Keynote speakers Peter Hall of Harvard University and Gillian Tett of the Financial Times offered insights into the future of European integration and the political climate in the United States and abroad at the University of Wisconsin–Madison on April 6.
Hall provided a historical look at the European Union (EU) and potential paths forward, while Tett offered a framework to describe how technology has changed social-cultural patterns that feed into the political landscape and help understand the major changes in politics on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in recent years.
Roots of the crisis and the path forward
One of the world's leading experts on European politics, Hall identified four issues facing the EU as well as the historical and political roots of these challenges. These crises – a Euro crisis, a migration crisis, a democracy crisis, and a political crisis– result from an unfulfilled promise, a paradox “baked into the very character” of the EU, and its four-fold expansion.
“For the generation that knew the Second World War, this promise to provide and sustain peace on the European continent was the overriding legitimating objective of the European community when (the EU) was first formed,” Hall said.
This changed in the 1980s to one of bringing prosperity to all European citizens through a single market, and the EU is bearing the brunt of the discontent and anger from recent declines in economic growth and uneven distribution of wealth, he said.
Created in large part to advance the cause of democracy in Europe, the EU originally had jurisdiction over relatively minor regulatory matters and made its decisions in a technical sphere on the grounds of efficiency. Over decades, though, European integration deepened to include substantially more extensive and political issues. In 1992, Treaty on European Union brought the EU’s paradox to light, Hall said.
The treaty strengthened the European Parliament’s power as an elected body, gave control over monetary policy to a central bank highly independent of political control, and created a single currency without any body for coordinating fiscal policy among the countries within the monetary union, he added. The Parliament’s jurisdiction expanded to matters facing deep disagreements among Europeans.
“Issues such as these, which involve imposing losses on some groups in the population in order to impose gains on others, can’t be legitimately decided on technocratic grounds,” Hall said. “Legitimation requires that they be decided by means of democratic processes that render the decision-makers responsive and accountable to an electorate.”
The inexorable expansion from six to 28 members also is fundamental to many of the EU’s challenges, Hall said. “In some ways, this has been a noble enterprise,” he said. “With these decisions, the European Union has made itself a determined, if unsteady, guarantor of democracy across the European continent. It was a move that did deserve, in my opinion, the Nobel Prize. But let’s be blunt, expansion ... has crippled the capacities of the European Union for collective decision-making.”
One example of this is the inability of the EU to integrate refugees. In principal, Hall said, the number of refugees should be manageable by the European Union. However, east-central European nations have mounted stiff resistance to Germany’s efforts to coordinate the distribution of refugees around the continent.
“This conflict exposes a fault line running between eastern and western Europe linked to a dark discrepancy in the visions of Europe,” said Hall. “The migration crisis has inspired an infection – a strain of cultural irredentism – against which the culturalism of the EU has relatively weak antibodies.”
Hall suggested that the European Union move toward a “multi-speed Europe ... in which groups of member states agree to integrate decision-making in particular spheres, in specific fields of policy-making.”
In addition, the EU should loosen its requirements on national governments, he said. “I am not claiming that this is economically optimal, but giving national governments more autonomy has at least as much chance of securing growth as not doing so,” Hall said. “It requires a willingness to share some risks across countries and notably the risk that one or another of its member states might default – and that is, I think, a very real risk.”
Finally, Hall suggested small steps at giving some measure of responsibility in the realm of social policy to the European Union.
Technology and shifting social-cultural patterns
Tett, who studied social anthropology before becoming one of the world's most prominent financial journalists, focused on the political consequences of changing social-cultural patterns resulting from technological advances. These changes “are feeding into the political landscape both in Europe and the United States in quite profound ways,” she said, outlining a framework to describe these patterns. Tett emphasized four key factors:
Despite their intent to provide a place for people to congregate around a single conversation, Twitter and other social media led to fragmentation when people self-selected into specific interest groups, Tett said.
“And that matters because when you look at how things like Brexit developed and how they came to shock the political elite in the UK, one of the themes that pops up over and over again is the level of fragmentation in the political dialogue and the level of separation between people in London who were assuming that everyone looked at the world the way they looked at the world,” Tett said.
Polarization and fragmentation are not new, Tett said, because “human beings are fundamentally tribal.” However, technology allows people to become fragmented more than ever before.
In addition to this sense of fragmentation, there is a shift in the level of trust and respect, noted Tett, the U.S. managing editor for the Financial Times.
“When you look back at what caused the financial crisis, a lot of it was down to the fact that most people lost faith, they lost trust in the financial business,” she said. “The reason why the word ‘credit’ comes from the Latin creditum, which means to believe, is because finance without trust, without faith, doesn’t work. Trust is very, very important to make the economy work.”
In addition, there has been a sharp decline in people’s trust in banks, businesses, government, media, and institutions. “What has arisen is trust in a category known as ‘a person like me – my peer group or an employee of a company,” said Tett, noting a shift from vertical trust to horizontal trust.
For example, people planning a vacation or holiday 10 to 20 years ago, sought advice from travel agents, books, and other materials; today, they use online peer-reviews. This shift in trust and the increase in fragmentation make it very easy for people to have alternative forms of the truth, alternative facts, or entirely alternative conversations, Tett said.
The third aspect of her framework – customization – is exemplified by her teenage children. “My kids, like most kids today, have grown up with this assumption that they have a God-given right to customize everything” based on their desires, needs, and information sources, she said.
This fragmentation and customization have caused people, including Tett, to live in their own bubbles – unaware of other people’s beliefs, opinions, and needs. However, the increase in populism, protectionism, and nationalism have led people to confront their assumptions, recognize how it easy it is to become tribe-like, and think about how they communicate.
In a fragmented, untrusting, and customized world, the current political climate should not be a surprise, she said. “If you put these three together, you get unpredictability,” said Tett as she shared details about her interview of President Donald Trump only six days before the symposium.
Tett asked President Trump if he regretted any of his tweets, and “he more or less said, ‘well, no. It’s working.” His response didn’t surprise her, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone else, she said.
“In this post-truth, fragmented world of customization, short, sharp, snappy tweets, and populist sentiment, dramatic statements are very, very powerful,” she said.