Tag Archives: European Union

The globalist. A route for the 21st century

I have the honor of having been invited to teach (if that’s the right word) at this year’s Salzburg Global Seminar.

This turns out to have been founded in 1947 by Clemens Heller, a Harvard student native of Salzburg, together with two American colleagues. The idea was to

create at least one small center in which young Europeans from all countries, and of all political convictions, could meet for a month in concrete work under favorable living conditions, and to lay the foundation for a possible permanent center of intellectual discussion in Europe.

This discussion was urgent. Europe lay in ruins. Austria itself, like Germany, was occupied by the Allied troops, and dismembered into four zones: the American, British, French and Soviet Zone. It was not at all clear what path Europe would take. Recent history showed that World Wars could and did ride on each other’s wake – only twenty years of increasingly tense “peace” had separated World War I from World War II. It was becoming clear that Western and Central Europeans were no longer the masters of their own destiny. The Soviet Union and the United States both wanted to shape Europe’s future. Europeans, demoralized and exhausted, could hardly stop them.

But there was one thing they could do. They could use whatever little space was afforded by the competition between the two superpowers to pull together, forge a common vision for the Old Continent, and build the capacity to implement it. This was the Salzburg Seminar’s mission: “a Marshall Plan of the mind”, the ability to imagine a different future as a critical element of recovery. This plan was targeted at young people, with the potential to become leaders in postwar Europe and America.

The mission succeeded. Intellectual stimuli were off the scale: Margaret Mead and Wassily Leontief were among the teachers of the 1947 seminar. Over the decades, as Europe grew more peaceful, integrated, and prosperous, the Seminar shifted from a Euro-American focus to a global one. It is now one of several world-class leadership programs.

We find ourselves at a juncture where places like the Salzburg Global Seminar might look like yesterday’s news. We are informed that nationalism, nativism, exceptionalism, de-humanising of political adversaries, even racism – all concepts that Clemens Heller might have thought buried in the rubble of Third Reich – are back. We are told the “perceptions” of our fellow citizens are as important, and as capable of shaping our world, than the facts of science. The narrative of supremacy by bloodright is powerful (padroni a casa nostra, “lords of our own house”, is the slogan of Italian xenophobic party Lega Nord. It is nonsensical in so many ways that I don’t want to even start breaking it down, but it does work). And a scapegoat is always handy in politics. So, this is the new normal, or at least part of it.

I will not stand for this. It is, simply, nonsense. We have huge problems to solve: safeguard the global environment before the Anthropocene wipes out the last tigers and blackens the coral reefs. Rejuvenate our democracies. Build decent capacity in government (don’t get me started). Steer global population down towards a long-term sustainable level. Figure out a way to live in a world with no “jobs”, and engineer a symbiosis with AIs. Preserve, extend and cherish the glorious tapestry of Earth’s cultures.

The task at hand is enormous. We need everyone, every last person who wants to be a full participant and accepts to contribute to humanity’s adventure on this blue planet, our home.  People, almost all of them, are willing to step in as full participants, and work, and love, and learn from each other. So, with the obvious individual exceptions, I want nation states, border guards, police, clergy, TV anchormen and any bloody idiot that thinks they can make them feel unwelcome to stay out of their way. Inclusion, abolition of borders, freedom of trade and movement are better for everyone. You’d think Europeans, of all people, would know this. Clemens Heller did.

And so do I. I am a globalist. I want to build webs of friendship and love and business partnerships, and I want these webs to span the globe. I want to build global knowledge, to spread far and wide. This is our birthright as humans: contribute to the future of the species, and the planet it inhabits. It is a global goal, and needs a global scope. I vow to oppose any political movement that seeks to prevent well-intentioned people from everywhere to work together towards this goal.

In Europe, this means supporting more, deeper, more irreversible integration; and welcome any transfer of sovereignty from States to the European Union, as long as it can be shown to be beneficial to European citizens, especially the least privileged. It also means supporting welcoming new members into the Union. I vow to do those things, too.

Today, the Salzburg Global Seminar is right where I want to be.

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

Gambling with our souls: why Brexit and the EU’s deal with Turkey are bad ideas.

In collaboration with Anthony Zacharzewski – Translated and reposted from CheFuturo

European leaders have a deal with the Turkish government. It works like this: Syrian refugees cannot go on from Greece into other EU countries. We are sending them back to Turkey instead. For each one we send back, we pick another from Turkish camps and admit her to Europe. Turkey gets a revamping of its EU accession talks, easier visas for Turks coming into Europe, and money. But what does Europe get in return?

Not much, it seems. Policy experts think the one-for-one scheme is unworkable. The Greek state, understaffed after years of austerity, does not have the capacity to deliver it. Aid agencies think it is “inhumane“. The UNHCR questions the credibility of the safeguards intended to protect vulnerable asylum seekers. European diplomats expect the deal to be brought before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Traffickers will likely see an increase in their grim business.

Chances are the scheme won’t work. And if it did, it might make things worse. Not just for those who crossed desert and sea to get stuck in Greece. For Europeans too. Economists have long done the maths and shown that migrants are net contributors to European welfare states (survey). Migrants are on average younger, more educated and more entrepreneurial than natives. For all their disadvantages, Syrians managed to start 415 companies in Turkey in the first two months of 2016. Without migrants, our aging population would soon be unable to support itself (source). Immigration is good for growth, which is why business leaders want more of it.

So, EU leaders have locked themselves in an unworkable deal and a humanitarian disaster. In so doing, they also crippled their own economies. What’s going on here?

