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The project of freedom: Unity in diversity

Updated: Mar 2, 2019

The EU needs a political ethos that supplements and supports the letter of treaties and laws. The most plausible candidate for such an ethos is the notion of freedom.

Matthew Braham and Martin van Hees argue that the notion of freedom yields a defence of the single market while leaving enough moral space for individual countries to formulate and pursue their individual conception of social wellbeing. Whereas this entails reluctance regarding proposals to further harmonise policies within the EU, it also requires the EU’s border politics to acknowledge the rights to freedom of Europeans and non-Europeans in equal measure.

Milton Friedman, that intellectual force of the so-called “neoliberal revolution”, argued in the late 1990s that European countries are just far too varied for the successful introduction of a single currency and full economic integration. Friedman emphasised both economic and cultural differences, and opined that Europeans lacked the shared sense of understanding required for such integration. From a very different communitarian perspective, Amitai Etzioni came to a similar judgment. He said the EU was characterised by a “community deficit”. In his words, the EU needs a moral culture, a “core of shared values”.

It is not very common that thinkers with such radically opposing economic, philosophical, and political views arrive at the same belief about such a fundamental issue of policy. We agree with their diagnosis. And we believe that it is even more urgent to address it now than it was 20 years ago. If there is a lack of identity with the EU and no sense of shared values in the EU, then free interrail passes for Europe’s 18-year-olds will not suffice to remedy the problem. The solution lies with finding and developing a lived political ethos that supplements and supports the letter of treaties and laws. The ethos of freedom The ethos we are proposing is freedom. Such an ethos stipulates that each and every individual, regardless of their origin or personal history, should, by default, be able to design and live their lives as they see best. In the political context of the EU, it defines and justifies the constraints within which the citizens of European countries can pursue their possibly divergent conceptions of what they conceive to be the common good.

Suggesting freedom as the ethos for the European Union may sound surprising given that “liberty” is explicitly mentioned as one of the objectives in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. In fact, the Treaty of Rome is all about establishing the four freedoms of the single European market. To proudly claim that the EU needs a political ethos of freedom certainly has an air of triviality – like bringing sand to the beach. But the fact is that the EU as yet lacks a political ethos of the kind we are thinking of. To achieve an “ever closer union”, we will need it.

To be sure, the EU has a legal, political, and economic framework designed to establish a single market. That framework has been designed and signed on to in most of Europe’s capitals. But this framework is only an institutional configuration. A political ethos goes beyond that. It refers to the values that underlie the configuration and the moral compass that motivates the interactions within it. A political ethos is a shared and definite criterion of value that demarcates an organised body politic from other forms of community association. It becomes the reference point of our evaluations the moment we are confronted with decisions and actions that involve the imposition of the coercive powers of the state.

It is quite possible to advance the single market and its constituent and indivisible four freedoms without signing on to an ethos of freedom. We can create a single market for other reasons. So why not adopt social justice or prosperity or fraternity as Europe’s political ethos? The problem with these or other conceptions of the common good is that they correspond to different moral outlooks on life. Because of this plurality, they cannot be the defining feature of the EU’s ethos. They would evoke deep moral and political controversies about the nature of the overarching value that guides European policies. Given the actual diversity within the EU and the moral value that the European treaties place on plurality, it is simply impossible to find an interpretation and practical translation of concepts, such as fraternity, that will find widespread agreement. Moreover, it is not desirable to attempt to do so. It would be divisive.

The ethos of freedom is immune to such problems. As J.S. Mill’s idea of freedom as a space for the “free development of individuality”, it is simple to understand and has bite. It yields a defence of the single market, and it still leaves enough moral space for individual countries to formulate and pursue their individual conception of social wellbeing.

An ethos is a practical matter. In general, it has two dimensions: An ethos “rules in” and “rules out” policies and practices. An ethos gives us a general guide to policy and the evaluation of political agendas. It points to what is and what is not permitted. If freedom is what guides the body politic, then it will determine what the EU as a political body is morally permitted to do.

It is essential to stress that we are not suggesting that freedom is to be maximised. That would be a commitment to one particular political ideology at the expense of others. A maximising view of freedom cannot possibly serve as the core of shared values in Europe for the same reason that equality or fraternity cannot. To do so would be to prioritise one position in the political landscape and to ignore the traditions of, notably, Christian democracy, social democracy, and communism. Freedom as a political ethos means to respect different views. The idea of freedom that can be Europe’s political ethos is one in which freedom is a moral constraint within which countries and citizens can pursue their goals.

What does an ethos of freedom imply for the EU? To take freedom to be the ethos of the EU has immediate implications. It entails reluctance regarding proposals to further harmonise policies within the EU – and their straightforward rejection if such harmonisation is not necessitated by the four freedoms of the single market. It certainly does not permit harmonisation merely on grounds of economic efficiency, which is but a secondary goal.

This restraint is not based on a specific political view about the proper tasks of the state. To the contrary, as previously noted, rather than imposing any specific idea about the role of the state, we should instead leave member states free to choose for themselves the kind of policies they want to pursue within the bounds of freedom. An ethos of freedom keeps political power localised unless centralisation is required to protect freedom. This suggests that the agenda-setting powers of the European Commission need to be questioned, as economic efficiency is not a sufficient justification.

This ethos also suggests that we should minimise or discontinue burgeoning programmes, such as Horizon Europe, the Commission’s new €100 billion research and innovation programme. Educational and scientific policies belong in the remit of states themselves except, of course, where barriers to free movement are concerned, such as with accreditation and recognition of degrees and institutions. On the other hand, freedom requires that the EU be forceful when rights and liberties are violated, as in the case of Hungary. The one thing that each European citizen should be aware of is that every other European citizen may believe that freedom is to be protected and is justified to act within her reasonable means to provide that protection everywhere in Europe.

