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Thomas Moore on Are we European by nature? The dilemmas of European integration and the current financial crisis

28th February 2012

The mythological painting by Valentin Serov (1910) shows the abduction of Europa by Zeus in the form of a bull

Dr Thomas Moore is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster, London, UK.

Imagining a European Union liberated from the tyranny of ‘national interest’ is not something most students of politics concern themselves with. Yet when the United States encountered the dramatic events of September 11, the European Union spoke with unity of purpose and with clarity: “the horrific terrorist attacks on the United States have shocked our citizens”.[1] We have become accustomed to enjoying the fruits of the European Union project in economic terms: free movement of goods, free movement of capital, free movement of services and the free movement of people. But when the economic pendulum swings in opposite directions to long-held beliefs about economic productivity and marketization then we overwhelmingly revert back to ‘national interest’ as our reference point for understanding the financial crisis.

The problem with conceiving the European project exclusively in economic terms is that it overlooks how these four ‘freedoms’ possess a social, political and moral character. The European single market can be understood as a question of political economy—examining the interplay between economic and political forces—but if we neglect the social dimension of the European project then we lose the symbolic power of integration and how European identities are shaped through this project. When looking at the current financial crisis historians of the European Union will undoubtedly document the retreat from the European and the return to the national. We should be careful about erasing the successes of the European project in responding to the current fiscal crisis affecting Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and further afield. Most recently, finance Ministers from the Eurogroup have agreed a financial rescue package for Greece which would provide EUR 130bn until 2014. No doubt there are strings attached, but what is particularly revealing is how national interest and morality are colliding in the way we talk about the eurozone crisis. 

Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for a ‘firewall to prevent contagion in the eurozone’ reveals the way in which language and metaphors reveal underlying political assumptions about the European financial crisis. To talk of ‘contagion’ suggests an understanding of the European financial crisis in which dysfunctional economies are riddled with disease, ready to poison the lifeblood of ‘healthy’ European economies. But is also suggests a broader trend towards a moralization of the market within the European public sphere. A geopolitical assessment of the financial crisis brings out the worst in political leaders, linking economic performance to the general moral character of entire political communities.

This moralization of market performance can be seen in Channel 4’s Go Greek for a Week which promised to offer British viewers a snapshot of the Greek mindset in which “three British families experience first-hand some of the causes of Greece's financial meltdown, from hairdressers retiring aged 53 to surgeons enjoying favourable income tax rates”. What it offered instead was a crude assessment of the Greek national character, washed down with considerable vitriol about the work ethic of an entire people. What is missing from the discussion of the Greek crisis is an honest discussion about the philosophy of European integration: its function, its values and its potential to transform European community. We undermine the European public sphere by reducing the current financial crisis down to ‘sovereign’ debt.

In the European context, the mechanisms of response should allow considerable reflection on how we got here in the first place. David Harvey has achieved this in his most recent book, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. Harvey has commented that “[w]hen capital encounters barriers or limits within a sphere or between spheres, then ways have to be found to circumvent or transcend the difficulty”.[2] The current financial crisis demonstrates that national economies are intrinsically global as well as the fragility of regional expressions of capitalism. If Europe sneezes then Europe clearly has a cold.

It is important for European states to think through the question of how and why we got to the state we are in today. If we do this through discourses of nationalism then we overlook the underlying principles of political economy, especially the speculative nature of the market economy and how this implicitly relies upon the concept of trust.

The eminent French sociologist, Émile Durkheim, provided an account of capitalism in which the social relations of the market were at the forefront of production and exchange. The growth of markets has not diminished the importance of the social from our understanding of life. Durkheim famously argued for the social regulation of the market. These included a number of key moral principles of the market that European economies might have reflected upon well before the current financial crisis: norms of justice must always inform the market; communal goods must always triumph over individual gains; profiteering should be secondary to professionalism and ethics; and that a failure to regulate the economic domain will affect our moral habits in every other arena of social life.

The problem with the current response to the financial crisis is that we still view European integration as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ proposition. This has resulted in binary thinking on the European Union: either you are with us or against us. This logic has failed us in foreign policy terms (as the War on Terror demonstrates) and will almost certainly sink Europe in economic terms. This type of thinking is not useful nor is it sufficiently anchored in the institutional realities of the European Union. In many respects, the debate on European integration has too often been expressed as a debate between federalists and their critics. A naïve cosmopolitanism has typically been offered in response to the brute claims of hardnosed realists when debating European integration. Prominent philosophers have defended the European project as bringing a post-national community. Jurgen Habermas has comprehensively defended the moral project of European integration, arguing that “modern Europe has developed institutional arrangements for the productive resolution of intellectual, social and political conflicts”.[3]

What is intriguing about the current European crisis is how European states have reverted to old forms of national diplomacy rather than imagine European responses to European problems. The European financial crisis arises from economic systems which are not particular to any one member states. Granted there are differences in fiscal policy and welfare systems, but we should not overlook the global dimensions of the financial system. To reduce questions of sovereign debt to individual states alone will result in crooked thinking on the market. We impoverish our thinking by neglecting the European dimension of this sovereign debt. National economies must work together, ensuring that the European public sphere retains its moral value.


[1] September 14, 2001: Joint Declaration by the Heads of State and Government of the European Union, the President of the European Parliament, the President of the European Commission, and the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. (Date accessed: 28 February 2012).

[2] David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, (London: Profile Books, 2011), p. 124.

[3] Jurgen Habermas, ‘Why Europe Needs a Constitution’, New Left Review, 11, September-October 2001, (Date accessed: 28 February 2012).


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