Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The EU and Its Discontents

 Jakub Wiśniewski

The topic of my little posting today will be quite banal. It is Europe. Are you familiar with limericks of Edward Lear? Here is one:

There was an Old Man who said, 'How

Shall I flee from that horrible cow?

I will sit on this stile,

And continue to smile,

Which may soften the heart of that cow.

I want to say through this poem that we –be us eurocrats, eurofederalists or simply good Europeans – cannot wish away the crisis of the European integration.
I want to put on a mask of a cynic today. There will be more questions than answers in this little blog but isn’t it in the good tradition of Socrates to put everything into doubt? Hope nobody will serve ma a cup of hemlock during lunch.
Imagine a chariot making its way through wilderness. Sparks fly from the iron wheels at every turn. The chariot is drawn by two horses. One is black as coal, the other is white as snow. Foam is at their mouths. The rider tries to keep control but the horses are too wild.
The chariot is us – Europe. The charioteer represents rational Europeans - be them OECD ambassadors or analysts.
One horse is the lustful appetite of national instincts and the other - noble passion of EU idealism.
Is the chariot heading for a crash? Will it tumble from the cliff?
We will need a little help from Sigmund Freud. He has a story to tell about human nature. His words are not happy or cheerful, which rhymes well with the current EU mood.
Freud once said “When you think of me, think of Rembrandt – a little light and a great deal of darkness”.
So what if we look at the EU through his lenses? Would he perceive the EU as the collective expression of individual aggression? Would he find it hopelessly ineffective, embattled and besieged?
Let the patient lie down on the couch and let the psychoanalytic session begin.
Freud developed a concept of tripartite self – ego, id and superego. We are divided within ourselves between conflicting sets of motivations and drives, expectations and aspirations. Europe, just like Freud’s patients, is suffering from a common malady that we have termed “the alienated split self.”
Let me go, one by one, through the three parts of European personality.
Policy-makers with their choices and dilemmas constitute the European ego. This part of our personality is realistic, perfectly aware of the following inconvenient truths:
  • [Fact no. 1] As Belgians, Swedes or Slovaks in the wider world, united we stand, divided we fall. European countries are too small a fry to be players at global level.
  • [Fact no. 2] Demography is inexorable and Europe needs immigration. One point four child per family will not keep us around, as civilization, for long. Anyways Fortress Europe as a concept of immigration policy will never work.
  • [Fact no. 3] If we let our neighborhood quietly fester it will come back to export to the EU instability, crime and asylum-seekers.
  • [Fact no. 4] EU institutions are partly dysfunctional because this is how they were deliberately designed – to be helpless in the face of governments.
The ego is also the weakest part of identity of our countries. It tries to negotiate and conciliate among the external world, id, and superego, but ultimately it is dominated by the id and superego.
The European id is the bundle of instincts aimed at getting pleasure and avoiding pain. It lives for its own sake. This is the spoiled brat in our self – it is selfish and pleasure-seeking, nationalistic and pandering to primitive moods, antisocial but populist.
What gives pleasure to the id? Let me come up with some examples:
  • Greece bashing (remember certain head of international organization, not the OECD, who – when asked about compassion with Greece – said: I think more of the little kids in a little village in Niger. As far Athens are concerned I think of all the people who are trying to escape tax all the time).
  • Germany bashing (This is not European Germany they want but German Europe)
  • Poland bashing (‘Ex-communist' is synonymous with ‘poor', ‘nasty' and ‘ignorant'). Poles and other Central Europeans frequently lose an opportunity to shut up when the policies in Europe are decided.
And finally:
  • Europe bashing (I want my money back! Europe is making us accept immigrants who transmit diseases).
The beastly id will sometimes apply lipstick to its big mouth so that it looks nicer. Beggar-thy-neighbor policies thus acquire some nicer nicknames such as “the intergovernmental method”. But the ultimate worldview of the id is homo homini lupus (“man is a wolf to man”).
The id inevitably dominates the other parts. It knows no moral value judgments. It is always bubbling there in the innermost EU procedures, institutions, forums. The id is impulsive and domineering.
The ego says to the id, begs it to consider some logical choice - you may have, id, this or this or that. And the id will reply: I want this, and this and that, and I want it now and I want all of it!!!
What does the id tell us to do?
  • To block the External Action Service from any meaningful activity, while paying lip service to its merits.
  • To turn a blind eye when a Member State blocks access of some Member States nationals to its labour market, as long as these are not my compatriots.
  • To negotiate mala fide the EU membership, finding excuses to block the process. (This is a dangerous tactics, mark you: il faut une bonne mémoire après qu’on a menti, as Pierre Corneille once said).
