In 1925, at the same time that Jean Monnet was developing his ideas for a federal European state, Le Corbusier was trying to persuade first Moscow and then Paris to adopt his Plan Voisin, which involved flattening the city centres and replacing them with a Modernist grid layout of tower blocks and wide open spaces. The leaders of Moscow and Paris said ‘no thanks’ but versions of the plan were adopted in Chandigarh, in India, and Brasilia, in Brazil. The problem was that few people wanted to live in either.
The point here is the Plan and its underpinning ideology. An extract from Le Corbusier reads like a rather more honest version of what Monnet and his successors have in mind for the European Union.
The despot is not a man. It is the Plan. The correct, realistic, exact plan, the one that will provide your solution once the problem has been posited clearly, in its entirety, in its indispensable harmony. This plan has been drawn up well away from the frenzy in the mayor’s office or the town hall, from the cries of the electorate or the laments of society’s victims. It has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds. It has taken account of nothing but human truths. It has ignored all current regulations, all existing usages, and channels. It has not considered whether or not it could be carried out with the constitution now in force. It is a biological creation destined for human beings and capable of realization by modern techniques.
If a plan for a European Union had been presented to Paris and London in such terms, would we now be fretting about Brexit, or would we be feeling sorry for the citizens of India or Brazil while we were enjoying a European community that was based on the annoyingly untidy and unsystematic expectations of ordinary Europeans?
At the height of the Second World War, Monnet offered a Modernist vision for Europe:
There will be no peace in Europe if the States rebuild themselves on the basis of national sovereignty, with its implications of prestige politics and economic protection (…). The countries of Europe are not strong enough individually to be able to guarantee prosperity and social development for their peoples. The States of Europe must therefore form a federation or a European entity that would make them into a common economic unit.
The difference between Monnet and Le Corbusier is that, in the end, Paris and London accepted Monnet’s vision and reasoning and Europe is now stuck with it, however irrelevant and unsuccessful much of it is.
What is more interesting here are the underlying reasons for the early rejection of Le Corbusier’s Plan and the, much later, rejection of Monnet’s. Le Corbusier was too precise and too honest and the elected leaders of Moscow and Paris did not see how they could survive the wholesale destruction of their cities for the sake of the Plan. Monnet learnt, possibly from Le Corbusier’s experience, to take things more slowly and to disguise his plan more effectively. This was successful and union was imposed on parts of Europe with the connivance of national leaders, who could more successfully hide the wholesale transfer of their powers than they could have hidden the demolition of their city centres.
In Brasilia people live in the suburbs, leaving the cold, bland city centre devoid of real, untidy life. The experiment that is Chandigarh has not been repeated in India. The citizens of the EU are now beginning to see that their land has been taken over by a despotic plan about which they were not consulted and with which they have no feeling of engagement; indeed, they feel excluded from all key decisions made in their name. The EU Project does not bring them material satisfaction, as promised, but it does leave them out of account.
We’ve moved beyond the era of visions and eurocrats are now defining what Union means in practice, even if the language is sometimes hard to grasp:
“In the medium term (Stage 2), the convergence process towards more
resilient economic structures…should become more binding. This would be achieved by agreeing on a set of common high-level standards that would be defined in EU legislation, as sovereignty over policies of common concern would be shared and strong decision-making at euro area level would be established. In some areas, this will need to involve further harmonisation”.
The Plan is clear enough here and it does not involve consulting the people, let alone engaging them in decision making.
Successful communities invariably grow organically, which is to say that the people who live in them form the organisations and institutions that they feel meet their needs. Communities that were forced into being, for example empires and their left-over nation states, which ignore the idiosyncratic expectations of the people who inhabit them, invariably break up, often violently. Africa is replete with examples of colonial remnants that don’t fit local requirements and thus are extraordinarily difficult to govern.
Monnet’s vision for Europe, sustained almost religiously despite its rejection of reality, is producing the human reaction that history would lead us to expect.
Democracy, in some form that allows citizens to choose the particulars of their governments, however untidy and unreliable, will outlast autocracies and tyrannies. The EU does not wish to engage its citizens in a real process of selecting their government, which is why it will fail. Perhaps worse, while it is in the slow and painful process of failing it has blocked the development of a truly democratic community that could meet some of the visionary ideas of earlier generations.