Broadening The Scope - What Brexit Reveals About Human Rights
In this time of economic and social unrest, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wished to reward the EU's successful struggle for peace, reconciliation and for democracy and human rights.
Our quest for European unity is not a perfect work of art; it is work in progress that demands constant and diligent tending. It is not an end in itself, but a means to higher ends. In many ways, it attests to the quest for a cosmopolitan order, in which one person’s gain does not need to be another person’s pain; in which abiding by common norms serves universal values.
José Manuel Durão Barroso, President of the European Commission, in the acceptance speech at Nobel Peace Prize ceremony
Nice words, don’t you think? But to what extent are they true?
18th century, Enlightenment at its peak. Philosopher Immanuel Kant manifests his conviction that, after many wars and suffering, humans will eventually realise that the best context for everybody to live in is a world without war, the achievement of which will ideally require a single global state or, at least, in a more realistic scenario, a permanent universal egalitarian federation. This federation, according to Kant, will be first stablished by the “civilised” (meaning European) countries, that have been living in a state of constant war, to subsequently include gradually the rest of nations. It’s not a surprise, given that we’re talking of the Prussian philosopher, that this situation of global “perpetual peace” matches the consequences of his ethical theory, based on the conviction of the equal value of every human being.
This transgressive, radical idea, dear readers, that of the equal value of every human being, is the philosophy behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And yes, I wrote the word “transgressive”. Not only due to the obvious disparity between reality and the idea itself, but also because it threatens one of our most settled and supposedly innocent political assumptions: the belief that nation-states can (or could) administer Human Rights.
20th century. World War II has finished. After the bloodiest conflicts humankind has ever known, led precisely by the “civilised” countries of the world, the United Nations are born and Human Rights proclaimed. But, as we all know, the UN is a difficult organisation to run and its possibilities are limited. In this context, the European Union, created near the end of the century, will end up being presented as the real hope and a great step in the path to a Kantian-like cosmopolitan order. Furthermore, this integration will be affirmed to defend and promote Human Rights more than any other political body on Earth.
Considered this way, we could all imagine Kant’s approval of the current state of affairs. But there is a lie here. A big one, as usual in Realpolitik. No matter how much it is insisted on, the EU has never been committed to the equal value of every human being.
It has been, however, considerably committed to something else. Let me humbly spell it for you: C-A-P-I-T-A-L. In fact, the now renowned entity is an evolution of (surprise!) the less known European Coal and Steel Community, constituted in 1951 with the conviction that cooperation in arms production would avoid another explosion of the entrenched rivalries between several European countries. What other considerations couldn’t accomplish, business did.
So nowadays we find a supranational entity focused mostly on the circulation of capital, commodities and people and a compromise with Human Rights that very coherently prioritises first-generation rights (those of ‘equal freedom’) and tends to forget so called second-generation rights (the guarantors of ‘equality of opportunities’). But how can liberty be even conceivable without the support of equality of opportunities? If by birth or chance some have a significantly reduced range of possibilities compared with that of others, how can we make sense of the claim that we are all equally free? Clearly, a system that works from the logic of only-first-generation rights falls considerably short of the ideals of universal equal value. And this logic, my friends, the logic of liberty-rights-that-can’t-be-effective-due-to-the-lack-of-equality-of-opportunity, is the logic of a world formed by different states with different resources and, therefore, citizens with different ranges of opportunity depending (although not only) on their nationality.
If Europe had been faithful to its alleged convictions, we would be enmeshed in the process of becoming a federation with a common taxation system and distributive policies to ensure similar living conditions across the Union. Furthermore, European citizens would receive through schools and media an appropriate education directed to enabling new cosmopolitan affiliations, substituting the nation-focused accounts of history with its founding myths and falsely shared milestones (no, I don’t believe in nations) for a European-level framework that explained the interrelations and historical processes that led to a shared polity which works to institutionalise the logic of Human Rights. And, undoubtedly, this would have consequences in our treatment of non-European immigrants: borders don’t make much sense in the logic of Human Rights.
Instead, an extremely bureaucratised EU dominated by lobbies and corporations is perceived by many people as external to, and distant from, their lives. At the same time, the Eurozone has been experienced as a source of impositions and anxieties, to the point in which the perception of the relationship between the supranational entity and particular states has almost been one of imperialism. Europe imposes norms, Europe imposes austerity measures, and many times Europe is not even the elected parliament, but certain European country. “We” have lost control.
Well… The population of nation-states never had real control within the boundaries of the state (no, I don’t believe real democracies exist). But in a context of crisis, of having been forgotten by both state and inter-state elites, tribal affiliations are easy to stir by populist nationalisms run, paradoxically, by state elites in their own favour.
In the face of imposition by a “foreign” entity, “let’s take back control”. Et voilà ! Brexit is served. And the rise of right-wing nationalisms throughout the rest of Europe too. Because nationalism is always right-wing… Right?
The European-level system of one elite-run confederation with its only-first-generation logic has reinforced the logic of multiple elite-run states, an only-first-generation logic. The logic that Europe was supposed to defeat has been adopted and reinforced by Europe itself. Europe never believed in Europe. European countries never believed in the logic of Human Rights. Brexit proves this like nothing else.
And Santa Claus isn’t real. Sorry.
Luckily, there are movements advocating in another direction. Varoufakis’ DiEM25, to be more precise, claims that the obligation to choose between returning to enclosed nation-states and permanence in a doubtfully democratic Europe is a false dilemma. There is another option: that of working for a different EU, of struggling to change it from inside and democratise it.
We should all be demanding the materialisation of the right policies. Europe is not necessarily doomed, but it is on us, its citizens, to give it a new life.