Man Booker at Birkbeck: Colm Tóibín

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard

man-booker_colm-toibin-9722

On 17 October, in a genial, expansive conversation, Colm Tóibín discussed his Man Booker Prize nominated novel The Testament of Mary (2012) with Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing, Russell Celyn Jones. All of the novels discussed at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event, since its inauguration in 2011, have been set in, or concerned with, the past: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (discussed in 2011), The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (discussed in 2013), Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (discussed in 2014) and How To Be Both by Ali Smith (discussed in 2015). Although not set in the past, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (discussed in 2012) proffers a dystopian, alternative present, so it too is concerned with reimagining time. If the other novels covered diverse periods, moving from the rollicking Renaissance to the deadly Reformation and on to the austere 1920s, the bling and clamour of the 1980s and the contemporary digital moment, The Testament of Mary takes us back to the moment at which Christianity was born, an historical event heavily obscured by accreted layers of myth, competing proofs and intervening centuries of weighty theological debate, doctrine and practice. All of these novels are concerned with testimony, authority and history; in particular, who has the authority to speak and which stories become legitimate and enter the official record as ‘History’ – and which are forgotten or even derided, suppressed and erased.

For Tóibín, the task is no less than recovering, or reimagining, the full voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus and the Mother of God or Theotokos, the ‘Birth Giver of God’, in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, among others. Tóibín imagines her less-than-exalted, oblique responses to the life and death of her son and the foundational moments that articulated and established a radical, world-changing new theology and movement. Tóibín’s Mary is not the benign, silent icon we might know from Renaissance paintings or alabaster icons in hushed churches, with her sympathetic half-smile, commiserating upraised eyes and benevolently-inclined head. This is a human – perhaps all too-human – Mary, who wrestles with grief, incomprehension, anger, disappointment and guilt. Mary is deeply ambivalent about her adult son, who, in one of the novel’s most visceral moments, publically rejects her, while she is insultingly dismissive of his followers, describing them as maladjusted miscreants and dropouts – men ‘unable to look a woman in the face’. The two disciples – possibly St Paul and St Thomas, although Tóibín is ambiguous – who hover over and guard her in Ephesus, after the crucifixion, earn her particular opprobrium; she even threatens to stab them if they dare to sit in the chair of her dead husband (and Mary’s refusal to understand herself in divine terms is Tóibín’s quietly devastating challenge to Roman Catholic theology – there is no Annunciation or Nativity in this story).

Tóibín discussed the influence of Greek tragedy on the work, particularly as he was teaching the subject during the novel’s genesis. He wanted to present Mary as a Medea or Elektra figure: a woman who only has power when she speaks. Tóibín readily conceded that the anger of Mary, which constitutes a powerful undercurrent in the story, is representative of the historical anger of women marginalised in, and excluded from, the Church. In the novel, the truth of Mary’s experience is modified by the disciples, who continually interrogate her while using her testimony selectively to build a theology, kindle a movement and accrue personal power. They are uneasy about her stubborn refusal to adhere to the world-altering version of events they are promulgating, although they are painfully cognisant of their need for her as a foundation of their faith and power. ‘Their enormous ambition’, Tóibín observed, ‘is to make these words [of the Gospel] matter’, while Mary is lucid in her understanding that her experience – her testimony – will be discounted and unrecorded. Tóibín was wry about literary-critical focus on unreliable narrators, describing Mary as ‘the most reliable narrator you’ll get’. Mary is clear-eyed about her reaction to key events and the novel’s seminal moment is her fleeing the scene of the Crucifixion, in fear for her life, yet full of shame. To readers who demur at this apparently inhuman act of maternal abandonment – which also muddies the veracity of Christianity’s foundational moment of universal redemption – Tóibín observed that he is uninterested in writing about ‘most people’ or ‘normal people’ – ‘I only write the exception.’

