Being, Consciousness, and the Future of Europe

The eurozone is going to the wire in its struggle to preserve the euro. Although some criticize it for taking too much time, it is encouraging to see that it seems to have finally found the will to defend itself against a looming economic disaster stemming from the potential collapse of its common currency.

That radical steps toward a fiscal union are needed if the euro is to be preserved few would deny. It is another question, though, whether such steps should be seen as strengthening the political unity of Europe. It seems obvious to some that the two march hand in hand, but what seems obvious is in itself no guarantee of truth. Some critical reasoning seems to be in order.

First of all, it seems unavoidable that, following treaty changes that are being considered, the eurozone and the non-eurozone parts of the EU will embark on somewhat different trajectories. They may not be as divergent as some would fear—it would be a sheer folly for the member countries whose currencies and ratings are not protected by the herd instincts of the eurozone not to follow the steps toward strict budgetary disciplines planned for the eurozone and risk being picked off one after another by the markets. In fact, some of them have already taken the steps without waiting for the eurozone to act. On the other hand, some of the medicines applied to the eurozone might impact on the workings of the common market, the very backbone of European integration, in ways non-eurozone member countries might find unhelpful or discriminatory. Then there is the question of the decision-making in the EU at large after the new mechanisms set in. Since a fiscal union will require permanent coordination and supervision, mechanisms will emerge (in fact are already emerging) that will amount to precooking of positions on questions of the policies of the EU as a whole, putting the minority of 10 non-member countries at a disadvantage.

All this can conceivably be handled through a proper consideration of the interests of the eurozone and the EU as a whole and the necessary compromises and trade-offs it would entail. Political repercussions could be more problematic, both within the eurozone and the EU as a whole. The directorate in all but a name of the fiscally sound member countries over the budgets (i.e., social and welfare policies, health care, pension schemes, and education) in the fiscally ailing countries will inevitably create resentments given the acutely painful nature of the cures. The invocation of the principle of solidarity will sound hollow in such situations. The emergence of variable-speed Europes will inevitably create tensions between the various tiers, concentric circles, or what not. In consequence, as Europe becomes fiscally more integrated its political cohesion may weaken.

But how is that possible? So far, every step toward European economic integration has been hailed as one more step toward its political unification. For an explanation of the paradox, we must venture beyond economy and politics into the sphere of philosophy.

The principal argument, rarely questioned, is explicitly formulated in one of the founding documents of the European integration, the Schuman declaration of May 9, 1950: “The pooling of coal and steel production should immediately provide for the setting up of common foundations for economic development as a first step in the federation of Europe.” Far from being a Marxist, Robert Schuman was a Christian Democrat, and perhaps unwittingly expressing the prevailing wisdom of the times, which indeed had its roots in Marxism, namely that the base of the production forces in a society, its organization and property relationships, will drive the superstructure of social consciousness, ideology, politics, and the rest: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

One hundred and fifty years later, we recognize these words of Karl Marx as so much hot air. Not that our social existence has no impact on our consciousness but it is not the only, nor perhaps the main, factor in its formation. Our beliefs, our loyalties to family and kin, our instincts, our drives, all deeply ingrained, some of them possibly hard-wired, shape our consciousness at least as much as coal and steel production. The clearest proof of this had been the 70 years of a collective experiment under the communist social and economic system, which a few people chose but most were forced to live under and which would purportedly give rise to a new consciousness. The main finding of the experiment seems to have been how resilient human consciousness is to changes in the “base.”

In February 1990, Vaclav Havel told a joint session of the US Congress to a standing ovation: “Consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around.” Unfortunately, quite a few among the applauding legislators later said they had no idea what he meant. Little has changed.

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