FLC058, “Uniting Europe without the Union” A Conference in Prague, Sean Gabb, 11th November 2001

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment

published on the Internet
Issue Number 58
11th November 2001

"Uniting Europe without the Union"
A Conference in Prague
2-5 November 2001
A Brief Record of Proceedings
by Sean Gabb

British Eurosceptics are often accused of a nationalism that can amount to an unthinking hatred of all things foreign. As is usually the case with claims made in support of the European Union, this is a falsehood. While British opposition is uniquely active at present, and uniquely integrated into the mainstream political culture, it is not alone. There are Eurosceptics in every member state, and even in those countries that have not yet joined. In particular, continental libertarians are strongly Eurosceptical.

It was to bring some of us together, for an exchange of facts and opinions, that the conference "Uniting Europe without the Union" was held in Prague between the 2nd and 5th November 2001. The main organiser was the Czech Liberalni Institut, which also hosted the conference in its offices above a branch of the Komercni Banka and just across the road from a big Tesco supermarket. Cooperating institutions were the Libertarian International, based in Holland, and Nova Civitas, based in Belgium.

When I promised to attend, I was feeling rich enough not only to pay my own expenses, but also to pay the Liberalni Institut KC750 (£15) for the privilege of attending. Mrs Gabb and I then decided to buy a big house in Deal, and have since stripped ourselves not far from naked. But promises must be kept, however inconvenient; and having attended, I am very glad that I did. Here is a brief record of the proceedings, expanded from notes that I took of the speeches.

Martin de Vlieghere (Nova Civitas, Belgium)—"Future Development of the European Union"

I am told this was a brilliant speech. Sadly, teaching commitments had kept me in London the previous evening, and I was still travelling to the conference when he spoke on Saturday morning.

Sarah Lawrence (Taking Children Seriously, UK)—"European Union: Liberty or Leviathan?"

I arrived more than half way through Sarah's speech, but caught enough to know that it was up to her usual standard. She spoke about the despotic, centralising tendencies of the European Union, balancing this with an impassioned plea for a diversity of approaches throughout Europe. Every European people, she explained, has something to teach the others. By standing back and permitting a wide range of experiments in living, and by enabling us all to watch and copy each other, the European Union would far more effectively bring about true unity than by all its thousands of bureaucratic interventions. "The EU is like love" she said at one point. "It always finds a way to screw you up."

She did not think it possible to destroy the European Union in the short term. The best strategy, she concluded, was by individual proselytising and by lobbying. She mentioned as an example, her own organisation's success in helping to persuade the British Government not to make the National Curriculum compulsory for all children whether in state or other kinds of education. This had been useful both to secure its stated end and to spread libertarian arguments to people who would not otherwise have been open to them. With regard to Europe, effort should be made to get national governments to sabotage all movements towards further integration.

Janusz Korwin-Mikke (Real Politik Union, Poland) – "Eurofascism"

Mr Korwin-Mikke had the most annoying habit of interrupting other speakers with comments and aggressive questions that came close to disrupting their speeches. Worse, he would follow each intervention with a self-satisfied look round the room as if inviting astonished applause at his display of genius. However, one must make allowances. He was a real dissident in the old days—not one of those photogenic celebrities we were always hearing about, but who later turned out to have been spying for the secret police. To be alone, and not be overwhelmed by the torrent of official lies poured every day from every one of the media, requires a self-sufficiency that is admirable in general, even if not in all specifics. It must also be said that his own speech was a good one.

He began by recalling the old official lie that socialism was the surest path to economic development. Now, he continued, he could see the developed world on the path to socialism. Introducing European "capitalism" to Poland had allowed the number of civil servants to quadruple. In Russia, their numbers had doubled. These acts alone should reveal the fraudulent nature of most market reform in Europe.

In Western Europe, the fraud was more advanced still. The European Union was a protectionist bloc almost as closed to foreign competition as a third world dictatorship. It was a sordid pact between big business and status-hungry politicians. He quoted Jacques Delors on how it should wage "economic war" on the United States.

He then moved to the corrupt political culture of the European Union. Its founding documents were less liberal than those of the old Soviet Union—which had at least allowed the principle of secession to the constituent republics.

The European Union, he concluded, was an idea that must fail. It was economically, politically and spiritually bankrupt. Before, it failed, however, it would do catastrophic damage to Europe and the world.

