Europe in Search of Europeans   /   Spring 2014   /    Europe In Search Of Europeans

Europe and the New Democracy

Philippe Bénéton

© Iconeer/Getty Images.

The cooperative Europe works badly, but the regulating Europe works only too well.

The project of creating a unified Europe, which began in earnest a half century ago, has been a great adventure, and partly a great success. The European “civil war,” which began in the sixteenth century and went on for hundreds of years, has finally ended. Peace is firmly established within the European borders. In this respect, the founders of Europe, and especially the architects of the Franco-German reconciliation, made history. And they knew the history they were making.

Apart from that signal achievement, the adventure of unification gives the appearance of groping in the dark. The general reason is clear: Europe is a powerful idea, but it is also an indeterminate idea. Gradually, from about the 1970s, the procedures of unification took the place of the project. Now official Europe is thought of as a process. European issues are reduced to taking the next step. Any pause will ruin the undertaking. The obligation to walk together and the obsession with compromise prevent serious debate. The process governs.

As a result, the primary questions remain unanswered: Europe no doubt, but which Europe? For what purpose? In what form? With whom? Things are unclear. Those who make the history appear not to understand the history they make.

The process took a new direction in the 1980s. Accelerating as new members were brought on, it culminated in the drafting of the “European Constitution” of 2005 (which was signed by the heads of states but fell short of ratification chiefly because the French and Dutch publics rejected it in national referendums). Since then, Europe has entered a slow-boil crisis.

So what is this new Europe that is being made through a kind of blind groping? At the time when there was a clear disagreement about the nature of the European project, the debate pitted the idea of a Europe of nation-states (the plan of General de Gaulle) against a conception of a United States of Europe (the federal idea of Europe as a new nation). Unless a sudden and surprising change occurs, the plan of de Gaulle has lost. But the idea of Europe as a new nation has not prevailed. Instead, another Europe has come into being, a postnational Europe. And, in a sense, a postpolitical Europe.

Postpolitical Europe

A postpolitical Europe is one in which European democracy has assumed a new meaning, characterized by three features: It is a Europe without history or geography, and therefore without substance. It is a Europe that works to reduce the scope of politics. And it is a Europe that regulates extensively, but generally fails to act as a political unit.

The new Europe breaks with its history. The preamble to the 2005 constitution was silent on the Christian roots of Europe and on many other things. According to that document, the European adventure is not rooted in a common history and a particular civilization; it is something new, based on modern and universal values. Heritage is treated accordingly, with the preamble’s first clause beginning as follows: “Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law…” As these lofty words would have it, Europe is based only on universal principles, having thrown away its particular historical experience. Indeed, its aim is a kind of transcendence. Europe is to be the vanguard of a new humanity.

It follows logically from this that Europe refuses to fix borders. All European treaties have that in common: the territory to which the treaties apply is never specified. Europe is defined no more by its geography than by its history. The 2001 declaration of the European Council, issued in Laeken, Belgium, states that “the European Union's one boundary is democracy and human rights.” That idea had already been expressed at the Council’s 1978 summit in Copenhagen, and was confirmed by all subsequent treaties. Any country that respects democracy and human rights can apply for membership. The Europe of rights is without borders.

Consequently, Europe is expected not to form a great nation but to leave the idea of the nation behind altogether. The “values” by which Europe is defined should be the common denominator of the emerging global civil society, governed by judges and experts. In early 2002, Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, declared before the Convention on the Future of Europe that the Union represented “the only real attempt to achieve democratic globalization.” The vision is that of a postnational humanity. Ultimately, the future of Europe is not its construction but its disappearance.

In practice, what has happened? The European Union has expanded, again and again, and it is intended to expand further. The founding members were six. The number of members rose to nine in 1973, to twelve in 1980, to fifteen in 1995, to twenty-five in 2004, and to twenty-seven in 2007. Since then, crisis has slowed things down, but the principle of enlargement has not changed. Turkey remains at the threshold. But the reasons it has not yet been admitted—at least the official reasons—are those of the new Europe: at issue is not the fact that Turkey belongs to another continent, to another history, to another civilization, but that it falls short of embracing all of the “universal values” of the Union.

