Many times in the history of the European Union, scholars and practitioners have been tempted to designate it as a “strange beast”. The institutional complexity and fragmentation of the EU polity only go some way in explaining the suggestive power of this metaphor, the vague sense that it is well-fit. Is it just a good joke, or does it hint at something more? At a closer look, arguing that the EU “is” a strange beast is not saying it merely looks like one. It does hint at something more, but what is it? If, like the fairytale Ugly Duckling, today’s EU suffers from a weird complexion one could ask whether it is just a phase. Unfortunately, that the current malaise is only temporary has become less and less credible a claim in recent years. To convincingly argue that the EU will grow up, what is needed is an image of the EU as an adult swan. An image of what the EU actually “is” and is willing to be.
EU’s practices of justification, legitimation, and identification are in no way “beyond” the modern state.
At present, however, no such image can be found that be nearly as convincing as the “strange beast” label. The latter at least lets out the whole embarrassment one feels when trying to be specific about the fundamental nature of the EU. To put it differently, it conveys a reasonable measure of ontological scepticism. Whenever asked ontological questions, Europeans find easy to answer by saying that the EU is something akin to a state. But such an indication is in stark contrast with how the EU sometimes portraits itself: an unprecedented “non-state” polity which overcomes the traditional state form. As it is often the case, simple answers simply lead to murkier problems.
Just another state?
To all those who are brave enough to delve deeper into the subject, Stefan Borg’s new book offers an original entry point to the maze of EU ontology. The author takes issue with the irreflexive assumption that the EU is an entirely novel form of political community, one that would transcend the modern state and refute the constitutive role of political violence. His main argument is that the EU’s practices of justification, legitimation, and identification are in no way “beyond” the modern state. On the contrary, he attempts to show that what he calls EU-crafting – that is the EU’s “ontologizing” and “performative” acts of self-identification, bordering, and ordering as an organized political community – is nothing but a reiteration of the old blueprint of statecraft. As such, the European project is not liberated from the original sin of state violence; conversely it is still trapped in a constant swinging between assimilating diversity and expelling it: a syndrome typically associated with the drawing and presiding of boundaries, be they ethical, ethnical, or geographical. No easy solution exists to remedy this fallacy, Borg finally warns, but the awareness of present blind spots is the only feasible first step towards a remedy.
The book is structured in eight parts: an introduction, a theoretical chapter, five substantive chapters and some brief concluding remarks. Firstly, Borg familiarises the reader with the classics (Deridda, Gramsci, Laclau and others) that inspired his work, as well as with his assumptions on the nature of stateness and textuality. Author positioning exercises abound in the introduction, which contains some of the less rewarding passages of the book. Chapter one more sharply illustrates Borg’s main contention about the state-like nature and possible fate of the EU. His normative puzzle is clear and engaging and his discussion of the concepts of state and statecraft informative and convincing.
The image of the EU as a cosmopolitan empire is all but a replication of the assimilatory ways of modern imperialism.
In the subsequent five substantive chapters, the author supports his claims with a series of critical examinations of EU integration theories, discoursive practices, and border policing. Chapter two is meant to acknowledge the limits of neo-functionalism as a “political discourse” on EU integration. Neo-functionalism introduced the very notion that the EU is a post-statist development, but its reliance on notions such as self-interest, loyalty and political community reveals its rooting in classical state theories of social contract. Even worse, it was never fully cognizant of the geopolitical risks involved in uploading modern era Realpolitik into the new centre of a pacified Europe. Chapter three deals instead with the turn to normative political theory within European integration studies since the 1990s, and with the growing interest for issues of democracy, citizenship and legitimacy. Having dismissed most of this literature as too prone to measuring the achievements of EU integration against the nation-based liberal-democratic state, Borg focuses on post-national theorisations à la Habermas and on cosmopolitan perspectives. He criticises the first approach stressing its inability to get over the intimate link that exists between democracy and boundary-drawing in traditional statecraft. He also objects that the image of the EU as a cosmopolitan empire is all but a replication of the assimilatory ways of modern imperialism. Alternatively, Borg suggests going back to Gramsci and his notion of hegemony, not to forget the intimate link between authority and legitimation.
