Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Reports. The Good European's Dilemma by Robin Guthrie
The Good European's Dilemma by Robin GuthrieNew Europe Research Trust, 2000, London, Price £5
Keywords European Union, Council of Europe
Recently, as we stood on top of one of Yorkshire's magnificent Three Peaks, a friend asked me what kind of politics I really believed in. "Tell me in short words", he admonished. I thought, for a moment, then answered: "freedom, tolerance, kindness, fair play and the rule of law". These have been called traditional "British" virtues, and are still regarded as such by surprising numbers, at home and abroad. They are, however, universal rules of good behaviour, across cultures and through the ages. They are the simplest, most coherent rules, and yet the hardest in practice to obey. But without them, human societies lose their direction.
I am sure that these values are shared by Robin Guthrie, and underlie his concern for human rights. He speaks with admiration of "the visionaries of the middle of the twentieth century" who founded the Council of Europe and established the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, established in 1950, is "the only example of a judicial - and effective - enforcement mechanism ... anywhere in the world". There is much truth in this, and Guthrie is right when he says that the Council of Europe's achievements have not been sufficiently recognised by "good Europeans". However, I am left uneasy about the culture of "rights" which the Council and its courts attempt to implant. For I fear that rights-based politics have come to be more about competing groups than the welfare of individuals and that the idea of "rights" is supplanting, rather than supplementing, the idea of responsibilities. "Rights" defined and enforced by legal mechanisms, have proved a poor substitute for moral values that endure and are transmitted through generations. The USA, though great in many ways, provides us with a warning. There, few, save for lawyers, activists and machine politicians, have benefited from the culture of rights. Since the 1960s, most legal decisions from the Supreme Court downwards have been - to use a good Yorkshire phrase - plain daft. Abortion on demand is legalised as the "right to privacy", the State of Ohio is compelled to alter its Christian motto, teachers can peddle the nonsense of "Creation Science" but be fined for trying to teach the Ten Commandments. In practice, Guthrie's belief in a culture of "rights" for Europe could mean imposing US-style Political Correctness "from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and from the Atlantic to the Pacific". There must be a better vision for Europe, and for mankind, than that.
Guthrie's thesis is that the European Union has hijacked and distorted the European ideal. It has done so because it has lost any progressive vision it had and become an instrument of economic power - and the political centralisation that goes with it. In particular, the European Commission allows politicians who have often failed in their own countries to build costly empires. Romano Prodi, at time of writing President of the Commission, is a classic example. This former Communist Party boss refers to the Commission as "my government", wants a European Army and is trying to extend majority voting to more areas of policy, depriving free peoples of the right to govern themselves. The economics of the European Union are geared almost entirely to economic growth rather than quality of life, to materialism instead of a larger vision of human society. It is materialism that unites the left and neo-liberal right in support of ever-closer union. This unholy alliance explains the blend of heavy-handed regulation (of small business especially) and sycophancy to corporate power that is today's European Commission. Guthrie cleverly identifies the architectural ugliness of the European Union as the symptom of a disease - the disease of gigantism:
Brussels was a beautiful city and indeed still is - at least where the Union has not intruded. In the heart of the city each of the main institutions of the EU - Council, Commission and Parliament - has built a place for itself ... The concept and design of these buildings speak not of access, transparency and democracy, but of power and exclusion. Mussolini would have been proud of such manifestations of domination.
The European Union's failure, as a political or even an economic model, is a conclusion Guthrie shares with British Euro-sceptics. Yet unlike some of those Euro-sceptics, he does not seek a return to nationalism, which he regards as backward-looking. Instead, he seeks to rebuild Europe, from the foundations, returning to the "Good European's" original aims: "the protection of the human individual", pluralist institutions, economic and social justice. He believes that the Council of Europe can offer a positive, alternative "Europe", a Europe more tolerant and diverse, more capable of bridging the gap between East and West. I sincerely hope that he is right. But I note that among the fascinating gallery of pan-European pioneers, he lists Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was what we might these days call a "Euro-realist", believing in loose confederation rather than rigid, ever-closer union. He was also the philosopher who believed that man can be "forced to be free". Perhaps this has been the problem with the Council of Europe. It has always been an elitist project, failing to connect with ordinary people or reflect their values. Its culture of rights is more abstract than "human"; this - and the trend towards collectivist thought - explains why some of the judgements of the Court have been acts of bad faith. I want to believe Guthrie, but I would like him to tell us how the Council might be reformed, or rather, how it might translate its lofty declarations into the simple principles of fairness and decency.
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