Friday, April 23, 2010

'Something is better than nothing'

While watching last night's second leaders' debate (in all its digital wide-screen glory, as the house where I stay when in London is appropriately decked-out for this telly-obsessed culture), I was reminded of an essay that I had coincidentally read earlier this week.

I'd found a sharply reduced copy of Tony Judt's book Reappraisals (at the browseworthy Waterstone's on Gower Street....a cheap paperback is also available, I noticed today, at the also wonderful Judd Books) which appealed to me immediately, as I'm working my way (slowly) through his excellent Postwar.

The first essay that caught my eye (because I'm interested in this kind of issue) was entitled 'The Good Society: Europe vs. America', a review (originally published in the NY Review of Books) of books by Jeremy Rifkin, T.R. Reid and Timothy Garton Ash on the European Union.

It's a nicely balanced examination of 'Europe' in the sense of the -- alternatively inspiring and exasperating -- supra-national political entity that has emerged over the last half century (and it presages themes picked up on by Judt more recently).

I thought of it last night because of the apparent perception that Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg faces a problem for being a bit too Europhile.

(Not that the EU is uncomplicatedly or wildly popular in other European countries, but in Britain opposition to it takes on a special quality.)

Judt is clearly positively disposed toward the EU, but one of the things I liked about his review was his sober scepticism towards the more high-flown claims for the EU's potential, especially Rifkin's description of Europe as 'a giant freewheeling experimental laboratory for rethinking the human condition....':

These claims are absurd. The European Union is what it is: the largely unintended product of decades of negotiations by Western European politicians seeking to uphold and advance their national and sectoral interests. That's part of its problem: It is a compromise on a continental scale, designed by literally hundreds of committees.

Actually this makes the EU more interesting and in some ways more impressive than if it merely incarnated some uncontentious utopian blueprint. In the same vein, it seems silly to write, as Rifkin does, about the awfulness of American mediocrity without acknowledging Europe's own eyesores. This is a man who has never stared upon the urban brutalism of Sarcelles, a postwar dormitory town north of Paris; who has not died a little in Milton Keynes; who has avoided the outer suburbs of Modern Milan.

Having spent nearly a decade seeing both some of the highs and lows of my adopted home-continent -- and having 'died a little in Milton Keynes' on a regular basis -- I can appreciate Judt's point here.

Nonetheless, Judt expresses eloquently why -- for all its occasional frustrations and absurdities -- the EU is far more worthwhile than it is often perceived to be, explaining why, if it can manage to 'speak with a single voice in international affairs, the EU will wield a lot of power':

The reason is not that the EU will be rich or big -- though it already is both. The U.S. is rich and big. And one day China may be richer and bigger. Europe will matter because of the cross-border template upon which contemporary Europe is being constructed. ... Globalization is about the disappearance of boundaries -- cultural and economic boundaries, physical boundaries, linguistic boundaries -- and the challenge of organizing our world in their absence. In the words of Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the UN's director of peacekeeping operations: 'Having lost the comfort of our geographical boundaries, we must in effect rediscover what creates the bond between humans that constitute a community.'

To their own surprise and occasional consternation, Europeans have begun to do this: to create a bond between human beings that transcends older boundaries and to make out of these new institutional forms something that really is a community. They don't always do it very well, and there is still considerable nostalgia in certain quarters for those old frontiers. But something is better than nothing; and nothing is just what we shall be left with if the fragile international accords, treaties, agencies, laws and institutions that we have erected since 1945 are allowed to rot and decline -- or, worse, are deliberately brought low. As things now stand, boundary breaking and community making are something that Europeans are doing better than anyone else.
Heavy thoughts, perhaps, for a Friday night in a hotel bar in central London.

But I'm looking forward to crossing some frontiers tomorrow on a train that will take me through four countries (and languages) to a home that I'm missing very much at the moment.

And not, primarily, for political reasons.

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