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Visions of Europe

Fergal Lenehan

So nicht, Europa! Die Drei Grossen Fehler der EU, by Jochen Bittner, Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, 288 pp, €14.90, ISBN 978-3423248334

Sanftes Monster Brüssel oder Die Entmündigung Europas, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Suhrkamp, 73 pp, €7, ISBN 978-3518061725

One of the advantages of living abroad is that it sometimes offers one the chance to revisit the ideas and symbols with which one grew up and which actually constitute elements of both a highly personal and a collective view and interpretation of the world. By a collective view here I mean an Irish one: nationality remains, I think, the most dominant collective identity in Ireland. This is not necessarily the case in Germany, particularly among the highly educated, as was revealed to me recently when discussing the Irish situation with a German friend. I casually told him of the large numbers of Irish people emigrating to Canada and Australia in search of work and a new future. He reacted quite angrily, incensed that Irish people could so casually turn their backs on Europe when it was faced with a crisis. I interpreted this as a marker of a strong identification with the vision of a united Europe, a vision that is largely non-functional in an Irish context, where Europe has for the most part appeared as a cash cow that can be pragmatically discarded ‑ and re-embraced – as required. My friend’s view cannot, of course, be described as “typically German”, but it is probably somewhat characteristic of a certain political outlook and social background – that of the highly educated, green-tinged German anti-nationalist. There has generally not been an overabundance of Irish intellectuals engaging in book form with visions or interpretations of Europe; in the German-speaking world this is quite normal.

Yet differing interpretations of what Europe is have certainly featured in Irish political and media discourse since 2008. The Lisbon Treaty debate provided a wide range of visions, from a dystopian, militarised European Union in which, apparently, the facilitation of abortion would take a central position to a benign, caring Europe that would secure Ireland’s economic future. Irish media discourse since the bailout has also been dominated by a vision in which “Europe”, the EU, the European Central Bank and even “the Germans” have often seemed to be interchangeable concepts. The discussion has sometimes been conducted in a highly histrionic language: the EU has, for example, been connected to (presumably financial) “German imperialism” and described as “the Rhenish Franco-German empire” and a “placeless empire” whose most visible symbol was (note the past tense) the single currency.

“Europe” and “European” remain highly ambivalent and often contradictory concepts here, with Irish people often feeling that Europe is somewhere else (“on the continent” perhaps). The European Union, as the most concrete (if only partial) symbol of Europe, remains such a complex and dense institution that highly contradictory interpretations of its very essence are possible and indeed, not necessarily invalid.

The embrace of the European idea by post-World War Two West German politicians and intellectuals did, of course, offer a convenient escape from the national. It offered the chance of a new transnational, trans-European future that would constitute a break from the evils of the national socialist past. For the Rhineland Catholic and first postwar West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, the idea constituted also the reinvigoration of the older romantic concept of the Abendland (the West), which evoked notions of a medieval Carolingian Europe “unified” ambivalently upon the grounds of Catholic faith. More recent politicians and intellectuals, like the former Green party vice-chancellor Joschka Fischer and the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, have sought to connect the idea of Europe with democratic ideals and human rights, with the European “other” often being found across the Atlantic. European identity and the idea of Europe have thus had an emotional resonance in Germany for largely historical reasons and the discussion concerning Europe has often held a central position within intellectual debate. This has been evident again recently, with Habermas notably criticising the ultra-pragmatic Angela Merkel ‑ who makes European-relevant decisions with one eye firmly fixed on her German electorate ‑ for her “Euro-scepticism”. Generational change is also often cited as a reason for a change in orientation among German politicians, with finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a relic of the Helmut Kohl era, generally seen as the only government minister still dedicated to Europe and with a distinct European vision.

German disaffection from the common currency, and from European financial politics in general, has also been growing, as the Berlin correspondent of The Irish Times, Derek Scally, has consistently reported; many Germans feel uneasy about their federal government signing cheques worth billions of euro made out to other member states.

