Jiří Přibáň: Europe needs more conflict

Jiří Přibáň, photo: Czech Television

At the end of last month, Prague hosted an international conference to discuss some of the issues determining the direction of today’s Europe. The event was organized by the Václav Havel Library, which aims to keep both the political and the literary legacy of the late Czech president alive. Havel saw the European Union as a force for peace and stability, but he was often critical of the EU’s priorities. So it was apt that the conference heard a huge range of views on Europe’s future, from federalist to deeply sceptical. David Vaughan spoke to one of the Czech Republic's leading academics about some of the issues that were discussed.

Václav Havel,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
Europe was a theme that President Havel returned to again and again. He came from a strongly Europhile family: his maternal grandfather was Hugo Vavrečka, a politician in 1930s Czechoslovakia, who dreamed of a united Europe at a time when the idea of a European Union was still a world war away. As president, Václav Havel was strongly supportive of the project of European integration, but he believed that its focus on economic cooperation was too narrow. Here he is, speaking back in 2009.

“I think it would be a good thing if the various bodies of the European Union could sometimes consider the benefits of shuffling their priorities… and putting a greater stress on human rights, the legal state, the legal code, respect for the law, at the expense of the economic parts, taking into account that what primarily connects Europeans are certain spiritual values, as they have been formed on the European continent over the centuries.“

The question of Europe’s broader values was brought into sharp focus at the Prague conference amid the backdrop of the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, which has left the European Union struggling to find an adequate response. At the same time, the EU continues to seek a way out of the euro crisis, and in Britain there are growing calls for the UK to leave the EU altogether. Britain also happens to be the adopted home of one of the Czech Republic’s most respected academics, Professor Jiří Přibáň, who teaches legal philosophy and European law at Cardiff University in Wales. I spoke to him during a break in the conference, and began by asking him about Václav Havel’s legacy to the European debate.

“I think it’s less to do with what he has to say to us and more to do with topics, themes and problems, which he raised. So it’s more about questions than answers. Today we can see that the European crisis which we are going through is actually a consequence of failures and shortcomings of the project, to which Václav Havel was pointing in the 1990s: for instance, the lack of political representativeness in the European institutions – not just the democratic deficit but also that European institutions ought to represent certain interests and policy issues of the European public.”

You have just been speaking and there were a couple of things which I thought were quite at odds with ideas that are associated with President Havel. He was not a great fan of political parties, but you were talking very strongly in favour of the “politicization” of the European debate. The second thing that you cast some doubt on was the idea of a Europe built primarily on values, which is something that we would very much identify with Havel. You suggest that there are so many different values in Europe that it is better to deal with the nitty-gritty practical things.

Jiří Přibáň,  photo: Czech Television
“Yes, indeed, and that’s why I called my speech heretical – in the spirit of the Czech tradition of heretics. I contrast the politics of interest with the politics of values – and try to show that values can be both unifying and very divisive, very dangerous. We know that morality is important, but at the same time it’s a high explosive which can cause deep frictions if you argue from the position of higher moral ground. So my speech was a bit heretical about some of Václav Havel’s views. Nevertheless, if I were to highlight and emphasize something from the Havel legacy, it would be the politics of dissent. I believe that today in Europe we need more dissent and less consensus. Consensus has disappeared, so we have to create dissent.”

You caused a bit of a stir when you provocatively used the word “war” – saying that there should be more “war” in Europe, in the sense of the battling out of ideas, rather than trying to iron out difficulties that are emerging more and more on the continent at the moment. This comes as a surprise. When so many people are trying to calm things down, you’re saying – let’s try to stir things up!

“Yes exactly, because democracy isn’t just a matter of creating consensus. Democracy is a conflict, and I would like to call for a much more antagonistic and conflict-driven European polity, because, after all, those anti-European, extreme populist parties cannot just be endlessly labelled as ‘bad Europeans’, threatening the European project. No, you have to take them on their turf and you have to argue in detail and in political conflict against this particular and very dangerous politics of recreating ethno-nationalism and boycotting Europe as such.”