Enlargement has led to endless institutional adjustments, but it has not led to a discussion of the nature of the European project. According to champions of the new Europe, the number of members doesn’t matter. The goal is not to achieve a substantive unity of the people; a formal unity is enough. It is not to generate a common will; it is to establish uniform rules.

A Society of Individuals

In some ways, the new Europe neutralizes politics and reduces society to a conglomerate of individuals who agree only on respecting the rules. Europe “depoliticizes” the common life. It reduces the sphere of politics to make greater room for the imperatives of human rights and a market economy. It exempts from political debate all rules deriving from individual rights and free market competition. It creates a supranational and suprapolitical law. Consequently, more and more issues have been removed from genuine democratic discussion. The democracy “Eurocrats” speak of in Brussels is not the democracy of citizens; it is the democracy of rights holders and consumers. The new Europe is working to build a society of individuals. Autonomy is the first of virtues, and free competition and diversity are considered unquestioned goods. As a result, many things tend to disappear: civic participation, shared commitment, common decency.

Basically, there are only two legitimate categories: the individual and humanity. Those who love their fellow citizens betray the rights of those who are not fellow citizens. The attachment to the nation is somehow suspect. It is assumed that the “values” of the new Europe are enough to attach people politically. The good citizen of former times was attached to his flag, to his land, to his native tongue, to his history. The good European of today should be committed to equality, tolerance, diversity, pluralism, individual rights. To be sure, these formal “values,” rightly understood, are important. They are part of liberal democracy. But can they be enough? What do they give to love? If a Swede is no different from a Greek, or a European from a Japanese, the ideal is to be a citizen of the world, that is to say, a person who comes from nowhere in particular.

The new Europe regulates extensively, but it is deficient as a meaningful political unit. Such is the consequence of the withdrawal of politics. In a world of individual rights and free concurrence, regulations increase but “common policies” are rare. Regulations aim at uniformity. The rules for hunting must be the same in Denmark as in Italy; bulbs or lawn mowers must be the same from Vilnius to Athens; university degrees must be identical whether one has studied at Oxford, Berlin, or the Sorbonne. On the other hand, where European countries have an interest in acting together, things don’t work. The examples are numerous: there is no real industrial policy, no energy policy, no real foreign policy at the European level. Among the reasons are the decline of politics and the divisions among the nation-states. The situation is this: Europe hampers the member states, and the member states hinder Europe. In others words, the cooperative Europe works badly, but the regulating Europe works only too well.

The crisis besetting Europe has obvious economic sources in the general financial crisis of the West and the specific crisis of the euro. It also has a political source: a growing number of European citizens have lost confidence in Europe. Yet the official principles remain the same. The tone has changed from triumphant to anxious, but within the European institutions, no one questions the direction that has been taken.

The main “generative principle” behind the process of unification is the principle of equality, in the sense intended by Alexis de Tocqueville—that is, the idea of the sovereignty of the individual. But it does not follow that the main actor behind the new Europe was the common man. In his works, Tocqueville tended to underestimate the role of minorities. In the case of Europe, the march of history is above all the work of political and intellectual elites with the support of the media. People have occasionally been called upon to ratify choices that were made without their real input. And if they did not ratify, they were compelled to reconsider their choice, as the Danes were in 1992 and the Irish in 2008. In 2005, the French and Dutch publics said “no” to the European Constitution. So in the Treaty of Lisbon of 2007, the constitution’s institutional arrangements were ratified by the parliaments of France and the Netherlands.