Stitched together from a multiplicity of small states in the late nineteenth century, Germany is still marked by great regional, cultural and social difference. Contemporary German society is also far from immune to poverty. In 2002 the Social Democratic and Green government signed off on the Hartz reforms which established “Hartz IV” – a special package for the long-term unemployed that reduced the costs to the state of social welfare, providing recipients with approximately €350 a month, with a rent allowance of €300. According to recent statistics (from June 2011) 17 per cent of those living in Berlin and 14 per cent of those in Bremen receive Hartz IV, while more than 13 per cent of the residents of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt are deemed to be long-term unemployed. Local city governments in Germany, which have powers of local taxation and whose responsibility it is to finance local services and amenities, are also famously debt-ridden and have had, on a number of occasions, to seek funding from the federal government.

Some younger members of the vast German middle class have also become increasingly alienated. The phrase Generation Praktikum or “Internship Generation” was coined a few years ago to describe the experiences of former students who have been forced to undertake a chain of usually very poorly paid internships, often for a number of years, before finally landing an actual job. Many jobs in Germany are, compared to those available in Ireland in the first years of the new millennium, very poorly paid and usually contract-based. The younger middle classes were also well informed through newspaper and television reports about happenings in Ireland and the “Celtic Tiger” phenomenon. In 2007, a TV documentary on the Franco-German Arte channel on what was sceptically referred to as the “Irish economic miracle” featured a very young Irish banker who, speaking in front of the IFSC in Dublin, told his audience that Germany, and Angela Merkel, were jealous of Ireland’s economic performance.

Increasing popular opposition to the euro, associated now with German politicians handing over vast sums of money to other member states and often fuelled by the anti-southern Europe stereotypes of the Bild tabloid newspaper, is not therefore all that surprising in the context of the vast social problems in German society. Family firms and entrepreneurs have also officially voiced concern and protested recently against the euro politics of the German federal government. A hundred firms, which provide work for 200,000 employees, published a declaration in June 2011, circulated to all members of the Berlin parliament, calling on the federal government to halt their “irresponsible debt politics”, labelling the currency union a “transfer union”. They also asked that an exit from the euro should be made possible. The government, not unreasonably, responded by saying that small businesses, which export largely within the euro zone, had benefited most from the common currency.

German intellectuals still largely remain critically pro-European and pro-EU, the institution being usually seen as an invaluable instrument in the maintenance of Western European trans-state peace since 1945 – a concern that often overrides all others. German intellectual discourse also engages regularly with abstract notions of “Europeanness” and European identity and a number of popular works have recently appeared which offer interpretations and visions of Europe.

For the Swiss-born German-based author Adolf Muschg, providing a positive vision of Europe and the EU is an important moral task. In his 2005 book-length essay Was ist europäisch? (What is European?) he attempts a cultural interpretation of the essence of what it means to be European, while offering a vision for the future. What he calls the “black hole” of the Holocaust retains a position at the centre of European memory and Muschg sees the discourse of European unity as linked to the great overriding failure of Auschwitz. The attempt at unity he sees as representing the movement towards the creation of a civilisation as discourse: discourse here appears to mean a conscious structure of meaning. The metaphor of “ruins” is used to describe the foundations upon which the European institution was created; without this common postwar destruction there would be no present Europe. The postwar European cultural connectors that facilitated union were, he believes, democracy, the social market economy and, to a lesser extent, Christianity, while the presence of a common enemy in the Soviet Union was also crucial. Thus he sees the common experience of World War Two violence and the Holocaust as central to the idea of contemporary Europe and the establishment of a European institution. The whole of European history, he believes, has been marked by division and doubt: for every revolution there has been a counter-revolution, and this “productive doubt”, this plurality of truths, can be used as an instrument upon which to truly unify Europe, creating commonality from division, belief from disbelief. This idea comes very close to the EU rhetoric of unity in diversity, yet remains too abstract to convince in any practical manner. Muschg attempts to give the idea concrete form when arguing that unity based upon cultural diversity has taken a political structure in the federal Swiss system. His central vision of Europe is, thus, an idealised Switzerland of strong cantonal identities, which finds unity in cultural difference and diversity. The Swiss system, he argues, can create a “culture-creating experience” for the whole of Europe.

