Sunday 18 August 2019

Joe Corcoran: 'European culture is needed to keep a liberal way of life'

A new, bolder European Union is needed, writes Joe Corcoran

Matteo Salvini. Photo: Reuters
Matteo Salvini. Photo: Reuters

In January this year, 30 of the world's most esteemed intellectuals wrote an open letter to the people of Europe urging them to fight for their continent as a political unit against the populist wreckers currently seeking to destroy it.

For those who did not read it, I can recall few pieces of writing in recent years that were so obviously correct on one level and yet so cripplingly misguided on another.

To start with what they got right: Europe is in dire need of cultural rejuvenation. For half a decade we have been in the throes of a populist movement that has given us Brexit, Matteo Salvini, the gilets jaunes and, as of May, roughly 250 Eurosceptic members of the European Parliament.

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Even the much-celebrated electoral bump enjoyed by the pro-EU Green Party this year speaks to a lingering dissatisfaction with the traditional terms of European politics and an interest in radically alternative sources of political value.

Where the intellectuals erred was in how they characterised Europe's enemies and on what grounds they suggested its defenders ought to stand. In the opening paragraph they deride the idea of a "national soul" or "identity" as an "abstraction… exist[ing] only in the imagination of demagogues". This would be a trivial criticism under any circumstances, but it becomes downright dishonest in the context of a letter urging people to fight for "the idea of Europe". Demagoguery for me but not for thee, as it were.

The populists, the letter goes on, are "false prophets… drunk on resentment". The product, presumably, of "increasingly brazen meddling by the occupant of the Kremlin". This, I will admit, is certainly true to some extent, but the soaring rhetoric falls flat, absent of any attempt at self-reflection. Can we really dismiss populist anger out of hand? Surely some things in life are worthy objects of resentment. This letter was seething with it, after all.

Regarding the matter of Putin's meddling, while I will not deny it has had an important impact on the rise of populism, I believe that when we choose to regard it as the straw that broke the camel's back we implicitly disregard the agency of those who have been compelled by it and reduce the proper functioning of our democracy to a matter of feeding voters the information we believe they ought to have at the time we believe they ought to have it.

Stand up for "liberal democracy and its values", the message goes, until liberal democracies produce leaders we do not like. Then it must be because the electorate was brainwashed.

In this way, the letter ends up distilling into 650 words all that is so disillusioning about modern Europe. It preaches from on high while ignoring its own contradictions, at once excoriating the assertion of particularist social values and doing everything it can to re-establish its own exhausted worldview on the sly. What is needed instead, I submit, is a new, bolder and more straightforwardly self-interested European Union, buoyed by a more sophisticated conception of European culture. This would be a Europe we could argue for without contradiction. A Europe in which the populists would not feel lied to.

The most honest argument for Europe is a morbidly bureaucratic one. In the long run, the continent's individual nation states will be swallowed if they do not band together at the economic and legislative level. They will not be swallowed by authoritarian regimes with an idealogical mandate to stamp out liberalism, but by other self-interested states which, authoritarian or not, can muster more manpower and are willing to work cheaper.

China, of course, is leading the pack with its Belt and Road Initiative, but beyond the 1.4 billion people at Beijing's disposal, we have that number again to contend with in India as it makes inexorable strides toward a seat on the UN security council. Add to that another billion-plus Africans rising out of poverty at an astonishingly fast rate and now we're dealing with well over 50pc of the world's population, not to speak of Indonesia, the Middle East or Latin America. A whole half of the globe over which, in centuries past, we had the luxury of holding ungodly competitive trade advantages which are vanishing before our eyes.

Europe's populists, embracing though they are of a post-liberal language of power and cultural self-interest, fail to take these emergent realities seriously. They delude themselves into thinking the cat can simply be put back in the bag where globalisation is concerned and that we can all return to a hopefully less warlike version of the European power balance that existed during the second half of the 19th Century, not recognising the fact the great European states of that era were not nations at all, but the capitals of global empires which have receded past the point of isolated economic viability.

Don't talk about economics, they say. All the remainers did was talk about economics when the real issues were culture and, specifically, immigration. To the extent economics means weighing a few extra cents on a loaf of bread against the survival of a culture you can feel at home in, I would tend to agree, but, as it happens, the immigration question here is directly downstream of the economic one. Those advocating abandonment of the EU as a solution to the migrant crisis have little to say about what happens the moment they're on their own and forced to negotiate trade deals with the new power blocs mentioned, each of them eager to attach sky-high visa quotas to any new legislation they're willing to consider jointly signing.

The case for Europe is, therefore, all the more demanding when made in terms acceptable to the so-called authoritarian populists, but it will not be enough to sustain the Union, long-term. The time must soon come in which an authentic European culture is born, over and above the national cultures which participate in it.

Much bureaucratic labour has gone into producing a European historical tradition. We have Dante, Erasmus, Goethe and Comenius. The old glories of the Catholic Church are Europe's now, though we've made sure to let them keep the scandals and inquisitions. An Irishman listening to the European anthem is invited, only slightly implausibly, to claim as much of a share in Beethoven's genius as any German. This is all admirable work, but until a new generation of artists, thinkers and statesman are willing to take up that tradition as Europeans first and Germans, Italians or Frenchmen second, it will continue to feel suspiciously manufactured.

None of this is to suggest we Europeans should cease to be basically liberal in our outlook, only that we anchor our liberalism to something of positive value such that the choices it grants us are imbued with new meaning. This will also entail ending the constant search for illiberal enemies to be besieged by, and coming to recognise the civilisations against whom we are competing, in a sense that demands neither friendship nor enmity. Yes, we can and should condemn grossly inhumane behaviour where we see it, but we cannot differentiate our culture from those around us purely to the extent that they are illiberal. To fall into this trap would be to do Europe a disservice.

The liberal way of life is one we are lucky to have inherited, but to stand up to the challenges Europe faces today it will need the support and constraints of something only we can give birth to.

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