Ten years after the announcement of the referendum on British membership of the EU, the debate about the EU is returning to Westminster. While mainstream political parties argue that Brexit is a reality, citizens and businesses increasingly feel betrayed. So, what to do about the EU?
The book ‘Eurowhiteness’ (Review in Financial Times, $), which Chatham House fellow Hans Kundnani published this summer, is highly critical of the EU. Its publication coincides with the rise in the German polls of a far-right party, which claims that the EU must be deconstructed in order to let the real Europe live (see this interview on German TV channel ZDF). The picture seems rather confusing. Were the Brexiteers right after all in foreseeing catastrophe on the Continent?
Unfair and misleading
The author of the disquieting book uses an old rhetorical trick. He starts by attributing ideals to the European Union, which the organisation has never proclaimed and ends with concluding that the process of European integration has failed because it has not attained them. Kundnani wants the EU to be a cosmopolitan organisation while the EU has wisely restricted its ambitions to Europe. According to the Treaties, it is meant to be a regional organisation, not a worldwide United Nations. The suggestion that the EU is no more than a reinvention of nationalism at the continental level is therefore unfair and misleading. It should certainly not serve as a reason for citizens and politicians to stay out of the EU.
Kundnani derives his inspiration from the European dream, which the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas developed in the post-war period. Habermas portrayed the process of European integration as a step towards the realisation of global peace and the establishment of a cosmopolitan world order. In captivating language, Habermas highlighted that the European polity should become a federal European state, not for the sake of Europe but rather for that of humanity and the planet at large (The Crisis of the European Union) .
The seemingly altruistic approach, which Habermas elaborated and which Hans Kundnani follows in his critique on the EU, misses the point of European integration. The reason for this remarkable failure is that the éminence grise of German philosophy has not been radical enough in his analysis of international politics. In the footsteps of Immanuel Kant and his quest for Perpetual Peace, published in 1796, Habermas studies the world through the lens of the prevailing paradigm of international relation, known as the Westphalian system. In consequence, he is unable to observe that the Westphalian paradigm and global peace have become irreconcilable concepts in the 21st century.
The essence of the Westphalian system of International Relations is that States enjoy absolute sovereignty. They are dealing with each other on equal footing and do not have to recognise a higher – worldly or religious – authority. States are entitled to defend their territory and their interests with military means. In fact, war is justified as the ultimate means for the resolution of conflicts between States. The system finds its origins in the peace settlements, which brought an end to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th century, and were concluded in the German region of Westphalia. Its influence on European philosophy is unparalleled. The Swiss-French author Rousseau praised it as the eternal foundation of our system of international relations (A Lasting Peace through the Federation of Europe and The State of War).
The radicality of the European experiment consists of its slow but steady departure from the Westphalian paradigm. Two consecutive world wars in 30 years showed that Europe had become too small for absolute sovereignty. Instead of war, the peoples of Europe wanted ever closer union. Politicians tried to attain this goal by pooling sovereignty, initially over the raw materials required for the conduct of war and later over the entire economy. They learned by practice that lasting peace can be achieved through sharing the exercise of sovereignty. Actually, the slow but steady approach of the EU and the earlier Communities proved to be so radical that theorists like Habermas were unable to account for its consequences.
Seventy years of European integration can be summarised in the maxim that the EU has evolved from a more or less traditional union of democratic states to an unprecedented transnational democracy. In the process the EU has outgrown the prevailing Westphalian system (see The Democratisation of the European Union). It follows that the EU is no longer destined to be identified as either a federal state or a confederal association of states. Instead, the EU has become the first international polity which functions as a full democracy. Hence, the EU can be identified in its present form as a democratic international organisation.
Obviously, the first specimen of a new category will not be perfect. Kundnani is right in arguing that the EU has many deficiencies and that the global trend of democratic backsliding is also endangering the European achievements. He should, however, not overlook that the EU embodies a new paradigm for international politics and global governance. The lesson which the EU learned in the first half of the 20th century is that absolute sovereignty destroys absolutely. A century onward, problems like nuclear proliferation, climate change and pandemics demonstrate that the world has become too small for absolute sovereignty too. Seen in this perspective, the European experiment may serve as a model for global governance and perpetual peace too.
In hindsight, it is most unfortunate that scholars and politicians have failed to come to terms with the innovations brought about by the European experiment. In the UK, this intellectual dereliction of duty offered Leave-campaigners the chance to argue that the EU was some kind of ‘Fourth Reich’, which endangered the very existence of the Kingdom. In fact, the Brexiteers wanted to return to the Westphalian order in a similar way as the German far-right envisages today. In their view, the real Europe is the battlefield of nation-states. Kundnani’s critique may encourage European politicians to appreciate the achievements and to defend them. The EU is not a traditional empire, but embodies the first-ever post-Westphalian approach to global governance.
Finally, this observation may also be relevant for the emerging debate in the UK about the question as to whether Great-Britain should stay out or rejoin the EU at some time. If the EU would merely be a reinvention of the ‘Nation-State’ at the European level, Kundnani would be right in refusing to be part of it. However, as the EU embodies a bold attempt to adapt our system of international relations and global governance to the 21st century, the UK will be well-advised to rejoin!