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Fukuyama and Burke on Europe

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19 January 2012 14:15

Regarding Europe's travails, this from Francis Fukuyama gets it just right, I think:

A lot of this discussion is dominated by people in finance and by economists because that is the short-term problem that has faced us, a new recession and the collapse of the European banking systems as a result of Europe’s failure to address politically these kinds of problems.

I don’t want to minimize these problems at all, but in a sense, there is a deeper failure at the European level, a failure in European identity. That is to say, there was never a successful attempt to create a European sense of identity and 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 the different treaties that were signed. The EU in many respects was created as a technocratic exercise done for purposes of economic efficiency. What we can see now is that economic and post-national values are not enough to get people to buy into this community. 

When I hear analysts say that Europe faces a political crisis as much as a financial or economic crisis, my fear is that they use 'politics' in the very narrowest sense, to mean public opinion. They imply that Europe's problems will be overcome if enough European voters can be convinced of the merits of constitutional changes that will deepen the union. But even if that works (and European voters have proven pretty stubborn in the past) it merely defers the real crisis.

Fukuyama, it seems to me, is alluding to the Burkean conservative point that a polity is more than the sum of its laws and government structures but is an ad hoc mixture of traditions, practices and rituals that develops organically over time. You can't make good Europe's political deficit merely by asking the present generation of voters to approve of new governance structures; they might do so, but the public is fickle, and it could change its mind.

Creating effective and legitimate government is more than merely putting structures and laws in place, even if they are approved by voters; it's a generations-long process of building common political traditions, practices and rituals which give an intangible sense of authority to those laws and structures. The effort to create a supra-national European governance structure should, from the beginning, have been a civic project as much as a technocratic one.

The irony is that in the late 18th century, Edmund Burke was able to describe just the kind of European identity that Fukuyama says is now so sorely lacking. Here's RJ Vincent's description of Burke's view:

Europe is virtually one great state 'with some diversity of provincial customs and local establishments'. The nations of Europe share the same Christian religion. The polity and economy of every European country derive from the feudal institutions themselves emanating 'from the old Germanic or Gothic customary'. And the whole was systematized or disciplined by Roman Law. Thus the content, the substance of European society, providing the orders then enclosed by states. But the formation of states caused no social discontinuity. The system of manners and of education remained nearly similar 'in all this quarter of the globe', such that 'no citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it', and the traveller 'never felt himself quite abroad'.

Europe is far more peaceable than in Burke's time, and in a legal sense, anyone carrying an EU passport is not 'abroad', wherever they are within the union. Those are important achievements. Yet, in the less tangible sense of a common European civic culture, could it be that, after six decades of integration, Europe is today further from this 'one great state' than when Burke described it in 1795?

NASA image posted by Flickr user woodleywonderworks.

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