Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Stitches in time

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine (April 2005)

War is God's way of teaching Americans geography.
- Ambrose Bierce

The train from Paris to Brussels passes through fields sown for 2,000 years with the seed of war, and on the way north last February 1 to the opening sessions of this year's European Parliament, I was reminded of the brightly beribboned armies - Saxon, Roman, Norman, English, French, Spanish, Austrian, German, and American - that had enriched the soil with the compost of military glory. Because I tend to read history with no particular beast or century in mind, I lose sight of the chronology in the melee of medieval chivalry and the movements of Renaissance cannon, which is why, looking out the window of the train at the flat and barren landscape presumably planted with winter vegetables, I didn't know whether to assign the summer harvest to the decay of a Nazi Sturmbannfuhrer or to the disappearance of a Plantagenet king.

To the best of my knowledge, the European Union doesn't provide an agricultural subsidy for carrots emerging from the body of Charlemagne or the blood of Wilfred Owen, but had the topic been proposed for discussion later that afternoon in the appropriate committee, I would have expected the Mayor of Amboise to submit a report noting the contribution made by the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre to the quality of the dairy products in the valley of the Loire. It was the kind of question that suited my purpose in Brussels, which was to compare the European practice of democratic government with what I had seen a month earlier on Capitol Hill in Washington; if I could place the first week of February in the European Parliament against the backdrop of the first week in January at the American Congress, maybe I could come up if not with a CIA memorandum at least with a best guess as to which of the two variations on a theme by Thomas Paine offered the better chance of an answer to the riddles of a new millennium.

I didn't have far to look for the first of the differences between Washington and Brussels. The European Parliament occupies a suite of post-modern buildings in the upper part of the city, the arrangement of glass, steel, and polished stone along the lines of a California resort hotel, but at none of the several entrances were the police procedures as nervous as those in place on Capitol Hill - no dogs, no men in uniform armed with assault rifles, so little emphasis on security that I was permitted to smoke a cigarette in the third floor cafe favored by the Czechs and the Finns. The European politicians apparently weren't as frightened of Arabs or tobacco as were their American counterparts. Death was an old story, and only once in three days did I hear anybody mention the word "terrorism". Enrique Baron Crespo, a Spaniard and a socialist serving as chairman of the Parliament's Committee on International Trade, referred to the subject not as a matter of concern but as a commentary on the American fear of the future. A member of the Spanish government in the 1980s, Crespo on more than one occasion had been marked for assassination by the anarchist cadres then active in Barcelona and Madrid, and he had learned that it's no good living in a state of constant hysteria. "What's the point?" he said. "You could as easily be run over by a bus".

Most of the American foreign-policy experts who write about the EU dwell on its bureaucratic meddling with the Promethean engine of the free market, its laughable attempts to conduct itself in a manner befitting a global superpower. How to rid the world of tyrants or carry the gift of freedom to all four corners of the grateful earth when the so-called statesmen in your midst squander their days worrying about the size of a Portuguese shrimp?

The sarcasms never lack for supporting anecdote - tomatoes held to a uniform standard of color and roundness, every cow in France awarded unemployment benefits and a pension - but they fail to account both for the current measures of European prosperity and for the degree to which the European Parliament over the last thirty years has increased the weight and extended the reach of its legislative authority.

The received wisdoms were put to rout on the afternoon of February 2 during the newly elected body's first debate on the questions it was likely to confront over the course of the forthcoming year. Having been briefed on the mechanisms that assure the legislative and therefore democratic control of both the European Commission and the European Union, I could understand enough of what was being said to know that the Parliament had evolved into a far more formidable assembly than the one that I had last seen in Strasbourg in 1981. In what was then a theater of the absurd, a majority of the members had been elected from constituencies so small and so distant from the operative agencies of political power that their speeches were indistinguishable from slogans fit for waving in a protest march - defiant, implausible, romantic, loud. Other than myself - a tourist who happened to be passing through Strasbourg on the road to Mainz - the only people present were the four speakers waiting a turn to astonish with their sound and fury the silence of an empty room.