He also confessed that Mary bolting from Christ’s death solved the technical problem of how to present the Crucifixion. For Tóibín, the novel is ‘a secular form […] filled with things […]. It’s really, really bad at divine intervention.’ He joked that it’s hard to imagine a Jane Austen novel in which the action of the plot is suddenly rerouted by God’s intercession. The two other Biblical miracles in the novel – the turning of water into wine at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus – are shadowy and problematic: at the wedding in Cana, the miracle is made somewhat absurd and undermined by Mary’s sceptical first-hand witnessing; while the raising of Lazarus presents a melancholy spectacle, as Lazarus is unable to convey what he has witnessed in death – another example of silenced or discarded testimony in the novel – and those around him are too frightened to ask. Furthermore, Lazarus ‘will have to die twice’, Tóibín pointed out, making his resurrection feel, in some respects, akin to a curse or punishment.

Tóibín was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and he described his youthful recitation of the Rosary as his ‘introduction to beauty in language’. For Irish Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century, as for many Christians in different places and different periods, the Virgin mattered a great deal, as she had suffered human pain and so would listen and respond kind-heartedly to the prayers of ordinary sinners. ‘Nobody prayed to God the Father’, Tóibín wryly observed. Tóibín thus felt a keen understanding of the need of early Christians to worship a mother figure. In the novel, Mary flees across the Mediterranean to Ephesus (now in Turkey), the site in ancient times of the Temple of Artemis – one of the Wonders of the World – and the locus of goddess worship. Mary secretly keeps a likeness of Artemis, finding comfort in the iconic mother figure she will herself become. Indeed, it was at Ephesus in 431, at one of the Ecumenical Councils of the early Church, that Mary was declared Theotokos and the way was cleared for her veneration and worship. For Tóibín, then, Ephesus is the place in which one form of instinctive, almost primordial, goddess worship was institutionally and theologically elided by another, with the object of adoration remaining, in its essential features, unchanged.

Tóibín discussed his own experiences of all-male religious confraternities, including his Jesuit education at a single-sex boarding school, where students were taught to avert their eyes from women. This experience gave Tóibín his sense of what he called ‘men grouped together, being misfits’ – as Mary contemptuously sees her son’s followers. Tóibín was gently satirical about the absurdity of all-male fraternities such as the Roman Catholic priesthood, recalling a visit to St. Peter’s in Rome, when he secretly observed a flock of male prelates silently divested of their gorgeous arraignment by a company of alacritous nuns. Celyn Jones was interested in other biographical and Irish elements of this apparently historical novel, jovially espying traces of Ireland in Tóibín’s description of the ‘dampness’ of a home in first-century Palestine. Tóibín gamely acknowledged this and other near anachronisms that have been pointed out to him, but firmly asserted that there is ‘no such thing as a historical novel’, as ‘the past is a bit abstract’ and ‘contemporary concerns enter in’. In particular, Tóibín discussed how the novel was informed by his interest in the emotional aftermath of terrorist violence during the Troubles and other conflicts between governments and armed resistance groups, particularly the grief of the families of suicide bombers. Tóibín suggested that there may be some interesting historical parallels between Christ’s fanatical early followers – one need only think of the grisly deaths that Christian martyrs willingly embraced – and self-immolating terrorists active now.

Inevitably, there was interest from the interviewer and the audience about public reactions to such a controversial novel. Although affable and droll throughout, Tóibín was steely when asked about his right to pen such a story, absolutely asserting his liberty to write about religious subjects. He joked that there was no outcry ‘in pagan England’ and that the reception ‘wasn’t really troublesome in Ireland’, where a more avowedly liberal cultural environment has been fostered. He remarked that the greatest outrage came in the United States, where people picketed the theatre where the story – which began life as a one-woman play – was first performed. Tóibín sympathetically observed that the emphasis on identity in American society means people ‘take enormous exception’ to anything they feel is undermining their individuality. Although the outcry was relatively muted – ‘there was no fatwa’, Tóibín jested – he seemed entirely uninterested in becoming a poster boy for vociferous debates about religion and freedom of speech: ‘It wasn’t brave’, writing the novel he said – ‘it was opportunistic’. If his models were Antigone and Medea – women ‘strung out with fear – and bravery’ who are obligated to speak the truth to power – Tóibín evidently doesn’t see his work in the same heroic vein. He demurred at the idea of deliberately seeking to offend readers – he found it particularly difficult to depict the brutality and violence of the Crucifixion – but he found himself compelled to tell such a ‘dramatic’ story. ‘Where there is faith, there must be doubt’ and the literary imagination thrives in the spaces of silence and ambiguity that inevitably accompany any official historical retelling of events.

