In an October 2017 article titled “A New European Narrative” the New York Review of Books looked at six volumes on the European project and its lost narrative.
The piece opens with a reference to José Manuel Barroso’s 2013 initiative of a “New Narrative for Europe”, and subsequent declaration, “The mind and the body of Europe”. The reason for mentioning the initiative of the former president of the European Commission is that none of the six books reviewed in the piece even remembers Barroso and his project.
In 2011 the research arm of the European Commission produced a policy brief – to which I contributed – suggesting “fairness” as a possible new narrative. Following on work of economists Akerlof and Shiller, we discussed fairness as a moral sentiment (in the sense of Adam Smith), and noted that considerations linked to inequity should not be taken as “correctives” to be applied to an EU agenda dominated by innovation, competitiveness and growth. We observed that “fairness”, or better its perceived opposite1, prevented any meaningful European discourse at a time of crisis.
Such a proposal was in a sense counter-current, as neither the 2010 document for the Europe 2020 project, nor the preceding “Lisbon Strategy” alluded to fairness, and neither did Barroso’s “New Narrative”.
Make the EU “fair”
Coming to the present day, the concluding report from the Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth, held November 16, 2017, in Gothenburg, Sweden, makes generous use of the adjective fair. Not just “fair jobs and growth” but also “fair employment and working conditions” as well as the variant “fair employment and good working conditions” plus “decent jobs and fair working conditions”, “fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems”, and finally, somewhat less reassuringly, “fair mobility”.
It is likely that the UK’s “Brexit” vote, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the threat of a Le Pen presidency in France and the recent electoral progresses of the extreme right in Germany and Austria all played a role in convincing EU leaders that something must be done to contrast the rise of extremisms, populisms and xenophobia, and to show that the EU is fair to its citizens. So how plausible is this call for fairness?
The case of former president Barroso offers a possible key to answer the question. It was he who gave the acceptance speech in Stockholm after the Nobel Prize for peace was awarded to the European Union in 2012. When, after extolling the virtues of peace and culture at the hearth of the EU project, he elected to join the Goldman Sachs investment firm – something the NYRB failed to mention in its article – he conformed to a not-so-new narrative whereby the European institutions are close to corporate interests and prone to regulatory capture, a narrative that would partly explain EU citizens’ distrust of the elites discussed in the NYRB’s article. A well-documented recent book in this respect is Sylvain Laurens’ Lobbyists and Bureaucrats in Brussels.
So what does Europe stand for?
Europeans can be forgiven for being uncertain about what Europe stands for. The European Union always had a double identity: one is that of the Manifesto of Ventotene of Altiero Spinelli (who gives his name to one of the EU parliament buildings in Brussels) and Ernesto Rossi, founded on the end of totalitarianism, and on the dissolution of the nation states into a federal project for the peoples of Europe: nothing less than “the United States of Europe”. The other is that of the Schuman plan – named after one of the fathers of the European project – designed to accommodate German and French production of carbon and steel in a framework that would make commercial wars impossible and that in 1951 resulted in the European Coal and Steel Community, the first European institution.
Today, of the two identities, it is perhaps that of Europe as an economic club the one closer to the citizens’ perceptions. As for the club’s fairness, there is little space for complacency.
The vast chapter of the Union “austerity” polices has seen EU citizens divided among supporters of fiscal rigor – to avoid the so-called moral hazard – and those who would have welcome a “transfer union” – to avoid the harsh medicines inflicted on Latvia and Greece, among others. Even László Andor, a former commissioner of the European Commission, notes how EU rules play as a “reverse Hegelian sequence”:
“First comes the farce, when Germany and France violate the rules, and then the tragedy, when the PIGS fall into the debt trap”.
Talking of farce, it did not help that the same European Commission justified its austerity policies with the theorem from Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff that was subsequently shown to be invalid because of a calculation error – yet the EU didn’t change its policies after the discovery.
Our economic club also had to endure increasing inequality. While more moderate in Europe than in the US or Russia, it goes hand in hand with a systematic tax avoidance and evasion. Rich Europeans can do without paying their taxes, also because a number of EU countries compete with one another to be the most attractive tax haven, and in the process attract taxpayer money from other countries. Luxembourg holds one among the top positions in an international ranking of financial secrecy.
Moral corruption in politics mars several governing parties, and spills into political instability, such as when leaders chose to play the nationalism card to distract voters from their misdemeanours, as it has been argued for Spain and Catalonia.
Much needs to be done in Europe to bring an idea of fairness to the average citizen. We now know that fairness will not come from the market, nor from trade or technology. It can only come from our own direct political action – for example by deliberating on which type of technological progress is desirable. It has been argued that the present EU is unfair by design, by its adherence to an economic model that excludes the will of people and the existence of a society. The “fair” jobs predicated by the Gothenburg summit retrace one of the central themes of the Ventotene manifesto, for a society where “no one would any longer be forced by misery to accept unfair work contracts”. An auspicious sign.
(1) Fairness is better defined in the negative. Adam Smith, in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” thus defines resentment: “Resentment seems to have been given us by nature for a defense, and for a defense only. It is the safeguard of justice and the security of innocence. It prompts us to beat off the mischief which is attempted to be done to us, and to retaliate that which is already done, that the offender may be made to repent his injustice, and that others, through fear of the like punishment, may be terrified from being guilty of the like offence.” From p. 79 of the 2009 edition of Dover Philosophical Classics._