Notes on European political culture




Universal exceptionalism

Exceptionalism is the new word of order in European migration policy.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi met on 26 April to propose a fundamental reform of the Schengen border-free area: a national exception to a hard-won European accomplishment: The Schengen Area. The Area, which permits visa-free circulation accross internal borders is second only to the introduction of the euro itself among Europe’s most profound political accomplishments.

Two weeks earlier France had threatened to close its internal border to Italy as a consequence of Italy’s decision, judged by most observers to be self-evident, to grant Tunisian boat-migrants asylum-seeker status in Europe.

As a response to the French-Italian shoving-match, the Commission published a politically deft communication setting out the option of member-state level border measures ‘as a last resort in truly critical situations, until other (emergency) measures have been taken to stabilise the situation at the relevant external border section either at European level, in a spirit of solidarity, and/or at national level, to better comply with the common rules.’ It was debated hotly in plenum in the Parliament last week.

(The Schengen arrangement actually already contains loopholes for extraordinary border-closing measures, designed as a response to football hooliganism.)

Now Denmark has joined the re-natioanlizing bandwagon, suggesting that it will strengthen its own national customs controls and at the same time taking a strong position against further expansion of the Schengen Area. In a memo published yesterday, Home Affairs Commissioner Malmström encouraged restraint.

This important political excitement re-poses heart-wrenching questions about the relationship between Europe as a place and Europe as an idea. It also re-generates a philosophical question about the particularity of European cultures against the noble universal ambitions.

Europe would be nothing without the intellectual traditions of universality. The universality in the European project can be boiled down to the articulation of a certain number of universal rights. Unfortunatley, and for better or worse, when the European Leviathan takes the word ‘humanity’ in its mouth, (as it is more and more reticent to do), the political paradoxes of making universal policy begin to impose themselves.

The idea of Europe, with its surfeit of shared rights and common values, can only be a meaningful idea to the degree it is supple enough to recognize and accept its own internal differences, be they moral, spiritual, or political, or even, in the case of Lamedusa, geographical.
To be sure, the more material internal differences, from natural resources to climate, from economic robustness to cultural traditions, cannot overshadow the particularity of the map. The accidental exceptionalism of Italy’s handy proximity to northern Africa can never be erased by its participation in the grand spiritual project of Europe. On the contrary, there is no place more European than Lampedusa. On the new map of Europe, Lampedusa is at the center.

There is something inherently realist about idealism: The nooks and crannies of European map are the weave that make up its strength. The success of the European Union (or of any union) is built upon the political, social, cultural and ethical faculties available to deal peacefully with its exceptions.

Leave a Comment