The philosophy of the old EU model is redundant: Europe’s needs in the last century have now become its chains

The philosophy of the old EU model is redundant: Europe’s needs in the last century have now become its chains

It began with iron and steel and economies of scale and integration. Monnet’s European Community embraced the industrial logic of the age. The political ambition – the very finest – was that Germany and France would never fight again. The economic and industrial underpinning was that a bigger, more unified, more rationalised and more integrated Europe would hold its own in a dangerous outside world. The bigger the better.

This was the 20th century ingrained managerial and strategic doctrine out of which the European Union, as it later became, was born. Today it has been totally overtaken and reversed by the digital age. All the centripetal economic forces of fifty years ago, (scale, standardisation, harmonisation, centrally conceived regulation, unification, consolidation etc) have been replaced by the more powerful centrifugal forces of today’s technological revolution. Europe’s needs in the last century have become Europe’s chains in this one.

It is not just a matter of halting the drift, but of unstoppable momentum in the opposite direction. The industrial logic has gone into complete reverse. The case for central planning and control, centrally designed industrial strategies or giant energy projects no longer holds. SMEs, disruptive technologies, ceaseless innovation, local enterprise now take the lead. If there is one basic, truly fundamental, ur-reason explaining Europe’s unsettled state today, with a grumbling Visegrad Group, a furious and bewildered (and frightened) Club Med, a Polish-Brussels stand-off, youth unemployment and general hostility to commands from Brussels – and a populist undertow almost everywhere, even perhaps Brexit itself – this is surely where it lies.

In short, the philosophy of the old EU model is redundant. In the rhetoric of the Union, the four freedoms of movement within the market (proclaimed as indivisible principles) still sound fine. But in practice, principles have been trimmed back to aspirations. Other forces have taken over in re-shaping the entire contemporary industrial and business structure, bringing with it a radically altered social structure. And politics being the outcome, not the cause, of social change – as G.M. Trevelyan long ago reminded us – that means political disruption as well – already highly visible across the whole of Europe.

A generation ago, in the mid-sixties, the brothers Ferranti showed me round their shiny new factory at Wythenshawe, the first one in Europe making microprocessors. These tiny things – the size of a cufflink – would, they explained, change everything throughout world industry. Long production runs and the repetitive economies of scale would come to matter far less. Products could be tailored and switched to suit different market preferences instantly and costlessly. The instructing microchip could be a good European early in the morning, later on turning American, in the afternoon producing for the Chinese, and tailoring to the tastes and requirement of a string of smaller markets in between.

Yet repeatedly we are told today that access to the EU Single Market means wrapping the whole economic process in EU rules and standards. The Wythenshawe story says otherwise. No single market and no single set of rules and standards need prevail. It is the evolutionary 50-year descendants of that processor who are the masters now, not the EU Commission.

Incredibly, it has taken that long for the message to reach the policy-planners and even now it has not permeated the Brussels mind. Here in Britain, with our sea breezes, let’s hope we can see a little more clearly how the whole momentum of technology is taking us towards a very different kind of Europe.

Of course attempts are being made daily to halt change. The euro, the archetypal control system, gets repeatedly patched up before one more seam bursts.

But in the end, and it could be quite soon, nothing will stay the march of the algorithms, the logic of decentralising digital power or its relentless expansion, at a Moore’s Law exponential rate.

Ahead, the contrast between EU hierarchy structure and industrial/technological change could become even more stark. The philosophy of the blockchain is spreading into business and all human organisation. The blockchain, it will be recalled, is the ultimate dispersed computer, with no central control at all. The crowd is the controller, the decider and the trust provider.

As the underlying philosophy of the old EU crumbles, Brexit breaks away like a huge ice chunk off a melting landmass. Others are bound to follow. Restless communities, unnerved by the global paradox which pulls both ways, reassert their identity while at the same time looking for a new frame of guidance in which to survive and prosper. The 20th century EU provides the wrong frame. Good Europeans everywhere should be working with the same vigour as the founding fathers of modern Europe worked, to design and build the new structure for a new age.

Resistance from the Brussels bureaucracy and the older political class, reluctant to re-forge its traditional ideals, is totally understandable. Less understandable is the inarticulacy of British thinkers, intellectuals, academics and the opinion-makers they inform.

The British have the reputation of being arch-pragmatists who are somewhat down on too much philosophy, notwithstanding that some of the world’s finest thinkers came from these shores.

Even while the officials lock horns in negotiation on the terms of Brexit, the best minds in Britain, the best think-tanks, the best speech-writers and advisers and the best political leaders should be articulating their perception of the new architecture of a Europe that can fit into the modern hyper-connected world and digitalised global economic order. And they should be recasting the philosophy which underpins it.

Indeed the actual negotiation process should be interwoven at every stage with real and deep sights about the way societies are evolving in the region and about the totally and completely transformed global power pattern in which Europe has urgently to find its place.

That kind of lead would find strong support in every member state of today’s uneasy European Union, as it braces itself for new shocks, not least the imminent and vast next wave of refugees and migrants.

It is time for the philosophers to speak up.