Misperception and Reality

On "European values"

April 4, 2016

"European values" is a widely-used expression.  Everyone is assumed to know what it means. But what are "European values?" Are they unique to Europe? If so, what is it that makes them special?  Are European values superior to those of other civilizations? When did Europe acquire them? Were they operative during the eras of imperialism and colonialism, slavery, Europe's religious wars, the Inquisition, and the World Wars? 


Upon examination, it turns out that the values which have actually informed the behavior of Europeans over the centuries don't always look good. There have been huge gaps between professed European values and European behavior. European civilization, writes the historical sociologist Robert Nisbet, has been the most violent and bloody of any civilization in history. Europeans have glorified war and conquest, arrogant imperialism (“Carry the White Man’s burden), militant nationalism, and religious intolerance. Fascism, Communism, and the romantic nationalism that led to two catastrophic wars in the last century, are all indigenous products of European civilization.


Do all members of the European Union share European values? If not all, which countries share them and which do not? Charles Grant has pointed out in article in THE GUARDIAN that the “political culture of some of the recent arrivals to the EU leaves much to be desired.” Some politicians in the east and central European states, he writes, “appear to lack democratic (as opposed to demagogic) instincts.” The purging of civil servants who do not toe the party line, installation of unqualified party loyalists in key state agencies and companies, withdrawal of funding from independent-minded NGOs suggest lack of appreciation of value of a pluralistic civil society. Much of the region suffers from inadequate criminal justice and severe corruption. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/mar/25/whyvaluesmatterinawidere 


Americans are proud and self-congratulatory about their democracy. As a typical example, a recent New York Times article called America the "world’s premier democracy." But is America really a democracy, let alone "the world's premier democracy"? Is any country really a democracy? Taken literally, democracy means government by the people. But where do “the people” come anywhere close to actually governing themselves?  In all so-called democracies, it is elites and bureaucrats, our civil servants or uncivil masters who do the actual governing. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/04/opinion/democracy-under-pressure.html 


“Democracy” is what the philosopher W.B. Gallie calls an "essentially-contested concept"– a concept the meaning of which is fundamentally disputed. Most people are content with “representative democracy” as the definition of democracy. Citizens do not literally govern themselves. They elect representatives who do the actual governing, with the citizenry occasionally passing judgment on their performance. Yet few Americans, even specialists on democracy, are comfortable with the question: "What is democracy?" Most do have a simple answer, even if they can't articulate it: “Democracy is what we’ve got in America.” In the Europan Union, “European values” are widely understood to be simply “what Europe has got.” 


Are Americans and Europeans hypocritical, not serious about democracy and European values? Maybe, but not necessarily. Most Americans, Canadians, and Europeans would acknowledge that human beings are imperfect, and that there is no such thing as pure democracy. Most would agree with philosopher Karl Popper that “[w]e live in the freest, most just society that has ever existed."  Democracy and European values are ideals the West strives to realize but is far from having actually realized. Grant, with all his doubts about the democratic status of east and central European countries argues that these countries are more likely to realize these values inside the EU than if left out. Defenders of admitting these countries into the EU despite their imperfect respect for European values would point to progress they are have made in approaching them.   


"Does the West really care about the values to which it pays lip service?, asked former Czech President Vaclav Havel, speaking to the European Parliament. His answer is that yes, they actually do. According to Havel Europe, combining elements of Antiquity, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, has created an array of indisputable values, to which the European Union at least pays lip service. Some would argue that they are just pretty packaging for less palatable norms of behavior. "But aren’t these values what really matter," said Havel, "and are not they, on the contrary, what give direction to all the rest"? 


Europeans and Americans often appear to assume that they already adhere to the values they proclaim, rather than just regarding them as critical standards. At the Munich Security Conference in 2007 Russian President, Vladimir Putin, strongly implied that the West was hypocritical. "In Russia," said Putin, “we are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.” ... “Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions [of the United States] have not resolved any problems … have caused new human tragedies and created new centers of tension. … wars as well as local and regional conflicts have not diminished. … no less people perish in these conflicts - even more are dying than before.” Is he wrong? 