The historian Wolfgang Schmale tackles similar questions and also provides a vision of Europe in his widely read 2008 publication Geschichte und Zukunft der Europäischen Identität (The History and Future of European Identity). Using well-worn media and post-modern theory he interprets the EU as a medium of interaction and a network that operates in stark contrast to a nation-state. It functions rather as a post-national societal collective offering its peoples participatory opportunities within this network, such as, he argues rather unconvincingly, elections for the European parliament and mobility programmes. Europe does not have a meta-narrative, like a nation-state, but functions rather as a hypertext, being non-essentialist, open-ended and offering a multiplicity of narratives. This abstract argument and vision of Europe, utilising post-modern theory, is not, of course, very original: the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney was already arguing in this fashion in a number of journal and newspaper articles in the 1980s. European memory is also plural, yet is interconnected, Schmale argues, by the common experience of extreme violence inherent to all forms of European cultural memory, especially the Holocaust. As a result of the centrality of the Holocaust to European memory and identity, Europeans, Schmale believes, are especially sensitive to the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities and the centrality of human rights to trans-European thinking represents the combining thread connecting a common European memory. The idea that diverse experience and the memory of extreme violence and the Holocaust might provide a common thread for a European memory and identity is not an invalid one. This has also been evident, to an extent, in Ireland with the success of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and the annual, well-reported commemorations of Holocaust Memorial Day since 2000. Schmale even argues that, since the EU is a network, non-nation-states or parts of nation-states could also be accommodated; he refers directly to the western part of Russia. How this would work in practice is a question he fails to convincingly answer.

One of the most prominent and consistently anti-European Union German public intellectuals is Hans Magnus Enzensberger. A widely respected poet and a prolific left-libertarian essayist, Enzensberger was particularly vocal in the late 1980s when the Maastricht Treaty was in discussion. His 1987 work Ach Europa! mixed essayistic reportage from seven European nation-states and a highly ironic thought experiment setting out what he sees as the dystopian, and failed, European institution of the future fourteen years after Maastricht. Influenced by a cultural interpretation of chaos theory he depicted a Europe of intense cultural and social diversity and perceived any plan for a Brussels-led, centralised European super-state, which he believed was what was suggested by Maastricht, as an overly simplistic folly. In a prominent essay from 1988 called “Brüssel oder Europa” (Brussels or Europe) Enzensberger criticised what he again saw as the European institution’s attempt to impose a centralised, homogenised economically oriented trans-European culture upon the natural cultural complexity and plurality of the continent. In addition he condemned the European institution’s famous “democratic deficit” and its supposed return to non-democratic, pre-constitutional times. He also criticised the way in which the constructed reality of the then EC institutions, and their occupation of European rhetoric, had gained the upper hand on the more concrete and inclusive reality of Europe as a civil society, which also, he argued, included the then Communist bloc.

The now 81-year-old Enzensberger has dusted down and contemporised the core of his late 1980s ideas for the present European crisis and recently published the polemic Sanftes Monster Brüssel oder die Entmündigung Europas (The Gentle Monster that is Brussels or the Disenfranchisement of Europe). The reviewer in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung suggested that all 500 million EU citizens might profitably read Enzensberger’s short essay, which he sees as the German version of Stéphane Hessel’s Indignez-vous! – a short text calling for revolution written by a 93-year-old that has apparently sold more than a million copies in France. The reviewer in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, on the other hand, called on Enzensberger to read the Lisbon Treaty more closely.

The chief bogeymen of Enzensberger’s pessimistic text are the “Eurocrats”, EU politicians and “Brussels” in general, while the inclusive tone evident in the late 1980s is this time absent. Although one could not exactly say that his text is anti-Greek or that, in relation to Greece, he mentions anything that is factually incorrect, he does however argue that the country should never have been allowed into the European institution. This is indeed a surprising argument from the staunchly left-libertarian Enzensberger who in 1988 bemoaned the way in which, as he saw it, the then twelve EC members had completely taken over the rhetoric and language of “Europe” to the exclusion of other states. Enzensberger’s text thus ‑ probably inadvertently ‑ plays into the hands of those elements within the German media that are circulating anti-Greek stereotypes.

