Europe: decline and fall ?

Demise ? Implosion ? Terminal Illness ? Bloodbath ?

One or two American commentators have seen the future of Europe and it seems grim. Demography, welfare programmes and immigration will combine to produce a sticky end for the old continent, messy and violent. “CIA analysts” are said to predict the collapse of the EU. “Administration officials” are said to subscribe to the view of Europe as “a smugly irritating but irrelevant backwater where the whole powder keg’s about to go up” (to mix a metaphor).

Is this true? Could it be?

Eric Ambler’s “dying civilisation” of the 1930s really was dying: Europe was on the brink of World War II, and a whole continent was lurching towards destruction. But Europe today doesn’t really feel like that. It has ten new members, several of them former communist states, more are waiting to join, it is a magnet for countries like Ukraine and Turkey, and it is the new best friend of the current US administration. Mark Leonard may go a bit far when he says Europe will run the 21st century, but a violent catastrophe seems about as likely in New Hampshire.

Nothing is written, of course, as Lawrence of Arabia might say. But a latter day reverse Alexis de Tocqueville, travelling in a thought experiment from a law firm in the US to report on the progress of democracy in today’s Europe, would surely have a few hopeful things to note, just as the original Tocqueville reported back on the state of democracy in America, and in so doing showed the future to pre-democratic nineteen century Europe.

What might a modern American Tocqueville remark on? He might note that democracy in Europe is alive and well, at least as alive and well as in the US. He might note something more: that this democracy is continental in scale, existing within a regime of checks and balances which transcends national boundaries and allows international problems effectively to be addressed.

He might note that this European system has stopped economic-based disputes, both public and private, from creating conflict in an entire continent. He might consider that this system affronts traditional concepts of national sovereignty, in the sense that it limits the free choice of member states to take action which might harm one another. But also, to balance that, he might note that it provides clear rules, means of redress, judicial oversight and other ways of protecting national and individual liberties. He might also note that, considering the recent history of Spain, Portugal and Greece as well as former Soviet Bloc countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, it actually reinforces democracy.

As a lawyer he might take a look at the proposed European constitutional treaty, and see that it contains a clause allowing any disillusioned member state to withdraw voluntarily, if it wants to.

As a lawyer he might also, if he was versed in anti-trust law, reflect on the fact that in the current takeover battles for the London Stock Exchange, the European ground rules for competition law were in fact written by an American expert from Harvard many years ago, invited by Jean Monnet to contribute the relevant passages in what became the original European Coal and Steel Community.

And, pausing for a moment on the career of Jean Monnet, he might want to recall Monnet’s distinguished record of public service for the Allies in two world wars on both sides of the Atlantic, how US statesman George Ball wrote of the “miracles” wrought by Monnet, and how Monnet’s fondest wish was for a transatlantic partnership between Europe and America, jointly addressing the problems of the modern world.

A modern day Tocqueville might reflect that Europe and America would necessarily bring different capabilities to such a partnership, but that neither can be truly successful without the other. He might consider, as would Monnet, that acting together in the common good is rather more important than point-scoring between factions. He would know already of course that America has ideals, and he might report that so has Europe. He might think that both have a touch of the utopian about them, but that neither is derisory, and nor are they incompatible.

At this point a modern day Tocqueville might even stop and ask himself if the European model of democracy without frontiers might not in fact be a working model for other regions of the world.

He could then speculate as follows.

There is clearly (somewhere) a physical limit to EU enlargement. But it is perfectly possible to codify the essentials of what constitutes the EU system, in such a manner that it could be useful elsewhere. This would entail extracting the most useful parts of both EU legislation and case law, and putting them into a new treaty form for agreement between other signatory states. The basic rules are most developed in the economic sphere, and revolve around various economic freedoms, the abolition of barriers to such freedoms, competition law rules applying to companies, the core principle of non-discrimination (treating like cases alike), and other legal principles providing safeguards, the respect for human rights, dispute resolution and judicial review mechanisms.

The unique feature at the heart of all this is the creation of a regime of common rights and responsibilities, in particular in the economic field, to which not just the member states but individuals and firms within those member states can turn for redress.

A modern day Tocqueville might consider this constitutes nothing less than a transformation of international relations. Economic disputes between countries in Europe have become no longer the source of conflict and war, but instead the material of legal process, which, when judgment is given, in itself then creatively contains the seeds of solutions of future, as yet unknown, disputes.

He might think that the EU system contains a range of innovative institutions which might also be adapted elsewhere. The first common institution was the High Authority for the Coal and Steel Community, because the coal and steel industries were essential to post-war economic reconstruction. The successor institution (today’s European Commission) was originally designed to oversee the development of the common market. The main question in designing institutions to carry out tasks in other parts of the world would be establishing how much autonomy an institution needs to operate over a particular timescale, and how much democratic oversight is needed from associated member states.

Looking around him, a modern day Tocqueville might then go on to consider that the region of the Middle East is an obvious candidate for such an even-handed approach.

He might reflect that oil, for the Middle East, can be compared to coal and steel in post-war Europe: the source of wealth and also the occasion of dispute and conflict. Where once the status of Alsace-Lorraine and the Saar created crises at the heart of Europe, oil today in the Middle East has given rise to war (the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait) and also ethnic and religious tensions linked to the location of reserves, as in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Just as in Europe disputes over cross-border natural resources became meaningless once a new approach was taken, so in the Middle East the creation of a new Oil Community, placing oil production and shipment under common control, would render regional disputes meaningless and provide the impetus to regional unity, giving renewed life to projects like the UAR, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

What would such an Oil Community look like? The market mechanisms, the institutional arrangements and the legal infrastructure exist already. It would require only taking the European blueprint and applying it in a different context.

And what would be required of members of a Middle East Oil Community? Putting in place a regime of common rights and responsibilities would itself create the momentum for the peaceful resolution of other conflicts, the habit of sharing a community of values, and the promotion of human rights. Membership would be demanding, and challenging, but ultimately richly rewarding.

He might think it would be for its members to decide themselves, of course, but a modest revenue-raising mechanism within such a Community could allow wealth to be spread more widely, raising standards of living.

A modern day Tocqueville might remember that exactly such concrete achievements, creating de facto solidarity, lay behind the European experiment, and the long march from war to the democracy which he is reporting on today.

By this point in the thought experiment this modern day Tocqueville might wonder what to call the book he will no doubt write, as successor to his once and future bestseller Democracy in America. “Democracy in Europe” is a possibility, but reflecting on the political objectives of both Europe and America in a new transatlantic partnership, he might instead opt for something more ambitious.

He might choose Democracy in the World.