Man Without Qualities

Friday, February 08, 2002

Neither Pluribus nor Unum - but Loud, Really Loud

In a occurrence of a type now common, European bureaucrat Chris Patten recently asserted in response to the recent State of the Union address that the United States must be stopped before it goes into what Mr. Patten terms "unilateralist overdrive." Mr. Patten explained in an interview with a London newspaper, the Guardian, that "Gulliver can't go it alone, and I don't think it's helpful if we regard ourselves as so Lilliputian that we can't speak up and say it."

But what is striking about this occurrence is that although Mr. Patten is a European bureaucrat speaking about international relations with the United States, he is not speaking as an official of any European country. Rather, he is speaking as an officer of the European Union itself. He is the EU commissioner in charge of Europe's international relations to be exact.

This type of occurrence and the continual European claims of American “unilateralism” raise the question: Is the European Union now one state or many? This is not a question to be answered by verbal alacrity, or by recourse to the dictionary or the encyclopedia, or even by a facile cite to history. Europe is neither one nor many.

It is a question that matters. European accusations of American “unilateralism” depend for their resonance on what is becoming a quaint and misleading characterization of Europe as a “continent” that includes many “nation states.” When Mr. Patten speaks of American “unilateralism” his argument is silently buttressed by the implied claim that the many distinct countries of Europe (what he terms the “Lilliputians”), fall on one side of the political question de jour, and the United States on the other. Suppose, say, twelve European countries fall on one side and the US on the other. Presto! Twelve-to-one. American "unilateralist overdrive."

But if Europe is best considered “one thing”, then such arguments lose much of their appeal because such differences appear more like a disagreement between two essentially equal entities. Suppose Europe says one thing and the US another. In such a case the US can be no more “unilateralist” than is Europe. Imagine the Canadians arguing from the observation that ALL of the Canadian Provinces agreed on one side of an particular issue that the US was being “unilateralist” by differing with them. Ludicrous. And yet, in some key respects the EU is now more “unified” than Canada. For example, while Canada has a single constitution that includes a bill of individual rights, the Canadian Provinces may override those individual rights merely by stating in the override legislation that the law is to take effect “notwithstanding” the bill of rights. In contrast, when the EU courts held that the European bill of rights required that Britain to admit gay soldiers to the British armed forces, the British Parliament had no right under EU treaties to override.

Is Europe “one thing?” The question has no answer. There are many features of unity. Much of Europe now has the same currency. There is an EU parliament, executive and judiciary, none of them subordinate to any member state. The various EU treaties impose considerable uniformity on the legal systems of it member countries – more every day. There are advanced plans afoot to adopt a true unifying constitution in lieu of the treaty network. On a cultural level, even a casual visitor to Europe should notice the vast erosion – but not elimination - of the distinct national characteristics that once so defined the EU member states. Language differences are of decreasing relevance. Religious differences are already almost irrelevant as a divisive force between member states.

In other respects, the EU is not unified – at least formally. Although the EU has Mr. Patten as its commissioner in charge of its international relations, foreign affairs of the member states are not technically subsumed. But there is a huge effort to coordinate. And the EU has shown in recent years a willingness to impose harsh pressure on countries, such as Austria, which allow their supposedly “unsubsumed” governments to get too far out of line.

But while Europe is neither fully pluribus or unum, it is now sufficiently unified so that actions by its members states should no longer be cited as serious evidence that “many” such countries disagree with the US on any given topic. Europeans, such as Mr. Patten with his preposterous "unilateralist overdrive" warning, are exploiting this kind of reasoning. For example, the EU treaties prohibit capital punishment, but US “unilateralism” in this area is routinely evidenced by the argument that “every country in Europe has now eliminated capital punishment.”

Similarly, if the EU wishes to pressure its member states into creating a unified alternative to Mr. Bush’s form of opposition to what he terms the “axis-of-evil,” that is an issue for the EU. But claims such as Mr. Pattens that a multitude of Lilliputians oppose the policies of the American Gulliver should have been left well back in the last century – when they had more meaning.

Besides, given the general European reluctance to act forcefully to advance or protect human rights while inteminably bloviating on that very topic, a Lilliputian does not seem the most appropriate Swiftian creation to liken to a modern European. The Yahoos seem a closer fit.

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