For would-be writers in the audience, including students on Birkbeck’s creative writing programmes, Tóibín joked that a recent root canal treatment had felt akin to the writing process (although he admitted that this simile may have been born of the Valium he was given by his dentist). He emphasised that writing involves ‘all the dull, dull, dull drilling of detail’ and that pattern, form and structure may only become apparent at the end of the writing process. He admitted that ‘technique is not enough’ and, although he was willing to describe writing as ‘mystery’, it is ‘not transcendentally’ so, he insisted. For Tóibín, the mystery is how ‘An idea, an image, a memory or a thing becomes, of its own accord, a rhythm’ and he urged students to write what they feel compelled to write. Writing thus emerges as a process of accretion and problem-solving: ‘Every sentence becomes a way of solving the problem the previous sentence gave you’.

This was the sixth Man Booker at Birkbeck event and this sprightly exchange confirmed yet again the success of this ongoing, rewarding partnership. As Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, observed in her opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge and bringing the best of contemporary culture to the widest possible audience.

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Law on Trial: Can the EU regulate a financial crisis?

This post was contributed by Daniele D’Alvia, MPhil Law student in Birkbeck’s School of Law. Here, Daniele reports on the Law on Trial 2016 event held on Thursday 16 June: “Can the EU Regulate a Financial Crisis?”

This year, Law on Trial – the School of Law’s week-long programme of free-to-attend public lectures and panel discussions – focused on the EU referendum. The annual showcase brought together academic staff, recognised internationally as authorities in their field.

Law on Trial 2016

Law on Trial 2016

The 16th of June 2016 has been a landmark event for the 2016 ‘Law on Trial’ series of conferences. Indeed, the 4th day of ‘Law on Trial’ has been specifically dedicated to the role of financial law in Europe. The main question that Professor Michelle Everson has posed for the panel discussion, namely ‘Can the EU regulate a financial crisis?’ has shown to be a popular topic for the high interest that the audience has manifested during the event.

In particular, Prof. Ellen Vos (Maastricht University) illustrates the regulation and the role of European agencies. She reminds of the importance of delegating powers to agencies in the EU in order to regulate risk and uncertainty (for instance, risks in the environment, food, health and safety and specifically in relation to financial crisis). On this line Prof. Michelle Everson introduces the concepts of moral hazard, risk management and systemic risk. These terms are exceptionally important in the understanding of the current financial crisis and pave the way for the speech of the third guest speaker, namely the head of the compliance office of Wells Fargo, Patrick Devine.

He gives an outstanding presentation by pointing out how the current financial crisis is global in nature, but the solutions provided therein are local. For instance, think of the EU banking insolvency procedures there is not a universal bank insolvency law, because insolvency law is national in nature. To this end, the Single Resolution Mechanism in Europe is a first attempt to provide a uniform regulation of bank insolvency through the operation of the Single Resolution Board. He outlines that the credit-crunch that occurred in America in 2007-2008 was only the trigger, but not the cause of the current financial crisis. Indeed, he concludes that the cause of the current economic crisis is just inside the same economic system, namely capitalism.

