Erasmus students in Oslo

What Hans Magnus Enzensberger does not get about Europe

Advised by my friend Luca Galli, I read Brussels, The Gentle Monster by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. A distinguished poet and author, Enzensberger takes an impassionate look at the historical anomaly of the European Union. The book has three things to offer:

  1. An unusually balanced account of the European project. Enzensberger is a critic, but that does not stop him pointing out the many good things about European institutions: the uncompromising renounce to violence and cohercion, the benevolent attitude, the altruism. Conversely, he has no trouble chastising Brussels for the many things that make it unpopular with some people.
  2. An interesting account of the early days, marked by Churchill and, especially, Jean Monnet. The latter is extremely interesting: a technocrat trying to build peace in postwar France, Monnet seems to have served as the template for the European civil servant, a sort of “Eurocrat Zero”.
  3. A theory that the European Union is fundamentally undemocratic. In a sense it may have to be, because “democracy just does not work at the supranational level”. Policy implication: the EU should “go on a diet”, restricting its sphere of influence as much as possible.

The first two contributions are valuable. However, I think the third – though it does offer an important intuition – is undefensible. Let me elaborate.

  1. States are platforms (unless you are a nationalist). What are states for? Most people do not really care about state institutions, like post offices, standard setting bodies or air traffic control authorities. We care about our loved ones, art, having fun, traveling, making money, whatever gets you and your fellow citizens excited. State institutions are platforms infrastructure. They enable us to live our lives more cheaply and easily. When they work well, they are invisible. Just like your phone’s operating system, you’ll only notice them when they break. Most people do not know or particularly care who runs infrastructure, as long as it works (many Italians think Brussels is better at running them than Rome). I wrote “most people”, because there are people that, on the contrary, deeply care about their states as good in and of themselves. These people are called nationalists. Nationalism does not have a good track record in Europe: more nationalism correlates almost without exception with more wars. You should be very cautious around nationalism. It kills people.
  2. Modern life requires larger platforms than European nation states. As a small (but global) entrepreneur in Europe, I am now struggling with the following problem. If a company in country A wants to hire an employee who resides in country B, it faces quite a lot of complexity, due to the fact that the employee’s salary is taxable in country B. I do not to want to go into the complexities here, but the important point is this: the specifics of doing this depend not on European regulation, but on the bilateral treaty between country A  and country B. This implies that, in a Europe with 28 members, there are are 784 (28 to the power of 2) different legal regimes. If you are trying to hire, or get hired, you see how a European platform would work much better than a plethora of national ones. Nation states are simply not large enough to be efficient – unless they are China, or India, or the US. The last two are federations anyway, so why not us?
  3. The European democratic deficit is caused by member states, not by Brussels. Enzensberger points out flaws in the democratic accountability of European institutions, and he is right. For example, it is illogical, even outrageous that the (elected) European Parliament cannot initiate lawmaking, whereas the Commission (designated by member states) can. So why do we not have more democracy? Why can’t we elect the President of the Commission, why can’t Parliament have a monopoly on lawmaking, enacting a true separation of powers? Because members states do not permit it. And why do they not permit it? Because European-scale full democracy would imply the hollowing out of the power base of national élites. If and when the EU completes its evolution from club of states to a confederal state in its own right, it will no longer need to fall back on member states for its legitimacy. In this sense, Enzensberger is right: where states are involved, no democracy is possible, because states are more interested in their self preservation than in their citizens being part of a fully realized democracy.
  4. Democracy is a failsafe, not a nirvana. I propose that many political thinkers have an idealized, unrealistic take on democracy. Like states, democracy is not good in itself. We need it, because the people running our platforms could grow power-crazy and drag us, through lies, into war, so it’s good to be able to oust them. But, let’s face it, democratic participation is difficult and costly, and often ineffective as a failsafe (Hitler came to power winning elections in 1933). As Enzensberger readily admits, the European Union is doing a very good job of “again and again valiantly taking action against cartels, oligopolies, protectionist dodges and banned subsidies” (many readers will remember Mario Monti’s giant fine to Microsoft for acting as a monopolist). If the EU is good at this, why not let it get on with it? Ideally, let us elect the president of the Commission, so we can oust her if we do not like the work she does. But otherwise, this stuff is not broken, so don’t fix it.
  5. Europe’s mission is not accomplished. According to Enzensberger, we do not need Europe to be more integrated than it already is. Why does he say that? Apparently, because he already knows many people in Europe (“divorced husbands, summer homes, business partners…”). I guess this is enough for him. I hope my example with the 784 different legal regimes for something as simple as hiring a person proves our current level of integration is not enough for everyone.