The ethos of freedom, thus, would entail a more modest role for the EU in many policy areas, but a more active one in defending the basic requirements of freedom. With some issues, it is not so clear what the implications are. The proposal for an integrated European defence system (see Cécile Fabre’s contribution to this volume) is a case in point. The Economist recently argued that “(l)iberal ideals are worthless unless backed by military power.” And The Economist stated that behind military (and economic) power must be strength of values. Like this commentator, we take that one core value to be freedom. We believe that the EU needs to show strength in upholding this value by having it be widely recognised by politicians and citizens across the Continent as the core of the EU itself. Yet, whether this means that the EU should opt for its own defence system or, rather, continue to rely on NATO is a practical issue that cannot be settled via an appeal to freedom.

What does an ethos of freedom imply for Europe’s relations with the wider world? These examples concern the internal aspect of freedom: how the ideals of freedom affect the rules and regulations within Europe. Yet a political ethos not only affects the interactions within a community. It also has an external aspect by serving as a guiding ideal in our interactions with the outside. To say that freedom is a core value that defines a community is to make a general claim that also yields commitments towards non-members.

If the full understanding of freedom was inculcated in the EU citizen, it would not be acceptable to Europeans to pursue policies that treat non-EU citizens differently with respect to the four freedoms of the single market.

Look at imports from non-EU agricultural producers. Tariffs and the subsidy regime under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) designed to protect EU farmers from competition from more efficient large-scale producers – such as Australia, Canada, and the US – also keep out imports from many of the poorest countries, notably in Africa. A freedom ethos rejects such a policy. It has to be lauded, however, that the much-maligned CAP has been successively reformed to remove these obstacles with the consequence that non-EU farmers – in Africa, in particular – can start to compete with EU farmers on a more equal footing.

By the same token, the universality of freedom rules out policies that discriminate against non-EU citizens peacefully entering the EU in search of a livelihood. Why should we permit coffee beans from Africa but not the producers of these beans, the Africans themselves? One argument is that coffee beans do not affect our culture (actually they do), while the presence of African people does. Hence, if we believe that cultural integrity is essential for the stability of the EU project, then we should restrict entry. This is a spurious claim. What is important for stability is inclusiveness, not exclusion. Exclusion is by definition divisive and the source of conflict both within and on the borders of a polity. An ethos of freedom is indeed lofty; the only barrier to get over is the genuine and voluntary acceptance of the ethos itself.

The same applies to welfare considerations. It is undoubtedly true that irregular and mass migration flows can, and do, have short-term fiscal and redistributive repercussions, and that these can, and do, result in political and social tensions. It is also clear that migrants can exert downward pressure on wages and negatively affect the standard of living of given segments of the population. But these considerations are irrelevant as far as an ethos of freedom is concerned. Such an ethos declares that the adaptation must proceed from the other direction: We need to adapt to freedom rather than restrict freedom to maintain a status quo. An ethos of freedom does not trade off the freedom of an African or Asian migrant against the standard of living of a Dutch, German, or Greek worker. It tries to find adaptive and pragmatic strategies to avoid such trade-offs. If a freedom has to be encroached upon, doing so can only be justified by freedom itself, as a short-term response coupled with a policy of restoring and expanding freedom in the foreseeable future. Embracing an ethos of freedom means accepting a universality of freedom that goes beyond the borders of the EU itself.

Is our proposal naïve? In the light of the current turn to identity politics and increasing nationalistic sentiments, our appeal to an ethos of freedom seems to be hopelessly naïve. To believe so would be erroneous, though. First, right- and left-wing populist movements alike are founded on the conviction that we should be cautious about expanding the political role of the EU. Rather than simply dismissing these views as merely obnoxious or confused, we can note that this part of the populist agenda is in fact compatible with the ethos of freedom. Indeed, such an ethos can make the EU into what Robert Nozick has called a “framework for utopia”. It allows groups, communities, and countries to realise their own conception of the collective good without imposing it on others. To return to Friedman and Etzioni and their ilk, in such a framework, such groupings will be able to find within the EU the community that best fits their convictions. The framework is sustainable provided it is supported by the four freedoms of the single market. This is why the four freedoms must remain intact. The obligation of European politicians and civil servants is to protect these freedoms and not to create and impose regulations on EU citizenry that go beyond this protection. If regulations are considered an imposition, they cannot be regulations of freedom.

The populist rejection of the increasing powers of the EU can, paradoxically, thus also be interpreted as a plea to acknowledge the ethos of freedom that underpins – or ought to underpin – the idea of the EU as a body politic. But, at the same time, the identity politics on which populism is based endangers the very idea of freedom when it argues for closing Europe’s borders. Here, the EU should do more rather than less. An ethos of freedom requires one to acknowledge the rights to freedom of Europeans and non-Europeans in equal measure.

We believe that the member states of the EU must take up the slack that has been created by the US’s progressive abandonment of the ideals of freedom. Our plea is for an EU that builds its policies on the very same ideals of freedom that inspired it originally. This is not unrealistic, but it is demanding. It entails a more modest role for the EU in many policy areas, but a more ambitious one when the fundamental requirements of freedom are at stake. Freedom allows us, as the EU motto goes, to be “united in diversity”.


Matthew Braham is Professor of Practical Philosophy at the University of Hamburg, Germany.

Martin van Hees is Professor of Ethics and Dean of the John Stuart Mill College at VU Amsterdam.


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