Martin Stefunko (FA Hayek Foundation, Slovakia; Liberalni Institut, Czech Republic) – "Down with the European Union"

Mr Stefunko is a young man who has obviously been much influenced by Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. His speaking manner gives the impression of someone who has reached the truth by a hard personal struggle, and who is now determined to share that truth as clearly and with as little irrelevance as he can.

He began by describing the European Union as a "sacred construct" for those who believe in it, observing how little dissent was allowed in any forum controlled by the true believers. But, though always sold in terms of peace and freedom, it was real function was to operate as a legislative cartel for the European ruling class. He explained how the average level of government spending in the member states had risen from about 30 per cent in 1957 to about 50 per cent today.

He claimed that political and economic integration are incompatible as attempted within the European Union: politics were driving people apart, not bringing them together. Only free trade and individual liberty could bring people together and enable them to form truly multinational structures of cooperation.

Alberto Mingardi (Italy)—"One Worldism: The Leviathan Strikes Back"

Mr Mingardi read from a text, and so I took the opportunity to take a copy and then disappear from the conference room for the rest of his session. By a big but secluded open window, I happily networked with various Czech and Scandinavian libertarians. But, looking at the text, I see that he made a detailed attack on the political moves to a single world government. He took the current NATO action in Afghanistan as part of an accelerated power grab by the New World Order. His only hope of a better future lay in the settled preference of the Swiss people for avoiding foreign entanglements. He concluded by describing Switzerland's role in this century as once again the great Refugium Peccatorum of the world.

Hubert Jongen (Libertarian International, Holland) – "Working for Liberty in Europe"

Hubert is the Grand Old Man of libertarianism in Europe. We all passed a while when young thinking that we were the only people in the world to think as we did. Eventually, we found that there were others like us, and avoided becoming like Mr Korwin-Mikke. For Hubert, though, there was no movement of like-minded people to join, and he has spent much of his life building that movement in Europe. He has done this while keeping a sense of humour and a most attractive modesty. He was in Prague with his wife Rita—who is also a libertarian activist—and now spoke not about principles, but about the practicalities of spreading the principles.

The Libertarian International, he explained, was a coordinating body, set up to assist cooperation between libertarians in different countries. It had a website and published a weekly newsletter on the Internet. It also organised or helped organise conferences to bring libertarians together from around the world. Beyond this, it had no organisation. It neither wished nor was able to centralise the direction of libertarian effort.

He said he did not want to ask people to do anything more than they were already doing. All he wanted us to do was to tell him what we were doing and what problems we were facing, and let him publicise these to those who might otherwise not be aware of our efforts. One of his current projects, however, was the "Walk for Capitalism" initiative. This involved getting a few dozen activists to march through a city with appropriate banners, and then to make an award to a local businessman who had done most in the past year to increase the happiness of others by seeking his own. This was, Hubert suggested, an easy and enjoyable way to get coverage in the media and to raise the general profile of libertarianism.

Andras Bereny (Italy)—"The EU as Legislative Cartel"

Mr Bereny's speech was very short. His main point was that power within the European Union is both centralised and dangerous.

Sean Gabb (Libertarian International and Libertarian Alliance)—"The European Union as the Evil Empire"

I attended the conference as a delegate from the Libertarian International, and am most grateful to Hubert for his contribution to my expenses. But I also took several hundred Libertarian Alliance pamphlets and copies of the latest issue of Free Life—which I regret I have not yet sent out to all those good people who have bought subscriptions. I was happy to see that every copy of what I laid out in the coffee room disappeared within an hour, and that libertarians from all over Europe were absorbed in them during every rest period throughout the rest of the conference. And I took copies of my latest book—Dispatches from a Dying Country. Though I discounted the price very heavily for East European delegates, I was delighted to sell all that I took with me.

Turning to my speech, I will resist the temptation to expand my note of what I said into a full transcript. I said nothing that I have not already written. I began by explaining that the European Union is bad because it enables the ruling elites and associated interests of all the member states to come together into something like a single government. Replying to some slighting comments made earlier about democracy, I insisted that—whatever anarcho-capitalist future might await us—freedom had so far only been possessed in nation states with representative institutions. A necessary condition so far had always been that the authorities should be accountable to a connected body of public opinion. Europe, however, was not a nation state. It was instead a collection of nationalities with no connected public opinion. This made a fraud of all the democratic bodies set up during the previous quarter century. The reality was that a reasonably united ruling class faced a disunited mass of subjects, who could be played off against each other much as in the old Hapsburg Empire.

