Citizen Kraines: Europe's Identity Crisis: Amidst collapsing scenery the EU will have to confront its schizophrenia

Posted by Michael Kraines

Is Paris burning? The foreboding question that Hitler continuously put to his generals during his occupation of Paris is once again relevant, albeit in a different sense, concerning the state of the European Union. At this juncture, however, the question is posed as the economies of Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, to name only a few, rest helplessly atop the shoulders of the Germans.

The dream of continental unification took one more step toward atrophy on Monday, as European leaders failed to agree on a new, comprehensive solution to bailout the ailing European economies. One could easily have asked the question "Is Europe burning?" on January 16, when Standard & Poors downgraded the credit rating for the European bailout fund from AAA to AA+.  

While the failure of a common European currency (predicted by economists for years) is becoming increasingly obvious, we ought not lose sight of the underlying political challenges that have plagued the European dream from its beginnings. In his recent blog posts on "European Identities," political scientist Francis Fukuyama argues that Europe has never successfully established a sense of identity, "a European sense of citizenship that would define the obligations, responsibilities, duties and rights that Europeans have to one another beyond simply the wording of different treaties that were signed."

Moreover, he rightly argues that the whole European project has been an "elite-driven affair," and that the movement from monetary to fiscal union, bereft of grassroots support, harbors dangerous political consequences.

Indeed, European unification has always entailed a diminution of democracy (e.g., the empowerment of nondemocratic institutions like the one in Brussels, and the notion that some democratically elected national governments must defer to the wills and desires of other democratically elected national governments). The EU has also maintained a policy of continuous expansion, and while professing inclusiveness, has become reticent over the question of accepting countries with a strong Islamic character, such as Turkey.

Yet Europe's political questions run deeper than mere geography: here I invoke the contemporary French theorist Pierre Manent (check out, "A World Beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State"). Manent argues that Europe's "identity crisis" is rooted in an ambiguity within the notion of democracy itself. Because the modern theory of popular representation has allowed democracy to flourish in large republics, some circles still associate democracy with the national form. These are opponents of the EU, people who, like Manent, tend view the EU as an elite-driven affair, or at the very least question its transnational structure.

Conversely, there are others who think that the national form, manifested in birth and language, undermines the subjectivity of the democratic will. Those making this argument might also add that severing the national form ought to appear natural, given what Europe experienced in the past century. 

Thus must Europe wrestle with an enduring human question: Does liberty mean, as Manent writes, "Be free! Do what you will!" or does it mean, "Be yourself! Become what you are!"? Europeans must ultimately choose between individual autonomy and citizenship. Bailout or no bailout, they cannot subordinate politics forever.

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