I may be wrong. But then again, I don’t think I am. In the final part chapter of the book, Enzensberger reports a conversation between himself and an anonymous Eurocrat. The latter can very easily deflect most of Enzensberger’s critiques :

Why on earth do you keep on about the European Union? Why do you avoid talking about Rome, Budapest or Dublin? These national governments are not one whit better! their bureaucracies leave a great deal to be desired. There is no lack of narrow-mindedness and incomprehensible hollow verbiage in one as the other. I won’t even mention the scheming and corruption I encounter every day. Lobbyists, if you’ll allow me to be frank, are like flies, no matter, in your country too [Germany]. Just take a closer look at your tax system, your irrational health and education reform. Everything of which you accuse us, you find again if you look in the 27 different national mirrors of this European Union.

That leaves the problem of the democratic deficit. But that’s fixable, if we accept a reduction of the power of states. Enzensberger’s unforgivable failure (and that of his generation) is that he does not consider this as a possible alternative: he does not even contemplate it. I think Jean Monnet’s culture is a much better ticket for a free, prosperous future.

Photo: Erasmus students in Oslo, by Jose Ramòn Alvarez Suarez

EU_flag_yellow_low

Brexit: we keep building

In 1941, as Hitler’s troops set fire to the continent, Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi and Ursula Hirschmann had been confined by the Italian fascist regime to a small town called Ventotene. And they wrote this:

“The dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties no longer follows the formal line of greater or lesser democracy […]; rather the division falls along the line, very new and substantial, that separates the party members into two groups. The first is made up of those who conceive the essential purpose and goal of struggle as the ancient one, that is, the conquest of national political power […]. The second are those who see the creation of a solid international State as the main purpose; they will direct popular forces toward this goal, and, having won national power, will use it first and foremost as an instrument for achieving international unity.”.[2]

Today is a sad day. But it is not the end. In a far worse situation, Spinelli, Rossi and Hirschmann kept working for a free, peaceful, united Europe. So will I, in love, and for the interest of my Italian-Swedish family, my Belgian residency, my Romanian, German, English, Swedish, Scottish, Icelandic and American business partners. Good luck and a strong hug to all of our friends in the United Kingdom.

We keep building. That’s the way.

Al_Fuori_Campo

Folk’s Law and the return of the Dinosaurs

Even after we all left Modena City Ramblers, Cisco, Giovanni and I have remained friends. We shared things that everyone shares with their friends: dinners, jokes, a few intense discussions.

There is one discussion that keeps resurfacing despite the passing years. What is left of the years we spent, militating in the same band, the 90s of the last century? The antimafia movement. The slaughter of Justices Falcone and Borsellino. The Clean Hands investigation. The first center-left government in Italy’s republican history. Europe, slowly but surely integrating and expanding eastwards. For us (and many others) the discovery of our own ancestral culture, its peasant roots and eternal aspiration to social justice. All these came to pass, and were important. For us, they still are. And yet, they feel so far away in time and way of thinking.

Take me. I left my career in music, and now I work on open government and social innovation. I move between the hacker scene and inter-governmental institutions, between science and radical social practices. No one, in my current crowd, ever speaks of the stories that have made our history (“ours” in the sense of Italians at the threshold of age fifty, and “ours” also in the sense of Cisco’s, Giovanni’s, and mine). I now find these stories difficult to tell. The world has changed in twenty years, so much that they are all but unintelligible. Hell, we were there, and we are not even sure how they ended. Did we win? Did we lose? What is left?

And yet, tell the tale we must. This I have learned in my fifty years of life, twenty-five of them around folk music. When we were young men, Cisco, Giovanni and I hungered for stories. We would harass our older relatives to better understand what went on during World War II and the Nazi occupation of Italy. We would grill our slightly older friends to relive the rebellion of the 1970s through their eyes.

Now we are the older relatives and friends. We have the stories. We have daughters and sons, nieces and nephews, younger friends who want to hear them. Folk’s Law says we have no excuses: we must tell them.

Tell them how? This is easy. Our common language is music. So, Gio has once again embraced his guitar. I am blowing the dust off my accordion. Cisco has taken some time off his solo career. We are making a new album, the first one together in this millennium, and presumably the last.

Giovanni has written a volley of songs. They are beautiful. They are the songs you can write only at this age. He captured the mix of disenchantment and pride that I feel among people of my age, and from my native country. The disenchantment is for the many battles we have fought and lost; the pride is for finding each other still standing, despite everything, scarred but not surrendered. The album will be titled The dynosaurs, because that’s how we feel. Strange creatures from a distant past, who left mysterious footprints in the world in which we all live today. Two old friends from the times of Modena City Ramblers, Kaba Cavazzuti and Massimo Giuntini, help us in their capacity of artistic producers.

Obviously, The dinosaurs will be a project with very little commercial appeal. An acoustic album made by fifty year old men, who do not perform in talent shows? Seriously, who the hell cares. We are not even bothering to go talk to record labels. We will produce it through a crowdfunding campaign, and some of our own money. Folk music saved our lives twenty-five years ago. It’s time we give back.

More information is here (in Italian).