In my first article for this blog, which happened to be republished from a column of mine for the Foundation for Economic Education, I asked what “European values” are supposed to be, and who gets to determine them. In the year leading up to the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, this question is set to be posed repeatedly. So I took it to the centre of all intellectual human conversation, Twitter, to find out.
A definition free-for-all
In the wake of the departure of the Open Society Foundation from Hungary, ALDE group chairman and EU federalist Guy Verhofstadt took to Twitter to make one key point:
Making the EU budget conditional on the respect for European values is a demand that has been made repeatedly in Brussels in the past weeks and months, mostly in the context of the Fidesz government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as well as the conservative government currently directing Poland. Neither of these two should be endorsed in any way: Viktor Orbán is a demagogue who rejects the concept of a liberal state, and the Law and Justice Party in Poland is eroding liberty through its constitutional reforms. And yet, you’d wonder from where exactly Guy Verhofstadt is deriving the authority to define European values in the first place. The condition of sanctioning within the European Union relies on the Copenhagen Criteria, which established a number of conditions for becoming a member of the union, such as the rule of law, human rights, and a functional market economy. The June 1993 European Council meeting, which set these criteria, didn’t define any “European values” in that process. Even the EU Commission’s website for European Neighbourhood Policy And Enlargement Negotiations only talks about values when it references “democratic values”.
Other than the definitions of Mister Verhofstadt, what things can be considered European values? Here are a few examples:
Separatism (the good kind, not the one in Flanders mind you), is a European value
Handing over Puigdemont is against European values
Poland not getting out of the EU is against European values
Being religiously motivated is against European values
Microsofts terms&conditions agreement needs to respect European values
Supporting the only democracy in the Middle East is against European Values
European values only apply to white people
“Shared responsibility” is a European value
Free Interrail tickets are European values
The federal state is a European value
The Schengen treaty is a European value
The European Union is the only expression of European values
A definitional free-for-all is certainly an accurate description of what is happening in the debate around European values. The term has no objective interpretation whatsoever. You can certainly argue that Europe needs values, but the idea that European values exist necessitates a pre-established definition. Because this is not the case, everyone jumps on the opportunity to A) define it for themselves and B) use that definition for their own political point-scoring.
Since everyone can just make up their own values, here are a few of mine:
- European values are strongly connected to limited government. No government can raise taxes, unless they want to infringe on our fundamental values!
- Localism is a European value: every decision needs to be taken at the municipal level, unless, of course, you’re willing to throw our heritage out of the window!
- Free markets are inherently European values: no socialist could even understand the magnitude and virtue of the values we hold!
I’d come across as ridiculous were I seriously to claim that these ideas must be accepted as universal values throughout Europe.
Let’s deal with facts, not feelings
“European values” fall short of being a knockout argument on EU politics or policy. We should debate the merits of political philosophy and the specific policies in question, but we must do it on the basis of reason, not of feelings. If we don’t, we will simply be participating in a battle of arbitrary terminology,leading us nowhere.
This article was first published by Values4Europe.
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