Europe as a model for a global open society

22 November 2006

George Soros, founder and chairman of the Open Society Institute, international philanthropist and author of The Age of Infallibility, said Europe could serve as a model for a global open society.

When the term ‘open society’ was first used in 1932 by French philosopher Henri Bergson, it meant a society “guided by universal human rights and protecting individual freedom”. Philosopher Karl Popper then took up this theme, pointing out that open societies held no single view of ‘truth’, but rather sought to establish laws and institutions which allowed people with divergent views to live together in peace.

After the Second World War, Europe was gradually built, culminating in the formation of the European Union. It has since become a “text book” example of an open society, said Mr Soros, as it proceeded “step by step”, with limited objectives, knowing that each step would require further action.

However, this process has now ground to a halt following the defeat of the Constitution in two referenda. This has left Europe in an untenable position, applying a governance structure originally designed for six Member States to a club of 27 from January 2007.

Growing dissatisfaction with the current system is fostering nationalism, Xenophobia and anti-Islamist sentiment, and the EU itself is in a state of disarray. This is matched by disarray in the world order, as the current US government’s policies have resulted in a “precipitous decline” in its power and influence. Following its counter-productive war on terrorism, the US has lost its ability to project overwhelming military power, said Mr Soros, and, as a result, “the world order has become much less stable. Indeed, it is threatening to descend into world disorder.”

The EU cannot take the place of the US as the leader of the world, but it can play a bigger international role, building on its inspiring example of using its leverage to transform countries bidding for EU membership into open societies.

Mr Soros argued that Europe should shelve its general plans for institutional reform and concentrate on building a common foreign policy, and having an impact on the world stage – and he criticised the EU for failing to make full use of its potential.

Its failure to formulate a common energy policy has left it increasingly dependant on Russia, effectively silencing its criticisms of Russian foreign policy; its European Neighbourhood Policy has never gathered momentum, and its treatment of Turkey is “pushing an important ally in the wrong direction”.

Mr Soros stressed that the EU’s foreign policy should not be anti-American, but should rather set an example of international cooperation.

But he insisted that a global open society did not mean global government, since big governments interfere with individuals’ freedom. Instead, an open society stands for the rule of law on an international scale.

“Europe is the prototype of a global open society”, he concluded, although it remained to be seen whether this idea was strong enough to serve as a unifying force to guide the EU process forward. If Europe was to be revived, it had to be by popular agreement, and civil society must be mobilised to become involved in the process.

Javier Solana, the EU’s High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, agreed with Mr Soros that changing societies were sometimes the most creative.

Declaring himself to be “an optimist”, Mr Solana said he felt that many elements of international politics were now beginning to move in the right direction. He added that the European project was in a state of continual development, on a journey without a “pre-constructed end”. However, “passengers” on the European train needed to know what direction it was going in.

People should not see the ‘No’ votes to the Constitution as a cause for despair. Although Europe would function better with a Constitution, the lack of one had not hindered its ability to carry out important foreign policy initiatives, such as in Lebanon or supporting elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mr Solana said public opinion needed to be engaged in the process of European development, and Europe’s governing elites made more accountable. This was all part of the of European process, of proceeding by trial and error, based on the principle of “never try, never fail, so try, fail, try again and fail better”.