Re-inventing Europe in a globalised world


Yesterday at the Winternachten festival, a collection of poets, philosophers and historians came together to discuss two of the most pressing issues of our time – the future of Europe and the effects of globalisation. These two issues are not unrelated, they are united by their reliance on the nation state. Are its days numbered and if so, what will replace it?

‘Europe has had a long holiday from history’, so says leading historian and political philosopher Luuk van Middelaar. But since 2010, it has experienced what he terms a re-entry. This has been the result of various geopolitical events including the financial crisis, the increase in migration to Europe and the rise of politicians such as Putin, Trump and Erdogan. He argues that more recently Brexit and the increasing flexing of muscles by leaders such as Orban of Hungary and Salvini of Italy have highlighted the fact that Europe can no longer function outside of time and space. Pressure from forces both within and without are undoubtedly increasing. Leading Hassnae Bouazza to ask, how does one think globally in a hopelessly divided world? Most would agree with David van Reybrouck’s assertion that we do not currently have the political instruments to successfully manage the global challenges that present themselves. Climate change and migration are cases in point.

These sharp divisions were perhaps nowhere more evident yesterday than in Poland, at the funeral of the murdered liberal mayor of Gdansk. Adamowicz was known for backing a campaign to defend the rule of law in Poland and encouraging migrants to seek refuge in Gdanks. Support for the nationalist government fell to just 30% in the wake of  his death. Renowned Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski, described the event as ‘a moment of awakening, at least for some’ and predicts that the death will work to galvanise support for the liberal forces in his country – ‘Someone who is killed, grows. Death gives him something more.’ He also agrees that these divides are almost identical to the ones currently at work in Hungary, Romania and even the US – urban versus rural, educated versus uneducated, young versus old. So for a man born in what was Poland but is now part of Western Ukraine and whose parents were forced to flee their hometown, the personal has always been political. Yet he maintains that ‘if we are reduced to the political layer only, we are like dry leaves in the autumn.’ For Zagajewski, the beauty and sensuality of Art is the answer in that it can and should be used to celebrate the joy that still exists in the world. While acknowledging that the law has little sensual attraction, as he puts it, he admits to the ‘amazing moment of joy in Polish society, when the European Court protected the independence of the Polish courts.’ 

‘The law is the power of the word rather than the power of the sword.’ – Luuk van Middelaar.

The European Union has functioned largely as a technocracy, relying on the rule of law, rather than democratic process to accommodate the conflicting interests of 27 member states. Like many others, David van Reybrouck, defends the notion of the EU but would like to see more democracy at the EU level.  Luuk van Middelaar drew a thoughtful distinction between what he terms, ‘the rules of the game’ which are essentially the rule of law and the game itself. The former, he argued, should be fixed, the latter, should be open to debate. He would like to see the EU, specifically the parliament, working as a more ‘theatrical space’ where the gloves come off and one gains credibility through open debate and the winning of arguments. This Brussels-based historian maintains that if the EU wants to be ‘taken seriously by strong men such as Trump and Putin, it must show that it is not afraid of its own voters.’ He points to the forthcoming European elections as a case in point. Asking whether the system will be able to absorb and ultimately digest the challenges from players like Salvini and Orban or whether the integrity of the system as a whole will be compromised.

It is no co-incidence that the nationalist forces that Orban and the like represent, are those that feel most threatened by the rise of globalisation. Yet, ironically, those who ‘love the nation state’ appear to be collaborating, fairly successfully on a global level’ Bouazza notes. It is fair to say that the political energy of the majority of Europeans still exists at the national level. However, as renowned  journalist and writer, Ian Buruma points out, if the EU is to become democratic, it would have to become a federal state, a sort of United States of Europe. He agrees that support for such steps has been lacking thus far and when pressed on how he might approach the problem he admits that he does not have a ready solution. He does however, argue for two key driving forces behind globalisation, namely commercial/ big business interests and those of the far left for whom issues such as climate change and migration are central. The result, ‘a weird symbiosis between capitalism and communism.’

‘Democracy is notoriously messy, but therein lies its strength.’

What does all of this mean for the nation state, one might ask? As David van Reybrouck notes, we’re living in an age where autocracies and technocracies seem to be delivering better results but only in the short term. Democracy is notoriously messy but therein lies its strength. Buruma rightly points out that no better system has been found for managing the inevitable conflict of interests that comprise modern society. Certainly, in the age of globalization, these conflicts of interest have simply increased exponentially but perhaps the answers lie in the past. Luuk van Middelaar suggests that Brussels has always tended to ‘cut Europe from its more distant history’, focusing instead on the beginning of cooperation between France and Germany at the end of WWII. Yet if one looks back down the great sweep of history, one soon realises that fifty years is a short period of time and globalisation is an extremely recent phenomenon. We should expect some hiccups and difficulties along the way, but this should not detract us from the clarity of our vision nor dissuade us  of the very real benefits of a united, democratic Europe.     Souwie Buis  20th January 2019

Click here to return to the main page