Chapters 4 and 5 are dedicated to the analysis of legitimation discourses concerning respectively the EU’s aborted Constitutional Treaty and Common Foreign and Security Policy. Both discourses are performative in kind, since they attempt to provide the fundamental values of a European identity. In so doing, they end up suffering from the same inconsistent swinging that characterises modern statecraft and the self-identification practices of the national state: in Borg’s words “the universal is being compacted in the particular”. The result is the creation of a centre without borders, unable to distinguish itself from “the other”. The EU seems trapped in a pendulum swing between appeals to universal values such as peace or freedom and the appropriation of those same values on the basis of a self-attributed “exceptionalism”. Accordingly, it risks presenting itself as the exemplary bearer of the allegedly universal values it appeals to. Borg’s textual analysis shows how this fundamental ambiguity hampers not only the EU’s ability to act unitarily in the international community, but also its reactions to de-territorialised challenges such as terrorism or trafficking. Even accounting for its own integration process leads the EU to an existential crisis: is it an exemplary case or just a particular instance of nations coming together? This issue is rich of ontological implications for a comparison of statecraft and Euro-crafting.
Along similar lines, Chapter six looks at the case of the Greco-Turkish border, inquiring how the EU crafts its collective identity while confronting migration crises at border zones. This chapter’s anthropological analysis exposes initiatives such as FRONTEX as harshly devoided of any humanitarian character, administratively convoluted, and ultimately frustrating for both migrants seeking integration and the police officers who patrol the EU border. Once again, the culprit is the weakness of the European self: a centre without borders inadvertently unable to tame its hostility towards alterity. As a result, poorly structured border patrol initiatives happen to be invested of polity-building responsibilities that far exceed their goals and operative capabilities. In his short conclusions, Borg summarises and restates the main claims of his work. Euro-crafting is akin to statecraft but, since the EU is unable to problematise its boundary-drawing practices, it remains even less able than the modern state to practice hospitality and minimise violence at its borders. Moreover, little alternative to the statecraft blueprint exists for the EU, so that no happy ending is in sight.
A leap of faith worth taking
Overall, Borg’s volume is engaging, well structured and nicely written. Borg’s general argument and how each chapter contributes to it always remain clear, although the constructivist approach he espouses occasionally brings in a vocabulary and forms of author positioning that may puzzle readers unfamiliar with post-structuralism and postmodernism. The unusual choice of having eight chapters for less than 150 pages of text does not make the book look fragmented. On the contrary, it improves readability and accessibility, sharpening the analytical focus of each part. The volume features clear connections not only in the progression of chapters but also in its overall design. Chapters come with a clearly specified research interest and, speaking of the substantive ones, with some pages of further theoretical discussion, making them fungible and informative even when read in isolation. Modularity makes the book, or excerpts taken from it, a suitable assignment for students in their late master or early graduate school classes. Outside the academia, it may well cater to EU experts and practitioners with a taste for politically engaged theorisation.
There is also much to commend in Borg’s parallelism between EU integration and state building. Sure, his theoretical elaboration asks readers, who are not specialists in Borg’s own intellectual niche, to take a leap of faith; but it is a leap worth taking. By the time the reader gets to the end, she feels reassured that the core tenets of the work have been probed through the analysis theory, politics and policy. On the downside, one has to admit that Borg’s main contentions are forcefully restated page after page, while possible counterarguments or mitigating circumstances are hardly, if ever, considered. Sometimes these omissions sharpen the argument, sometimes they make it naïve; in some other cases they go both ways. To make just one example, Borg advances a sound political science argument when he suggests that EU democracy and its constitutional discourse are in tension, given that the latter is an inevitable attempt to insulate a set of values from political contestation. However, when he adds that the Constitutional Treaty has failed to be ratified due to a popular backlash against the technocratic narrative of EU integration, he naively does away with the entire political and economic context of that event.
The complete lack of even a short pars construens may disappoint some readers and suggest intellectual one-sidedness or political engagement.
The author of the book obviously sees himself as a critical theorist. He markedly, not to say defensively, stresses that his main goal is to pinpoint the limits of today’s EU, not to propose ready-made solutions. However, the complete lack of even a short pars construens may disappoint some readers and suggest intellectual one-sidedness or political engagement. And yet, it would be unfair to dub Borg’s conclusions insufficient or pessimistic. They are better conceived as the first step of a longer journey, whose destination is, in fact, impossible to predict now. With its short length and its limitations, this book is a useful and eye-opening exercise in normative theory, able to speak to various expertises all across the social sciences. Possibly, one of the biggest merits of Borg’s volume is that the omissions, simplifications, and stretches it inevitably contains have the potential to stimulate a new multidisciplinary research agenda on EU polity-building and statecraft. To the EU Ugly Duckling, it may mean being halfway to the happy ending.
Photo Credits CC: Jon Rieley-Goddard