This has always been the cause in his view and the legislative frameworks have only tried to regulate the trigger and not the environment in which triggers stand. Finally, Dr. Matthias Goldmann presents the idea of Karl Polanyi on the utopia of the ‘self-regulating market’. Indeed, in 1944 Polanyi wrote the ‘Great Transformation’, which divided between a society that uses markets as one valuable tool, and ‘market society’ that places everything on the auction block, even labour. Therefore, Dr. Matthias Goldmann argues that the idea of ‘market society’ has been one of the causes of the current financial crisis and he, therefore, provides a re-interpretation of the phenomenology of contemporary financial markets, where the market itself should play a more prominent role.

In the end, the panel discussion has been dominated by the conception of risk in financial crisis and how risk can be prevented or regulated.

The conception of risk and financial risk between economic theories and philosophical arguments

I would like to introduce here the concept of the ‘past qualification’ of risk based on a possible re-interpretation of Professor Frank Knight’s book ‘Risk, Uncertainty and Profit’, which has developed a philosophical argument on risk instead of a pure economic theory on profit. The book has always been recognised for its outstanding contribution towards a distinction between risk and uncertainty, namely between objective and subjective dimensions of risk towards a theorisation of insurable form of hazards and true uncertainties.

Prof. Knight’s theory of risk is part of the remarkable story on risk.[1] Indeed, according to Bernstein risk management is a revolutionary idea where far from being an antagonist, as the mysterious fate or the voluntas dei, the future has become an opportunity. The concept of risk-taking has been developed in Western countries from Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci (1202), Cardano’s Liber de Ludo Aleae (1525) and Galileo’s Sopra la Scoperta dei dadi (1623) through the laws of probability framed, inter alia, by Pascal and Fermat,[2] and in particular the science of statistics of Graunt, Petty and Halley,[3] promoting the concept of insurance as a commercial tool in the eighteenth century. In other words, the story of risk has initiated by formalising its ontological meaning based on an objective dimension.

This was a necessary conclusion because from an epistemological point of view the discourse on risk can be complex. Risk under this new light is the probability of occurrence of an event that may or may not occur, but risk is always a measurable uncertainty. In Prof. Knight’s words:

‘the practical difference between the two categories, risk and uncertainty, is that in the former the distribution of the outcome in a group of instances is known (either through calculation a priori or from statistics of past experience), while in the case of uncertainty this is not true (….) the best example of uncertainty is in connection with the exercise of judgement or the formation of those opinions as to the future course of the events, which opinions (and not scientific knowledge) actually guide most of our conduct’[4].

So, it is possible to state that the knowledge about risk is the knowledge of a knowledgeable situation. In other words, the ontological discourse on risk is representing what is knowable in principle or a priori by virtue of laws of probability and the science of statistics. It is knowledge of objective facts. For this reason, in my view the real revolutionary idea of Prof. Knight is the categorisation of risk on the past line.[5]

The practical effect of the ‘past qualification’ of risk in global financial markets

Now, the words of our guest speaker Mr. Patrick Devine are even more intelligible: in his view capitalism has always been the cause of the current financial crisis. In philosophical terms we could say that the past qualification of risk in its objective dimension has always been the cause of every financial crisis because simply it has always been there, but it has never been regulated. In Patrick Devine’s words: ‘we regulate the trigger of a crisis (we could say what has caused the uncertainty), but not the environment in which the triggers stand (we could say the real risk).

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Footnotes

[1] Bernstein (1996). Peter L. Bernstein (1996) Against the gods: the remarkable story of risk (John Wiley & Sons)

[2] Bernstein (1996) pp 57-72.

[3] Bernstein (1996), p 92.

[4]   Knight (2002), p 233.

[5] Knight expressly said that uncertainty is the formation of opinions as to the future course of events (i.e. a subjective belief).

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Law on Trial 2016: Brexit – Should the UK leave the EU?