In this respect, you gave the very concrete example of migrant workers who come to the United Kingdom. If people actually sit down and work out the mathematics of how much they are contributing and how much they are taking, the result of the equation is very clear. They are contributing far more than they are taking. This is an example of the kind of nitty-gritty detail that you are talking about…

“Absolutely, and it was my appraisal of the quality of British democracy and British public debate that the moment when anti-immigration rhetoric was almost becoming part of everyday political language, then you have opponents coming up with exact figures, showing that Polish workers – that mythical figure of the Polish plumber – actually contribute by taxes and by contributing to the overall welfare in Britain. Society in Britain cannot be divided between ‘natives’ and ‘non-natives’, immigrants. Simply this is a very vibrant society, which needs to reconsider and rethink its social solidarity. Something which British politics has contributed to Europe is the concept of social citizenship. This concept is absolutely essential and we need to critically re-assess and re-formulate the need for social citizenship and social justice in the current state of the European crisis.”

Photo: European Commission
You’re based in Wales. In the United Kingdom there is also a great deal of debate about national citizenship. This year there will be a referendum in Scotland; there is a growing debate in Europe about national identities, about the possibility of new nation states emerging. This is a very different kind of citizenship, isn’t it?

“It is, but it’s very peculiar at the same time. Welsh nationalism and Scottish nationalism are two very different forms of modern nationalism. I managed to upset some of my friends who are Scottish nationalists and have a great knowledge of Central Europe, when I compared Alex Salmond to Vladimír Mečiar in 1992 [the politician who led Slovakia into independence]. Alex Salmond uses very similar rhetoric, probably with better mouthwash and a better tailor than Vladimír Mečiar in 1992, but the argument he is using is still the same: we can take all benefits from the union and we still can get our own national gain from going independent. Of course it’s not a win-win situation. You have to pay for it and you have to be honest about it – like the currency union and the euro membership. It’s very striking how Scottish nationalists are playing that victim game – that everybody bullies us, from Brussels, from Westminster – but we are better and we know best. I think, and I completely rely on the quality of the British public debate, the media and civil society, that all these topics will become ever more discussed. It is interesting that only now are people in Britain people realizing that once upon a time there was a split of Czechoslovakia in the ‘Velvet Divorce’. Now they realize that actually Czechoslovakia doesn’t exist anymore, because the current situation in the UK looks so similar to the situation in Czechoslovakia before the election in 1992.”

On the other hand, today – more than twenty years after the split of Czechoslovakia – very few people would actually want to go back.

“Absolutely, and I think that if Scottish nationalists succeed, and it’s a perfectly legitimate goal to have an independent country and the right to self-determination, they can succeed and they can have as amicable relationship with their English and Welsh counterparts as Czechs have with Slovaks these days. But the first thing is that you have to be honest about the cost of independence, not just about the benefits of independence.”

And finally, one thing that I think would have worried Václav Havel is the growing tendency in Europe – in several European countries, including the Czech Republic, and you also mentioned Italy – for politicians to be elected who are businesspeople, who are offering a business-type model for making the economy and the whole country work more efficiently. In the Czech Republic we have the millionaire businessman Mr Babiš, who has just become finance minister, we have a new Italian prime minister who is very much of the same ilk; this is something that you have been warning against, this idea of running countries or running Europe as if they were a business.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: CTK
“I think de-politicization is one of the worst risks – the idea that business knows best or better than politicians. Actually, the mantra of the 1990s – ‘it’s economy, stupid’ – should be turned the other way round – ‘it’s politics, stupid’. One of the paradoxes and paradoxical consequences of not just the European economic crisis, but the global economic crisis, is that we believed at the beginning of the crisis that we need more political regulation of markets. Six years on, we can see that actually we have more business talk and more intervention of markets in politics than we had before. This is the first global crisis in which the difference between the richest and the poor has actually grown rather than diminished. We have a crisis which was caused by markets and the consequence is that markets have become ever more powerful at the cost of democratic politics and democratic accountability.”

Isn’t part of the problem that politicians are no longer driven by ideology, and therefore political parties are no longer clearly identifiable as representing a certain set of values and ideals?

“Yes, exactly, because politicians behave more like managers and less like leaders. And those who actually behave like leaders treat democratic politics as their enemy.”