The current deadlock in the European Union’s constitutional process has provoked yet another period of deep euro-pessimism. It is worth noting that the concept of Europe has lived through similar periods in the past and survived them all, often growing stronger in the process. We need only re-read Raymond Aron’s Plaidoyer pour l’Europe décadente (In Defense of Decadent Europe) published in 1976 to recall the dismal intellectual and strategic atmosphere of that moment: the stagflation, the appeal of Eurocommunism, and the apparent strategic ascendancy of the Soviet Union.
A project suggested to him by his publisher, the “plaidoyer“, while not one of his most important works is nevertheless very useful given the current climate. It puts forth three distinct arguments:
- Part one, “Europe Mystified by Marxism” dwells on the contrast between the rejection of socialism by the dissident intellectual elite in the East and its embrace by Western intellectuals.
- The second part, “Europe Unconscious of her Superiority”, is about the superior economic achievements of Europe, and more broadly, a criticism of “progressive” ideologies.
- Part three, “Europe-Victim of herself” deals with European worries about a possible crisis of Western civilization, marked by a decline of authority and a rejection of economic reality, and of the constraints of collective action.
Against this background, Aron concluded that Europe’s future was not its own to decide: “The Europe at six [the European Community] is not a political entity. As far as the eye can see, it won’t be one.” In other words, the future of Europe is merely a function of the future of the West. Either the rest of the world allows itself to be transformed under the aegis of liberal capitalism, in which case the West may retain its leading edge, or “the disaggregation of the American imperial domain” would bring an enfeebled Europe under Soviet domination.
I question whether the U.K. and EU will become political and economic rivals, as geography, history, financial interests, security concerns, and shared values will necessitate continued close cooperation in some form for the foreseeable future. My bigger concern is the all-consuming nature of Brexit, which could prevent the U.K. especially and the EU from engaging effectively against international rivals. Brexit already dominates debates in London, with a divided Cabinet and parliament having limited bandwidth to engage on global challenges. Even if the U.K. parliament ratifies a Brexit deal, the two sides must then embark on equally complicated and domestically contentious negotiations about their future relationship. In some form, Brexit will afflict Europe for years and risks detracting attention from emerging threats.