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Excessive pragmatism

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I’m still reading the Cohn-Bendit/Verhofstadt book. So far my diagnosis is that, for a book that I fundamentally agree with, there is a lot there that makes me mad. I will blog more about specific annoyances later, time permitting, but I thought I might start by explaining my problems with the book’s excessive pragmatism.

Here’s the idea: There is no question that the authors, like me, would be arguing for more European integration even if the economy were currently booming. This pamphlet is a classical case of not letting a good crisis go to waste.  This makes the argument seem very insincere. Rather, I would have liked to see them start by making the ideological argument first, switching to pragmatic arguments only in subsequent chapters. (Coincidentally, there’s a column by Floor Rusman in NRC.Next today about these two approaches, although unfortunately it is in Dutch.)

It is the ideological argument that is often missing in contemporary debate, at least on the main public stage. To be sure, books are occasionally written, speeches occasionally given, but they are not aimed at the general public. Instead, the target audience for such efforts is the established circle of pre-existing Eurocrats, Europhiles and Eurosceptics. When European federalists turn their attention towards convincing the general public, doing battle with the Eurosceptics for votes in (European) elections and referendums, they invariably turn to pragmatic arguments about costs and benefits. Even the glorious speech by Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski in Oxford in September falls in this category. Just look at the core of his argument: Eight myths about how England would benefit from leaving the EU. They are:

  • Britain’s trade with the EU is less important than its trade with the outside world.
  • The EU forces Britain to adopt laws on human rights which are contrary in spirit to British tradition.
  • UK is bankrupting itself by funding Europe.
  • The UK is drowning in the EU bureaucracy.
  • The UK is drowning in EU legislation and nasty directives coming from Brussels.
  • The European Commission is a hotbed of socialism.
  • Through its invasive Social Chapter, the EU is preventing  hardworking British people from working longer hours than feckless continentals.
  • New proposals for EU pesticides legislation would ban gardeners from using coffee grounds to tackle slugs.

Instead of arguing that each of these myths is irrelevant, and only as a secondary matter incorrect, Mr. Sikorski responded with a barrage of statistics and other facts. The myths are irrelevant, of course, because even if they were true they would be the will of the peoples of Europe, and since the EU is a democratic organisation, these outcomes could be changed if a sufficient majority of the peoples of Europe so decided. So the real question is how different competences should be assigned to different levels of government. Arguing that no competences whatsoever should be assigned to the EU-level is a tenable position, but not an obvious one. The Eurosceptic interlocutor would be welcome to explain how he or she arrived at such an extreme position.

To be sure, this way of framing the issue is highly ideological, for example because it rules out the possibility that it is somehow illegitimate to aggregate the citizens of the Member States into one big group of EU citizens, whose collective will should drive the outcomes of EU-decision making. Personally, I view people only as individuals, not as inherently part of some metaphysical nation or demos, so I have no problem with varying the scale of the relevant citizenry in this way, but someone else may not adhere to that ideological belief. That is fine. That simply means that we can have a conversation. Only when the basic ideological belief system is established should one proceed to the more pragmatic arguments that are designed to appeal to “swing voters”.

Consider my other main ideological belief system, liberalism (i.e. what the Americans call libertarianism, although I don’t go as far as American libertarians tend to). When arguing with a non-liberal, I like to stress that I consider freedom a bonum in se, something that is good regardless of whether it promotes other good things. Only as a second step do I argue, for example, that economic freedom leads to economic growth, and that a rising tide raises all boats, thus linking liberty with another bonum in se: material prosperity.

In the same way, for all their talk about straight cucumbers and overly profligate Eurocrats, the Nigel Farrages and Daniel Hannans of this world constantly return to the fact that voting is not only an act of individual self-determination, but also an exercise of power over others. They cannot stand the idea that foreigners should have power over Brits, and they don’t mind saying so. A lot. Maybe it is because I grew up right next to an utterly random yet inexplicably 1500 year old border, but I don’t see the point. Why should I be allowed to exercise power over the people in Limburg, who are only my compatriots because the Netherlands accidentally conquered that county during its War of Independence, but not over my fellow Saxons on the other side of the German border? But, as noted, that is a conversation we can have. (And should have.)

Along these lines, the debate about European Integration takes place on two levels, the ideological and the pragmatical. The former convinces only slowly; dreams are not passed on easily. The latter, on the other hand, convinces quickly but shallowly. Pragmatic arguments appeal to the brain, but not to the heart. Friends won in this way are just as easily lost again. To pretend that the ideological argument does not exist is to concede the debate before it even begins. To hide it from view when appealing to the general public is to give credence to their suspicion that the speaker’s true motives are hidden, and that he cannot be trusted. And to claim that ideological thinking about European Integration is somehow illegitimate is just very, very wrong.



One Response to Excessive pragmatism

  1. avatar PAtricia says:

    Your argument is powerful and I agree that the ideological roots of each position should be made clear. Yet I believe a big part of the citizens do not care about that ideological side, they just care about the costs abd benefits results. This at least is what I am observing in Catalonia. It is very interesting to compare the Catalan debate with the UK one. The myths used are exactly the same with different protagonists. It is really sad to see how polititians use populist and nationalist arguments to distract the population from the economic crisis.

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