Battle in Print: Postmodern Europe: the silent revolution

Marc Glendening, 1 October 2006

There is one thing that the minority of us that are swivel-eyed about European integration, whether for or against, agree about, and that is that it is the existential political issue of our times. It’s about where ultimate law and decision-making power is located, the structure of the institutions that will govern us, the extent to which those agencies will be accountable, and which political community we as citizens consent to be governed by.

The attempt to establish a Brussels-based system of government represents a major challenge to the principal political outcome of the European Enlightenment and modernism, namely the liberal democratic nation state. Here, again, there is a high degree of agreement between those of us who seek to defend this legacy and some in the intellectual vanguard of the EU project. Anthony Giddens, the main articulator of the Third Way, and Robert Cooper, the EU’s Director-General of External and Politico-Military Affairs (and before that Tony Blair’s chief Europe policy adviser) both claim that the EU represents a qualitatively different type of governance. Cooper is right to describe the emerging European system as ‘postmodern’, and he hopes that it will go on to impose a ‘liberal imperialism’ on the ‘pre-modern’ world (Cooper 7.4.2002). Giddens sees the transnationalisation of politics as a form of ‘fuzzy sovereignty’ and ‘cosmopolitan democracy’ in which the jurisdiction of Brussels and the UN ‘should extend widely over relations between states and their citizens’ (Giddens 1998: 146). Giddens maintains that the Enlightenment’s faith in the power of reason to improve the human condition has been shown to be false. We are now experiencing a Runaway World, to quote the title of his recent book, and transnational government is needed to control the disruption that globalisation is causing.

The ‘Euro postmodernists’ contend that the nation state is past its sell-by date, both too small to deal with the big issues in the era of globalisation and global warming, and too big and overbearing to deal with the small, local stuff. Hence the need for a multilayered system with supreme power residing with supranational agencies.

Those of us who might be described as ‘national-modernists’ argue that the transnational government Giddens and Cooper aspire to makes democratic accountability impossible and is incapable of dealing with the problems that they identify. It does not follow that by highlighting issues that transcend national boundaries the solution is self-evidently to hand over legislative power to necessarily remote supranational agencies. The EU’s record regarding environmental protection, third world poverty and trade policy leaves a lot to be desired, we would argue. In any case, the logic of new technology and the current era is decentralisation, diversity and speed of response. Size matters, but not in the outdated way Giddens and Cooper think it does. Clanking, over-centralised bureaucracies won’t cut it in a rapidly changing and unpredictable world. The postmodern political structures they want to see intensified will only serve to further entrench the new elite and end up taking us back to pre-modern power relations.

To the great majority who find the European debate about as stimulating as CelebrityLove Island, the above claim concerning the significance of the Europe debate may appear exaggerated. The EU-uninterested, however, might be surprised to learn of the extent to which Brussels now shapes the political landscape. While the British government has refused to put a figure on the percentage of laws that are the product of EU directives and regulations (which are legally binding on member states, EU law being legally supreme), the German justice ministry did so in May 2005, in response to a parliamentary question from Johannes Singhammer. Out of 23,167 legislative acts passed in Germany since 1998, nearly 19,000 originated from EU measures, or approximately 80 per cent.

The full political implications of the incremental transfer of law-making power to Brussels from member states since 1956 has, at least in Britain, escaped most voters. Most still see Westminster as the key citadel of power. This is why the debate over many issues has an utterly unreal quality. Rhetoric no longer relates to objective reality. Take the question of railway privatisation, for example. Some on the left still talk as if it is possible to reintegrate the system, when in reality this is precluded by EU directive 91/440 and the 1992 Railway Regulations that orders the separation of rolling stock from infrastructure. An important issue has thus effectively been removed from domestic political dispute. Mark Leonard of the European Commission-funded Centre for European Reform accurately analyses the reason why most voters have only a limited comprehension of the silent revolution that is taking place:

Europe’s power is easy to miss. Like an ‘invisible hand’, it operates through the shell of traditional structures. The British House of Commons, the law courts are still here, but they have all become agents of the European Union implementing European law…Europe can take over countries without necessarily becoming a target for hostility. Europe’s invisibility allows it to spread influence. Europe lacks a leader, being a network of centres of power that are united by common policies and goals (Leonard 2005).

So, as Leonard explains, the particular way in which European integration is taking place is undermining the transparency necessary for democratic government. Politics, as in pre-Enlightenment times, is becoming a thing of great mystery again (‘fuzzy’ to use Giddens’ own term). We are not sure where power lies, who is responsible for doing what, and how to influence government. The growing power of the EU is only one manifestation of the retreat from modernist accountability. The representative institutions of the nation state are quietly being hollowed out. At the national level, quangos and the rising number of statutory instruments and enabling acts are enabling ministers and unelected officials to make policy without consulting elected representatives. The Human Rights Act is turning judges into policy makers through their subjective interpretations of vaguely drafted articles.

National parliamentarians find themselves enmeshed in an ever-growing number of international treaty obligations. The creation of the International Criminal Court and the issuing of public declarations in relation to aspects of member states’ domestic policies are possible indications of the UN’s ultimate aspirations.

