Retiring politicians tend to write memoirs, but as a renowned professor who in 2019 had just finished serving as a member of the European Parliament, having represented Hungary for 15 years, it is only fitting that George Schöpflin would pick a different genre for his reflections.
In his new book titled The European Polis, which he calls “a work of observer participation,” British-Hungarian academic George Schöpflin put pen to paper to present a fresh evaluation of the European project and offer some piercing criticism directed at the deficiencies of the European Union “in the way of accountability of power, self-correction mechanisms, self-limitation, checks and balances and even transparency.”
Available from Ludovika University Press, this 200-plus page monograph consists of two parts (or as the author puts it, “two interconnected essays”).
Polis, Demos, Ethnos
The first part aims to provide an assessment of the European Union as a polis, and how it has changed since its inception. Schöpflin claims that there is „evidence of entropy” and that “the sense of mission that once activated integration is now weak and has been replaced by bureaucratic procedures, technocratic solutions and a default into legalese.”
In part he blames the innovation-stifling impact caused by „the capture of the integration project by the left,” as well as an almost eschatological view of history in general and the European project in particular. One of the results being that even „thinking about alternative ways of defining Europe, counts as anti-liberal, anti-progressive, anti-European and being on the wrong side of history.”
Along with his disapproval directed at this “rise of ideological thinking and the corresponding loss of capacity for debate,” the author also raises the question whether the EU can even be considered democratic without a proper demos of its own – or as he put it, “European citizenship is largely a fiction” and “the European polis manifestly lacks a demos” – while at the same time not having any meaningful mechanisms that would grant the member states’ demos any direct and binding input into EU decision making.
As an undeniable authority in the field of nationhood and identity theory, and theories of power, Schöpflin makes a strong case that when it comes to member states, the historic link between demos and ethnos – “a people with shared linguistic, cultural and historical traditions” – is an undeniable reality, and consistent attempts by the European Union’s political elite to reject the principle of ethnos do not bode well. Case in point, we should add, is the EC’s rejection of the Minority SafePack initiative earlier this year, retrospectively supporting the author’s view of “the European polis, which rejects ethnos in principle and keeps the demos at arms’ length.”
While European voices have often been heard calling for the EU to be “closer to its citizens”, the author’s arguments lead the reader to the inescapable conclusion that this distance between the demos and the polis is, as they say, not a bug, but indeed a feature, which is consistently maintained.
Schöpflin’s academic acumen is further demonstrated in chapters such as “The deep state problem”, “Europe’s asymmetries of power” or “The weaponising of the rule of law”, to mention just a few.
Inevitable Necessity or Necessary Flexibility?
The second part of The European Polis focuses on Central Europe, on what the region brings to the EU, and why this contribution so often seems to be at odds with Western European expectations. Titles like “Central Europe and the European Trapfall: Central Europe’s misadventure”, “Cultural trauma” or “A twofold process of mutual misunderstanding” are immediately informative.
Echoing the thoughts about demos and ethnos from the first part of the book, Schöpflin takes the reader through the various historical transformations of the region in a clear and concise manner, demonstrating how the peculiarities of those transformations necessarily “created a lasting ambivalence towards the modern state and thus to modernity,” even setting “the pattern for a moral legitimation to resistance.” One of the points he makes is that such an attitude being a constituent part of the region’s cultural heritage, and nationhood having had “a strong ethnic element” upon the collapse of communism, Western European efforts “to marginalise ethnicity and to impose what it believed were non-ethnic approaches to the exercise of power” have not been met with much enthusiasm nor were they particularly successful in the Central European nations.
Also echoing his earlier criticism of an eschatological view of history, Schöpflin takes issue with “the mythic narrative of progress, including the equally dubious belief that history has a purpose and message”, as well as expectations that the nations of the region must inevitably transition to a state envisioned by this ideological thinking. Instead, he suggests that “liminality” – when “elements of the old coexist with the new” – could in fact be a lasting condition that characterises the region, and it should not be viewed as some inconvenient transitional stage – a sort of labour pain to overcome – because “maybe there is nothing new struggling to be born.” Accepting this possibility and showing corresponding flexibility could be crucial.
Up Close and Personal
The book sports several informative graphs, an overview of various relevant documents, an exhaustive bibliography, citing authors from across the continent, from Benedict Anderson to Ivan Krastev, and its arguments follow a clear and logical path. Of course this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the works of the author. Yet one of the features which certainly makes this particular book stand out in the field of academic essays covering topics such as EU decision making, distribution of power, integration and so on, is its reliance on the author’s underlying personal experiences on these subjects, and even private conversations with leading EU politicians, which he draws on in his work in a very natural way.
Such an approach certainly has the advantage of providing exceptional insight and added authority to the conclusions drawn. And although it probably goes without saying, it is nevertheless worth noting that the book does not become a political pamphlet, but remains a solid academic work throughout.
Ultimately, The European Polis is indeed a unique synthesis of Professor George Schöpflin’s extensive academic knowledge and MEP György Schöpflin’s first-hand political experience, providing a valuable magnifying lens through which much recent – and likely future –developments of the European project can be examined and understood.
The book is availabe in our Webshop.