'Europa, from fear to faith, the potential of a united continent'
By dr Bernard Bot
I thank the Bernard Mandeville Foundation – Erasmus University, Club Rotterdam and the Trustfonds – for the honourable invitation to say a few words about our continent, more specifically the EU, departing from Bernard Mandeville’s body of ideas. My pleasure is the greater for finding myself in a circle in which learning and the business world are amply represented, where theory and practice, as it were, meet and supplement one another. Mandeville would have felt at home here.
Even more so if he could have witnessed the impact of his philosophy on our present-day prosperity, not least in his birthplace Rotterdam. His thinking forms the basis for modern social development. The very vices such as envy, ambition and avarice are crucial to the development of prospering and flourishing societies. These must be channelled however, says Mandeville, through good government and good regulations. Is it not true, though, that individualism, rivalry, power and influence still characterize the present days? One may safely say that the “vice” as interpreted by Mandeville is still rampant. We typically do not act out of virtue, but rather out of self-interest and for love of profit. Or to gain honour and influence, or inversely, to avoid rejection and shame. Self-centred action is a powerful drive for both individual and societal progress. And so it is for nations united in organisations like the EU.
As a side note, Mandeville obviously was not alone in his opinions. He was a child of his time, a man of the Enlightenment and learning. Spinoza, a contemporary, for example brought forward that when man in the first instance applies himself to seeking personal benefit, this will also yield the greatest benefit for the other members in the society. And revolutionary for those days he added: there are no obligations enforced by God upon man and no natural laws other than the desires and cravings of each individual.
Mandeville was fortunate in that the time was ripe to receive such ideas. For we know all too well how often revolutionary visions will fall into oblivion or waste away when there is no fertile soil to take them up, no social acceptance. The tugboat of progress will need heavy hawsers to get the ocean steamer of society moving. When Mandeville wrote his famous fable The Grumbling Hive, Europe found itself in transition. The agricultural economy was rapidly being overtaken by the industrial and commercial societies. Financial markets became the new sources of prosperity and progress. A new approach was needed.
Our time is one of transition, too, from the industrial to the information & technology society. This is why we must ask ourselves again: do we understand and interpret the signals of our time well, does the society as we know it perhaps need a new course. Think of the surprisingly rapid globalisation of the economy and the geopolitical revolution on account of which the West cannot go ahead as it suits itself, of the shift in political power centres. Think also of the demographical changes on our continent, the environmental problems, the surprisingly rapid technological development and the changing roles of governments. As to the latter I’d like to point at the increasing influence in international relations of the so-called “low politics”, of trade, investments and tourism and thus of the businessman, the investor, the banker and the tourist. These drastic changes bring challenges we cannot always readily tackle. I do believe that Mandeville views still can serve as beacons to this end. But they deserve as much to be held against the light critically. The seaway should perhaps be deepened a little even diverted. Or, as the skid control course will teach: “steer into a skid without braking all too abruptly.”
Translated to our continent, it means for me that pure national self-interest can no longer be the only beacon for setting the course. It goes without saying that vices such as seeking power, influence and material prosperity should be tolerated within the European system. But there should be a balance between competition and envy, on the one hand, and collaboration and solidarity on the other. Lack of balance may lead to domination and abuse of power by the stronger and larger members of our society. Virtue, selflessness and solidarity are and remain, in my opinion, indispensable ingredients to cope with challenges and threats of our time. Think of energy shortages and environmental pollution, uncontrollable migrant flows, international criminality and competition from the young emerging economies. I take it we agree that national or even European borders no longer offer protection against these challenges from outside. Be it terrorists seeking to destroy our free democratic society, environmental disasters gnawing at our nature, or infectious diseases dropping in through flying-trips. Our remedies therefore should be border crossing as well. We’ll need to look beyond our naked self-interest, be prepared to give up certain privileges to which we, so it seems at times, purport to have a kind of inalienable right. Here I therefore take some distance from Mandeville’s doctrines.
In fact there need not be a discrepancy between looking after one’s own interest, individual or national, and reinforcement of the international legal order. Business instinct and moral sense, or if you’d rather prefer: the merchant and the vicar, have seamlessly complemented each other for centuries, in Europe and the Netherlands alike.
