Simon Usherwood / May 2016
As Niels Bohr helpfully pointed out, prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future. Of course, Bohr was a physicist rather than a political scientist, and so much more cautious about such things. Sometimes we have to raise our eyes to what might be if we want to decide about how we either get there or avoid going there.
Right now, there’s quite a lot of eye-raising going on in European circles, albeit of the frightened-half-glance variety. A brief reflection on the Dutch referendum, UK’s referendum, on the migration/refugee crisis (with its Turkish dilemmas), on the insipid Eurozone economy and governance, on a Russia that looks less and less manageable and on a US presidential election that might result in all manner of pain all give a strong incentive to look away.
Sadly, as we have to tell our kids, just because you can’t see a problem, it doesn’t mean the problem can’t see you, or that it goes away.
This unwillingness to toughen up and think more constructively about what might be down the road might be understandable, but it’s also unhelpful. Indeed, we could argue that it makes matters worse.
Let’s take the situation I’m most familiar with, namely the UK referendum on EU membership. As part of my work for the ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ programme, I’ve been providing non-partisan information to try and help improve the quality of the debate running up to the 23 June vote.
One of the (many) difficulties in doing this is that the while there is no clarity about what a post-Brexit UK might look like, there’s little more clarity on staying in. For all the challenges I listed above there is no plan or strategy beyond “we’ll have to work something out.”
The problems this causes have been most apparent with the bodging-together of a response to the migration/refugee crisis. Member states and EU institutions have found themselves torn between different imperatives – populism, economics, foreign policy to Syria and Turkey, the EU’s structure – with the result that we end up with an approach that possibly deal with some of the symptoms, but probably none of the causes.
This isn’t to say that a better deal was possible, only that in the absence of a bigger debate about the EU’s future it has been more difficult to know how best to proceed.
The difficulties involved in that kind of prognostication are very clear, but having recently re-read Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” I have been reminded that the very long run of human history is both erratic and grounded in clear incentives and logic.
Diamond argues that the ultimate reason Eurasia has come to dominate the world is by virtue of its geography, which allowed for the easier circulate of things like agriculture, disease resistance and writing, which in turn gave a comparative advantage over other regions. Part of that comparative advantage was the development of larger-scale and more complex political units, which could better exploit resources and over-whelm weaker competitors: in the long-run, bigger, more complex units have demonstrated more value than smaller, simpler ones.
Of course, Diamond rightly points out that not all large units work better. However, his view does tessellate nicely with the dominant view of the EU, namely that its legitimacy is based on its outputs, rather than any sense of belonging among its citizens.
That output legitimacy is weak right now and has been for some time now. That makes it harder to ignore those who question whether it’s still a worthwhile venture. It also begs the question of whether the EU is the best vehicle to achieve those outputs.
Naturally, the tendency is to think about how we make the current system work better. A quick glance around Brussels will produce a bunch of people who’ll tell you just what’s needed to get the EU back on track. Somewhat rarely are those who start by talking about what it is that European states are trying to achieve and only then talk about the structures needed.
The EU is a novel experiment in governance, a test-lab for new forms of cooperation and coordination previously untried. To say that we have got it right first time would be hubristic, at best, and delusional, at worst. Witness the changes that the system has undergone in its shift from the Cold War era to the present, not to mention the changes in the structure of contemporary European society and economy.
If the current problems are not to overwhelm the EU, then there has to be a recasting of debate. That means bringing those who feel excluded back into the discussion, to identify common causes and interests. While we are right to remember that means are important, so too are ends. Only by bringing those back together will we have any hope of finding a lasting reconciliation.