Commentary / World

Time for Europe's philosophers to speak up

Europe will look quite different after Brexit. This is because forces are at work internationally and globally that are changing the whole pattern of European collaboration, just as there are forces at work, starting long before Donald Trump, which are changing the place and influence of the United States in the new global network.

Brexit, like the Trump event, is only part of an on-going transformation. And the chief feature of this, to oversimplify but summarize, is that in the digital and largely post-Western age the old ideas of strength through size and central control no longer operate. Pushing together, or integration, or grand one-size-fits-all policymaking — to achieve mass and weight — becomes not just impractical but unnecessary and highly inefficient.

This is demonstrated with particular vividness, and some virulence, by the refusal of many European Union member states to go along with Brussels-commanded policies for handling the ever-growing refugee and migrant crisis. National and local democratic voices have simply rejected the attempt by the higher authority of the central EU hierarchy to impose quotas on refugees to be admitted. All this is set to get very much worse.

But there is a need to go still deeper into the past to see how the most basic fundamentals of European cooperation have changed. Postwar European togetherness began with iron and steel and economies of scale and integration. Monnet’s European Community embraced the industrial logic of the age. The political ambition — the very finest — was that Germany and France would never fight again. The economic and industrial underpinning was that a bigger, more unified, more rationalized and more integrated Europe would hold its own in a dangerous outside world. The bigger the better.

This was the 20th century ingrained managerial and strategic doctrine out of which the EU, as it later became, was born. Today it has been totally overtaken and reversed by the digital age. All the centripetal economic forces of 50 years ago, (scale, standardization, uniformity, harmonization, centrally conceived regulation, consolidation, etc.) have been replaced by the more powerful centrifugal forces of today’s technological revolution. Europe’s needs in the last century have become Europe’s chains in this one.

It is not just a matter of halting the drift but of unstoppable momentum in the opposite direction, The industrial logic has gone into complete reverse. The case for central planning and control, centrally designed industrial or social strategies has vanished. SMEs, disruptive technologies, ceaseless innovation, local enterprise, local democracy and local identity now take the lead where once it was the Brussels elite who seemed the best guide to a better future. Now they are deeply distrusted.

If there is one basic, truly fundamental reason explaining Europe’s unsettled state today, with a grumbling Visigrad Group, the furious, bewildered and frightened Club Med states (Greece in particular), a Polish-Brussels standoff, youth unemployment and general hostility to dictates from Brussels — and a populist undertow almost everywhere, even perhaps Brexit itself — this is surely where it lies.

In short, the philosophy of the old EU model is redundant. It can cope neither with the digital age or with the mass movements of peoples that the communications revolution has unleashed. In the rhetoric of the EU, the four freedoms of movement within the single market (proclaimed as indivisible principles) still sound fine. But in practice principles have been trimmed back to mere aspirations. Other forces have taken over in reshaping the entire contemporary industrial and business structure, bringing with it a radically altered social structure. And with politics being the outcome, not the cause, of social change, that means major political disruption as well — already highly visible across the whole of Europe.

Repeatedly we hear it asserted that access to the EU single market means wrapping the whole economic and social process in common EU rules and standards. The microchip story says otherwise. No single market and no single set of rules and standards need prevail. It is the algorithms who are the masters now, not the EU Commission.

Incredibly, it has taken years for the message to reach the policy planners and even now it has not permeated the Brussels mind. The whole momentum of technology is taking us toward a very different kind of Europe.

Of course attempts are being made daily to halt change. The euro currency, the archetypal control system, gets repeatedly patched up before one more seam bursts.

But in the end, and it could be quite soon, nothing will stay the logic of decentralizing digital power or its relentless expansion, at a Moore’s Law exponential rate.

Moving forward, the contrast between the traditional EU hierarchy structure and industrial/technological change could become even more stark. The philosophy of the blockchain is spreading into business and all human organization. The blockchain, it will be recalled, is the ultimate dispersed computer, with no central control at all. The crowd is the stabilizing controller, the decider and the trust provider.

As the underlying integrationist philosophy of the old EU crumbles, Brexit breaks away like a huge ice chunk off a melting landmass. Others could follow if basic attitudes do not change. Restless communities, unnerved by the global paradox which pulls both ways, reassert their identity while at the same time looking for a new and more relevant frame of guidance in which to survive and prosper. The 20th century EU provides the wrong frame. Good Europeans everywhere will have to now work with the same vigor as the founding fathers of modern Europe worked, to design and build the new structure for a new age.

Even while the officials lock horns in negotiation on the terms of Brexit, the best minds in Europe, the best think tanks, the best speech writers and advisers, and the best political leaders should be articulating their perception of the new architecture of a Europe that can fit into the modern hyper-connected world and digitalized global economic order. And they should be recasting the philosophy that underpins it.

It is time for the philosophers to speak up.

David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.

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