Much of the debate about “Europe” has been conducted at the lowest level; that established by the tabloid press and articulated by supporters and opponents alike. It is in the nature of a referendum, as opposed to representative democracy, that this should be so. Ironically, the intellectual case against the European Union tends to be a European one, strongly influenced by the Austrian School and enlisting not only Karl Popper but classic Liberals like the Ukrainian born Ludwig Von Mises and the Viennese Friedrich von Hayek.
To ask “what would Popper have said today?” is as silly as asking what Churchill or Thatcher would have said – or indeed Henry V or Nell Gwyn. However, what we can do is to take what we have learnt from Popper and his distinction between Open and Closed Societies and ask, “Is the European Union a threat to the Open Society in the way that ‘Conservatives for Britain’ and others would have us believe?”
It is a common fallacy that modern liberal democracy is the same as majority rule (or “majoritarianism”). But minorities need protection and representation too. Liberal democracy in Europe does not depend on one institution alone, however “democratic” we might try to make it. It depends on pluralism; checks and balances.
When we consider the “democratic deficit” or issues of sovereignty then perhaps we would be wise to be sure we are asking the right question. It was Karl Popper who pointed out that the preservation of the open society is less about “who should rule?” and rather about “how is the state to be constituted so that bad rulers can be got rid of without bloodshed, without violence?” (Karl Popper in ‘The Economist’ April 23 1988, republished The Economist Jan 31st. 2016.
Popper’s concern was that proportional representation made it much more difficult to dismiss an incompetent or corrupt government and indeed as we see in Europe today, a frustration with current leaders can only be expressed through the extremes. The foolish pacts between the socialists and the EPP, supported by ALDE liberals also eager to have their share of the jobs, was a blunder which helped to reinforce the view that this is not an Open Society government, but a closed one which looks after its own.
Nevertheless, what it has not done is produce dictatorship or totalitarianism, nor does it appear in danger of so doing. The legal and constitutional processes prevent that and those Sceptics who speak of the EU as controlling their daily lives are not so much articulating an argument but expressing a medical condition.
Is the European Union in danger of eroding human liberties? Theoretically this is possible but only if all the states concerned agree to amend fundamental treaties. Anything is possible but this does not seem very likely. It could only happen if all the nation states one by one had turned their backs on liberal democracy and become the enemies of the Open Society themselves. In short, the European Union would be the last bastion to fall.
Of course the European Union is a very young organisation, and though some of its roots may go back to failed empires, it is attempting something new. There is a need to raise the quality of leadership, and the availability of talented people to lead. We should raise the capacity of Europeans to engage in critical thinking and creative ideas. This has never been something one nation did alone. It’s a clever point to claim that the history of western thought is essentially footnotes to Plato and Aristotle, but we must not forget the Enlightenment – including the Edinburgh Enlightenment! That great British – or Scottish philosopher – David Hume wrote his Treatise while living in France; Burke’s greatest statements on representative democracy form part of his “Reflections on the French Revolution.” These great political thinkers did not exist in national isolation; many were in a real sense “Europeans”. Nevertheless, the current debate about “Europe” is being carried out at a level which the great European thinkers would have found laughable, or pitiable.
When T S Eliot reflected on the nature of “England”, he was visiting a chapel at Little Gidding and the site of a religious retreat. In celebrating the greatness of the English tradition he was not recalling centuries of unity but of disunity; after all this was a place visited by a “broken king” on his way to the scaffold.
If I think, again, of this place,
And of people, not wholly commendable,
Of not immediate kin or kindness,
But of some peculiar genius,
All touched by a common genius,
United in the strife which divided them;
It would be a bold man who could imagine that a poet of the future might think of the founders of the European movement in this way. But the paradox of “united in the strife which divided them” is the point to take from the poem. It is after all the heart of the English Tradition. But the English Tradition is not only the dominant force in the United Kingdom it is also a major part of the European Tradition; it informs values in the European Union just as much as the French socialists or the more conservative values from Habsburg Europe and from Otto von Habsburg himself.
Much is written about the importance of European unity and perhaps the term “Union” is a little too grandiloquent for the reality. The reason Europe is not a challenge to liberal democracy is not because it is united but because it is divided. For most Europeans Europe is not about to become a super state, or even a federation. Nation states are not in decline. If anything nationalism is on the rise across Europe. We are not about to see a single unitary layer of Government empowered to dictate to Europe’s citizens. Indeed that is precisely the outcome the European Union is designed to prevent. There will be tensions between the European Union and national governments, just as there are between national and regional governments, just as there are within every real Parliament or council chamber. These tensions will not be “resolved” because if they were it would mean a one party state. There is never going to be a one track Europe, or even a two track one. Europe is diverse and will remain so. Europe will always be divided so long as political and civil society survive – and a good thing too! This diversity, these tensions, are not part of Europe’s weakness but of its strength. The Plurality of power in Europe is untidy but valuable. We need a Europe not where ignorant armies clash by night, but where informed Europeans debate and argue in the full light of day, in the European Parliament, the councils and the commissions.