Enzensberger kicks off, however, with praise of the European institution. There are very few decades within the history of our part of the earth, he writes, in which peace has dominated. Harmony between the states of the European Union has been a reality since 1945; an anomaly that the continent can be proud of. EU trans-state travel and movement of finance have become trouble-free, the unusual nature of which is evident only to someone who attempted these tasks directly after World War Two. European integration has improved aspects of everyday life, while European co-operation relating to matters that cannot be handled within the confines of the nation-state, such as the control of air space, the problem of over-fishing and the removal of radioactive waste, is necessary and relevant. The Union also has other benefits to offer – one of which is symbolised by a small EU flag in the corner of a sign placed before various projects in all the corners of the European Union. It is, however, the bigger firms that have benefited most from the European Structural and Regional Funds, Enzensberger not incorrectly believes. Yet he still fails to assign to these funds, imperfect and desperately in need of reform though they may be, the relevance they surely deserve as a force for the invigoration of important social projects throughout Europe that otherwise would simply not exist. But we should not, he adds, praise our “Brussels protectors” and our “Brussels guardians” too much. Thus begins Enzensberger’s highly ironic critique of the EU as an unnecessarily paternalistic, gentle, non-violent dictatorship that manages, he believes, to combine hyperliberalism with unambiguous elements of authoritarianism.

Enzensberger ridicules, not unjustifiably, the impenetrable and alienating language of EU legislation. He quotes Charlie McCreevy’s statement (in 2008) that probably only 250 of 4.2 million Irish residents had actually read the Lisbon Treaty and that of those twenty-five, if that, had understood it. He is on more slippery ground, however, when speaking of the authoritarian associations (from the Soviet Union and national socialist Germany) of the term “Commissioner” ‑ a rather forced and shallow argument. Enzensberger quotes EU anti-smoking legislation; the threatening nature of the language of which, he believes, would be more suited to the GDR or again national socialist Germany. The European Commission, he suggests, will not be happy until cigarettes are sold secretly under the counter as pornographic books once were, the EU’s attitude to smoking being linked to the sexual neurosis of the Catholic Church. Thus the Union is indirectly connected to three authoritarian structures at once: a hate object for every political persuasion. This is definitely not Enzensberger’s most subtle text.

The irony is trowelled on thickly in Enzensberger’s libertarian critique of the Union’s involvement in the everyday life of its citizens, which he views as an attempt to crudely homogenise daily life across the continent. Thus, for example, we hear again of the undoubtedly bizarre stipulations on the minimum length and width of condoms, the required measures for cucumbers and regulations regarding light bulbs. The only aspect of life left untouched, he suggests, is that of the creative arts, and it is only a matter of time until we have directives relating to the way in which artists should paint, dance or write. It would seem that Enzensberger is somewhat contradicting himself here: he had earlier pointed out how the EU had improved important aspects of everyday life, regarding, for example, trans-European financial transactions and the control of trans-state air space. The humorous listing of some bizarre yet largely unimportant legislative measures scarcely neutralises the earlier argument.

Enzensberger paints a highly Kafkaesque picture of the multiplicity of European bureaucratic institutions, their various locations throughout the continent, their often very similar nomenclature and the host of confusing abbreviations, which themselves vary, of course, according to language usage, adding further to the confusion. Yet any administrative structure that seeks to serve 500 million citizens is undoubtedly going to be complex. If Enzensberger wishes to see pointless bureaucratic complexity in action he should study the administrative structures in place to serve the health needs of a paltry 4.2 million Irish citizens.

The “Eurocrats” themselves, he believes, who are largely based in Brussels, constitute generally a very capable and highly educated elite; unlike EU politicians, who in the main are dispatched to Brussels as penance for some political misdemeanour committed in domestic politics. Yet, the Eurocratic elite, proud of being non-partisan and beyond loyalty to their home country, are also distant, self-referential and isolated from the everyday realities of European life. For this reason, he not unreasonably suggests, the decisions that are made here have become ever more difficult to communicate to the outside world.

