BRUSSELS —— I'm standing somewhere between the Maelbeek and Schuman metro stops in the so—called European quarter of this city wondering: Who are all the slim, nattily—dressed men running around the glass and metal buildings here? They —— and their attractive female analogues —— move in and out of Berlaymont, the European Commission's flagship building, with brisk steps and pursed lips, their eyes full of what I can only call missionary zeal.
The Commission is the European Union's executive body, and these young technocrats are its minions —— the shock troops of Europe's growing administrative, bureaucratic and therapeutic state.
Feeling somewhat like Daniel in the lion's den, I'm attending a two—day seminar here organized by the Commission for more than a hundred international students —— all participants in one of the Commission's many, multi—disciplinary Erasmus Mundus education programs. (In fact, I'm here with two others representing the journalism program.) The Commission and its educational consultants ostensibly want our input — but they end up doing most of the talking.
Speakers explain that the aim of the Erasmus Mundus initiative is to create graduate—level education in Europe good enough to compete with graduate education in the U.S. They then take turns presenting dozens of slides filled with data showing survey results, trends, costs, etc. But after a while, as I listen to speaker after speaker during the plenary sessions and workshops, I begin to feel skeptical about it all.
What the officials perhaps don't seem to realize is that America's top—notch, innovative and globally competitive higher education system —— would it be wrong if I were to call it the world's best? —— is the result of decentralized approaches, competitive market pressures, philanthropic efforts and informal and collaborative research networks. Yes, a healthy dose of federal monies, tax incentives and government largesse has played a part in all this. But in the end, Americans have always known —— though President Reagan had to remind us —— that government is the problem, not the solution. Our European friends insist on the opposite.
The State as 'Fixer'
There are many ways to illustrate just how disturbingly comfortable Europeans are with the idea of the State. In casual conversations, one hears young Europeans say that national governments must always intervene to "fix things." The manipulation of public policy is seen as the principal way to solve society's problems. More worrisome perhaps is the aggressive and self—righteous pro—EU stance that often accompanies such sentiments. Students, professors and journalists across the continent tend to treat any signs of possible Euro—skepticism as a sign of madness. At both Danish and Dutch universities, I've heard professors dismiss those who voted against the 2005 referendum on the ratification of the European constitution as "stupid" and "ignorant." "Such people," a professor told us, "simply need to be taught more about the EU."
There is a dangerous kind of elitism that underlies these narrow—minded, pro—EU attitudes. Worse, the EU is seen as the natural culmination of liberal democratic values —— an evolving model of public administration, sound policy coordination and rational progress towards a better future. The few times I have been careless enough to express my own doubts about le grand projet europ n, I have been perceived as someone who simply disliked the poor, the diseased and even the feeble (!).
The truth is that many of the people I've talked to over the past several months —— Giannandrea the Italian mechanic, Katrine the Danish cheese—shop lady and Jan the Dutch handyman —— have expressed deep antipathy towards Brussels. They've complained of increasing tax burdens, growing regulatory standards and even the effects of monetary union on weaker national economies.
Are people like Giannandrea, then, the "stupid" and "ignorant" Euroskeptics we were told about?
A few weeks ago, in Amsterdam, a political scientist and long—time EU observer spoke to me about some of the "founding fathers" of the European Union —— in particular Messrs. Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer. The original vision of Europe that these three men shared —— all of whom, by the way, could be considered classical liberals —— was something patterned after the United States: a federal system of government with a simple constitution guiding a limited number of overlapping institutions.
Then Came the Socialists
But anti—American thinking and socialist ideas quickly superseded this original vision. And, eventually, with powerful Commission presidents like French socialist Jacques Delors (1985—95), the EU grew into the sprawling international complex of supra—national administrative institutions and bureaucratic networks —— with the Commission and the Council in Brussels, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the European Parliament in Strasbourg (alternating with Brussels) and the European Central Bank in Germany.
As it's grown, say critics, this modern Leviathan has slowly eroded national cultures, political autonomy and the local traditions of its member nations. More troubling, as we saw a few years ago with the vicious Borking of Italian philosopher—politician Rocco Buttiglione, nominated to the post of European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, the Eurocrats in Brussels (some of who are or will be those well—dressed chaps we saw earlier near Berlaymont) are also attempting to deracinate Europe from a religious past that they find intolerable, objectionable, uncomfortable.
May I suggest that the only thing that is truly objectionable is what emanates out of Brussels? In fact, the closer you get to the European quarter —— and, specifically, the nearer you are to Berlaymont —— the more miserable and sallow people seem to look, a bit like tortured souls in some bureaucratic Hell.
I suppose this points to what Lord Acton said long ago: that the concentration of power in the hands of large—scale bureaucracies and their acolytes (whether in Brussels or in Washington or Beijing) has a corrupting effect on people. What Europe needs now, then, is a few good men willing to stand athwart history yelling, "Stop!"
Alvino—Mario Fantini is currently an Erasmus Mundus scholar through the European Union. He has previously written about Bolivia for The American Thinker.