[Viewpoint] Monnet’s ghost

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[Viewpoint] Monnet’s ghost

Some fine ideas are rather like a beautiful object with a time bomb inside. The ideal of a unified Europe, though not designed to explode, could well disintegrate nonetheless. To understand why, it helps to revisit the intellectual origins of the European Union.

One of its main architects, Jean Monnet, a French diplomat and economist, spent much of World War II in Washington as a negotiator for the European allies. After Germany’s fall, he was convinced only a united

Europe could prevent another war in the West. “There will be no peace in Europe,” he wrote in his memoir,
“if states are reconstituted on the basis of national sovereignty.”

Almost everyone on the European Continent, exhausted by war, and faced with the shattered institutions of their ravaged nation-states, agreed. Only the victorious British, with their old institutions more or less intact, voiced skepticism, not so much about Continental unity as about their own participation in it.

Of course, the ideal of a united Europe is much older than Monnet’s scheme. If not as old as ancient Rome, it certainly goes as far back as the tenth-century Holy Roman Empire. Since then, the European ideal has gone through many changes, but two themes remained constant.
One ideal was of a unified Christendom, with Europe at its core. The Duke of Sully (1559-1641) conceived of a Christian European republic, which the Turks could join only if they converted to Christianity.

The other ideal was eternal peace. In 1713, another Catholic Frenchman, Charles-Irénée Castel, abbé de Saint-Pierre, published “Project for Perpetual Peace in Europe.” There would be a European senate, a European army and the big member states would have equal voting rights.

The European ideal has parallels in other parts of the world. Chinese rulers, to this day, have been obsessed with central control, Continental unity and social harmony — that is, a society without political conflict. The idea that people’s interests can and do naturally conflict is not readily admissible. Mao’s idea of permanent revolution was an aberration in Chinese political thought.

It is not hard to imagine why the idea of a borderless, peaceful world in which political divisions and conflicts were overcome was deeply appealing after WWII. Many blamed nationalism as the ultimate evil that had nearly destroyed Europe.

Monnet was a born technocrat, who hated political conflict and almost made a fetish of unity. (In 1940, when Hitler seemed indomitable, Monnet suggested to Winston Churchill that France and Britain might be rolled into one country.)

Like all technocrats, Monnet was also a born planner. In this, too, he was a man of his time. Many people believed already before the war that economies and societies should be planned as much as possible. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was one example; so, in a much more sinister way, was the fascist state. And
so, still, is China, ruled by engineers and other faceless technocrats.

The post-1945 ideal of a united Europe was very much a planner’s archetype, a technocratic Utopia. And, certainly for Monnet and the other founders of postwar Europe, it was an entirely benign, noble, ideal.

The problem with technocrats, however, is that they tend to be oblivious to the political consequences of their own plans.

Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, is a case in point. Her recent statement that she feels no sympathy for the suffering Greeks, because they should have paid their taxes, has been widely criticized for being not just unfeeling, but hypocritical (as a diplomat she pays no taxes herself). In fact, it is the typical sentiment of a technocrat who lacks political sense.

Crippling economic austerity, imposed by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels and Washington, is not only a social calamity; it is also poses a dangerous threat to democracy. When people lose faith in democratic institutions to protect them, they will reach for extremism.

Technocracy, it seems, can work well as long as most people feel that they are benefiting materially, as was true in Europe for almost 50 years, and might still be true in China. But its legitimacy cracks as soon as a crisis erupts. Europe is feeling the consequences today. Who knows what might happen in China tomorrow.

*The author is a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College.

by Ian Bruma

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