence that a progress of integration will generate an “ever better” Europe. Under the impact of the many years of crisis, the “ever more” Europe mantra is still alive, but unwell. Our ambition with the book The End of the Eurocrats’ Dream was not to simply find ways out of the present crisis, but to try to understand how this project, which was so much a part of a new post-war European identity, could end up in such troubled waters.

The problems did not come out of the blue, we argue. They have a long history. The promise in 1957/1958 that open borders and free trade would ensure peace and prosperity had limited validity. Seemingly paradoxically, it was the great progress of integration which led down a blind alley. Economic and political deepening would have required a redesign of the initial institutional framework. Modern economies and societies are very complex institutional configurations. You have to consider environmental problems, safety at work and regulatory issues. To establish workable solutions for 28 polities is enormously difficult. Even more delicate is the defense or re-definition of the co-existence of open economies and their internal market on the one hand, and the national responsibility for justice and social welfare on the other. Of course, as the project has grown and taken in ever more diverse states, it has become difficult to defend this equilibrium, especially under the circumstances of globalising markets and the neoliberal ideologies of the 70s and 80s.But integration politics responded with the petrification of “integration through law”, the fostering of economic freedoms and the promotion of “ever more legal uniformity.”

The tragedy is that the EU project’s progress and the confidence of citizens made people turn a blind eye to mistakes and problems that have long been present, but were always discounted.

Even crises were expected to strengthen Europe, if not immediately, then in the long run. One topical further example is disappointment over the disrespect of the rule of law and European values in Eastern European countries. How could one expect to establish stable democracies in newly reinstated nations by requiring them to submit wholesale to the established EU economic rule book? Some 50 years of oppression and anti-democratic rule, and even racism, in countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic do not simply disappear with EU membership.

Again: The origins of the European malaise reach far back and became ever more visible. Consider only the referendums in France and Holland after the EU constitutional treaty from 2005. The basic issue was – especially in France – cheap labor from Eastern Europe – an issue that is again topical with the influx of refugees into continental Europe and migrants from Eastern Europe into the UK. This has led to anti-foreigner sentiment. At the same time, some less fortunate parts of our societies are really concerned about their welfare. And how do they react? Now, alas, with ever more populism. Under such changing circumstances, Europe does not have the political capacity or infrastructure to communally address these difficulties. Is what I am saying anti-European? No, not at all, because what we wanted to document is that we have inherited a number of unwanted challenges just as we grappled with the financial crisis. So we have to rethink Europe.

Q: What do you mean by redefining the trajectory of the European project?

Behind the constitutional treaty there is a wonderful motto – “united in diversity”. There was always a consensus that you cannot merge Poland, Germany, France into one political body ­- and that you should not ­- as long as people don’t want to, but want to defend some of their national identity. So the message is that Europeanisation through evermore transfer of national powers to European bodies is not the solution to everything. Instead, we have to define not more or less Europe, but explain what would be a better Europe.

One highly important lesson we have learned from the failures of the “one-size-fits-all” EU integration strategies, is that we have to live with more economic differences and more variety. We have to accept our diversity of traditions in organising markets, societies and the welfare state.

These traditions do not mean one is hierarchically better than the other, but they simply have a justification and legitimacy of their own. The European task should be to organise cooperation between such political bodies. As the economic historian Werner Abelshauser has put it, the diversity of European traditions should not be understood as an obstacle to a more efficient economic system, but as a productive and beneficial asset we should make use of.

Q: Isn’t this just that old optimism again rearing its head?

It is optimism, but of a different kind, because we ask what the different trajectory could be. It could be that we have to live with a diversity of tradition, and these are not necessarily national traditions. You could say there are different families of traditions in Europe: Anglo-Saxon capitalism, Mediterranean capitalism, or coordinated market economies from Sweden to Germany. These have developed through political economic processes. If a society has developed these things and learned to make productive use of them, then we should see how we can organise a way of living together. Our co-author Kalypso Nicolaïdes of Oxford University has invented the term demoicracy. In other words, Europe has not one demos, but several demoi, which she calls governing together, but not under one rule. Rather than understanding Europe as a new hierarchically structured federation, we should see it as a flexible cooperative enterprise. We have to learn how to organise this cooperation.

Q: What contribution would you like your book to make to the policy debate and what conclusions would be useful?

The readiness to rethink Europe. The readiness to say we are in trouble and we have to reconsider many things at once. According to the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, the only option now is to establish a trans-national democracy. This is great in theory but we do not see this happening in democratically accountable practice.  No, there won’t be a big bang transforming the present state of emergency and its technocratic management into a European democracy. I think that the European interdependence of our societies is much too complex to be changed by such planned endeavours. But they are learning societies and we have to rethink and reorganize Europe and search for cooperative structures below hierarchical governance. That is something no single mind can design.

Our book is a cooperative effort to document this need from very different angles: philosophy, political science, economics, and law. Our intention was to gather people with a standing in European studies and who are recognized as caring about Europe, and they all do. This is not something that can just be shrugged off as euro-sceptic or anti-European. On May 25, Kalypso Nicolaïdes and I presented the book to the EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee in the UK’s House of Lords. We felt of course honoured by their interest in our work. It was encouraging to us that they saw our understanding of the complexity neither as pro-Brexit nor as pro-Remain, but as realistic and cautious.

We found much convergence between the messages of our book and the House of Lords’ evaluation of the EU’s Five Presidents’ Report on completing economic and monetary union. They were interested in our views about capital market union and banking union. Their report underlined the unresolved challenges of the management of macro-economic imbalances, the patchy implementation of the new modes of economic governance and the apparent lack of political will to close these gaps, the vagueness and inconsistencies in the quest for fiscal union. In our interpretation, these difficulties are indicative of the tensions between Europe’s democratic commitments and perceived functional necessities. What we found particularly important was the insistence of the Report of the House of Lords on democratic accountability. The whole concluding chapter is dedicated to this concern. Indeed, the EU will likely lose support among European publics if it goes on muddling through incrementally towards more and more Europe without substantiating why this is a credible response to the European problem.

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