Some might ask: "Who is Putin to teach us about values?" Forgetting Putin as the source, think about his criticisms of the unipolar world presided over by the United States. Is he wrong? Does “the West” actually adhere to European values more faithfully than Russia does? Domestically, despite all the imperfections of the regime in Russia, does Russia really show less respect for European values than do many EU members? Many EU members have problems similar to those for which Russia is constantly criticized, such as corruption, organized crime, politicized justice. Do these EU members really take these problems more seriously than does Russia? Have they really been more successful at overcoming them?  


This leads back to the question: What are “European values”? The history of European Civilization shows how intimately intertwined good and evil have been. As Popper puts it, “the history of power politics is nothing but the history of international crime and mass murder (including, it is true, some of the attempts to suppress them).”  Yes, the history of Europe is a history of war, conquest, and imperialism, yet without conquest, centralization and integration, European civilization would never have reached the heights that it has. What about Austria and Great Britain, both of which Popper loved and respected so much? Could they possibly, by any stretch of the imagination, have become the countries he loved and respected without their histories of international crime and mass murder? There could have been no centralized governments, no modernization, no development, no universal literacy, no industrialization. Christianity, which Popper considered a great civilizing force, was frequently imposed by force.  


What is so special about Europe’s values, as opposed to human values in general? I suggest that it is values associated with individualism and Christianity. Other civilizations have had high ideals of moral, spiritual, and material improvement, quest for virtue, spirituality, and salvation. But individualism is a European invention. It pervades European culture and society and, although it has spread out from Europe to all the world, its origins are uniquely European. Individualism is the driver and common denominator of modernity. It is manifest in political liberalism, protestantism, the Scientific Revolution, capitalism, and rational philosophy. All of these presuppose the values of free and equal autonomous individuals endowed with inalienable rights.  


Individualism, equalitarianism, faith in reason and love of freedom were powerful ideals that emerged in Ancient Greece, and filtered back into Europe during the Renaissance.  Popper wondered why so many of the great thinkers of Ancient Greece were hostile to democracy.  He suggests it was because the individualism that emerged in Ancient Greece was not yet robust enough to support democracy. Given the obvious inequalities among individuals, it was difficult to be optimistic about prospects for democracy. Christianity introduced into European Civilization the idea that all individuals were equal in the sight of God. Without this radical ideal of the fundamental equality of all human beings, it would hardly have been possible to think of universal citizenship.  Writes Popper: [i]t should certainly be emphasized … how much of our Western aims and ends, humanitarianism, freedom, equality, we owe to Christianity.  


The success of the European Union gave rise to the belief, illusory in part, that Europe had at last shed its bad habits while maintaining its greatness.  A deep consensus emerged in Europe that war was no longer acceptable as an instrument of foreign policy.  Traditional enemies and rivals became friends and partners, economic nationalism was overcome, and Europe prospered. The contrast between Western Europe and a neighboring "evil empire" further reinforced belief in the moral superiority of Western Europe. Over the years, integration progressed further. A European Parliament was established, important governmental functions came to be carried out at an all-EU level, and borders became insignificant.  Countries not yet ready for full membership were taken under Europe's wing as Associate Members.   The EU is praised for its Nobel Peace Price and called a “normative power” by political scientists.  


In recent years, however, the European project which generated such hope and enthusiasm, has turned out to be more problematic than expected.  And “European values” is one area in which problems have emerged. European unification, which started out as an eminently practical project gradually acquired a significant idealistic-ideological aspect. This was fueled by the impressive success of earlier stages of European integration. Hopes for enlarging the EU to take in less developed areas of Europe acquired a missionary aspect.  “Am europäischen Wesen soll die Welt genesen”  (the European spirit shall heal the world)–somewhat reminiscent of the German nationalist slogan that emerged after the 1871 unification of Germany.  The world would be a better place if German culture and values were to spread.  


Although a vague ideal of a united Europe was present from the outset, the early stages of European integration did not have much to do with ideals and values. To be sure, the ideal of avoiding another ware was present from the outset, and gave great impetus to integration. However, given the devastation of the war the problem of avoiding war was as down to earth as economics. World War II had produced a deep consensus that such a catastrophe must be prevented from happening again. Realizing that punishing and humiliating Germany after World War I had led to disastrous results, the victors took pains to integrate the defeated Germany into the postwar order. The supranational European Coal and Steel Community, by including Germany, gave European integration a good start and a solid base. This base was reinforced by the Marshall Plan, which further bolstered integration by requiring participating countries to coordinate in order to receive funding.  