This post was contributed by Birkbeck Law students Janet Cheng and Henrique Nobre. Here, Janet and Henrique report independently from the Law on Trial 2016 event held on Tuesday 14 June: “Brexit: Should the UK leave the EU?”. Speakers at the event, which Janet and Henrique moderated, were Professor Justin Frosini; Professor Christopher Lord; Professor Albert Weale; Dr Angela WardDr Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz.

This year, Law on Trial – the School of Law’s week-long programme of free-to-attend public lectures and panel discussions – focused on the EU referendum. The annual showcase brought together academic staff, recognised internationally as authorities in their field.

Law on Trial 2016

Law on Trial 2016

Henrique Nobre’s report

The second evening of the Law on Trial event reflected the public expectation in discussing this extremely hot topic. The room was full of students, academics and members of the public eager to listen to our guest speakers’ arguments on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

The beginning of the session was very engaging, especially when Dr Angela Ward showed a copy of the tabloid The Sun full of scaremongering arguments and urging its readers to vote leave. Dr Ward shared with us her extensive experience and opinions on how a leave vote would endanger our economy and international relations.

Arguments were presented in relation to the position that the UK will assume in relation to trade agreements, the impact on freedom of movement, the possibility of national instability, e.g. a second Scottish referendum and the possible end of the United Kingdom, and the general uncertainty of a positive outcome.

The guests were outstanding in presenting positive and negative arguments without trying to compel the audience. The intention of the event was not to campaign for one side or the other, although it is difficult to hide personal views when talking about an issue that will affect all of us. The audience opinions were varied and contributed massively to a very fruitful discussion.

To moderate an event of such a high level and importance was a real pleasure. The panel was highly selected, the event was extremely well organised, the public was participative and there is no better company on stage than Janet Cheng (President of ELSA Birkbeck).

I felt that the event was a great opportunity to voice and discuss our concerns and that Birkbeck School of Law has chosen the right momentum to do it. As mentioned at the end of the event, independent of personal views, I urge everybody to exercise their democratic right and vote to the best outcome.

Janet Cheng’s report

The referendum coverage has been dominated by debate on immigration and trade in the media and national press from both sides of the campaign. These might be the voters’ greatest concerns, however, there are still many other issues we should be aware of.

Our panel was comprised of five outstanding scholars – Dr Angela Ward, Professor Christopher Lord, Professor Justin Frosini, Professor Albert Weale and Roch Dunin–Wasowicz PhD, all from different academic backgrounds. Through their expert presentations, looking at subjects including the review of the latest newspapers’ headlines; environmental ethnic concerns; political views in European countries and so on, the audience gained a better picture of the whole referendum.

When it came to the second part of the evening, the members of the audience were enthusiastic in expressing their views and questions to our panel. Although thoughts and opinions might differ, I think we had a healthy channel to express our views and opinions freely. And this is most important to our democratic society.

Tomorrow, we have to decide whether to leave or remain.

Looking ahead into an uncertain future the two sides weigh up the risks and opportunities and come to different conclusions. Is it safer to continue with our current multi-national arrangements, minimizing risk and change, or is the EU an outdated 1950s concept which ties the UK to the old world and which is dysfunctional and doomed to fail?

Are there realistically alternative modes of international co-operation in a more connected world? Are the advantages of a single market outweighed by regulation and the opportunities of trading with the rest of the world? What should our immigration policy be? From a legal perspective, how should our laws be made in today’s global society and how much democratic control of legislation do we want?

The decision facing us will have far-reaching consequences for the future of the UK. This is the most important decision voters are likely to be asked in our lifetime so we encourage everyone to reflect seriously and to exercise their right to vote.

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Ever closer to different destinations: How the renegotiation changed the EU’s aims

This post was contributed by Professor Simon Glendinning and Dr Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz, of the London School of Economics (LSE).This post originally appeared on the LSE blog – read here.

On Tuesday 14 June, Dr Dunin-Wąsowicz will speak at ‘Brexit: Should the UK leave the EU?’. The event will run as part of ‘Law on Trial: Europe at the Crossroads’  – the School of Law’s week long public debate on the EU referendum (13-17 June). For details and to book your place, please visit the ‘European Law on Trial’ website.

