10th May 2021


Taking the aether out of the EU universe

Until the late 19th century, scientists around the world believed that the vast space between the universe's stars and planets was filled with a mythical and mysterious substance called aether.

Aether, so the story went, was the carrier of light through the vacuum of space, the "quintessential" material without which the sun's energy could not reach Earth and which penetrated and permeated everything.

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  • Aetherists populate European think tanks, but their true homes are universities, the media, the European Parliament, and the politicised parts of the European Commission. In Germany, a considerable part of the political class is in their camp (Photo: German Marshall Fund)

The theory made a lot of sense, it was beautiful, even poetic. Its only problem was that it was wrong. There is no such thing as aether out there in the cosmos.

Aether might be dead as a scientific concept but the hunger for illusions and false explanations that created it is very much alive and kicking today.

Large parts of the debate about the future of the EU seem to rely on the intriguing idea that some sort of wundermaterial for which there is no proof of existence will somehow turn theory and hope into political reality.

In the aether school of thought, the next great leap towards more integration is always just around the corner.

Politicians will suddenly cave to the obvious need for more cooperation and create great breakthroughs on migration, defence and climate policy. Citizens will finally stand up and bring about the European republic. France and Germany will form the decisive duo again once Angela Merkel is gone.

Feckless fiscal frugals will overcome their abhorrent affliction and embrace expanded EU expenditure.

Aetherists imagine that nations will hand over their militaries to Brussels to form a European army.

Parliaments across the eurozone will be eager to give up their crown competence, the power of the purse, in favour of fully integrated EU budget making.

Brexit will never happen, but now that it has happened, the UK will soon enough seek to rejoin the EU. The mere "geopolitical" imagination of the new EU Commission president will shepherd all member states into a more unified foreign policy so that the Union can speak with one voice.

What will be...won't be

In short: these folks believe that just because something needs to happen it must happen and therefore will happen.

They believe that it is clearly obvious to everyone (apart from a few horribly misinformed Cro-Magnon types in central and eastern Europeans) that the nation state is over and that "more Europe" is actually a viable political program across the board, not just a slogan.

Aetherists also believe that Pesco (the EU's permanent structured cooperation) is great evidence for the member states' readiness to get serious about defence when, in reality, the exact opposite is the case.

Aetherists populate European think tanks, but their true homes are universities, the media, the European Parliament, and the politicised parts of the European Commission. In Germany, a considerable part of the political class is in their camp.

The problem with this thinking is not that its ideas aren't often (though not always) highly desirable. Europe is indeed in dire need of much more intensive cooperation and also integration on many fronts, whether it is energy policy or euro governance, whether it is managing migration flows or confronting Russia and China.

A European army will not come to pass, but there is no doubt that also the EU, not just Nato, must get serious about building muscles to back up diplomacy and protect interests.

The European republic won't be installed any time soon (or ever), but it is clear that political participation by citizens needs to be improved within the EU, an already deeply integrated political entity.

The problem is that in the absence of any recognisable political will among European voters and leaders to create any of these outcomes for the EU, the stubborn insistence that it all must and will happen looks increasingly out of place.

And not just that. It also starts to turn from admirable and needed to harmful and cynical.

Progress vs Probability

There is no surer way to turn people against the great idea of European integration than to keep promising them huge progress against all probability and plausibility.

The European cause, one of the worthiest the Old World has ever produced, will lose, not gain, support if all that pundits can come up with in the face of hostility to more integration is the doubling down on integration promises.

The EU gets sucked into a damaging current of re-nationalisation and inter-governmental deal-making? Let's not come up with workable solutions to stop the bleeding, but let's ask for the European republic!

The EU has not gained but lost ground as a foreign policy player ever since the reforms of the Lisbon Treaty? Let's not limit expectations and focus on a few reachable goals, but let's promise a grand geopolitical re-awakening that will catapult the EU to global foreign policy stardom!

This tendency to permanently root the Europe debate in the realm of the un-doable produces the opposite of what it desires to bring about.

Citizens instinctively feel that the pro-Europe case is uncoupled from political realities. The admirable bunch of activists that still flocks to the street as part of the "Pulse of Europe" movement (or similarly minded groupings) is unable to connect its idealism to any realistic hope of progress.

If all that politicians can offer them is aether their energy and effort is betrayed. Instead of looking like the vanguard of progress, they look like hopeless dreamers whose main function is to soothe the guilty conscience of leaders who don't want to disappoint them but can't tell them the truth either.

But not just the heart-bleeding idealists are being stabbed in the back.

The more hard-nosed Euro-realists, like myself, who are deeply in love with the historic greatness of the integration project, but who favour incremental progress and a carefully balanced approach to "more Europe", are being alienated.

Their lack of enthusiasm for pie in the sky is often discredited as 'euroscepticism in disguise'.

Their warnings that unfounded theory and overplayed optimism are ill-equipped to deliver results in the current political environment are seen as betrayal.

Their carefully phrased hints at the fact that nations might still have a role to play and that too much wholesale integration might feed the beast of nationalism and populism instead of fighting it, are decried as sympathy for the devil. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Experiments in the 1880s established that no such thing as aether existed. Einstein called the sobering results a "serious embarrassment" for the duped community of scientists whose beautiful theory had just been turned to ashes. To avoid similar embarrassment, pro-Europeanists need to learn again how to hit the sweet spot between idealism and achievability in their ambitions for Europe.

The future of the EU might depend on it.

Author bio

Jan Techau is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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