I moved from this to an examination of how the enabling documents of the European Union are always formally about liberty and human rights, but actually about absolute and unaccountable power. I chose as my illustration the Corpus Juris proposals—how these would create a single jurisdiction within the European Union, and enable detention without charge, and trial without a jury, and double jeopardy, and so on and so forth.

I know that I spoke very well—but I see no point in elaborating this point.

Dinner was enjoyable. It involved hours of talking and gossiping in the usual conference manner. I was also shameless in showing off my command of Slovak to the Czech waiters, who were more amused than impressed by my bad pronunciation and unidiomatic phrases. Of course, my Slovak was nothing compared with the perfect English of all the foreign delegates. But I showed off all the same.

Afterwards, I was directed to my lodgings in Prague. Having decided to travel as cheaply as possible, I had turned down the pleasures of the Hotel Elite in favour of a student hostel. As I set of in search of this, I was sure Mr Sima of the Liberalni Institute had told me it was in Stepanka Street. Sadly, it was in Jindrisska Street, about a mile away. But there are worse cities than Prague in which to be lost on a Saturday evening; and though I found myself exposed to the attentions of various drunken youths and course females as I heaved my bags along the streets, I felt entirely safe at all times. Certainly, no one tried to kill me, as has regrettably been the case in a few other cities I have visited. At last, I arrived at the Junior Hostel just across the road from the main railway station. I expected the receptionist not to know about my booking, and so cannot complain about the fact. I will only say that the accommodation, though remarkably tatty even by East European standards, was both warm and spotlessly clean. I spent two very peaceful nights there for just under £12 a night, and had breakfast included in the price.

Next morning, it was back to the conference for the last speeches.

Christian Michel (www.liberalia.com, Switzerland and UK)—"What to Do with the Rich: the EU Welfare States and the Question of the Poor"

Until Christian gave his speech, I was sure that mine had been the best. But his put mine entirely in the shade. It had, I must say, almost nothing to do with the European Union. Even so, just to hear him deliver it would have made the journey to Prague worthwhile.

He began by explaining that the poor in any society are defined by the rich. There is no poverty in the Andes, because there are no rich. In the modern West, everyone has access to things like running water and electricity in comparison to which the wealth of Louis XIV and the Caesars was as nothing. We still speak about the poor only because there are those who have much more.

He then passed on to an examination of what creates poverty as generally defined. He identified kleptocratic government that both deprived those alive of the fruits of their labour and impoverished future generations by slowing, or even reversing, the process of capital formation.

Now he moved to the central part of his speech. The State, he said, was always controlled by an elite of administrators and policemen. 19th century efforts to democratise the State did not remove these people, but only gave them more power. The new voters demanded a redistribution of wealth that led to the creation of the biggest inquisitorial bureaucracy in history. It was to control and thereby to limit the redistribution that the rich as a class dipped into their pockets and put up whatever money was demanded of them.

Today, he continued, the socialist threat had receded. However, the expanded bureaucracy continued to exist, and was now persecuting the rich for no useful purpose. The European Union was a bureaucratic solution to the problem of how to keep extracting money from an increasingly mobile and confident wealthy class.

How should we help the poorest in society? he asked. The answer was to return to the solutions of the 19th century – before the creation of the redistributionist state. The authorities should strictly uphold property rights, which are more important to the poor who have little to lose than to the rich who can buy their way out of most dangers. At the same time, trade unions and consumer organisations should be encouraged to increase the market bargaining power of the poor. And there should be an encouragement of the sort of mutual assistance that in the 19th century guaranteed most of the respectable poor against disaster.

Christian now moved to a striking reconciliation of charity with self-interest. Despite all that had been claimed, he said, these were two sides of the same coin. Generosity required ownership of property and the placing of value on all that was given. Where was the virtue in giving away something that one did not own, or did not value highly? Without property, charity became nothing but a soulless and probably counterproductive bureaucratic dole. Without an active wish to assist others, charity became a morally dead activity.

He concluded by saying that is was good for the rich to give away their surplus—to set up schools and hospitals and other charitable foundations. He would welcome the day when the rich gave up on competitive conspicuous consumption, and turned instead to competing at giving to others—as had happened in the last golden age of capitalism.

