Europe as Seen from Outer Space

15. 3. 2017

Imagine the following picture. Far, far away in the distant galaxy a group of amused aliens sit in front of their TV. The evening’s highlight is a live broadcast via the Intergalactic Internet from an exotic distant planet called Earth.

The TV shows the dramatic end of a remarkable experiment in a small but self-important region of Earth called Europe. A bold attempt had been made to set up a new form of government—a European “union.” For a long time it worked splendidly. Proud rulers who had previously eyed each other with great suspicion settled their differences and agreed to cooperate in a form of government never previously seen on the planet. A long period of peace and prosperity for much of Europe followed. The political gamble paid off. But at some point mistakes had been made. A new sense of mistrust had grown. The Union frayed, then fragmented.

The aliens are watching all this with great if rather cynical interest. Their own leaders are talking about setting up some sort of new political union. What, if anything, should be learnt from the drastic collapse of this European Union? Because they are so far away, it takes several hundred years for Earth history to reach these aliens, so they’re always a bit behind. They are, of course, watching the end of the first European Union between Poland and Lithuania. It will be a long while before they can watch the response of European leaders to the current eurozone crisis.

When they finally do analyze how we tackled these problems, what will they conclude? That we had been too ambitious, or not ambitious enough? That we had shared too many policies, or too few? Had the whole scheme been flawed in theory? Or merely implemented badly?

I want to try to get back to first principles. Let me address the following questions. Is the European project a hopeless utopia? Where is Europe heading? Where do we, as Poland, want to be? Why does the Visegrád Four matter?

Here is my take on the first question. Is the European project a hopeless day-dream? My answer is no. European integration is a response to the natural needs of countries in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

Let me go back briefly to the days of the French Revolution that started in 1789. This is when the theories of the Enlightenment were at their peak. Revolutionary authorities introduced a series of innovations in public life. For example, each day in the Republican calendar was divided into ten hours, each hour into 100 decimal minutes, and each decimal minute into 100 decimal seconds. Thus an hour was 144 conventional minutes, a minute was 86.4 conventional seconds. The system was unnatural and user-unfriendly.

The Republican calendar months were given new names based on nature, principally having to do with the prevailing weather in and around Paris. According to the Republican calendar we are now in Vendémiaire (from Latin vindemia, month of “grape harvest”). Next week it will turn into Brumaire (from French brume, “fog”). The Problem was that not everybody lives in or around Paris so that the names did not sound natural to many ears. The new calendar was a spectacular failure. Mandatory use of Republican hours and months was officially suspended in April 1795.

By contrast in 1799 the metric system was introduced, along with definitions of the meter and kilogram. This is the “International System of Units”—used today in the great majority of countries in the world. It has been a smashing success. Is this simply a whim of history that meters and kilograms caught on and the Republican months have disappeared into oblivion? The answer is simple. No.

Utopias can turn to the reality provided they make life easier and they stand for some universal idea. In other words they should not represent a view of one pressure group, be it from Paris, Prague or Budapest. In my view the ever closer Union meets these conditions. No. 1—It makes life easier. No. 2—It goes beyond the particular interests of Member States.

Now for the second question. What kind of Europe is emerging? The original architecture of the monetary union suffered from potentially terminal defects. These seem to have been sorted out throughout 2012. Recovery will eventually come. Fiscal consolidation across Europe will bring good results. With growth there will come optimism. The common currency will be back en vogue.

The crisis will have left big scars however, like in a family that has had a nasty quarrel. Some family members possibly will sulk on the side or drift away. It would be sad to see such a close relative of Poland like Britain leave the EU.

Some countries in Europe might even break up into smaller entities. This wouldn’t necessarily be a tragedy, as the divorces can be quiet and clean. And this is a great success of the EU that it provides a good context for family break-ups like this to remain orderly and friendly. Break-ups and exits will concentrate the minds and hearts of those that remain. The EU will be leaner. The goal of continental unity, for now, will be forsaken in the name of greater cohesion.

Europe is going federal before our eyes. For now, deeper integration has bad press as it is clearly happening out of fear of markets. Soon, however it will connect with ordinary citizens again. The next war at Europe’s door—and it will come, whether we want it or not—will remind people how misleading their sense of security had been.

Federalism will not resemble that of the utopias of late. It will be more technical, mechanistic, functional. Multi-speed Europe will become a reality, but in a benign form. With Member States having a choice to opt in or opt out there will be less of an anti-European backlash.

Europe’s strong regional distinction will not be lost. An artificial homo europaeus, an ahistorical and utopian figure will be back where it belongs— in the dustbin of history.

In the eyes of outsiders, Europe will recover its magnetic force. The enlargement agenda will resume, but not before a new institutional set-up has emerged.

Where Do We, as Poland, Want to Be?