Central to the European Union, according to the author, is economic integration, which displays a certain “historical deafness” in relation to the traditionally vast economic, territorial, ethnic and religious differences of the continent. This type of attempted reduction of complexity, however, actually results in the creation of even more complexity and economic factors are now making visible the cracks in the union. The six original states were at a similar stage of economic development. As economically weaker states entered the union they were forced to devalue their currency in order to remain competitive, but with the introduction of the euro this was no longer a solution. Economically weak states such as Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, Enzensberger suggests, contradicting his 1980s arguments, should never have been allowed to enter the European Union (excluding them thus from both the constructed reality of the EU and European rhetoric in general). None of the member states actually met the economic requirements set out for entry to the euro; France and Germany ignored or interpreted the regulations differently when it suited them, while Greece simply supplied false information that nobody bothered examining more closely. Yet, as in war, it is the soldiers who will suffer, not the generals. Those who had nothing to do with the whole financial debacle will pay for it using a recipe that is not new – the socialising of debt and the privatising of profit. The method of payment will take the form of increased taxes, pension reductions and inflation. Here our left-libertarian intellectual with impeccable anti-nationalist credentials occupies a position absolutely congruent with various political shades of German opposition to the euro, which has now become, according to Enzensberger and many others, a transfer union.

The European Union also represents, according to Enzensberger, entry into a post-democratic age. While others speak of enlightened absolutism or Jacobinism, Enzensberger finds the notion of a Soviet-style nomenklatura more appropriate. Classical democracy, he argues, is a societal model developed in the nineteenth century for the organisation of nation-states based upon the principle of reason and it is inherently not transferable to the supranational level. This he calls the central problem of the union, the much discussed “democratic deficit”. The Commission enjoys a near monopoly of the initiation of laws, while its negotiations and decisions occur behind closed doors. The at one time much vaunted subsidiarity principle, which suggests a scaling of responsibility and decision-making according to requirements from the smallest local area to the highest European level, has not been enacted ‑ according to Enzensberger, again with overwrought irony, because it is so logical.

Thus Enzensberger’s text draws on some serious and important issues relating to the Union and its democratic deficiencies, while it also to a certain extent captures the contemporary German Zeitgeist in relation, at least, to the euro currency. The text remains, however, a highly pessimistic one that argues from the viewpoint of the imminent collapse of the Union. And while it has some fun poking at various bizarre aspects of the institution’s workings, the more intellectually taxing task of offering an alternative vision is not engaged with.

The German journalist and political scientist Jochen Bittner also recently published a popular work on the European theme, So nicht, Europa! (Not Like that, Europe). Bittner, who is in his mid-thirties, writes for the influential German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. He has in addition written widely on Irish topics, including, unusually for a German author, two publications on Provisional IRA terrorism and the Northern Irish conflict. He has also of late reported from Ireland for Die Zeit, including a lengthy article on the social situation in Ireland before the February election. Bittner has been based in Brussels for a number of years and his book provides a provocative critique of the weaknesses of the European institution, as well as a number of distinct, and inventive, visions of possible future European avenues. The work was written and published before the worsening of the euro crisis, so this development does not figure greatly. Bittner does, however, venture some interesting thoughts regarding the last major European crisis after the Lisbon referendum of 2008. It is obvious that he retains a lot of sympathy for and interest in Ireland and Irish references and personalities are threaded throughout the publication.

Bittner’s book partly covers fairly well trodden territory regarding the democratic deficit of the EU and the non-involving nature of its political culture, all relevant and pertinent points that are, however, presented in an entertaining and, at times, wryly humorous fashion. While he sees trans-state European peace as the EU’s main achievement, this has transformed itself unproductively in relation to its political culture which has been marked, he argues, by a forced-harmony-making Brussels, a sort of “eternal Woodstock”. Politics thrives on conflict and productive argument based on differing political ideas; yet in contemporary EU political culture, Bittner argues, anyone who diverges from this forced accord and seeks conflict is immediately branded an “EU-sceptic” or “anti-integrationist”. Within the German context he maintains that the German political “permissive consensus” in relation to the EU, sixty-five years after the Second World War, can only be damaging to the European Community. Rather, he believes, politicians and diplomats from other member states would like the largest EU state to produce good and effective ideas and not just act defensively in relation to European matters due to what he terms “a continuing bad conscience”. Instead of decisions or ideas being openly criticised and questioned in public platforms the European Commission engages in “commitology”, creating committees of interest groups from throughout the EU to make decisions that affect vast numbers of people.

