La valse européenne
“For the last ten years or so, Europe has existed in a permanent state of crisis, a crisis that has cost it its popularity but which, through the unfortunate adventure of Brexit, has paradoxically shown that the EU is irreversible. For years, populist leaders have championed the cause of national independence. They have had to give up on this miracle solution, which has lost all credibility. The dissolution of the European Union is no longer on the agenda. The European people, and not just the elite classes, are aware that they have no future without the European Union. For better and not for worse. But the ‘worse’ is still corrosive. Trust in a shared future is no longer taken for granted; doubt and mistrust are setting in almost everywhere. It is on the foundation of this alliance, more resigned than enthusiastic, that we must rebuild. Because Europe is no longer capable of facing the challenges of the future”, reads the introduction by Élie Cohen, emeritus research director at CNRS, and Richard Robert, a lecturer at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris (our translation throughout).
Taking the pandemic as their starting point, the authors identify the threefold rhythms of European crisis management: “the disastrous beginning first of all, when division was the name of the game, the decision was a long time coming, the Conservatives insisted on doing everything by the book. Then, the emergency response, when a handful of the bolder actors took the initiative to break the rules. These were the ECB, the Franco-German partnership and the Commission. Finally, the lengthy negotiations when, following this boldness, new balances and new rules were sought”.
Cohen and Robert show how this story set to waltz time equates to a play in five acts about the euro crisis. They state that “what is always specific about European crises is that they end up creating, in terms both of tools and behaviour”. They explain: “each crisis, in whatever sector, throws any dysfunctions into sharp relief, creating a requirement to set in place new mechanisms, but also reveals inadequate and counter-productive operating methods. All this tension, all these clashes and misunderstandings slowly but surely translate into solutions. Europe needs crisis in order to move forward, it needs mistakes in order to learn, it needs failure in order to succeed. In this approach, which is more pragmatic than considered, policies and not just institutions must adapt. Europe must live in a permanent state of transformation for a long time yet”.
“Both pacifist and pacified, Europe more than others dreams of the end of History”, the authors note, adding: “the whole of Europe, throughout this long crisis that continues to re-emerge, has followed the course of a History it had tried to escape from and which they were brought to by the mega euro crisis, the ‘xits’ and external shocks: Trump and Xi Jinping, migrants and Erdoğan, Putin, the virus. We can describe these shocks and tensions as three modalities of historical time which have tested it and which it comes out of rattled, but also strengthened”.
Cohen and Robert sketch out ten options for the future. Amongst other things, they consider that the Union should articulate its policies more effectively and that it must “reword and relaunch the old debate on the deepening of the Union”. “A new version of the Stability and Growth Pact would go some way towards this, whilst giving the member states greater budgetary margin in exchange for greater liability in the event of side slipping”, the authors argue. They to stress that “above and beyond these adjustments, there are major clashes over identity and defence and there is no point even thinking about trying to reabsorb these, even in the medium term. Lessons must be learnt from them. If it is the choice of liberal democracies to defend tooth and nail the sovereignty they have regained after decades under the yoke of former empires, then we will have to give up on the idea of pooling certain policies, for instance for refugees, and review Schengen accordingly. If Germany is unable to make a decision in defence matters between an opinion drawn to pacifism and a tangible commitment (in both budgetary and strategic terms), then variable geometry will need to be reinvented”. They add that “the lesson to be learned from this book is that better integration (that is able to produce fairer, faster decisions that take account of the differences within the Union) should be the aim, rather than bigger integration”. (Olivier Jehin)
Elie Cohen and Richard Robert. La v alse européenne – Les trois temps de la crise. Fayard. ISBN: 978-2-213-71799-9. 478 pages. €25,00
Covid-19, science et politique
In this essay, Michel Claessens, among other things the head of communication for ITER and former employee of DG Research at the European Commission, analyses the strategies developed by various countries, in particular China, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, in the framework of the pandemic. His emphasis is on the interactions between politicians and scientists, and the resulting discredit.
“A survey carried out in France in April 2020, in other words right in the middle of lockdown, showed a 10-point drop in confidence in the scientific community”, the author reports, relaying the warning cry of geneticist Axel Kahn: “where did we go wrong, we the intellectuals, scientists and popularisers of the end of the 20th century?” (Our translation throughout). Claessens adds: “it is worth betting that if the voices of researchers are no longer heard or even listened to, society as a whole will take the path of science less and less. White lab coats now have to compete with the yellow vests of anti-science and conspiracy theories. Ignorance is the perfect breeding ground for the virus. Academic dream or techno-scientific realism: is that a fight can be won? Politics and industry are the two big winners of this crisis”.
But whose fault is this? The politicians, who use the scientists, without a doubt. The media, always short of experts and arguments, most certainly. But the scientists themselves must also take their share of the blame, the author stresses. “When I hear certain virology experts and doctors in epidemiology speaking on television or the radio during ‘prime time’, they are sometimes really no different from the politicians. Their confidence might come across as arrogance and at the end of the day, they all have an axe to grind: there are the proponents of lockdown, those who believe in modelling, staunch supporters of vaccination, advocates of ‘testology’, etc. Basically, they all have a bias, one way or another. We also saw that some scientists who often communicate via the ‘mass public’ media are becoming less and less scientific”. Claessens reminds us that the German sociologist Max Weber once said that the scientist analyses the world whilst the politician takes position. It is therefore not the place of scientists to do politics. They must preserve their authority, to ensure that facts are understood. “Claiming that politics can follow the science is misleading”, argues Claessens.
