Ross’s take on Europe and Islam focuses deftly on the democratic deficit behind the Continent’s integration problem:

this political style — forge a consensus among the establishment, and assume you can contain any backlash that develops — is [ . . . ] how the Continent came to accept millions of Muslim immigrants, despite the absence of a popular consensus on the issue, or a plan for how to integrate them.

It seems clear enough that the anti-democratic approach characteristic of Europe’s bureaucratic elites calls into question the legitimacy of its outcomes. But more significant is the degree to which that approach undermines their stability and durability. In our moments of democratic weakness, we flatter ourselves that legitimacy is the foundation of stable, durable institutions. We suppose this to be true because we take the legitimacy conferred by democratic politics to be authoritative. But Europe’s own voters seem bent on reminding us that what’s authoritative isn’t always democratic — or legitimate from a democratic perspective. Europe’s elite-driven unification draws its claims to legitimacy from an entirely different well: the authority of the European Union, which itself in turn draws its authority from the idea of a Europe single and whole.

This idea is almost as old as Europe itself. But implementing it has proven troublesome to say the least. Every person, nation, or movement to exercise the agency of unification has brought tragedy to the Continent — and has failed. European unification today has to be understood as the attempt to satisfy Europe’s fundamental longing by recourse to a brilliant, bizarre fiction: handing over the task of unification to an institutional agent without any true identity, neither personal, national, nor ideological. Indeed, to satisfy this essential identity-less criterion, European unification cannot even be popular.

As uncanny as it all seems to observers across the pond, inclined as they are toward skepticism and pessimism over this European project, Americans should recognize the stakes and the alternative. Europe’s ‘minaret moment’ is illustrative. Though more democracy might have mitigated Europe’s immigration and integration woes, more democracy would surely have left Europe less integrated, more divided, and more directionless than it is today — even less equipped and prepared to handle its shared challenges (and opportunities). With a few exceptions, the nation-states of Europe proved themselves unable to succeed in practice, or even to justify their own existence in theory. Success and justification — stability and durability grounded in authority — required more; and that’s what the European Union has provided. Critics wonder if the EU is enough. The answer is yes, but only if the EU accomplishes the only task that justifies its own existence. And though the voters of Europe have shown a basic interest in proactively marching unification down the field, Europe’s citizens themselves cannot and will not usurp the European project from their identity-less bureaucratic elites. It sounds strange and paradoxical in the extreme, but the likelihood is that European unification cannot become popular in a democratic way until after the fact.

On their own, the voters of Europe have not earned the trust and credibility necessary to mobilize and execute the European project — their own trust and credibility! Europe’s bureaucratic elite must recognize that it is a means to an end, and not an end in itself; but American critics of that elite ought to admit that putting Europe’s future at the disposal of its citizens might well have landed the Continent in even direr straits than it’s in today.

Articles by James Poulos

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