In a conversation I overheard in the coffee break that followed, Christian explained his comments on trade unions. He agreed with trade unions and strikes because labour markets were imperfect. If a strike forced an employer to raise wages, that was proof that his workers had previously been paid less than the full market wage. If he sacked them and employed others, that showed they were being paid the full wage. He was not endorsing the non-market coercion that forced many firms into bankruptcy in Britain before Margaret Thatcher reformed the trade union laws.

This bald summary does poor justice to a speech that took an hour to deliver, and that was delivered in faultless English, but with a French epigrammatic style worthy of Voltaire. I have forgotten all his epigrams but one that I took care to write down: "A society receives its tone from the dead it honours". Fortunately, Christian has written his speech into a pamphlet, and I look forward to seeing it on his website and republished by the Libertarian Alliance.

Stephen Wyckaert (Nova Civitas, Belgium)—"The Case for Competitive Federaism"

Mr Wyckaert began by explain the kind of federalism he did not desire—this being the centralising, despotic kind now on offer from the European Union. He then quoted James Buchanan, that good federalism introduced features of the market into politics. He outlined a vision of federalism able to limit protectionism and coercion by the subsidiary powers.

His ideal European Federation would be characterised by four guiding principles. First, there must be subsidiarity—so that the functions of government would always be carried out as close as possible to those being governed, and subject to their own control. Second, there must be a division of power—so that each authority would check the despotic tendency of the others. Third, there must be fiscal equivalence—so that all taxes were raised by the authority spending them, and it would be possible to see the full cost of government at every level. Fourth, there must be a rule of origin – so that whatever was permitted to be produced or sold in any one jurisdiction would be permitted in all others.

The European Union, he concluded, was not this kind of federation. But this fact should not bring all federalism into disrepute.

Michal Kastner (www.der-markt.com, Germany) – "The Creeping Deprivatisation of Life: How EU Politics Try to Corrupt the Individual"

Mr Kastner is an anarcho-capitalist who makes his living from information technology consultancy. He described how the European Union corrupted everyone by taking away their freedom and responsibility. All governments did this, he said, but the European Union was worse, in that it was able to extend its predations across half a continent.

The greater part of his session was taken up with questions and answers, in which he and others discussed the merits of evading taxes and regulations or just defending the right of others to do so.

Pierre Garello (Institute for Economic Studies Europe, France)—"The Euro: Success or Failure?"

Pierre began by observing that the answer to his question depended on what the question meant. Before being able to say whether the Euro had been a success or failure, it was necessary to know for what purpose it had been created.

The Treaty of Rome, he said, had been enough about free trade to make the early Common Market into a liberal project. By the 1980s, the creation of a large free trade area was substantially complete. However, the monetary arrangements of the Community were unsatisfactory and there were two possible ways forward. The first was for the member states to end the Exchange Rate Mechanism that tied most of their currencies together and move to a system of competing currencies. The second was to move to a single currency.

The second path was chosen because some politicians hoped it would allow them to end inflation without being blamed for the resulting monetary constraints; and others hoped it would allow them to pursue quite opposite policies of Keynesian demand management without having to worry about the global capital markets.

Thus, the Euro is about politics, not economics. Any evaluation of its success requires evaluation of the underlying political aims.

There followed a digression on the nature of money and inflation – how the second disorders the whole economic process; and how the first developed as an institution to overcome the worst effects of uncertainty, and how it cannot therefore be judged as a whole by any criterion of efficiency.

He then explained how the Euro had been a political failure. He read some very amusing claims made by the French Government and directed at schoolchildren—how the Euro would end inflation, and involve no conversion costs, and have no effect on social security. He used this to show that the Euro is unpopular enough among ordinary French people for their government to need to resort to crude propaganda to gain over the children.

Economically, he suspected that the Euro had been a failure by reasonable standards. But he added that two years is not really enough to justify any definite conclusion. The European Central Bank, he said, might eventually settle down to steering short term policy to keep a loose control over inflation. As such, the currency would not be much worse for most member states than keeping their own money.

On the other hand, the project might collapse. Perhaps this would be good for liberty. But the collapse would be so big that the thought of it frightened him.

There followed what should have been an interesting question and answer session. Sadly, it was confused by interventions from Mr Korwin-Mikke and from an Englishman whose name I will not mention, who asked an irrelevant question about the past role of Sterling as an imperial currency.

