Opinions - 05.01.2017 - 00:00
6 January 2017. New Year’s Eve 2016: While the official Europe of the European Union is about to consign to history a much-maligned year with a genuine sense of relief, 1.100 migrants from southern Africa attempt to scale a fence to reach the Spanish exclave of Ceuta in northern Morocco. The contrast is as crass as it is telling. For many years, conditions have prevailed both in Ceuta and Melilla that make a mockery of the Union’s humanitarian creed. In Brussels, in Paris and Berlin, however, officials appear to look away by habit or by inclination. The purpose of a good New Year’s speech, after all, is to exude optimism and routinely celebrate the values of the European community. Values sell, they are reliable. They combine relevance with moral content. They do not need to be corroborated by arguments. Their validity is presumed. Fiat iustitia!
There is, in fact, nothing to be said against values – not against freedom, not against democracy, nor against human rights. Values provide a sense of direction. They help anchor concrete decisions in the realm of the indisputable. On top, values are helpful vehicles of social and political cohesion as individuals and groups of different perceptions and ideologies can refer to them from their respective points of view. The common European culture of constitutional preambles is a convincing case in point.
More problematic—and much more frustrating—is the fact that the European Union hardly ever manages to get beyond propagating values in its relations to the rest of the world. Will that suffice in the face of global challenges? Whether or not to grant loans, forge alliances, or ratify interventions, can indeed be deduced from abstract values (“we shall not negotiate with Assad”), but the purity of such an attitude invariably comes at a price—and often with consequences that are borne by others.
The political game has its own rules
Making politics without morality is reprehensible. Yet, is it any better to keep moralising without political will? Actors in the political arena do not adhere to the norms of ethics by natural inclination. More often than not, the game of politics is played according to its own set of rules. What matters in this realm is not the actors’ motivation, but the consequences of their decisions. Who has the power to intervene in the social arena, who can impose their will and give things a new turn? Putin is demonstrating this in Syria, Erdogan in Turkey. Think of them what you will, but both know well the ins and outs of the political game.
Values vs. interests? Here is a distinction often dismissed as heuristically untenable. Yet, interests can be named, adjusted and balanced. How does one negotiate, adjust or balance values? Such questions are neither outdated nor trivial. A fixation on values can render blind to interests. Over time, it can result in a loss of credibility. The European Union will reach political maturity once it is capable of producing and displaying a will—and of reconciling that will with the means and resources at its disposal. It is one timeless ambition of the realist school in international relations (including authors such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans J. Morgenthau, George Kennan) to depict good, i.e. prudent politics in line with such criteria. Values are crucial, but mere conviction will not do.
A great, unfinished project
For decades, European states could afford the luxury of pushing a singular project behind a protective shield provided by the United States of America. What has emerged is a truly unique entity specializing in the legal and economic pursuit of international relations. For this feat, the members of the European Union certainly do not have to apologise. They have created a habitat that, imperfect as it may be, excels in more than one way.
What this entity still lacks, however, is a political will beyond the evocation of human rights and the pursuit of market interests. Do not expect it to emerge anytime soon. It took centuries for France and Hungary, for Spain and Sweden to evolve into structures capable of sustained and purposeful action. Since then, old and proud nation states have become member states. Ten, thirty or even sixty years of peaceful coexistence, however, do not suffice to bring forth a European people, let alone a political union.
Can the deficit be remedied? A quick fix there is not – and this in itself is a statement that some may find unacceptable in an age that has internalised the faith in feasibility. Yet, the evolution of identity, the transfer of loyalty, the creation of recognised structures for political decision-making—all of these are not technical problems that can easily be solved through the application of the scientific method. The crude reality in Ceuta and Melilla reminds us of this every day, as does the conspicuous absence of a European security policy worthy of the name.
Christoph Frei is an associate professor of political science at the University of St.Gallen, specialising in international relations.