The time-honoured fundamentals of our Dutch policy – peace, profits and principles – as Joris Voorhoeve put it at the time, remain fully applicable in the European context as well. Assuming that we as EU need more and more compromising to be put in the right in the international arena, we need manoeverability and navigating skill. But it does not rule out visions based on values and principles. The question then is how to communicate these values and principles. By harping upon it or by dialogue? I opt for the dialogue and gladly leave the preaching to others. We must choose, I believe, for an approach that defines the discrepancy between self-interest and altruism, as Mandeville puts it, somewhat differently. Take for example our efforts in the field of development aid. Intended to bring prosperity and security to the poorer parts of the world. Take our human rights policy, aimed at introducing fundamental liberties and democratic values to countries where these notions are not quite self-evident. We proceed convincingly, sometimes prone to a little meddling, yet remain aware that the effects of poverty in other parts of the world, of environmental pollution or violations of human rights, do not stop at the European borders and may erode our own prosperity. Border-crossing measures need to be enforced. One’s own security is served by creating humane conditions and sufficient prosperity elsewhere in the world. A good thing, too, that thus a good share of realism lies at the basis of our policy. This is why we might even classify our idealistic notions under “Realpolitik of the 21st century.”
Apart from this nuancing of Mandeville’s views, yet another aspect deserves attention. Mandeville and his contemporaries recognized that individualism, rivalry and greed should be channelled through good government and rules. At the end of his fable “The Grumbling Hive” he writes: “So Vice is beneficial found, When it's by Justice lopt and bound.” It would follow that individual EU member states may be fierce competitors, measure themselves with each other and keep up their own identities provided they comply with European legislation and administration of justice. The question then may be widened a little. We could ask ourselves whether the issuing of rules by the EU, a community based on standards and values, could perhaps serve as an example for other regional collaborations. The European legislative instruments might also serve as models to solve global problems such as energy shortages, environmental damage, international crime and terrorism. For want of new international rules of play we could easily end up in a new Great Game based on the laws of the jungle. The better the fit with EU rules, the more prosperity for the world community, one would think’. Yet, making new rules only will not suffice. Monitoring compliance with rules is at least equally important. This is why institutions such as the European Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights or the international Criminal Court are so important. Isn’t it true that lack of compliance often leads to a policy of toleration? This, at best, creates uncertainty for the people – or worse, leads to chaos.
Globalisation, for that matter, raises the question whether the world outside Europe is actually convinced of us being right. The headline of a recent article in NRC Handelsblad read: “Comical car will teach the West a lesson.” You’ll realize this refers to the industrial giant TATA having introduced a cheap and much discussed small car. The gist of the story was that the world would do well to open its eyes to the economic world power shift. Focusing on his country, the Indian author wrote: “in spite of all disdain things look very promising for India, particularly when compared with the growth-at-any-cost in China – or, to be honest, the Western world’s negligent heritage control and continuing over consumption.”
Severe reprimands indeed, but the observation certainly deserves further inquiry from us Europeans as fellow heirs of the “negligently controlled heritage.” Have we lost faith in our power to formulate a unanimous, clear answer to the new challenges posed by globalization? Are we busy fooling away our heritage or is the future still brighter than the author is suggesting? I think it is.
Yet this impression of the West is understandable. The new means of communication now also make the poor underdeveloped, and thus the largest section of the world population, note the prosperity, flourishing and security in the Western world. Is it to be wondered at, then, that these images evoke feelings of spite and envy? The Western world is then accused of managing its heritage in a disorganized and inconsiderate manner. And not unimportantly: it is given a warning not to interfere with developments elsewhere in the world. Note the reactions of Russia or China to western criticisms on the democratic level of their administrations, their human rights or safety policies. I could mention many other countries that hold the same views. I’ve introduced these aspects because globalisation from an economic-theoretical perspective in fact should lead to a win-win situation. The so-called BRIC countries in today’s world see spectacular economic development, with the West benefiting of new markets. Everybody therefore should be rubbing their hands with joy. Nevertheless, Western peace of mind is gnawed at.
The Herald Tribune on this subject recently said: ”a corrosive cocktail of factors is eating away at old certainties. Power is steadily leaking from West to East. Income inequalities are rising in rich countries. And signs of protectionist backlash are multiplying as worries about climate change, the rise of state-run investment funds and the bursting of the recent credit bubble give novel ammunition to those in the West who question free markets and clamour for more shelter from globalization.” And then, the verb “somberen” – to be in the dumps – is now popping up all over in the Dutch media.