Thirty years later in Brussels the scene was as lively as the foreground in a painting by Brueghel the Younger - all the leaders of the Parliament's several voting blocs (Conservative, Socialist, Green, Liberal Democratic, Communist) gathered in a large amphitheater descending toward a dais staffed with officers of the European Commission (the EU's version of an executive branch of government), a jostling of television cameras, the importance of the proceedings attested to by both the front-page news story and the lead editorial in that morning's edition of London's Financial Times. Here then in a fanfare of press releases was the "Lisbon Strategy", the revisionist program of economic growth and development intended to confer on Europe a surplus of profit margins similar to those posted by Wal-Mart and Warren Buffett. As presented by Jose Manuel Barroso, the Portuguese president of the European Commission, the Lisbon Strategy envisioned a miracle of "increased productivity", "privatized" public services, "competitive" labor markets. First the money, Barroso said, then the comforts.

The order of priority didn't comfort the majority of the politicians in the room, chief among them Daniel Cohn-Bendit, president of the Parliament's Greens, who told Barroso that he was embarking on a "fool's errand", chasing an American dream of development that was as heartless as it was stupid. For the better part of three hours, the discussion was sufficiently wide-ranging to allow for the chance of comparison with the political arguments that take place on Capitol Hill, most obviously in the number of questions asked that seldom reach the floor of the United States Senate - global warming accepted as scientific fact rather than as tendentious theory, concerns, even on the part of politicians associated with the parties of the right, as to the wisdom of easing the environmental restrictions on the European chemical and automobile industries in the hope of a higher number expressing the rate of economic growth. Although I may have misheard the translation from the Swedish, on the latter point I think somebody said that probably it wasn't a good idea to fatten a banker's goose in return for a mess of poisoned fish.

As the Parliament over the years has come to represent more European countries (nine in 1979, twenty-five in 2004) so also it has enlarged its capacity to make politics - the power of the purse over the EU's annual budget of 100 billion euro, the power to co-decide legislation introduced to the national assemblies in the member states, the power to set rules governing the common lines of transport and communication, the power to write a European constitution and with it the chance to make something new under the sun - a civil society formed by a community of opinion not rooted in the egoisms of nationalist sovereignty and populist sentiment.

The diverse character of the 732 members (engineers, journalists, factory owners, scholars, musicians, labor unionists as well as the customary lawyers and professional politicians) provides a high enough quotient of disagreement to encourage genuinely democratic compromise. Elected in their own countries to represent an intellectual rather than a regional or economic interest, the members (thirty percent of them women) can afford the risk of expressing a thought that hasn't been stuffed into their heads by a pollster or a K Street lobbyist.

Together with the American journalists who make fun of the EU, a good many people in Europe assume that the regulation of their commerce is in the hands of impotent bureaucrats dependent for their knowledge of farm animals on the designs of Pablo Picasso. The belief is popular but false. The attempts at coherence in what are known as "matters of European competence" derive from a legislative rather than an administrative authority, and over the course of the afternoon I had the time to reflect on the differences between the indices of a European and an American success - $20 million apartments on Fifth Avenue and the world's most wonderful air force as against the freshness of the bread on a Roman table, the absence of machine guns at the border crossings between Austria and Switzerland, free admission to a hospital, the certainty of an intelligent education. For everybody who can afford the price of a Harvard diploma and a pet politician, America is a very nice place to live; for people not so fortunately situated, America is fast becoming a brand name pasted on a bad movie or an empty box.

