What is Europe about?

And how should it address the trouble it is in?

This post looks at the current European challenges from the viewpoint of three sets of fundamental values that are shown to be intricately interrelated and grounded in European history. Rejection (e.g. because of feelings of deception) or misunderstanding of these inter-relationships leads to confusion about the European project, whereas a more integrated or holistic understanding can reveal their significance.

Philipp Blom         (born 1970) is a German historian and journalist. He was born in Hamburg and studied in Vienna and Oxford. He holds a DPhil in Modern History from Oxford University. He has written about the periods preceding both world wars and about the Enlightenment. Last Friday’s edition of Trouw – a Dutch newspaper – had an interview with him (in Dutch, sorry ;-); Blom has a Dutch mother) about the survival of Europe, almost a century after the publication of Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918/1922), called “pointless”  by Karl Popper, by the way. What follows is by and large inspired by the article, with some additions and interpretations by me, and definitely not a summary.

Europe’s essence             European history, culture and society of the past few centuries are underpinned by three sets of values: Christian, liberal and Enlightened. To keep things simple the arts, science and technology, as well as the classical Greco-Roman, Medieval and Renaissance North and South European influences are not considered here. The Enlightenment values, especially the way they have been expressed by Spinoza (the famous Dutch Jewish philosopher, 1632-1677, who combines in his background and life three worlds), teach freedom of religion, not illogical in the aftermath of the  Dutch War of Independence (1566–1648), which was a bloody, eighty years long revolt against the intolerant religious hegemony of Philip II of Spain, and the last thirty years of which coincided with the Thirty Years’ War of religion elsewhere in Europe. At the time (say from 1600 onwards), The Netherlands were a crucible of religious, cultural, intellectual, legal (remember Hugo Grotius’ Mare Liberum) and commercial freethinking, thus in a way encapsulating not only the Enlightenment values, but also – as a mostly protestant nation – Christian, and – as a maritime world power  – liberal ones.

What's europe about

The point of values      … is that they encourage things that are beneficial to the human project. So the Christian values defend universal human dignity, which implies the acceptance (or even embrace) of human differences, which in turn translates into individual rights, such as equality before the law (well, originally before God of course) and freedom of expression, without which there would have been no respect for dissent and as a consequence no democratic debate to design a suitable legal system for society (and societies) to progress. Freedom of religion may not seem to follow logically from Christian values, but in fact it does, because – at least in The Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom – freedom of religion was necessary to bring peace between Protestants and Catholics. Freedom of religion also follows from The Enlightenment as propounded by Descartes and Spinoza, a dear lesson from centuries of religious prosecution and war, but also a very important lesson in rationality (of the “how can you know for sure” variety). The point of liberal values is of course that they allow free enterprise, free trade and support all the other individual freedoms, directly but – as pointed out by Philipp Blom – also indirectly, because institutions such as democracy or women’s lib or the elimination of child labour all cost money or require the enslavement or exploitation of people’s overseas (This point by Blom is debatable. If things only were that simple ….).

The values affect each other     In surprising ways the various values reinforce or weaken each other. I already mentioned how liberal values allowed the emancipation of groups in Europe (but also contributed to the exploitation of groups in colonies and elsewhere). The legal system designed by democratic institutions protects free enterprise (and of property, including capital, hence capitalism), but also secures individual rights, e.g. for children and the freedom of education (i.e. the right to raise children the way one wants), which in turn led to an educated workforce, which enables enterprises to become more competitive. So, both positive and negative inter-relationships can be distinguished. The complexity of these inter-relationships has increased tremendously over the past decades, which makes it hard to improve the performance of the ‘system as a whole’ and to placate everybody. It also makes it hard to debate the improvement of the system as a whole, which undercuts the effectiveness and credibility of the democratic process, a dangerous development.

Europe’s challenges       … are to some extent the world’s challenges. The main problems are those of global warming, the refugee crisis, and the financial crisis. All of these problems are systemic, wicked problems in their own right that combine to produce the complex problem of the European project. Let’s take the refugee crisis as an example (since I have never written about it). The refugee problem is caused by at least three factors: climate change in the form of long-term droughts (or so I have been told), socio-religious conflicts (Sunni-Shia rift and other forms of religious intolerance, e.g. Sunni-Christian and Sunni-Yezidi), and population growth (how many people can be expected to live in barely industrialized arid countries?). There is no lack of other factors, e.g. European efforts to democratize inherently instable states, low levels of per capita income in combination with rising expectations, a sense of Western exploitation (real or imagined) etc. An additional problem mentioned by Blom is that the three fundamental sets of values on which Europe is based have lost their appeal and are now reduced to a desire to “keep what we have” (or the not-much-of-a-value of growing old comfortably), which seems to be threatened by a large influx of refugees (or not) from the Middle East, Africa and other troubled regions.