The European superego is a stern parent of our self, the ultimate Eurocrat – making impossible demands developed by socialization. The superego represents conscience and imposes standards of moral perfection that are impossible to attain. It is the id’s main adversary. Its main weapon is guilt (instilled by Fathers of Europe as the main shapers of the superego). The pleasure and reality principles are replaced with the morality principle.
What does the superego want?
  • The EU should speak with one voice.
  • Europe needs to stand by its values.
  • The EU must never go back from the path to ever closer union.
It will make us adopt roadmaps for visa liberalization, it will make us coin nice sound-bites such as “more for more”. The European Commission will write hundreds of communications. We will organize thousands of seminars, conferences on European integration.
This is the scary portrait of our European personality. In this mirror of the EU realpolitik Dorian Grey would look lovely in comparison. As a result the EU mixes idealism with selfishness.
Here the newspeak is useful: we will come up with mobility partnerships that are meant to block mobility, or visa liberalization roadmaps that are aimed to put everything in limbo. Terms like “Coreper” or “Antici” will ensure nobody will understand what we are after anyway. 
What can we do? Let us go back to Sigmund Freud. He describes three ways in which humans cope with suffering:
  • Isolation. One might look for relief in solitude. In this way a country might exit the EU - seek reclusion in the vain hope that EU troubles will not come to bother them.
  • Sublimation. This is the expression of a powerful aggressive impulse in socially acceptable fashion, such as through sports or work. We can let it all hang out in the ball field; through sport of EU negotiations  – be it another treaty change or the Multiannual Financial Framework negotiations or another ordinary European Council summit. We can quarrel for hours, over draft conclusions of the European Council, whether Ukraine or Moldova, in principle, have European vocation or not. All this to little concrete result.
  • Intoxication. This is the crudest kind of palliative that we know. Euro championship finals, Eurovison contests, like alcohol, constitute drowners of cares.
We can also intoxicate ourselves with some useful myths. Here are examples:
    • [Myth no. 1] The EU is undemocratic – once we introduce direct elections for all the EU institutions, our problems will disappear.
    • [Myth no. 2] The EU is an economic giant at global scale. It only needs to flex its muscles more and everyone will stand in awe of our strength. The truth is that the EU more and more resembles the Cheshire cat, who is long gone while its self-confident smile remains.
    • [Myth no. 3] The Cold War having ended, Europe is safe from war, conflict.
    • [Myth no. 4] Every country can ask of the EU all these nice things like structural money or free flow of capital. And there will no strings attached, no price tags, no duties to fulfill.
All three remedies - isolation, sublimation, and intoxication offer temporary respite, at best. Is there a permanent cure for such alienation? What shall we do?
Freud says: we can confront the problem of alienation constructively by raising our consciousness. The remedy is analysis.
(By the way Freud was convinced that analysis is open only to a few. He would say the masses will probably continue on their destructive paths and, perhaps, destroy us all).
We must strive to reinforce our ego so that we will not cave in and surrender to a runaway id or be smothered by the guilt of a suppressive superego. In that struggle, strengthening of the ego is our last best hope in a world fraught with aggression. We need to realize the integration is not about some lofty idea of brotherhood. Nor is it some form of Jurassic Park. It is simply the best way to make Member States thrive. Once we realize this we will start to pose the right questions:
  • Is there an alternative to the Single Market of the EU?
  • Whom should Europe choose as interlocutor in the Middle East – intolerant islamists or dictatorial secularists?
  • Which Russia is more dangerous to itself and to the world – the one that is flush with money from dear oil and eager for military interventions or the one poised for systemic change, whose oil money is not there?
  • Do we welcome Chinese economic activity and financial presence in Europe or are we scared of it?
Civilization and Its Discontents, by Freud, published in 1929, is a magnificent but also terrifying book. It is a reflection of Freud’s horror at the senseless slaughter of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, his own financial difficulties, and his personal fight with cancer. Freud died in 1939. With his perspicacity, he easily would have foreseen the WWII. Not only he would have foreseen it, but he would have understood it. He would not have been surprised.
What does pre-war Europe have to do with Europe of today? As a father of a two year old I listen a lot to French nursery rhymes. There is one that goes like this Ci cette historie vous amuse, nous allons la recommencer; si au contraire, elle vous ennuie, nous allons la répéter. 2015 is not 1939 but, Sigmund Freud would point out, human nature has not changed. All the hell might break lose.

Let the charioteer take full control of the horses before it’s too late. 


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