On culture and the ‘more Europe’ cliché

Writing for Social Europe, professor Gijs de Vries argues that Europe must reimagine its cultural policies in order to cope with the challenges of our era:

We live in a time of growing intolerance and increasing nationalism. Europe’s social fabric is fraying at the edges. To restore a sense of unity, of trust and direction, and to reconnect minorities and majorities we need to imagine and deliver a common European future. Only if we harness the power of culture can we do so.

Notwithstanding the professor’s lofty language, I feel that culture cannot be reduced to a finite quantity that must be managed between the national and European levels. The EU has the propensity to think of every case as a matter of distributing competences, because that is how it historically accumulates power at its political centre. The formula is simple: a problem is identified where the only viable solution is the generic and all-too-predictable appeal to “more Europe”, for the realisation of “ever-closer Union” in the form of increased competences at the supranational level.

Culture is an area of policy that is hitherto underdeveloped at the European level due to how the Treaties classify it as a matter where the Union has residual functions or else a so-called “supportive competence” (Article 6 TFEU). However, the letter of the law does provide the basis for greater EU involvement, as “The Union shall have competence to carry out actions to support, coordinate or supplement the actions of the Member States”. The issue then is not a matter of ability, but of political calculus: how would the EU benefit from such an initiative and what are the compelling reasons to launch one at present time.

What we learn from the European integration process is that decision-makers adopt a gradualist approach to EU affairs: they wait for things to reach a dead-end, for a crisis to be made manifest, before they interfere with arguments on the necessary involvement of the Union.

As such, integration has always been framed in economistic (not economic) terms of economies of scale. The rationale is of pooling resources, sharing know-how, and harmonising positions across Member States. While plausible, this approach inevitably devolves into an exercise in accounting, where the EU is shown to be the more profitable or business-savvy option regardless of moral considerations.

Unlike the corporate world which is dominated by the hierarchical model of organisation where few are expected and encouraged to make decisions on behalf of many, politics in Europe are in principle underpinned by normative qualities of broad-based participation. There is an expectation to not only conform with democratic etiquette, but to actually make citizens feel like they own the policies which affect their quotidian life.

The EU fails to deliver on this front despite its vaunted “European values” including the surface-level commitment to the connatural principles of subsidiarity, proportionality, and conferral. The reason is the very makeup of its institutional order which forces national governments to engage in intergovernmental bargaining where the balance of power between them defines both the parameters and the substantive features of the given agenda item.

The Union acts in a technocratic fashion with the logic of a business executive because that is all it can do and has ever done. It is a cliché to invoke the bugaboo of nationalism or populism, depending on the specifics, as if it is nationalists/populists who are in charge and are driving the EU forward. Where are these mighty foes in Europe’s centres of power? The European Commission? The European Council or Council of the EU? The Eurogroup? The European Central Bank? The Paris-Berlin tandem? The ineffectual European Parliament? Just where are they hiding?

The inference then is that the source of trouble is not the elite of the Union but its popular base. Which in turn implies that the appeal to instrumentalise yet another area of policy in pursuit of “ever-closer Union” is a thinly disguised attempt by the apparatchiks of the Brussels establishment and their intellectual vanguard to further reinforce their position.

It is frivolous to blame Europe’s woes on political forces that are not determining EU politics. This has been the lazy argument of a complacent broader Left that is slowly but surely forgetting about politics as a distribution of power and control among different classes of people; a Left that is adopting its own brand of banal nationalism, understood as supranationalism. In a misguided attempt to fend off exaggerated threats, it is becoming the apologist of a status quo whose policies have devastated working peoples and have ravaged small businesses in an uneven playing field that favours large multinationals and those who have the resources as well as lack of scruples to engage in cross-border tax avoidance or unethical fiscal engineering.

Meanwhile, disposable incomes are being eroded by galloping inflation (including core inflation). The European Central Bank has been happily pumping oodles of liquidity in the system through a policy that favours those who are closer to the origin of the new money; a policy that contributes to greater inequality and higher concentration of wealth in fewer hands. What is the ECB expecting when it is engendering or reinforcing inflationary pressures on a monumental scale? Liquidity does not simply evaporate. After it creates bubbles in markets that are not tracked by the nominal inflation target (e.g. fine art), it inevitably finds its way to the real economy. We thus suffer the chilling effects of a programme with far-reaching fiscal ramifications that did not spring from a position of widespread popular consensus but was instead devised in the upper echelons of a technocratic power structure.

To the point of leveraging “culture”, we are again presented with the potential praxis of consolidating resources at the supranational level. We are thus blithely ignoring the possibility that what Europe needs to realise its democratic aspirations is devolution of competences or else a redistribution of authority away from its political centre. What good are the much-touted “European values” if they do not inform a daily reality and if they are only used as a pretext to peddle the narrative of the EU apparatus’ built-in benevolence or enlightenment?

Culture, or rather a simulacrum that can fit into the stratagems of political expedience, is being weaponised in an effort to appropriate it from its particular milieu. There is no singular European culture, nor is it desirable to homogenise the cultures of this continent in pursuit of dubious short-term ends. Homogenisation of this sort entails the cultivation of a tenuous meta-narrative of Europeanness, accompanied by the commensurate concentration of competences, which the EU can then assiduously exploit to forward its ambitions.

What makes the broader Left think that granting the Union more means to combat the nationalists/populists will be a net positive for its own priorities? The enemy of my enemy is not always a friend. Only those who did not learn the lessons of history think otherwise. An omnipotent EU is one that can, for example, enforce grinding austerity with greater ease; an EU whose business-centric modus operandi will make it turn culture into yet another market infested with Europe-wide corporate parasites in the fields of cinema, music, and the like.

The Union’s problems are complex and multifaceted. There is a systemic aspect to them in that the very design of the EU creates and amplifies inequalities between and within countries. For as long as we are misdiagnosing the root cause of Europe’s malignancies, we will remain stuck in false dilemmas where we are called to choose between the Eurocratic power fantasy of “more Europe” or some equally unappealing throwback to an imaginary golden age of yesteryear that fills us with “pride and dignity”.

Culture can inspire us to see things from a different perspective: to appreciate diversity in vivo, in its proper context as an expression of locality, not a mere token of tolerance that lives and dies in some legal document. What the broader Left needs is to disinvest from defending the EU as a necessary good. Those kind of idealisations do not benefit anyone but the powers that be. There is a pressing need to recognise that sometimes Europe is part of the problem and that “more Europe” can be detrimental to our everyday social-economic affairs and, indeed, our cultural outlook.