A Procedural Democracy

The regime in place in Europe is a procedural democracy. It is defined exclusively by formal rules: human rights, a free market, majority rule in the political arena. Liberal democracy is a machine in working order as long as everyone respects the rules of the game. The qualities of the participants matter little. In the world of modern equality, each individual is judge of his own behavior. A substantial interpretation of liberal democracy does not deny the importance of the rules of the game—the regime has by nature a procedural dimension—but it interprets them differently. The essential point is this: The rules of the game are not sufficient. They are sufficient neither to forge a true political society nor to make a liberal-democratic regime a good regime. No system suffices by itself. Much depends on the conduct of participants and on the relationships between them.

Procedural politics founded on modern equality benefits from the appeal of simple ideas, but it ignores a number of essential (or substantial) distinctions: the distinction between a “society” and a “community,” the distinction between a corrupt and a healthy people, and those other important distinctions between a demagogue and a statesman, between passions and reason, between procedures and forms.

An agreement on the rules of the game does not suffice to make a strong society. Who would risk his life to defend procedures, either those of the political regime or those of the market? And can this agreement itself be solid if the members of the society have nothing in common? According to a more substantial definition, political society cannot be reduced to a mere association. In particular, it cannot be established successfully except in the kind of community that was forged in the modern era: the nation-state. Liberal democracy and the nation-state can be separated only at great risk.

Why is this bond so important? The essential reason is that liberal democracy honors discord and establishes majority rule as the principle of decision making in the political sphere. In order to sustain this institutionalization of conflict, there must be a strong sense of common belonging. There are costs inherent in this regime, a big one being the willingness of minorities to recognize the legitimacy of decisions made by the representatives of their adversaries. This cost is bearable, and is borne in Western regimes for two reasons: first, because these democratic regimes are also liberal (and liberal rule limits the scope and the cost of democratic rule); second, because national unity forges communitarian bonds.

If this analysis is correct, liberal democracy requires a substance beyond itself: a common memory, shared references, awareness of a common destiny. To seek to go beyond the nation and forge a postnational Europe on the basis of a “constitutional [i.e., procedural] patriotism” is to advocate weak citizenship and a political society without substance. It is also to risk undermining certain foundations of liberal democracy.

When liberal democracy is considered to be a machine, respect for procedures is supposed to suffice, and citizens and leaders are relieved of all other obligations. The system, it is thought, can do without the civic virtue of its participants. Yet the rules of the game cannot themselves function in the complete absence of feelings of civic obligation. Electoral results never come down to one person’s vote. A purely selfish and rational citizen would never vote, since he would know that his vote would not change the outcome at the polls. Moreover, respect for formal rules in no way guarantees good government: it is a matter of indifference, formally speaking, whether the officeholder is an honest person or a scoundrel, a statesman or a demagogue. But the good functioning of the regime depends upon a shared sense of responsibility concerning the common destiny.

This necessity becomes plainly apparent in extreme situations. In wartime, if individual aims prevail over the common interest, what becomes of the country’s defense? Extreme situations remind us that politics is not just one activity among others and that the common interest can go so far as to require that citizens risk their lives. But if the sense of political obligation weakens or even disappears in ordinary times, what strength will it have in those dramatic moments when much more is expected? Procedural democracy navigates well enough in calm waters, but it may be vulnerable when the wind begins to blow.

These effects are now visible in Europe. In many countries, the political elites are discredited as a result of various scandals. Partisanship wreaks havoc, and the sense of common interest loses its force. With regard to international affairs, Europe as such is unable to act. It confusedly aspires to get out of history.

In short, liberalism pushed to the point of relativism and utmost individualism creates a moral and political crisis. It is a crisis Tocqueville partly anticipated when he wrote that democracy was constantly engaged in the process of democratizing itself, extending and expanding the sovereignty of the individual. To him, of course, America was the avant-garde of democracy. But since the moral revolution of the 1960s, the conquest of humankind by democracy has gone beyond anything Tocqueville foresaw. The result, though now more advanced in Europe than in America, has been the transformation of democracy as a political regime, a transformation that eliminates everything (including most substantive politics) in the march toward “equality of conditions.” It can only be hoped, for Europe’s sake, that Tocqueville was wrong when he saw that march as irreversible.