Law on Trial 2016

The EU is the result of an ongoing creative project, write Simon Glendinning and Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz, who report on the last session of the LSE Commission on the Future of Britain in Europe. Tracing its Kantian origins, they explain that historically, the idea of “ever-closer union” was conceived as a way of overcoming the pathologies of national states. This ambition has not disappeared, but it is now accepted that some Member States might be more integrated than others. After David Cameron’s 2016 renegotiation, with its emphasis on  sovereignty, there is no requirement for the UK to move towards deeper integration.

The EU is now effectively a multi-speed union without a single final destination (telos). In order to understand how David Cameron’s renegotiation brought about this change, we need to examine what, if anything, is understood by the phrase “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.

As a member of the EU a state may both enhance the sovereignty it retains, and have a say in the development and powers of the union in those areas where sovereignty is shared or pooled. The 2016 renegotiation, with its emphasis on the definition of ‘ever-closer union’, should be understood in this light.

The concept of Ever Closer Union

Talk of “ever closer union” is a contraction of the full enigmatic formulation: “Ever closer union of the peoples of Europe”. It holds together two features of the European Union that seem to be intractable, irreducible and contradictory. First, it seems to contain an internal tension within it between the singularity of a “union” and the plurality of “peoples”. And, second, it seems to sustain an ambiguity over whether it concerns (primarily) a political body aiming to cultivate conditions for closer cultural or spiritual relationships between peoples – call that a union of minds – or a political body aiming at closer political relationships between nations – call that a union of governments.

Both of these interpretations have been defended in the theoretical literature on the emergence in Europe of a “political body” beyond Europe of the nations. Both have their roots in the writings of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. The first interpretation is probably Kant’s own. It is the idea of political institutions which create sustainable conditions of co-operation and understanding between the peoples of Europe that makes war between the nations increasingly “less likely”. The second interpretation is illustrated by the work of the contemporary philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who construes the European project as a movement towards the creation of an international or supranational state in Europe.

The renegotiation: “Sovereignty”

These two conceptions of institutional design of the EU were strikingly present in the differences between the first draft and the second draft of the renegotiation achieved by the UK government in February 2016 under the title of “Sovereignty”.

The original draft of the text proposed by Cameron and Tusk outlines a clear telos of “trust and understanding among peoples living in open and democratic societies sharing a common heritage of universal values” and yet stipulates that it is not “equivalent to the objective of political integration”. In a fascinating development, this formulation did not survive into the final text. It was replaced by a lengthier,and much more legalistic one, focused almost entirely on the UK’s “opt-out” of any further political integration – should it take place.

The final document “recognised that the United Kingdom, in the light of the specific situation it has under the Treaties, is not committed to further political integration into the European Union”. It also outlined that Treaties remain the only source of legitimation of the Union and “do not compel all Member States to aim for a common destination”, leaving the telos of ‘Ever Closer Union’ undefined, but the possibility of deeper integration among some Member States strongly implied.

The original tension between unity and plurality of the ambition for “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” clearly remains here – but it is now expressed differentially rather than internally: some peoples within the Union might be more integrated than others. The general tension is nevertheless retained in what one might call its voluntarism: there is no requirement for Member States to move towards deeper political and economic integration; it therefore remains dependent on whether nations desire it, and should some Member States desire it, then they are free to pursue it. Should others (not only the UK) not desire it, they are not obliged or compelled to do so. The possibility is affirmed here of amulti-speed union without a single telos.

Whether the telos of “Ever Closer Union” is conceived as a union of minds or of governments, the renegotiation showed for the first time that there is no longer a shared vision of a single telos of union among the 28 Member States of the EU – or, at least, no single aim of political integration common to them all.