The question remains how to respond to these rapid developments: as individual countries or rather as European collaboration. In large parts of the world the national state, and not the region or multilateral organisation, is still the predominant frame of reference. Like China, India, Japan, Vietnam or Indonesia. The same holds true for Russia or Brazil. National sovereignty reigns supreme there. Contacts between states are in the best Hobbesian traditions, in the shape of fighting and competition from all against all. For many a member state this creates a dilemma. Will they have their hands tied by European regulations or will they rather opt for a more individual approach? Thus tension is rising between acting on a collective EU level and responding as a national state. After all, the daily trade, financial and cultural contacts are mostly on a bilateral level. This has consequences for the functioning of the EU as a unity because agreements made on a EU level are sometimes felt as pressing.
Closely related to all this is the nature of the current EU alliance. Not a federal state, not a confederation, but a partly supranational, partly transnational alliance. The members have transferred considerable portions of their sovereignty, but retained quite some political power and prerogatives in other areas. Or as Kissinger put it, “Europe is in a state of transition between the past that it’s attempting to shed off behind and the future it has not yet reached.”
This raises the question whether the people may expect more from the EU than just involvement in the technical, commercial, economic and monetary fields. Where joint action is key to withstanding the challenges of globalisation, in the last instance the individual member state is often still authorized to run the show. Take foreign- and defence policy, energy- and environmental policy, and dealing with immigration and immigrants, security and criminality. True, the EU tries to gradually get a better grip on these developments, but is regularly confronted with the sovereign jurisdictions of the individual member states. The new member states, too, are sticklers for maintenance of sovereignty. “After accession the influence of the EU vanishes like a short term anesthetic”, a Romanian professor recently remarked, referring to the new member states.
Perhaps this sort of fear and fidgeting springs from lack of clarity, from insight into what exactly is being fixed up behind the Brussels’ screens. It’s universal: things do not pan out well if people have no insight into how their direct interests are promoted. In the early period the Union was more technically oriented. The amount of national legislation influenced by the European Economic Community was limited and consequently more graspable. It mostly concerned harmonisation of legislation and technical standardisation. Lawn mowers and swimming pool water, corn prices or the shape of the sardine tin. These days it often concerns matters that touch upon more fundamental parts of national sovereignty. Criminal justice and extradition, the environment and immigration, security and the fight against terrorism. Even if people eventually benefit from European rules and regulations in all these areas, things will go wrong if they fail to understand it in this sense. This was clearly demonstrated by the Dutch and French “no” after the referendum. People took a negative stance because they no longer fancied Brussels, failed to understand what the leaders there were up to. They did hear that the Netherlands had been wrongly made a nett-payer, that Brussels as a kind of octopus was hauling in sovereignty without compensating for it by clearly visible benefits. This is how discontent and stagnation develop, as Mandeville has it. The citizen is calculating, true, but quite willing to invest if profit margins are clear. Provided that self-interest is tangible, he is quite ready to accept the idealism. This then brings up the question of European legitimacy. The member states will have to tackle this issue in a less technocratic manner. They will have to demonstrate willingness to provide more transparency, to give account to their own people about their EU policies, in short: more democracy.
It is easy to go on “somberen”, to fall into fatalism or to give credence to europessimistic myths. The question I ask myself is rather: is this fear really justified? And linked to this: how to restore the European citizen’s faith? Let’s have a look at the facts first. In spite of pessimistic comments by the economic Cassandra’s of our time, the EU has been showing steady economic growth for years. The EU is still the largest trade block worldwide, representing one third of global production. The US comes second with a little over one quarter. What about the new giants then, the BRICS, you’ll be wondering? Well, China with its 6 % and India with an even smaller share are not in the same league as the West. Furthermore, in the EU employment levels have risen faster and the budget deficits are lower than in the US. Europe is and will remain a lucrative investment market owing to the stability of our legal systems and attractive, guaranteed gains, to say nothing of the super strong euro. By the standards of the World Economic Forum, the European competitiveness is more than satisfactory. And why not taking some pride in our social services, public health care, disease and disability pay, education and old age provisions? Considering all this, I see no reason for fear, though we must stay alert. The EU clearly has acted as the big booster for all these achievements. This should inspire us to provide Brussels more generously with authority to act on the international scene. So the EU is definitely not a sick old man, as the US recently suggested. It is a healthy person in his fifties who may find faith in the future. Of course it will not suffice to only look back on feats of success achieved in the past. As Churchill asserted, “ the farther we look back in the past, the farther we see ahead in the future”.