Bittner interprets the 2008 Irish No vote to Lisbon quite positively, arguing that it acted as the unintentional catalyst for an ‑ albeit somewhat erratic ‑ European-wide discussion on EU matters, a productive conflict normally lacking in the EU. The Irish were, he believes, actually quite well informed in relation to the Lisbon Treaty, more so than continental Europeans would have been. The Treaty was, however, impenetrable, written in a highly technical language and only really accessible to experts. Bittner argues that the “Vote no if you don’t know” motto contained a certain logic. If the EU wishes to act more like a state, as suggested by Lisbon, it also requires some of the democratic ingredients of a nation-state; yet no European-wide discussion was intended in relation to the Treaty. The political culture of the EU requires more disharmonious, and productive, debate.

The lack of exciting and suspenseful political theatre at the centre of the EU, beloved of newspaper readers and television viewers, has, he argues, also helped to alienate the general public from the institution. The highly influential European Commissioners are unelected and remain largely unknown. Politicians become administrators as soon as they set foot in Brussels. Bittner is also disappointed at the ineffectiveness of the potentially exciting new positions actually created by the Treaty of Lisbon. The roles of EU president and foreign minister; again unelected and decided upon behind closed doors, remain unprovocative, inoffensive and largely ambiguous positions. Well-known personalities of ambition could have provided a useful authority to these roles, but both Herman van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton remain the embodiment of understatement and appear to view themselves as agents of moderation rather than of leadership. The EU also remains a complex and dense institution; it is often difficult for the public to recognise responsible agents, while European themes, he believes, are not sexy enough to attract the interest of normal citizens, EU legislation being the most boring in the world. The consequence of EU political culture is thus, Bittner believes, the lack of a real trans-European public.

A further problem Bittner detects is the uninspiring nature of the city of Brussels itself, the most concrete symbol of the EU institution, where he has been partially based for the last number of years. The city is, he believes, akin to a Google of the real world, where you can find anything and everything and a lot, indeed, you may not have been looking for. The fact that the EU exists in an ambivalent space and remains intangible has a lot to do with its chosen capital city, which is famous for a urinating boy, chocolate and comics. It is not, he argues, a suitable place of identification for the most ambitious European project of modern times: one might as well situate the United Nations in Milwaukee rather than New York.

The originality of Bittner’s ideas can be seen in his treatment of the geopolitical dimensions of a future Europe. Relations with the two most significant states bordering the EU, Ukraine and Turkey, dominate this treatment. The problem in relation to Ukraine is captured, he believes, by the question regarding its position as either a neighbour of Europe or a European neighbour. The Ukrainian city of Czernowitz (in Ukrainian Chernivtsi) remains, Bittner argues, the most European city outside the EU: a place in which traditionally four languages have been spoken, established by Habsburg Kaiser Franz Joseph I in 1775 and home to various European cultural figures of importance, such as the German-language poet Paul Celan. He also sees the “Orange Revolution” of 2004, which, of course, has ultimately proven to be a disappointment, as a very “European” moment in Ukrainian history as the authority of the Ukrainian leaders was cast aside by the people, supported by the EU. He draws a “European” line of people’s revolutions from East Berlin in 1953 and Budapest in 1956 to the Ukraine in 2004. Political culture in Russia, on the other hand, he argues, remains undeveloped as authority still comes from above and not from the people. In relation to Turkey he believes Europe has always been greater than Christianity and that Islam has always had a shifting role and impact within it. The EU cannot become “an elite boarding school” if it wishes to be a “civilising force”, yet its fear is evident in relation to Ukraine and Turkey, which it does not see as “bridge states” through which it might outwardly increase its influence but rather as a source of danger from outside.

