Is the European Union a utopian project? Right-wing Eurosceptics often see it as one. In her book Statecraft (2002), for example, Margaret Thatcher called the EU a “classic Utopian project, a monument to the vanity of intellectuals, a programme whose inevitable destiny is failure.” More recently, left-wing Eurosceptics such as Wolfgang Streeck have begun to describe the EU as a different kind of utopian project. In an influential book published in Germany last year (to be published in English in May as Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism), Streeck argues that the EU is evolving into (or perhaps revealing itself as) a kind of Hayekian utopian project – a vehicle for endless liberalisation without interference from democratic politics. But is this the right way to think of the EU? Does it really seek to make Utopia a reality?
It’s clear that a vision for a better (though not necessarily ideal) society is central to the European project. Above all, this vision is expressed in the idea of European integration as a way to overcome centuries of catastrophic military conflict on the continent. As Robert Schuman famously declared in 1950, the European Coal and Steel Community would be the first step in a process that would make war in Europe “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”. This idea of peace in Europe, in particular between France and Germany, evolved into a kind of cosmopolitan Utopia based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law (though the EU is sometimes also seen by pro-Europeans as a “community of fate” – something slightly different from cosmopolitanism).
Connected to this cosmopolitan Utopia in the European imagination – in fact probably impossible to separate from it – is a kind of socio-economic Utopia embodied by the idea of the social market economy. This is itself inseparable from the achievements of the post-war settlement in Europe and the trentes glorieuses – full unemployment, high living standards and a generous welfare state. Part of what animates the right-wing critique of Europe, especially in the UK, is of course related to its opposition to the policies associated with that era. Streeck and other left-wing critics argue almost the opposite as these right-wing Eurosceptics – that, from the 1980s onwards and in particular with the creation of the single market, that utopian project was increasingly displaced by a different, neo-liberal version of Europe – itself what Streeck, using Ernst Bloch’s term, calls a “concrete Utopia”.
However, although it was meant to overcome war and civilise a continent, European integration was always also in a sense an anti-utopian project. Precisely because of the perception that wars within Europe, and in particular World War II, had themselves been caused by utopian aspirations (I’ve previously mentioned the utopian elements in Nazism), the founding fathers of the EU conceived of a project that was more gradualist and technocratic. Not only was the “Monnet method” (see Strobe Talbott’s recent essay) based on co-operation rather than coercion, the question of finalité was also always deliberately left open. Schumann famously said: “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”
Thus if the EU is a utopian project it is an unusual one – not quite a “classic” utopian project as Thatcher claimed, but something more complex. It is a rather prosaic Utopia embodied by an acquis communautaire of regulations – precisely why it fails to fire the imagination of citizens in its member states in the way many pro-Europeans wish it would. Whereas in Thomas More’s Utopia there was no money, the EU has only abolished exchange rates – and even that has happened only within the eurozone. In fact, the EU is a paradox: an anti-utopian utopian project. This comes out particularly clearly in the writing of Jean Monnet: the Europe of his imagination seems to me darker and more ominous than the one Schumann evoked. “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises”, he famously wrote in his memoirs.
The significance of all this, of course, is that to describe the EU as a utopian project is by definition to claim that it is doomed to failure – which, of course, is exactly why Eurosceptics use it. In an interesting article on Europe and Dystopia for the Wiardi Beckmann Foundation (which is linked to the PvDA, or Dutch Labour party), John Gray agrees with Thatcher’s assessment that the EU is a utopian project and therefore “one that could be known in advance to be unrealisable”. But he goes even further: it is not just that the European Utopia cannot succeed in making the perfect society a reality but also that it is bound to cause chaos when it inevitably fails. “Large utopian projects are rarely deliberately and carefully dismantled,” he writes. In fact, “to imagine that a failed utopian project could be rationally deconstructed is itself an exercise in utopian thinking”.
Perhaps Gray is right. But on the other hand, perhaps this is where the anti-utopian element of European integration comes in. The EU’s unique gradualist, technocratic character – itself a response to the disaster caused by other previous visions of Europe – means that, unlike other utopian projects, it may be one that is capable of changing direction. That is not necessarily a completely reassuring conclusion: it means that the EU is capable of changing for the worse as well as for the better. Indeed, according to Streeck and others, that is exactly is happening in Europe right now. The sum of the solutions to the crises of which Monnet wrote could even in the end be a negative one. But it does at least mean that the future of European integration is not pre-determined.