A balanced approach      … according to Blom Europe ought to be more humble, especially with regard to human rights, but he doesn’t quite explain how. Let me – not so humbly – take over  from there. The continuing refugee crisis will force Europe to give up its international agenda on human rights (within 10 or 20 years, according to Blom, but much earlier according to the current Austrian minister of foreign affairs and many others). The financial crisis is closely linked to the problems of economic convergence, both within Europe and with the rest of the world, including the USA. European integration poses a problem of democracy. But that in turn is linked to the way European legislation deals with protecting free enterprise in different countries (e.g. it cannot favor France or Germany or Italy over other countries and destroy Greece in the process of ‘globalization’). Global warming is another major problem, where Europe (and other developed nations, including China and Japan) must take the lead, because much of the CO2 in the atmosphere comes from there. All of this is linked up with issues of trade conflicts and exploitation, where exploitation can be considered in the widest possible sense, including that of unemployed or lower class populations in Europe itself.

Framing a system        Opting for the systems approach is a tempting idea for somebody (like me) who is convinced there is no alternative. When I say “no alternative”, I mean of course that there is no alternative to the systems approach, simply because what we are after is overall effectiveness of the system as a whole, although the approach itself is capable of producing any number of alternatives. What I propose (after lightly skimming the first steps of the systems approach only) is a preliminary reframing of the European Essence based on the concept map above. Using the systems tenet of multifinality (=attaining alternative objectives from the same inputs), the European project could be framed (in essence) to have something to do with: (1) economics; (2) democracy; and (3) human future. In the briefest of explanations this means that economics and democracy are intricately related and cannot be dissociated from the three sets of values and  the various freedoms (see concept map). This isn’t to say that this intricate relationship has never been without its problems and conflicts. The point is to address these problems with better overall effectiveness. The ‘human future’ framing attempts to encapsulate the three main challenges facing Europe (and the rest of the world): global warming, refugee flows and financial crises. Global warming is the ultimate and urgent threat to sustainability, the halting of which cannot be delayed, whereas the other two can be perceived as limiting the resolve and resources to address global warming.

Some considerations       The problem is how to design an alternative with some degree of efficacy and effectiveness with a reasonable level of agreement among (almost) everybody involved, since the institutions are failing and so is the legal framework.  It could also be considered that the question turns into one of how to design institutions that are capable of designing a framework that is capable of delivering what is necessary and acceptable, while admitting that nobody will know in advance what the deliverables will look like and how they ought to be distributed among the world’s populations. Some of those deliverables include an end to population growth (at least in some areas, but also globally) and an end to ever increasing energy (and water and other resources) consumption (also in some areas as well as globally). And maintaining a level of prosperity (could be less than what it is now) to secure individual rights (incl. to health and opportunities for happiness?) for the European population without harming those of others. I am not sure if this is very helpful, but perhaps the concept map at least assists in understanding the basic complexity of the ‘problem’.

Some suggestions        Here are some suggestions that could be considered in a possible near future inquiry (contact): (a) develop an agenda for a demographically and financially stable world aimed at economic convergence to avoid losing time for addressing global warming; (b) for some real traction involve as many likeminded nations, groups of nations or regions as possible, including Russia (and Belarus/Ukraine), the USA, large parts of the Commonwealth, the BRICS countries, possibly without C because it is non-democratic; (c) use refugee problem positively by establishing sustainable refugee camps in the regions of conflict with an eye to future convergence, i.e. with proper education (e.g. business skills, religious tolerance, more objective history lessons, notions of population control and carrying capacity, democratic principles), business opportunities (with on-the-job training elsewhere), development into university/polytechnic cities (associated with universities elsewhere); (d) remain on speaking terms with countries that are temporarily unable to co-operate. If necessary occupy parts of failed states or parts of states such as Somalia, Eritrea, Yemen, Afghanistan, northern Mali, Nigeria (?) and Libya to establish sustainable refugee camps with transport infrastructure; (e) apply the full gamut of human rights and refugee treaties in a situation only after economic convergence has been shown to be taking place to a sufficient degree. Until then rather use the principles of the four freedoms (speech, worship, want, fear) to promote and create a minimum level of development for significant economic convergence to start taking root.

A sustainability project        It so happens that the European parliament is legally held to meet in two buildings, one in Brussels and one in Strasbourg. The second building of parliament in Strasbourg is an icon of inefficiency. Not only is it very costly (€ 200 million/year), it is also very time consuming, with members of parliament, their staff and documents shuttling up and down from Brussels, known as “the circus”. It is also making too much of the historical issues between France and Germany as if no other countries were involved in the First and Second World Wars (to the French: “why do you think they were called world wars?”), which in turn leads to silly statements (“If Europe fails, there will be war and power cuts”). It also diverts from the real issues (climate change, economics, refugees). So, stop the circus and give the Strasbourg building another purpose, namely to develop and monitor European sustainability in relation to a global human future. Establish linkages across diverse stakeholders from universities to trade unions, from think tanks to political parties, and from enterprises to civil organizations. And do so from all European countries as well as globally. There is no reason why it cannot be done for half of the current cost, say € 100 million/year, which means the European tax payer saves another € 1 billion every decade and gets something really meaningful in return. It could even save the European project (which has cost over € 1.5 trillion since 2000)  from failure. Worth a bet, I dare say, to see how much the European project can contribute to the human project. And a bet that cannot


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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