Most important to the success of European integration was the economic success that resulted from economci integration. At every step along the way each country watched out for its interests.  Each step towards further integration met with heavy skepticism, opposition, and hard-nosed negotiations.  In 1960 the EFTA was established as a trade bloc-alternative for states that were unable or unwilling to join the European Economic Community (EEC).  Over the years, however, economic logic drove most of the members of the EFTA to seek membership in the EEC.  Again, tough negotiations accompanied each EFTA member’s application to join, with applicants carefully looking out for their national interests.  


As European integration progressed, it took on a more idealistic flavor, inspired by hopes that further integration would lead to a united federated Europe.  Step by step, European integration followed this ideal. In 1985, France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands abolished internal borders. The Maastricht Treaty (1993) introduced European citizenship.  A monetary union was established in 1999. The Treaty of Lisbon (2007) established a more powerful European Parliament, a Council of Ministers, a consolidated legal personality, a long-term President of the European Council and a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The Treaty also adopted a legally-binding Charter of Fundamental Rights. It included policies aimed at free movement of people, goods, services, and capital, legislation in justice and home affairs, and in maintaining common policies on trade, agriculture, fisheries, and regional development.  


Some such idealistic aspects of European integration were more popular, others less.  However, these idealistic aspects of European integration rested ultimately on economic success and a certain consensus regarding ideals.  The European project, the ideal of a united Europe, and tangible fruits of integration, like border-free travel and a common currency were popular. Europeans were proud of the apparent success of the EU, and this is where “European values” started to become a more important part of the picture.  A vague, fluffy European ideology, resting on economic success and the ideal of a united Europe began to emerge.  


This European ideology has been primarily a domain for idealists rather than pragmatists. European ideology became increasingly missionary, moralistic, and hypocritical after the collapse of Communism and the entry of formerly Communist-ruled countries into the EU.  Citizens and leaders of the old EU were proud to share their advanced European civilization with the underdeveloped former Communist countries.  And many citizens of former Communist countries expected some kind of magical transformation through EU association and membership.  They were more than willing to subscribe to "European values," though one may wonder how serious they reflected on the values they were accepting.  


The manner in which former Communist and Soviet states joined the EU differed radically from the formative processes that drove European integration in its earlier stages. The route to membership became bureaucratized and routinized.  To be sure, new applicants could plead for exceptions and softened conditions for entry.  Yet membership was ultimately a matter of take it or leave it.  New members lacked the bargaining clout of the original members of the EEC, as well as of the EFTA states when they eventually sought to join the EEC.  The former Communist countries were satisfied with the fiction that they were equal members of the EU--happy to become what former Czech President, Vaclav Klaus has termed “junior members.”


Some observers believe Europe has lost its dynamism and gone into decay.  The influence of Christianity has been on the decline, Marxism and all other formerly dynamic Western ideologies has been weakening and growing incoherent.  Relativism has been undermining all ideas, ideals, and faiths. Think of how many words expressing key European values sound today: honor, duty, patriotism, valor, faith, devotion, loyalty? "European values" today often appear to be more like ideological formulas than guiding principles that are taken seriously in making moral decisions.  Perhaps the torch has been passing to other, more dynamic parts of the world.  


In country after country simplistic nationalisms, like those Europeans believed they had left behind after World War II, have been gaining force. Disappointment has been growing in some of the new EU members among citizens and leaders who had higher expectations of what membership would bring. Hostility towards the EU bureaucracy has been growing, and the habit of blaming any bad news on Brussels is becoming increasingly entrenched. And relations among European partners have grown increasingly quarrelsome.  


Farage gets cheers in the EU parlament https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwbEMVsGFJg

Nigel Farage shows Barroso the true state of the European Union https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHg05AsOfW4

Le Pen vs Hollande at the European Parliament https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cz4AjgPwPvk

Le Pen: I admire 'cool head' Putin's resistance to West's new Cold War https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UM2UKKmX8do


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