Various sets of statistics establish the exchange rate between the currencies of the private and the public good - one American adult in every five living in a state of poverty, as opposed to one in every fifteen in Italy; the quality of America's health-care services ranked thirty-seventh among the world's industrial nations; productivity per hour of work lower in the United States than in Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, and France; Europe in 2003 giving $36.5 billion to other countries in need of development money, while a third of that sum was forthcoming from the United States; the disparity in the incomes of a CEO and a common laborer standing at a ratio of 475 to 1 in America, 15 to 1 in France, 13 to 1 in Sweden. The less abstract comparisons between the standards of living show up on postcards (the look of the architecture, the taste of the food and drink, et cetera), but I think it worth noting that in the arena of foreign trade the American export of advanced-technology products declined by 21 percent in 2004, as opposed to its rising export (up by 135 percent) of scrap and waste. The numbers serve as a gloss on our current accounts deficit ($164 billion) and the fall in value of the dollar over the last few years (nearly thirty percent) when fixed against the euro.

The American notions of success, spiritual as well as material, congregate around the altar of the divine self. The display or consumption of the best of everything available online and in stock (hair products, beachfront property, religious guidance, domestic servants, and foreign oil reserves) serves as proof of salvation in both this world and the next. Given the ever larger number of people north and south of the equator seeking a share of the resources no longer as plentiful as the buffalo on the old Oklahoma frontier, the American song of perfect happiness begins to sound off-key in the political theater of the twenty-first century.

Cohn-Bendit made a corollary point with reference to the Bush Administration's messianic foreign policy. I'd remembered him as an ardent voice of protest during the student rebellion in Paris in 1968, and having been impressed by his remarks on the Lisbon Strategy, I stopped by his office two days after the parliamentary debate to ask a number of questions about the politics of the EU. He chose instead to talk about President Bush telling an audience of military officers in Washington on the night before his second inauguration that as Americans, he and they had "a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom".

"Where is that?" Cohn-Bendit said. "Beyond the stars. What do you say to people who think that freedom is given by God, not made by men? You can say, 'Are you mad?' but then, please tell me, what do you say next?"

The question touched on what over the course of three days I came to regard as the chief difference between the usages of the democratic idea in Washington and Brussels. On Capitol Hill as at the White House and the Pentagon the idea comes wrapped in the swaddling cloth of holy writ, accepted on faith and formulated as doctrine - Thomas Jefferson born in a manger, the Constitution brought from afar, by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton riding to Philadelphia on camels. The members of the European Parliament know something of history, and whether I was talking to the Baroness Emma Nicholson, a British peer whose ancestors had come to England with William the Conqueror, or to Bronislaw Geremek (member from Warsaw, jailed as a political dissident during the early days of the Polish uprising in 1981, subsequently the Polish foreign minister), the conversations invariably took place in the presence of both the near and distant past. Europe in the twentieth century had twice attempted suicide, and nobody was eager to repeat the performance. The Nazi and Napoleonic dreams of empire were still as vividly in the news as President Bush's second inaugural announcement that America had lit "a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world."

The difference between the sacred and the secular defenses against the arrows of outrageous fortune is the difference between certainty and doubt, and if given a choice of allies I'd rather take my chances with people who know that poverty, disease, and the degradation of the environment are greater weapons of mass destruction than the bombs coveted by Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein, that what saves us in the end is the force of the human imagination, not the armies sent by a deified emperor in Vienna or Rome. "The war on terror", Crespo had said, "is in the head; you don't win it with tanks".

I had come to Brussels with the hope of encountering a less terrified response to the storm of the world than the one I'd encountered in Washington, and despite the many failings of the European Parliament - the going to Strasbourg once a month to cast its ballots, the labyrinth of bureaucratic inertia, et cetera - I took heart from its willingness to learn from experience and to employ the tools of constitutional government that in America have become museum pieces, to find its security in the health, courage, and intelligence of its citizens rather than in the four-color photographs of invincible aircraft carriers, to understand the democratic idea not as a projection of power but as an expression of liberty.

"We have made Europe", Geremek had said, "but how do we make Europeans?" What he had in mind was a civilization in place of a fortress, and although his question was unanswerable, it seemed to me somehow better matched to the complexities of the twenty-first century than the ones that get asked in Washington about the size and throw weight of the President's codpiece.

Bill Totten


Post a Comment

<< Home