That was the end of the conference speeches. A few hours later, though, I went off to dinner with Christian Michel, a Russian lady who name escapes me, Hubert and Rita Jongen, and Hendrik Alexandersson. I am not inclined to describe in any detail a table conversation that lasted more than three hours and ranged over subjects as diverse as the Second Dutch War and Chinese philosophy. But as important as the speeches at a conference is the informal conversations that take place in between and after. So I will give a brief summary.

We all agreed on the value of these international gatherings. We are all facing a statist enemy that is increasingly a multi-national cartel. Our best chance of resisting this lies in acting also without regard for borders. Even if we never fully coordinate our activities, we can give each other moral support and share information.

Hubert urged us all again to supply him with regular information for his Internet news letter. I promised to get together as soon as possible with Dr Tame to organise the weekly news releases that we had been discussing without action for several years. I explained how the Libertarian Alliance got at least one media airing every week, and how this total could be expected to rise dramatically once we started making positive efforts to reach out to the media. Hubert welcomed this promise, commenting that British libertarians were lucky to face such a comparatively open media: getting the libertarian message across in Europe was much harder.

Hendrik then reminded me of my promise to supply the Scandinavian movement with Libertarian Alliance publications, so he and his friends could translate them or just circulate them in English.

We also discussed the need to increase our distinctiveness from the American movement. Of course, America has the largest libertarian movement. And this has money and personnel on a scale that none other can match and that is of crucial importance to the movement in all other countries. On the other hand, we must do more to connect libertarianism with our own native traditions. Everywhere in Europe, our opponents try to avoid dealing with our arguments by denouncing us as slaves of an alien ideology. This tactic is used even in England and Scotland—where it is self-evidently absurd. It is used far more insistently in continental Europe. Yet there is probably no European country that has contributed nothing to liberal or libertarian thought. By all means, then, let us use the Cato Institute publications that come out to us all. But let us also emphasise or rediscover our own native libertarian discourse.

The conversation aside, it was a good dinner. It was in one of the best restaurants in Prague and cost only £180 for six people. What I most distinctly recall about place, though, was not the food but the lavatories. These were the most sophisticated I have ever seen. After flushing, I found that the seat began to revolve as if on a gramophone turntable, while a disinfecting brush cleaned it for the next user. One after the other, we went off to inspect this marvel of sanitary technology—Hubert and I even squeezed ourselves together into a cubicle to see it. How changed the city is from when I was first there in 1991. Then, even in Wenceslas Square, the cafes served sour cream in cracked jugs.

But Prague is more than revolving toilet seats. After dinner, we went on a walk round the old town, astonished at its beauty. In all my travels, I have not seen a more gloriously lovely city than Prague. It has street after street of mediaeval, baroque and 19th century buildings, all jumbled together into a strange harmony. When I visit a place with Mrs Gabb, we like to play a game of mental archaeology—trying to imagine what the place looked like before it was ruined by modernity. Prague is different. I do not think it has ever looked better than it does now. It is better every time I visit, and will probably continue getting better for about the next generation. If I want to fall here into my constitutional pessimism, I must imagine a future time when Prague will have been bombed into ruins, and will present to future generations the same desolate vista as the cities of the ancient world do to us. But for the time being, the city is as nearly perfect as can be imagined.

Turning to everyday life, there are some nice shops in Prague. On my last day there, I wandered though several second hand book shops, buying things for Mrs Gabb. I bought a 19th century travel book, a bound volume of women's magazines from the 1920s, and a photographic guide to Prague published just before the Communists took over. I did think about a book the title of which translates as "Klement Gottwald: His Life in Pictures", but decided she might not appreciate the joke.

For natives, of course, Prague is now a very expensive city. That dinner, for example, cost about the average monthly salary. Even the books cost as much as most people earn in a day. But no lament for the socialist past can be hung on these facts. When choice is formally limited only to what the poor can afford, the natural effect is mass-impoverishment. Moreover, economic equality under socialism was never more than formal. In Czechoslovakia before 1989, there were wage differentials that much senior management in the West might have envied. But inequality was hidden under a blanket of censorship, and the requirement that the wealthy should spend their money in special shops closed to the ordinary public. Nowadays, the only requirement for having nice things is money; and, for all the residual corrupt of Czech society, the means of getting money have been greatly democratised since 1989.

Enough of my reflections, however. It was a good conference. All else aside, it let me see how the European Union really is bringing the peoples of Europe together—even if only in common opposition to its existence!

© 2001 – 2017, seangabb.

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