Current European politics is infused with laissez-faire economic ideology despite this orientation’s lack of legitimacy given the absence of a meaningful democratic debate on the subject in recent years. Consequently, there is a lack of support and a surplus of uneasiness among the general public. As the European Union slowly slides into a process of disintegration, that realization is still missing among most politicians and opinion makers. Is Europe really failing in its mission?
European elections will be held in May this year. This event will certainly be interesting since it could very well be that Europe is heading towards an important crossroads in its still young history. What hints in that direction is the most recent poll by the European Commission. As it turned out, the six largest countries of the Union showed a spectacular rise in Euroscepticism. For example, nearly 60 percent of the Germans appear not to have any trust in the European Commission anymore; six years ago this statistic peaked at 36 percent. Other countries showed even more extreme results.
This lack of trust is self-inflicted mainly because the European establishment has in recent years (with its focus on laissez-faire economic logic and its rejection of referenda) fully contributed to the erosion of the full meaning of the word “democracy.” The resulting democratic deficit for an institution as powerful as the European Union is nothing short of alarming.
Though, it must be said that when one is purely focused on rational argument it would be nonsense to state that the European Union is slowly disintegrating. The current financial crisis showed, among other things, that there is enough political will among European leaders to continue this project for years to come. But at the same time, this crisis also revealed something else that rational theorists couldn’t predict. Which means that it could very well be that there is another key point hidden in reality that is relevant here: it is not only the rational homo economicus that determines human behaviour, it’s probably the irrational human heart as well. Take that into account and the situation for Europe becomes more dramatic.
Especially, when one is focused on the work of Turkish-American psychologist Muzafer Sherif. Sherif studied solidarity and conflict behaviour between groups. His so-called “Robbers Cave”-experiment became an old-time classic among social psychologists. Basically, it states that groups which live relatively isolated from each other and, at the same time, compete for the same food supplies, will soon find themselves at the brink of war. First stereotypes, dogmas and illusions will erupt and create a negative picture of the competing group, and, ultimately, this will lead to various forms of aggression.
However, it’s not always gloom and doom. If one ensures mutual contact and cooperation in order to solve the problems with resources, solidarity and trust between groups can get a chance – even to the point that one can feel connected with the other group’s members. But crucial for this to happen, is the formulation of an overarching goal that across group boundaries is agreed upon by most participants.
If Sherif really found something essential (and his experiment has been confirmed), then probably the Union is in trouble. After all, the formulation of overarching objectives is pre-eminently a task of the political process – and it is at this point that Europe grossly falls short.
Today, there is nowhere in Brussels a body of citizens or, in the classical Greek sense, a polis that serves as the heart of public debate in which the plural values, needs and convictions, existing among the 450 million Europeans, can be heard and weighed in order to formulate higher objectives.
Take for instance a look at Europe’s three-layered power structure. The European Parliament has far too little political power since Europe’s largest countries make most decisions in the Union. Furthermore, the European Council, the platform where decisions between countries are pre-arranged, is currently dominated by only one country, namely economic powerhouse Germany, and this same council also determines the most influential position in Europe’s daily management, the presidency of the European commission, currently held by Mr. Barroso. Add to this the democratic corruption caused by the lobbying industry and the rejection of referenda, and, as a result, one can seriously doubt that the European system may be labelled “democratic.”
That’s a pity – since basically nothing in reality happens without consequences, as is the case here. Due to this the situation,Europe’s political discourse is not an adequate reflection of the needs and convictions of the populations that constitute the European Union.
At this moment the most striking example of this democratic mismatch is found in Europe’s economic policy. A German-dominated Brussels is almost continuously scaring Europeans by prescribing the dogma of “economic confidence.” Nothing is allowed to harm this “confidence,” which basically means that European politics uncritically indulges the dictates of laissez-faire economics. So one austerity measure follows after another and extremely rich people are getting richer.
It is significant that virtually none of the politicians who are actually pushing the buttons in Brussels (and that’s not a good sign for the democratic process) talk about the historical examples that show the exact opposite orientation. In this respect, it’s relevant to know that more than once in history politicians broke the power of “markets” – without causing apocalyptic economic turmoil.
Take for instance Stephane Hessel, a famous French resistance fighter and co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He described the splitting up of big banks after World War II as follows: “A true democracy, both economically and socially, can only endure when economic and financial feudalism is put to a halt.”
From Hessel’s perspective, Europeans don’t live in a true democracy anymore. He would see the current European project as having degenerated into a project of financial repression. That a truly open debate on this very important subject matter still does not take place, says enough.
There was a time when Europe desperately wanted to learn from its destructive past. The German statesman Konrad Adenauer together with French statesmen Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, the spiritual fathers of the European project, were all very aware of the forces that once pulled Europe apart. For lasting peace, their European project had to serve not only the rational mind, but also the human heart. Or, as Jean Monnet would express the European mission: “We do not form coalitions between States, we are uniting people.”
However, last month, this headline appeared in the newspaper: “Shots fired at German ambassador’s residence in Athens.” It was just a small news report. Nothing big. But, recall Muzafer Sherif findings on group behaviour, and one suddenly sees the possibility of an important, dramatic message hidden inside of it…
Werner de Gruijter is a psychologist and lecturer at Amsterdam University in the Netherlands.