Bittner does, however, offer a vision of how the EU could relate to and accommodate Ukraine and Turkey, albeit one that is somewhat problematic. He assembles a series of politico-historical dichotomies that, he believes, have represented ideational battle lines in the past and in the present. Vienna in the seventeenth century was the stage upon which Christianity faced off with Islam; in late twentieth century Berlin, capitalism and communism wrestled for dominance, while the battle lines now are between the liberal capitalism of the USA and the EU and what he terms the authoritarian capitalism of Russia and China. Whether governments see themselves as guarantors of free individual development or as political conductors of individuals is the factor that currently decides, according to Bittner, who is “western” in the classical sense. In this respect Ukraine, Turkey and the western Balkans are the spiritual brothers of the EU, even when, as he problematically contends, human rights issues remain in the Turkish context. The EU should stop her eastern periphery from “falling” to authoritarian capitalism by creating a new instrument between full union membership and partnership agreements, one without financial risks. Bittner foresees Turkey, Ukraine and the western Balkans becoming part of what he terms a “privileged partnership” with the EU. Such a scenario would also have practical advantages: retail food prices have risen substantially since 2005 and Ukraine would be a very beneficial partner in this respect. While the contrast of a liberal capitalism with an authoritarian one is indeed interesting and not invalid, Bittner’s idea that Ukraine and Turkey could “fall” to the latter appears naive. An authoritarian type of capitalism within Russia and China is due in all probability to internal social and cultural structures acquired historically; it does not constitute an actual ideology and is surely unlikely to be actually exportable, at least at a substantive, societal level.

Bittner’s most innovative European vision is one that connects the local with the European in a very practical fashion. He perceives the Union as symbolising the possibilities of an eco-social capitalism functioning from the European to the local level. Bittner uses a village in Schleswig-Holstein in the north of Germany, where he wrote his book, as a metaphor for what he sees as the essential contemporary idea of the EU. Central to the village is the community-run shop, a large general store housing also a café, village notice boards, free Internet access and a bistro. It was, he writes, closed for three years but has since been re-opened and has once again become the social heart and lifeblood of the village. EU funding of €130,000, based on criteria concerning economic productivity that shares costs between the European institution and the local authorities, enabled the general store to reopen and has reinvigorated life in the village. This represents, he argues, the merging of capitalism with the social and the ecological and represents the most positive aspect of the EU and the continued way forward for the trans-national institution. It should, thus, not act as a petty regulator interfering in unimportant areas but chiefly as a trans-European facilitator, offering another layer of practical possibility above the level of the nation-state. It would then appear as what he calls a liberal-democratic imperium, based on conviction not authoritarian control, improving people’s lives beyond nation-state borders. It is here, of course, that the European meets the local in Bittner’s interesting and stimulating vision of an eco-social capitalism that has frequently been, and should remain, central to the EU.

Yet the administrative process underlying the EU Social and Structural Funds has not been without its problems, with corruption and bureaucratic and structural difficulties meaning that funding set aside for the financing of community projects and small businesses Europe-wide has largely remained unused in the last few years. Were these problems to be rectified, the euro-local eco-social capitalist vision could provide a European template of the future, one which would make the EU a more concrete and obvious presence in European people’s lives, and also of course in Ireland where local communities have been impoverished by the financial crisis with its attendant tragedies of unemployment and debt. The European Social Funds scheme is indeed where the practical reality of European social solidarity is to be found, albeit at the moment behind an excessive quantity of red tape. Perhaps at some stage in the post-crisis future, if the EU remains a long-term agent for this vision of a eco-social capitalism and is seen as a practical and tangible invigorating force for social benefit within local communities, we will see a type of European patriotism in Ireland, with Irish people getting annoyed in bars at someone “turning their back on Europe”? A far-fetched idea at the moment, probably naive but definitely utopian – but utopian in the best possible sense of the word.


Fergal Lenehan teaches at the Department of Intercultural Studies and Business Communications at the Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena. His book 'Europe of the Regions - The History of an Idea in Germany, Britain and Ireland' will be published shortly.

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