Nowhere could this complexity have been better illustrated than on the streets and squares of Kyiv. Here was a popular uprising which not only expressed a Ukrainian patriotism but also a desire to be part of “Europe”. The Ukrainian neo Nazis who are as anti-European as they are anti-Russian form a very small minority – probably smaller than their equivalent in most European states, and only magnified by the Kremlin propagandists. For most of the Maidan activists there was no apparent contradiction between affirming their identity as Ukrainians and as Europeans.
If Europe is not a threat to democratic values could it be a threat to liberal ones? Liberalism depends on pluralism and a free press is only one aspect of that. Britain is fortunate to have retained a constitutional monarchy, and even in its currently emasculated form, the House of Lords can also make a contribution to the competition of elites which is necessary for a democracy to survive. We also have an independent judiciary, a powerful universities sector, trade unions and business organisations, even the great financial institutions. In recent years we also have provincial parliaments or assemblies and local government remains alive and well, perhaps soon to be strengthened by more devolution.
Amidst this pluralism, the House of Commons may be the overriding force but it is certainly not omnipotent. Just as a King can be brought down by Parliament and the Privy Council, so a Prime Minister can be brought down by public opinion acting on MPs sensing their own seats are at stake. It is how we disposed of Edward VIII and Margaret Thatcher respectively.
Liberalism as we know has many strands but it has two distinct political strands. There is a liberalism, founded on moral scepticism and neutrality, and the belief that “government governs best which governs least.” Here it is the job of government to do nothing but offer external security and individuals are free to organise their lives and follow their own systems of beliefs as they wish as long as they do no harm to anyone else. This does not seem to me to be a very credible view for a liberal today and I am not sure it was ever a coherent system of thought. There is even scholarly debate about who might actually have said it. Even so called “neo-liberals” seldom take such an extreme position which is probably more characteristic of young anarchists than modern liberals or social democrats.
So we are left with a view of liberalism which involves pro-active government to affirm the values of liberal democracy. Actually there is quite a lot of consensus about those values. Within Europe it is probably not very difficult to arrive at a consensus about values which we share across the Union and which should be the bottom line for rights and duties in Europe. The problem of course arises not with the values but how they are applied in particular circumstances. For example, the tension between the right to life and the rights of the mother is at the heart of debates about abortion and probably always will be.
The European Union contributes another layer of government and for the neo-anarchist who really does believe that “government governs best which governs least” then this is a threat. But for liberal democracy another elite in a pluralism of elites is no bad thing. It is part of the checks and balances which we need if such liberalism is to survive.
Drawing these two threads together, how far can critics argue that Europe is a threat to democratic or liberal values”? Oddly enough those same critics also point to Europe’s disunity and disagreements as a sign of its weakness. But Europe will never resolve political differences, not as long as there is a civil society with liberal democratic values. On the contrary Europe offers a way in which differences can be articulated and diversity understood and also protected. In short it offers a way for different nations to live together without fighting each other. Many of those who want to dismantle the Union point to the fact that it may sometimes challenge the power of a national government which has shifted away from values and human rights agreed in the Union’s treaties. But isn’t that something not to condemn but to celebrate? Isn’t the European Union, properly understood, a force for liberal democracy and a defender of our human rights?
In these days of communication and information technology very few societies outside North Korea, are entirely closed, but the Open Society faces constant challenges and as in Europe, may indeed be eroded by what Popper calls “managerialism.” But most objections to this from nation states are only objections from those who would wish to substitute a management of their own. Others, especially from the British who have a love-hate relationship with the various standards agencies, focus on light bulbs or plastic shopping bags. It is hard to see these as serious challenges to human rights, compared for example with the right to free travel, with the opening of tariff-free markets, and the advantages of European standards which guarantee our safety or which help to protect the environment.
In conclusion the European Union is not an enemy of the Open Society; rather it provides space for debate and discussion, scope for education and exchange of ideas. For an Open Society to flourish requires open minds. The European Mind is likely to be more open than the purely provincial or national one. The European Union is indeed a friend of the Open Society.