I don’t buy the concept beloved by Charles de Gaulle of an “intergovernmental Europe.” I think it is bad for Poland. Let me tell you the following story to illustrate what I mean. A grand duke was visiting Thomas Aquinas in the convent of St. Jacques in Paris. The duke was a rich man and he wanted to offer a gift to the Dominican Order. The two went for a walk along the Left Bank of the Seine and passed by a market where birds in cages were on sale. (I hear that birds are still available on sale there!)

At this point, Thomas said to the duke, “Will you buy me all these birds?”The duke was happy to oblige. Having concluded the transaction he asked what St. Thomas would like to do with all these birds. Thomas replied, “Open the cages. Let the birds free.”

What is the moral of the story? St. Thomas was an Aristotelian. The bird’s nature is to have wings, make use of them, and fly. To deny them this right is to break the law of nature. This is a charming anecdote illustrating Thomas’ teleological philosophy. A creature finds its perfection in its end.

To me Europe, as a concept, as a notion, is based on a unity that—by definition—goes beyond national borders. Asia, Latin America or Africa are all purely geographical entities. I understand why their cooperation is intergovernmental. But Europe’s destiny, with its Greek-Roman heritage and medieval universalism, is to be united.

For Poles, European integration is a goal in itself. We simply believe that the security and prosperity of Poland will only come through the prosperity and security of Europe. It comes as natural for us to be in the inner circle of this multispeed Europe that is emerging.

Faith in Europe does not preclude reason. Reason is indispensable to critically assess the flaws of the current design of the EU and eliminate them.

We will not subscribe to any Union. We would never accept a Europe that is run by the directorate of big countries or one that falls prey to protectionism. For the EU to be truly European it needs to adhere to three European principles:

First, the EU needs to be open. Openness applies to borders, markets and economic policies. Second, only a competitive Europe will make itself heard globally. Competitive drive implies a liberal, flexible model of governance. Third, the EU needs to embrace solidarity as its founding element. Solidarity means a cohesion policy at European level and active welfare states nationally. It can also be a transfer union if the redistribution is accompanied with the necessary alignment of fiscal policies. Solidarity goes two ways—the weak and the small can count on the helping hand of their mightier partners while the strong and big are right to expect responsible behavior. European institutions are a guarantor of this contract.

I do not buy the argument voiced by eurosceptics that Europe can never get truly integrated as it has no demos. As if other federations like the USA were created overnight through the unanimous vote of citizens. Anyway, the European demos is there, hidden under national identities, ready to emerge in the time of need. Democratic legitimacy is an important concern however—with greater powers for European institutions we need to devise mechanisms for oversight from citizens. One way to resolve this issue would be through a bigger role of national parliaments.

Why Does the Visegrád Four Matter?

These days Central Europe rises above the gloom prevalent in many corners of Europe. I believe the region should be more vocal in defining the future of the EU.

In 1986, Timothy Garton Ash wrote that the notion of Central Europe plays an important role “if it reminds an American or British newspaper reader that East Berlin, Prague, and Budapest are not quite in the same position as Kiev or Vladivostok— that Siberia does not begin at Checkpoint Charlie…”

Over the last two decades, Central Europe has been evolving in the Western European imagination; from a terra obscura to the poster child of economic restructuring, from “catching-up” with Europe to acting as one of its architects, from being an object of history to becoming its subject and providers of security.

1956, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1980, 1989—the years of the most dramatic events in the struggle against totalitarian regimes, two of which ended with direct Soviet military intervention—all show that we were capable of changing the course of history of the region and of Europe. The Berlin wall did not collapse, as was suggested many times by the Russians and Westerners alike, as a result of Gorbachev’s perestroika and the Soviet leader’s willingness to end the Cold War rivalry. We in Central Europe removed the first brick from the Wall. We, the peoples of Central Europe, brought the communist system down. To paraphrase Fukuyama’s dictum, the end of history started here, in Central Europe.

Central Europe is getting more important for the following reasons. First, this part of Europe was cured of delusions of grandeur. Hundreds of years of aggression, domination and conquest have taught us bitter lessons. We are able to see the true worth of the European project. Second, our economic clout is growing. Back in the mid-1990s our collective GDP was some 260 billion USD. It is now four times larger, a trillion USD. If we were one country we would be well within the top twenty economic powers on the planet. Germany’s trade with us in the Visegrád Four is greater than its trade with its largest trading partner, France, and almost three times higher than it is with Russia. The euro area average gross government debt as of 2011 was 87%. The Visegrád Four average was 55%. The list could continue.

* * *

In approximately 500 earth years’ time, those distant aliens on the far side of the galaxy will be turning on their TV sets and watching us respond—or not—to our current problems. We don’t know yet what they’ll see. I know what I want them to see. I want them to see Europe getting back on track, taking tough decisions, being bold but also smart. I want them to see a Europe learning from its mistakes—and not making new ones. I want them to see Europe in which Poland and Visegrád Four partners agree on the core principles for more integrated Europe—then work closely together and with other partners to put things right.

Jakub Wiśniewski

Jakub Wiśniewski is the director of the Department of Foreign Policy Strategy of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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