The reality revealed by the negotiation is that there are in fact different “tiers” of European Union integration: a tier focused around the Eurozone and increasingly common economic government and deeper political integration (which may or may not survive in the form of a single group); a tier focused on commitments to an increasingly single-market; and a tier from the post-Communist European Member States who are rediscovering their own sovereignty at the same time as engaging in a process of European integration, and still deciding their path in the Union.

Statue_of_Europe-(Unity-in-Peace)

Statue of Europe, Brussels

The history of the European political project

These developments raise important questions about the historical character of the Union itself, and indicate that its understanding of its own (ideal) historical telos changes in the course of its own (actual) history of making and attaining new institutional conditions.

The general historical “scansions” of the history of the European political project become crucial. The main feature of its early development was a hope among many that there would be a rapid movement towards an international state. The basic political motivation for this was the conviction, powerfully reinforced by the experience of nationalism and wars among the nations of Europe, that national political formations are intrinsically pathological and should be replaced by a more rational international system that would be effectively immune to them. The hope for rapid development did not last into the era of “functionalism” where a slower step-by-step approach was taken: the EU taking over certain national functions in the expectation that there would be a logic of successive developments in different areas “pulled” into play by the earlier transfers of competences to the European level.

Both of these models preserved a supra-national or “federalist” telos as their guiding ambition: the movement towards a union of governments. However, during the course of the second half of the twentieth century the idea of the nation state as an intrinsically problematic political form began to lose its hold on the political imagination. Instead, it was increasingly widely believed that it was not the form of the nation-state as such that was the problem but the form of government within that state. In particular, the pathologies were strongly connected to authoritarian, totalitarian and otherwise non-democratic regimes. A democratic nation-state, by contrast, was regarded as an instrument of peace and security both within itself and between such states.

The return of the nation

This shift powerfully altered the “horizon” of thinking about the ends of European Union. Federalism no longer appeared to be the only rational ambition of “Ever Closer Union” (though many cleaved to that idea and still do), and in its place a new “mantra” – with a new corresponding telos – has appeared to have taken hold within many national governments and on some of those working within the EU institutions: “National where possible, European where necessary”.

The now known reality of a differentiated union with overlapping circles of engagement and perhaps with multi-speed elements means that there is a delicate equilibrium in place. If Britain departed, the vision of Europe as an area of free trade in a single-market would have considerably diminished force within the EU, and there would be pressure, especially on countries in the Eurozone, to make a decision over the extent of economic and political union that they would be prepared to accept or want. Further opt-outs might be sought by various states, perhaps especially from post-communist countries unlikely to want to give up only recently acquired independence and sovereignty. The EU could start unravelling – not in one go, but gradually, in the way of the Holy Roman Empire.

At this stage in its history the EU is now faced with the alternative of either altogether abandoning the idea of supranational union in favour of a form of intergovernmental cooperation that finds agreement to pool or share sovereignty where it can; or of an EU of two Europes, one pushing towards political union and centred on the Euro, and another based on market rationalisation, but both existing independently and not adversarially within a broader European Union.

Conclusion

The idea of ‘ever-closer union” has never had a single or fixed teleological sense which has driven the political project of co-ordination and co-operation between the Member States – neither for the UK nor for the rest. Nevertheless, it is significant that the chapter of the renegotiation that contains a discussion of this phrase is entitled “Sovereignty”. In other words, it is an essentially political concept belonging to an essentially political project. And on this score, the idea of collective action is such that any member of a democratic club may help set the rules and their interpretation.

This political process in an ongoing political project is illustrated by what took place in the 2016 renegotiation, and includes what, if anything, is understood by the distinctive and ambiguous phrase “ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe”.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the BrexitVote blog, nor the LSE. Image:Statue of Europe

Simon Glendinning is Professor of European Philosophy at the LSE’s European Institute and Director of the Forum for European Philosophy.

Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz  is a sociologist. He is a graduate of the New School for Social Research in New York City, holds a PhD from the LSE’s European Institute and is Managing Editor of LSE BrexitVote. @RochDW.

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