Continuity as a Model for Central Europe?
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A debate between James C. Bennett and György Schöpflin moderated by Gellért Rajcsányi on the 27th March 2014.

Gellért Rajcsányi: Mr Bennett, Professor Schöpflin, thank you for coming here to take part in this debate. This event is organised by the Danube Institute and we hope that it will be an interesting debate for all the readers and viewers. Mr Bennett, for all those who did not read your article with Mr Lotus in the Hungarian Review, would you sum up the main statements of your article?


James C. Bennett: Our article was primarily an attempt to create the discussion about contemporary politics, especially the situation in Europe the recent developments in the social sciences. There is  a new, evolving, Cambridge-based school coming from historic anthropology. These people in Cambridge at the King's College are often referred to as the Continuity School. The main point they make is that the distinguishing characteristics of the English, liberal, democratic, capitalist society has roots in the nature of the English society going back documented as far as the 1300s. Based on archaeological evidence, it goes even further back to the 900s, 700s. The Anglo-Saxon state was different than the continental states. The volume of silver money in England was ten times higher than on the continent, even prior to the Norman conquest, indicating that market relations were much more important even at that time. The Continuity School is a bit of an intellectual revolution. In the book called The Origins of English Individualism by Alan Macfarlane the idea was introduced that in England there was an early transition from the "Gemeinschaftsgesellschaft" society to the individualistic society, even from the 14th century. The inheritance was based on the will of the testator. The individual contractual relation was not a new invention, it was a feature of the English society since the beginning, and this was not true on the continent. These social relations affected the political structures, the growth of the civil society in the 14th to 16th century England.


In the article you stated that the English and American models cannot be blueprints for the continental, Central European countries, and Europe should find its own roots based mainly on the family structures of its nations.


JB: The family systems seem to be good predictors of the politics and social-economic structures of the countries. Family systems were predictors of labour mobility in Western Europe, too.


Mr Schöpflin, one of the main points of your debate was exactly the role of the family structures in the history of the different European countries - you have a different point of view.


George Schöpflin: First of all, I don't accept the rigid dichotomy Mr Bennett established within Anglo-Saxon and continental models. One of the factors that does differentiate England is that the Norman conquest does impose a centralized system with a single judiciary and that provides security. The Roman Catholic Church introduced the rules for succession and inheritance. The Western Christianity is different from the other parts of the world, but the British Isles are part of this Western Christianity. The central difference: to what extent is the political system capable of providing the security for the family. If we look outside of Europe, to the Middle East or China, we see that the state might be unreliable so the bigger family is more important. Europe is the exception, and I don't think the differences between England and the continent are too important. About the continuity and discontinuity: I see history as a series of discontinuities. Things do change over time - even in my own lifetime I have seen far-reaching changes. We cannot look at history in terms of continuity. I accept of course that there are things that resemble the Middle Ages. For example, there was the Scottish Declaration of Independence by the Scottish nobility, and Scottish nationalists see this as an example that "we were independent in the 14th century". But it was the Scottish nobility that declared independence from the English Crown. The world was very different six centuries ago than it is now. My second point is that as far as the economic centre of the medieval Europe is concerned, it was the triangle of Northern Italy, Southern Germany, Paris and Flanders. The stock exchange was set up in Bruges in 1306, not in England. If we are looking at the pattern of inheritance and the corresponding wealth and security, I don't see a real distinction. It is the Roman Law that brings the system of security, it functions differently from the common law. I am not sure that the family structure really tells much more than it does.


JB: What you say is not untrue. The thing is that there is a series of discontinuities in the world culture. As you pointed out, there is a significant difference between Western Europe and the rest of the world, for example the difference of endogenous and exogenous marriages, the latter produces outward looking societies. All of Western Europe shares this heritage, including Hungary. But there is a predictor in Europe: who was modernized in the 19th century and who in the 20th century. There is a further, significant separation between England, Eastern Scotland, and the continental areas. There is the question: how important is the family system, versus other important things like religion, culture, and language? My opinion is that the family system is as equally important as other factors. People typically analyse national differences, but the family system lines can be good predictors of different models of state buildings, too. Attempts to build states across the lines of different family systems might result in trouble areas within Europe.


GS: Nobody has yet mentioned the F-word: futilism, which is universal in the Western Christianity, structuring land ownership and ensuring that all the lands belong to somebody. There is a continuity here that includes Western Europe and England, too. About the factors of the culture: religion structures the way we understand the world around us. Family structure on its own is only one sociological factor, but no more than that. Here we could talk about France and the Napoleonic wars too: people came home with more knowledge of contraceptive techniques, the consequence was the limiting of the family size by the 19th century.