The author also flags up the increasing privatisation of the healthcare sector, with a profitability logic applied to public hospitals and the ongoing erosion of healthcare budgets, but also research. “Coronavirus specialists have spoken out many times against the lack of long-term funding to support the development of broad-spectrum anti-virals. More broadly, the scientific community has been calling upon governments for years to put more money into research. Because we cannot vaunt the progress of techno-science while we neglect fundamental research. In Europe, this battle has become a litany of fine words. Calls for the increase of budgets the scientific research generally go unheeded. Unlike China, which has seen the world’s greatest increase in R&D budget. The crisis has shown that there is a very high price for having a very low research budget”, Claessens writes.
Finally, to step up the fight against disinformation and misinformation, the author suggests the creation of an “independent, professional and international information agency specialising in health and involving doctors, academics, researchers, healthcare professionals and journalists in a multi-disciplinary approach, to combine scientific expertise with professional communication”. (OJ)
Michel Claessens. Covid-19, science et politique. Éditions Les trois colonnes. ISBN: 978-2-38326-145-2. 302 pages. €22,00. An English version of the book has been published under the title “The Science and Politics of Covid-19” by Springer Nature Switzerland AG.
“Life continues to amaze me”, a Herman Van Rompuy in particularly poetic form writes in the “musings” of the title (our translation throughout). “Life itself, which goes on outside me, is (…) impenetrable. Many things happen to us, overtake us. This is why I play down my own merits”, the former President of the European Council notes in the foreword to a journal that is both highly personal and almost completely apolitical. Because “politics quite simply stayed outside when I closed the door to my house in the evening”, he explains. But also because he says that when he left politics in 2014, it was without the slightest nostalgia: “I am proud of what I was able to do for all those years, but it was over”.
In this diary, which covers the years 2004 to 2021 with a gap between February 2014 and February 2017, politics gives way at various times to culture, Roman Catholic faith, which runs through Herman Rompuy like Brighton rock, and philosophy, notably in consideration of death. Many quotations, from Shakespeare to Eric Emmanuel Schmitt, via Saint-Exupéry, Heinrich Heine, Rudyard Kipling, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Montaigne and Alain Finkielkraut, illustrate the author’s meanderings, which often end up in contemplation, mysticism and prayer, just like the one published on 20 June 2006.
Although it was losing both his parents within nine days of each other in 2004 that obviously affected the author the most, he also refers to the deaths of many Belgian public figures. On 24 June 2019, his entry reads: “Karel Van Miert has died suddenly. In his beloved orchard. The house and the garden, so exactingly built and combined together, lie fallow. The fruit will continue to hang from the trees. Everything stops and everything ceases to have meaning. It has meaning only for the living”.
On the evening of the day on which he took up his duties as President of the European Council on 1 January 2010, he wrote: “from today, I am officially in office. Een undiscovered country. Everybody is positive about me. How long will that last? It is a very strange sensation and experience”. “On 11 February, I had my first European Council. I am pleased, very pleased, with how it went. By going at it gently, I was able to guide the large countries to a result and prevent them from being the winners. Most importantly, we avoided a crisis on the financial markets”, writes Van Rompuy, clearly still blissfully unaware of the succession of crises the European Union and its member states would come to deal with. On the eve of his 25th European Council on 26 June 2013, he notes: “problems are building up in a situation in which Europe is not the only one at a crossroads. We are aware that the current ‘way of life’ is practically untenable, but we refuse to adapt. Or not enough. More than ever, we need a long-term vision, but individualism keeps us firmly in the short term”.
Some pages are devoted to official travel and visits. On a private journey to Rwanda in 2006, he observed that the difference between private travel and official visit is that during the latter, “you only get to see what the authorities want to show you” and this time, he was able to get a “balanced view”. He added that “I am not one of those people who become a self-proclaimed expert after an official visit lasting a few days”.
The book also features around a hundred haikus, including this one on Europe:
“A circlet of stars
Flying over a blue sea
Herman Van Rompuy. Mijmeringen – Dagboeknotities en haiku’s 2004-2021. Davidsfonds Uitgeverij. ISBN: 978-9-022-33816-2. 221 pages. €29,99
Sus au goupil!
As rich as it is varied, the latest edition of the Revue générale remembers September 11 and the 20 years that have passed since the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. Under the title “Sus au goupil!” (Death to the fox!), Jean-Pol Masson offers a passionate analysis of the legal principles set out in the Roman de Renart (Reynard the Fox) in the second half of the 12th century. Finally, in a moment of pure pleasure, we meet the late Sacha Guitry, with an introduction and anecdotes by Marc Danval. (OJ)
Jean-Pol Masson. Sus au goupil! – Le droit dans le Roman de Renart. Revue générale no. 2021/3 – September 2021. Presses universitaires de Louvain. ISBN: 978-2-390-61162-2. 221 pages. €22,00