Eurosceptics are wrong, therefore, to see the EU as a fiendish and stand alone foreign plot designed to enslave their own democracies. It is part of a bigger picture and involves national political elites coming together in order to restrict the scope for popular participation locally. Supranational government should be understood, as John Laughland (22.1.2002) has argued, in terms of the activities of a cartel. By transferring powers to Brussels and other international bodies, real political debate can be by-passed at home. Measures can be enacted that would be difficult to get past the voters. While the Euro postmodernists rhetorically profess great commitment to democratic values and human rights, the reality is that a section of the political class now sees entrusting the masses with the vote as extremely dangerous. Hence the widespread opposition to giving ordinary Europeans a direct say on the EU Constitution and the hysterical response to the ‘No’ votes in France and Holland. Neil Kinnock called these verdicts ‘a triumph for ignorance’; Chris Bryant MP, chair of the Labour Movement for Europe, said: ‘Although a referendum might be appropriate for Pop Idol it is unsuitable for examining a treaty’. Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the constitution’s author, speaking in London after the referendum, said that the result will be overturned and that, in any case, it was not really a rejection of it. Robert Copper, when speaking at the Battle of Ideas 2005, caused a certain amount of surprise when he said that one of the problems with the EU was that it was ‘too democratic’.

There are, to be fair, Pan-Europeanists in the modernist tradition to be found, with impeccable democratic credentials, primarily on the fringes of the European Movement (particularly in Italy) and within the Young European Federalists. They argue honestly for the creation of a transparent superstate. Some of them rejoiced at the defeat of Giscard’s constitution and believe that the peoples of our continent must first be persuaded to redefine themselves as Europeans before the process of political union can be taken to its ultimate conclusion. This argument goes to the heart of the matter and a key idea associated with the European Enlightenment: namely, that communities of people should be free from colonial rule and able to define for themselves the political units within which they want to be organised. Legitimate and stable government depends upon conscious consent and an overarching politico-cultural underpinning. Political identity can, of course, change over time. Scots may one day opt for independence, just as, conversely, many German speakers once came to adhere to a larger common conception of statehood. What is important is that political superstructures must be a reflection of mass changes of consciousness rather than a sinister top-down attempt to engineer a new sense of adherence.

The Euro postmodernists, in contrast to the idealistic federalists, are unconcerned about establishing the basis for consent before establishing a central body taking the most important decisions. And so they refuse to engage in an honest discussion about the objective implications of concentrating ever more law-making powers in Brussels. They fear the kind of response they received in France and Holland last year. For them, in true postmodern form, the representation of reality is more important than its empirical content. They simultaneously argue that the EU must be more than a mere free trade area (otherwise how can they explain the need for Brussels to legislate in areas that go way beyond imports and exports?) but nevertheless less than an actual state in the process of being created. Giddens says, rather conveniently, that the EU is almost impossible to define, as it is ‘pioneering forms of governance that do not fit any traditional mould’ (Giddens 1998: 32). Cooper writes confusingly that it has ‘become a highly developed system for mutual interference in each other’s domestic affairs, right down to beer and sausages’, but goes on to assert that ‘the dream of a European state is one left from a previous age’ (Cooper 7.4.2002). Anything to avoid the ‘s’ word. So what precisely does Cooper see as being the physical mechanisms and capacities by which Brussels is going to enforce its decisions, ranging from the permitted curvature and dimensions of the bratwurst to the invasion of failed ‘pre-modern’ states?

The question of whether or not the EU is evolving into a state is not an arcane matter of concern primarily to academics and hacks, but relates to which authority should have the ultimate real-world capacity to force ordinary Europeans to obey particular laws and support decisions such as going to war. The imposition of one-size-fits-all measures on peoples who have not, as yet, given their conscious consent to the creation of a single government risks further disconnecting the citizen from the political process. Is it really conceivable that the EU can or should shape a collective response to the impending pensions crisis, the Middle East, immigration, the restructuring of public services, and other key issues, without first gaining the consent to do so? Disconnecting the political process from the citizens of Europe still further is potentially very dangerous at a time when hard and unpopular policies will have to be made by politicians. What does Robert Cooper believe would have been the response on the streets of Paris had the Council of Ministers had the power to order all member states, by qualified majority vote, to participate in the invasion of Iraq?

In the wake of the defeat of the European Constitution, now is the time for a full modern era style, rational debate across the EU about its future direction and as to whether there are alternative, more flexible and modern modes of co-operation. Simply asserting, as chief Commission spokesperson Margot Wallstrom has, that a move away from greater integration runs the risk of another holocaust, or that ‘there is no alternative to this inevitable wave of the future’, will no longer do. But are the Euro postmodernists also keen to get in touch with objective reality and facilitate, and participate in, such a discussion?


Marc Glendening is a freelance writer


Cooper, R. (7.4.2002). The new liberal imperialism. The Observer.

Giddens, A. (1998). The Third Way and the Renewal of Social Democracy. Cambridge, Polity.

Laughland, J. (22.1.2002). ‘The EU and the problems of democracy’. Prepisy Prednasek.

Leonard, M. (2005). Europe’s transformative power. CER Bulletin 40. February/March 2005. Centre for European Reform.

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