February 24th, or what binds Europeans together?

Michael Wilkinson compares how Europe is responding to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to European responses to the Iraq war and the multiple crises it faced in the last 20 years. Will this new war bind Europeans together, and will this make Europe more, or less, democratic?

In reflecting on the anti-war protests across the continent on February 15th 2003, Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida famously put aside their philosophical differences and launched a joint initiative for the birth of the European public sphere. They attempted to breathe life into the project by contrasting Europe with the US, a version of Robert Kagan’s ‘Americans are from Mars, Europeans from Venus’, in the hope that the peace protests might inspire a pan-European movement of solidarity and generate momentum towards political union. Like so many others in the story of European integration, that hope came to nothing. Not long after, the ill-fated Constitutional Treaty of 2005 signalled the disconnect of Europe’s political elites from their peoples, as well as their willingness to carry on regardless when they repackaged its provisions into the Lisbon Treaty. The euro crisis conjuncture then highlighted the authoritarian features of the EU’s arrangements, first in response to the threat posed by Syriza to its ideology of austerity, then in the refugee crisis and most recently the so-called ‘rule of law crisis’. The pandemic response saw a further push towards centralisation, but, once again, without any accompanying democratisation.

In the wake of Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine launched on February 24th 2022, another round of integrationist initiatives looks set to emerge. This time, however, they are bathed in a very different light. Europe must unite around the geopolitical enemy of Russia, and its Putinesque political culture. The previous ‘other’, the authoritarian populists of Hungary and Poland, are swiftly displaced (for the time being) by Putin’s far harsher autocratic regime and the need for unity in times of war. The swiftness of this reversal makes it appear suspicious, opportunistic even. But in reality, it should long have been clear that the contestation between the EU and its authoritarian populists was more rhetorical than real.

It is no surprise that in a climate of fear and insecurity, many seek a new integrationist agenda as something to cling onto. But conflict can unite (as well as divide) in highly problematic ways. Flag-waving, jingoism, calls to arms, can quickly turn into intolerance of dissent, if more subtly than in harsh autocratic regimes such as Putin’s. Criticism of NATO, for example, which has always been part of a critical political and theoretical tradition, now risks being summarily dismissed as pro-Russian propaganda. If a new McCarthyism is on the horizon, the EU’s own trajectory could be set to take on a quite distinct but recognisable form, pushing authoritarian liberalism into new areas of politics.

An essay this week in Der Spiegel, discussing the recent decision to increase German defence spending, cites sociologist Ulrich Beck, “There have always been two types of authority in democracy: one comes from the people, and the other is derived from the enemy”. This, of course, is a false dichotomy. There are many more types of authority that must be understood, not least in grasping the EU’s constitutional order, which has been dominated by a version of technocratic and legal authority. But the deeper point is that in uniting through ‘the enemy’, or through other forms of fear, democratic authority itself will be sacrificed, or side-lined along with a tolerance of dissent and a plurality of viewpoints.

More fundamentally, there can be no democratic authority ‘derived from the enemy’. Democratic authority derives from the people themselves. Authority derived ‘from the enemy’ is of a different sort entirely. And its practical impact will also most likely be an increase in executive powers, bound as well as unbound. Integration through militarisation, the very opposite of Habermas and Derrida’s dreams, will not be a route to re-democratisation of the EU, whether this occurs through nation-based initiatives under the auspices of NATO or eventually under the rubric of a European army. This is a domain in which citizens’ voices and parliamentary representation are routinely ignored or bypassed. (One positive consequence of the 2003 anti-war protests in the UK and the associated scale of Tony Blair’s slide from grace that followed was a caution on the part of the ruling class to launch overseas adventures, and the development of a constitutional convention that the House of Commons debate the issue before troops are committed).

2003 was also an era of peak global capitalism, when Russian oligarchs were greeted with open arms, and Putin’s foreign indiscretions ignored, with some notable exceptions. The Habermas-Derrida initiative had come at the height of the disconnect between rulers and ruled, reflected not only in Blair’s ‘new labour’ government and its Iraq disaster, but around Europe. Democracy in the existing EU member states, particularly those who embarked on the experiment of the single currency, was becoming increasingly ‘hollowed out’, in the words of Irish political scientist, Peter Mair. This was in no small part due to the EU’s own notorious democratic deficit, but it was a more general feature of Western government, a feature of what in a recent book I call a soft authoritarian liberalism.

The euphoria of fin de millennium projects such as the single currency and the (failed) Constitutional Treaty perhaps covered over the post-Maastricht cracks. Yet throughout the euro crisis, liberal interventionism would take harsher and more visible forms. The European Court of Justice itself greenlighted highly dubious programmes by the European Central Bank, that in any other context would have been suspected of merely bolstering the political authority of the governing regime. In later iterations of crisis politics, the language of ‘authoritarian populists’ would be co-opted by the European Union’s own Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, suggesting a portfolio for ‘protecting our European way of life’, a move endorsed by Marine le Pen as an ideological victory for her party.

What, then, might alternatively bind Europeans together? A good start could be a serious concern for collective self-determination. The history of NATO membership, ironically, is of the constraints of semi-sovereignty under the auspices of US hegemony; calls for full alignment with NATO policy anyway undermine the claim for regional autonomy. The same voices who now plead for Ukraine’s sovereign rights could barely contain their apoplexy at the UK’s decision to exercise its own in the Brexit referendum. The Catalans can tell their own story.

From the ground up, the openness of the Polish people, and many others around across the world, to immigration from Ukraine has been hugely encouraging. It was reported the other day that the website of a UK scheme for housing refugees crashed when more than 10, 000 households tried to sign up in one hour. These kinds of acts show, yet again, the better judgment of ordinary citizens over governing elites. Let’s hope that this might translate to greater concern for the plight of those in other war-torn countries. It is in acts like these that we might have hope for democracy to be renewed.

Dr Michael Wilkinson is Associate Professor of Law at the LSE Law School.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash. The photo was taken at a protest in Nuremberg, Germany.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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