A united continent
In order to restore faith and to successfully face up to the challenges of the decades to come, the EU must first and foremost remain alert. Besides, it should be credible for its members. The latter implies there should be room for national initiatives and members’ own responsibility. It’s not for nothing that the EU’s motto is “Unity in Diversity”.
An alert Europe evokes the question what developments Europe is capable of and with what structures and means of power. Projecting future perspectives should start with underlining that an “ever closer Union” concept does not imply we should strive for a federal or super state. The EU as we know it now forms an alliance of national states, each with its own distinct identity. For certain components of their policies – described in the Treaty – members have subjected to supranational decision-making. That is, decision making with qualified majority on the initiative of the Commission and with full involvement of the European Parliament. Next to this, other, and not the least unimportant, components remain subjected to intergovernmental cooperation. Fortunately cooperation is more and more on a EU level. In so doing, concepts like best practices, peer pressure, and benchmarking are becoming more important. All this wonderfully fits in with Mandeville’s philosophy. They emphasize one’s own responsibility and provide sufficient leeway within the EU framework for the individual member states. After all, issues such as education, social security systems, direct taxes, pension schemes and public health care are still largely governed by national decision-making. The Brussels’ octopus might have been worse. People need not immediately fear loss of identity or the vanishing of national icons.
That does not imply that the European cooperation is not in perpetual change, both in structure and substance. A good thing, too, it is a dynamic organisation. - The Lisbon treaty, for example, once ratified will certainly offer the opportunity to explore new avenues. Plans have been made to thoroughly adjust the institutional structure. I myself do not fear for the allegedly dominating role of the new president of the European Council. This board still decides by consensus. The new chairman, however, may ease and stimulate internal cooperation and launch badly needed initiatives. What’s more, the new president may become a recognizable figurehead of Europe and thus incite the citizen’s faith in the European collaboration. Whether this will lead, as some fear, to competition with the president of the Commission partly depends on the new Commission’s tenability. Here, too, the point is, to quote Mandeville, that competition and envy between units may lead to larger prosperity for the collective. Besides, no one will find fault in a smaller size of the future Commission or the new set-up for the chairmanships of Councils of Ministers, the Coreper and the numerous working groups. This will only stimulate continuity and effectiveness of the collaboration. - A second adaptation concerns foreign policy and security. Naturally most observers agree that a common foreign policy and a European defence force would mean a leap forward. No longer would Europe be an economic giant and at the same time a political dwarf. Yet I don’t believe that the time has come for a political Europe in this sense. Even the new High Representative, cum vice-chair of the Commission, will not be able to give it a good turn in this direction. Where sovereignty must be shared, the willingness of the bearers of that sovereignty to share power is essential. It would seem that such willingness is still lacking in most member states. As we see all the time, one’s national foreign policy, in really relevant matters, is often given preference over agreements made on a EU level. Still I should like to make a plea for more coordination and concerted action as a means to tackle the problems of globalization. - Also I don’t believe that a European defence will be much applauded, apart from rigging up a small intervention force. Whyever would Europe need ‘hard power’, we could argue. To compete with the US or Russia? Or, in the wake of the US, to act as a global police officer? There is little need for such interventions now. Yet the EU would do well to develop a strategy that accommodates a modest ‘hard power’ component and a substantial ‘soft power’ component. I foresee, however, that the emphasis will remain on the ‘soft power’ of European diplomacy rather than on the ‘hard power’ of a European army. This nevertheless may achieve quite a lot. The EU through numerous treaties and agreements is linked with the major part of the world, has a many-branched network of representations, and plays key roles in international organisations. The contribution to development aid is impressive. In this way the EU is still able to exert influence and can gain in credibility through silent or public diplomacy or at the international conference table. - A few words on expansion. For the EU to remain a smart player on the international scene it will have to grow. In this context the expression ‘expansion fatigue’ keeps cropping up. We’re faced with the implementation of the new Lisbon treaty, adaptation problems of new member states, completion of the internal market. Candidates, say many European citizens, therefore had better stay in the waiting room for now. I think we should look at expansion