The easy answer is: politics. With twenty years of steady growth suddenly brought to a stop and in many places put into reverse, Europe has spawned populist parties – often ethnic nationalists, always anti-government and anti-EU. They target the disgruntled, those who have lost out from the new high-education, high-skill jobs market. The populists draw on resentment, but offer no real change – just the simple, clear and wrong solution to each country’s problems: stop the migrants!

Economic crisis has brought these parties to prominence, but economic growth tomorrow would not cause them to wither, because they draw their real strength from a deeper problem: we have allowed ourselves to forget what Europe is about.

Europe was never about standards – though they support innovation and growth, and give consumers and business confidence. Standards are just a tool to develop the European single market. And the single market itself is just a machine designed to prevent war.

Europe is about peace. Peace initiatives have happened before, but the European Union is self-reinforcing. Over the decades, EU institutions have enabled, and we the people have built, a dense web of relationships. First it was international trade; then education (Erasmus, anyone?); then business partnerships; then thousands and thousands friendships and marriages. War has become unviable, unthinkable.

This was never meant to stop at our borders. Peace and prosperity through trade is also our foreign policy. Countries at our borders like that, so they want in. And we obliged, letting more and more countries in. We wisely invested in the less developed ones, using European funds to upgrade their infrastructure. They rewarded us by blooming into prosperous countries, with solid middle classes eager to buy German cars, Italian design, British financial services. Ireland, then Spain, then Estonia, then Romania.

The caravan still rolls on, beyond Europe’s present borders. The Balkans were at war only twenty years ago. Now they are at peace, and getting prosperous. They like us there, and we like them back. We are good neighbours. We fund highways, libraries and public buildings at a fraction of what a military presence would cost. We have prestige and influence. We can navigate the region speaking English, German, Italian. We can pay in euro everywhere. All countries are getting in the accession queue.

Everybody aspires to be us, because peace, upholding human rights and free trade work. Gun-toting nationalistic empires don’t. Ask the Ukrainians: they could be part of the last old school empire in Europe, Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. But they appear not to want to. When their president signed a treaty with Russia in 2014, they staged a revolution, kicked him out of the country and organised citizen militias to fight pro-Russia paramilitaries in the East.

It’s not just Serbians and Ukrainians. It’s Syrians, Tunisians, Eritreans. Whatever their countries do, people aspire to being a part of our project. This is what Europe is all about; this is our legacy. We are the only polity in the world to have renounced violence and uphold mutual understanding as the way forward. Even at these times of crisis, we are a beacon of hope for humanity.

And that brings us to Brexit. Those uncomfortable Europeans, the British, are going to be asked on 23 June whether they want to stay in the EU or not, and the answer is far from certain. As with those trade links, those Erasmus studies, those romances, Brexit reaches into every part of Europe – all the more effectively because it is taking place in Europe’s most-spoken language.

Much of the debate has been awful, from both sides. The supporters of Britain’s place in the EU seem to have no arguments beyond money, jobs and finance – important, but not enough to make the case for Europe’s wider ambitions and possibilities. Reassurances of the Remain campaign today close off any future development of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Their argument is “vote for Europe, because our Europe has no Schengen, lots of opt-outs, and absolutely no Euro”.

On the other side, the Eurosceptic press are dominated by anti-immigrant populism, and a desire to go back to some imagined time of national unity, monoculture and full employment. Mainstream politicians on the Leave side cannot acknowledge that medium sized nation states have no power in the modern world, so they have have had to construct unrealistic futures, where Britain prospers by slashing regulation, or by creating free trade deals with its former empire, or just by getting those Europeans to do what the Brits say.

This is an attempt – who knows how successful? – to rationalise around an emotional reaction – a love for Parliament, for British democracy, the ‘thousand years of British history’ which a former Labour leader thought the EEC would put to an end. Sovereignty, democracy and national power are slippery concepts. The dry world of European summits and compromises might be more effective power but it is not more romantic power.

The default of the Brussels bubble is to believe that Europe will get there in the end. In mid-euro-crisis, a European politician said “we all know what we have to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected once we’ve done it”. As time has passed, that politician is President of the Commission, governments around the continent have changed – but the Euro remains. Maybe in five years the migration crisis and Brexit will be in the same place – not solved but not quite so present, a memory of a panic.

Maybe not. There is a saying that companies go bankrupt at first slowly, then all at once. Look around Europe and the signs are there that the structures are weakening, the institutions becoming hollowed out, as they are with national politics.

But in that romantic love of the Brexiters, there is an answer to the problem of European politics, and not just in Britain. We have to make Europe something that can be believed in again – not with an emotional allegiance, but as a shared project of construction, based on those principles of freedom, openness and democracy.

You can’t do that by decreeing a European nationalism, commanding a tear in the eye as Ode to Joy plays. Some people feel that now, more may feel it in the future, but it can’t be invented. Instead the connections and the networks of Europe should be celebrated as success not denigrated as failure.

If we fail to do that, what else can we Europeans do? Well, we could follow the lead of the Brexit camp, and focus on being just 28 more nation states. Doable, maybe. But we would be second-rate nation states. Too small. Too old. Too petty. Plagued by low growth, high debt, an ever more aging population, and populist, rancorous politics. A backwater in the coming Asian century.

A peaceful continent for us all to roam freely is our gift the world, what makes us unique. Politicians in the UK and elsewhere, when they talk of breaking this down, or restricting its scope, might gain some short-term consensus and media visibility. But they are gambling with our souls.

Photo: Malachy Browne: murales at The Jungle, a semi-official refugee camp in Calais (France)