Another point of our debate is the concept of developmental stages vs the continuity model.


JB: According to the stage model, the different European societies and nations went through the same stages at different points. But England had a very different system from an early age, it never went through any preceding stages. In the continuity model, there are long-standing differences between various parts of Europe, and there were no automatic developmental stages. The "stages concept" imposes determinism, it creates expectations that some countries will go through the same stages automatically. This is a problem of the European and American drive of civilization: in the last centuries we went to other continents, from colonialist wars to the IMF, expecting that other societies will go through the same stages as ours. In many cases this has not happened. Its reason is the different family system: they will not go through the same stages, there will be no great social and cultural changes. The stages theory creates a misunderstanding of what can be done in the world.


GS: We want to construct our own way, our own structure to the future. The stages theory doesn't work. I don't believe in stages. I am sometimes fascinated by the idea of cycles that  things go back randomly where they were. I don't believe that there is a single model of modernity. The universalism of the Enlightenment casted a terrible shadow over the world. Europe and America conquered the world, imposed their own systems on different cultures. In Hungary, we were sometimes forced to adopt ideas, concepts, institutions that did not grow out of the native soil. There is the Hungarian phrase "kurucosodás": many felt, "it is not ours, we don't like it, whether it is good or bad for us".


The third point is the debate about the heritage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


JB: I am not an expert in Austro-Hungarian history. I suggested that it is worth looking at that model and asking ourselves how it could have evolved if it could not have been cut short by the war. I like to look at models proposed, but never taken. There were proposals of reforming the Empire into a federal state. Looking at some of those proposals it occurred to me that there might have been more viable ways forward than what actually happened. Of course, it is only speculation. But Austria-Hungary led the way to the modernity for its nations. If we are looking at the future, it could somehow be a model for a way forward. It is also interesting that since the end of the 19th century, Irish nationalists always referred to the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a model for Irish-British relations. Of course, I am not trying to claim that the empire was in every aspect wonderful.


GS: By the second half of the 19th century, the national communities became stronger. The national intelligentsia succeeded in mobilising themselves and their communities into nationhoods. By the way: the idea of nation was imported from the West, it was not native to the region. "If we don't preserve ourselves we will disappear, our nation will die out" - this remains a popular thought in this region. In my opinion, Austria-Hungary was an accumulation of series of historical accidents, held together by a monarch. It was an accumulation of lands. Without the World War I, it might have been transformed. But I don't know how you democratize an empire, a multinational state. By 1918, Austria-Hungary had no legitimacy, there was very small loyalty to the ruler.


We are talking about empires and democratization: here we get to the final topic of the conversation, the present and the future of the European Union.


GS: People see the European Union as an economic entity, but it is a political one, too. Among other things, it is a method for conflict resolutions. There will always be conflicts. The myth of harmony is completely distractive. The EU has a lot of advantages in the context of the conflict resolutions. In the case of economy, we need a single set of standards. I have been in the European Parliament for ten years, I have seen a great deal of nonsense. But at the end of the day, the costs of a Europe without the EU are higher than having whatever we have. The perspective of Europe will always be different for a small state than a large state.


JB: I think that the problem of the EU is quite similar to the problem of reforming the Austro-Hungarian Empire - except in the other way around. You had a functioning multinational polity, the problem was, how to make it more democratic. In the European Union, you have a group of democratic nations, and the question is, how to build a functioning multinational polity. In the case of Austria-Hungary, one was not able to square the circle. It is possible to square the circle in the case of the EU because the democracies are successful. However, you have this problem of accountability and democratic legitimacy. The European Parliament is not a real parliament in the way we understand an institute like this.


GS: We do have budgetary authority: the EU budget can't go on without the European Parliament voting it.


JB: But the EP does not have tax raising authority.


GS: The EP does not have its own resources – that is a big issue.


JB: This is a big issue. If you are going to get to the democratic legitimacy by having an elected parliament with a tax raising authority, many of the nation states would not approve that.


GS: We have representation without taxation.


JB: Yes, that's right. The question is whether the EU will be a relatively decentralized entity without a central state, or it will evolve into a multinational federation.


GS: It is very likely that there will be a convention in 2016 when these issues will be debated, and then we will know the outcome.


Mr Bennett, Mr Schöpflin, thank you for the debate.




James Charles Bennett (born 1948) is an American businessman, with a background in technology companies and consultancy, and a writer on technology and international affairs from a conservative point of view.


György Schöpflin (born 1939) is a Hungarian academic and politician. He is a Member of the European Parliament for Fidesz and the European People's Party, and sits on the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs. Formerly Jean Monnet Professor of Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, he has published 

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