A couple of weeks ago I went with Pete Boettke to see Tim Garton Ash speak on "Europe and Freedom" at the LSE. It was a great event - a classic English lecture - but left me disappointed in the way Garton Ash's career has evolved.
He built his scholarly reputation with his "Histories of the Present", the works of a brilliant journalist and insightful historian. His accounts from the inside of those European constitutional moments were incredibly self-aware, and he deliberately and delightfully made the case for sacrificing hindsight in favour of capturing the tacit elements of constitutional change. He was at pains to describe the strengths of this method, as well as the weaknesses, and his consciousness about bias made him cagey, hesitant, and reluctant about forming a central narrative. He was establishing facts, offering an interpretation, but never overselling his personal opinion.
Since then his work has changed, perhaps as a response to the visibility and income offered by The Guardian, and -- as Paul Krugman has also done -- we see an evolution from scholar to columnist. For the general public this is a good thing, but speaking as a constitutional scholar, it feels like we've lost a crucial colleague.
His subject matter has "zoomed out" to become far wider, deeper, and complex. He no longer describes instances of change, but the broad patterns that determine change. It isn't true that he's switched from positive analysis to normative implications (his works have always resided within a framework that promotes democracy, economic freedom, and rule of law) but he has moved from cautious opinion to philosophical grandstanding. By abandoning his Histories of the Present, he's lost his anchor.
As a historian, it didn't matter that he's not a trained economist (and he acknowledged this). But if he wants to be a political scientist he's got work to do. Ironically his majestic distinction between fact and truth is painfully self-relevent: without facts his truth has no context.
Garton Ash's thesis is twofold. Firstly, that the EU has a big problem:
The EU has never really had a policy toward its neighbours, except enlargement
Charlemagne, 28th October 2006
But now that the EU has expanded to the boundary of Africa and Asia further enlargement will not be a credible promise. (Interesting Garton Ash does believe that Turkey should be admitted, but whether Russia and Turkey join or not, they're the furthest East the EU could possibly spread). Consequently the EU needs to create a geniune policy for neighbours: what it is that will define the relationship with the acceptance that future membership isn't an option.
The second part of Garton Ash's thesis is that Europe (in contrast to Asia) has historically been associated with freedom, and that the European project should rediscover this tradition to create a common voice. He sees it as means to bind Europeans, and counterbalance the US on the global stage.
Garton Ash believes that part two can solve part one, but I think his whole framework rests on the insecure foundation that Europe and the EU are analytically equivilent. He fails to see that what's best for Europe, might not be best for the EU. The former is a geographical area containing millions of people. The latter is a political institution that represents them. The two are different.
It seems an obscure reading of world history to claim that freedom can be what binds Europe and makes us distinct from America. Regardless of the founding principles of the notion of Europe, the c20th contribution have been the twin evils of collectivism: Fascism and Communism. It was only with US help that the Nazi's were defeated, afterwhich Europe divided between freedom and oppression. There the EU project began to specifically bind France and Germany though economic interdependence. That worked, but the EU project ignored the Eastern members of Europe and America played a far greater role in returning those lands to freedom. Radio Free Europe was American. It was McDonald's and Levis that symbolised the Western values that Eastern Europeans wanted. Ok, Western Europe gave them a glimpse of freedom - yardstick competition played a role - but that was geocgraphical convenience, not philosophical relevence. It was America that freed Europe. Not Europe, and certainly not the EU.
Despite what Garton Ash wishes to be true - even if he can claim to have historical precedent - I don't think the people are with him. Sadly, he paints too rosy (and too optimistic) a picture.
Freedom isn't a European concept because it's a universal value, and therefore the EU's neighbourhood policy needn't have anything to do with Europe at all: a common market transcends national characteristics.
Indeed the EU can undermine this freedom-agenda, by imposing an incompatible political system a top a region too diverse, too different to even have a common voice. I've said before that the EU is a mirage and the "expansion of the EU as an expanstion of freedom" is undone if it's the process of membership that produces lasting, useful reforms, and not membership itself.
As Vaclav Haus says in his speech to the 2001 Mont Pelerin meeting:
"We want to go 'back to Europe', to the freedom which we did not enjoy in the communist era, but we hesitate to rush into the European Union which is the embodiment of ambitions to create something other than a free society"*
* Klaus, V. (1991) "Back to Europe or Avanti into the European Union", pubished in Klaus, V.and Schwartz, P. "European Union of Not? Center for Research into Post-Communist Economies Occasional Paper 11