from a different perspective. The EU will need more mass to keep up successful competition with countries like China, India and Brazil. Besides, enlargement brings fresh blood and new dynamics, stimulates rivalry and sets the market on edge. Take Turkey, which has met with resistance. Its membership could exert a multiplier effect on spreading a number of our values in the Muslim world. Turkey will be Europe’s gate to the Middle East and other bordering regions that will become the EU’s new neighbours. I dare take it to the next level, making a plea for inviting in countries – on the longer term – that strictly considered are not situated in Europe. If we really intend the EU to be a community of ‘values and standards’ and not primarily a geographically more or less clearly delineated continent, it can only be beneficial if ever more countries were to uphold the same values and standards. At the time of the Treaty of Rome, no one could have envisioned entry of the communist countries of East Europe. In short, opting against expansion means opting against more prosperity, influence and respect for our European continent. - Next a word on immigration policy. Of old, the word immigration evokes feelings of fear and suspicion. Yet demographic trends in many member states point at rapid, inevitable population ageing. Would it not be wise to promote immigration instead, with an eye on the future? I realize this notion calls for a novel approach to this issue, a new policy on selection and adaptation, schooling and integration. It is not amiss to consider new policy, the more so as this sends a clear sign to the world. - Common EU energy policy also requires necessary steps to ensure sufficient and regular supply of fossil fuels. As a prerequisite we must tone down the discrepancy between the bilateral and the multilateral approaches to the energy problem. Otherwise the European Fair Play method will be snowed in by a new Great Game in which the laws of the jungle determine the outcome. So far there is little evidence of a common EU policy. Solidarity and sympathy for each other’s energy requirements resulting in joint negotiations with the big energy suppliers in the world would, I believe, be more effective. For that matter, the same holds true for finding solutions to the big environmental problems.
Notwithstanding all these changes the EU obviously must remain credible for its member states and citizens. In particular there should be room for national initiatives and own responsibility. Saying this I touch upon the theme of subsidiarity. This goes beyond a legalistic principle. Respect voor subsidiarity in the EU framework seamlessly fits in with Mandeville’s philosophy. For mutual rivalry, seeking material interests, and competitive spirit between the member states will create benefits on a community level. In other words: leaving everything to Brussels leads to sloth and indolence, or to disobedience and toleration policy – “to a listless society”, as Mandeville has it. Taking certain matters in one’s own, national, hands may, depending on the situation, give better results.
Thus, even more so than on the transfer of sovereignty to Brussels, I’d like to put the emphasis on the sharing of responsibility. This is even more vital now our continent is seeking answers to questions that cannot always be solved through supranational decision making. It also fits in better with an instrumentalistic rather than an idealistic approach. The existentialists, as The Economist recently pointed out, believe that all Europe’s projects should be aimed at accomplishing a political union. This aim is shared by the federalists striving for a definition of the European “finalité”. But the EU is and remains work under construction, a continual adaptation to rapidly evolving conditions. I’d rather pin my faith to the instrumentalistic approach. Concrete solutions are needed to meet the earlier mentioned threats and challenges. Supranational where agreed upon, intergovernmental where necessary, and national where desirable.
Finally the question whether we indeed could extrapolate the line from Mandeville to modern times and to our continent. I believe that envy and competition between member states will remain strong drives ensuring prosperity within the EU. It must go hand in hand, though, with solidarity and concerted action on an international level. If not, we’ll perish individually. However, the rapid developments in the international community leave us little time for adaptation. As Darwin remarked: To my own surprise it is not the strongest, fastest or largest that survive, but rather the “fittest”. He referred to those species that are best capable of fitting themselves to altered conditions. This applies to our continent as well. We can be proud of what has been achieved – economic growth, the strong euro, and our social security systems. Still we must not shy away from confronting the many new challenges. We’ll have to run faster to keep up with or to outrun the new contenders on the international scene. We have enough active and creative people to ensure smooth adaptation. Let us find solutions in a self-confident manner while seeking for new partnerships. All in all, I don’t believe that Europe is in a bad way. I’m convinced it will be able to face up to the new challenges. If I should ever feel inclined to start a new movement, I would not flinch away from dubbing it “Proud of Europe”.