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An Island Adrift

Britain and the future of Euroskepticism.

By From the November 2012 issue

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DRAWN IN PALE BROWN INK on two skins of soft vellum, the Gough Map, kept in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, presents a haunting image of a Britain half-formed in the consciousness of a mid-14th-century cartographer. While a russet-robed William Langland sat nestled in the Malvern Hills, gazing eastwards and dreaming of a tower, a dungeon, and the “fair feld ful of folk” between, the Gough Map’s anonymous scribe set about delineating the bustling settlements, blessed plots, ancient highways, and riverine byways of the Scepter’d Isle. The scattered icons of the fading map still recall the social panorama included in Langland’s Piers Plowman, that great “assemblee” of Britain, with “alle manere of men, the meene and the riche, werchynge and wandrynge as the world asketh.” In the Gough Map, one can still make out the various facets of Langland’s country, from the fecund pastures to the teeming emporia, indeed all the hallmarks of a self-sufficient but outward-looking nation.

One can also make out, suspended overhead like a canopy, or perhaps like Damocles’ sword, a thin strip of land vaguely representative of the coasts of Flanders and Normandy. Studded with inviting ports populated by obliging burghers, and with forbidding castles garrisoned by mortal dynastic enemies, Europe appears as both bane and boon to those across the narrow channel. Already being advanced in this, the first accurate map of the British Isles, was a semi-detached view of Albion’s relationship with Europe. It was a view that would hold sway in the centuries to come, necessitating an uneasy accommodation between insular exceptionalism and the lucrative, yet dangerous, call of the continent.

From time immemorial, the English have flattered themselves with the Shakespearean formulation that theirs is a “little world,” a “precious stone set in the silver sea,” separated from “less happier lands” by a fortuitous moat, one wider in practice than the seven leagues from Dover to Calais. “This realm of England is an empire,” declared the Henrician Act in Restraint of Appeals to Rome (1533), with a “body politic” admittedly comprised of “all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of spiritualty and temporalty,” but one absolutely independent of “any foreign princes or potentates of the world.” That Britannia was comprised of “all sorts” was certainly no exaggeration. Daniel Defoe, in The True-Born Englishman (1700), archly described his countrymen as an “amphibious ill-born mob,” a palimpsest of invaders and settlers whose “relics are so lasting and so strong” as to leave a “shibboleth upon our tongue / By which with easy search you may distinguish / Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English.” By factoring in the “Dutch, Walloons, Flemings, Irishmen, and Scots / Vaudois, and Valtolins, and Huguenots” who likewise made their often desperate way to Britain’s shores, Defoe could conclude that his homeland was “Europe’s sink,” rather than the doughty “fortress built by Nature for herself” of Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt.

Even if the “true-born Englishman” was in fact a curiously “het’rogeneous thing,” as Defoe demonstrated and the passage of time has further confirmed, one exceptional aspect of his island empire’s character could at least be considered sui generis: its free constitution. From the slow accretion of the common law to the dramatic recognition of the Magna Carta, and from the development of the writ of habeas corpus to the passage of the 1689 Bill of Rights, the British state would come to feature an array of what William Blackstone termed “the absolute rights of every Englishman.” The English writer John Brown, in his 1757 Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times, spoke for his countrymen as he boasted that whereas Liberty “hath been ingrafted by the Arts of Policy in other Countries, it shoots up here as from its natural Climate, Stock, and Soil,” with the result that “this great Spirit hath produced more full and compleat Effects in our own Country, than in any known Nation that ever was upon Earth.” Liberal philosophes across the Channel were in full agreement, with Montesquieu positing that it was in England that “liberty will appear in its highest perfection,” and with Voltaire praising the English for being “jealous not only of their own liberty, but even of that of other nations.” The government of England, the sage of Ferney continued, had for its laudable object “not the brilliant folly of making conquests, but to prevent its neighbors from making them.”

Poised in the balance of the swaying scales of European geopolitics, Britain could hold itself out as the safeguard of both continental stability and sovereign rights. It was a dual role perfectly suited to the conflicted identity of an exceptional island drawn inexorably toward the mainland. As such, Britain would find itself in an unending series of continental interventions, many renowned, and many more now but half-remembered in the public’s consciousness. The British historian Brendan Simms has recently made a compelling case that “the Bank of England, the national debt, the stock market, the Royal Navy and the standing army”—all of which make up the modern “apparatus of the ‘fiscal-military state’”—were each “primarily designed to sustain Britain’s international role in Europe.” Imperial holdings would grow in importance, and a “blue water” policy would become increasingly fashionable in strategic circles, but the European commitment was destined to remain a British preoccupation.

MAINTAINING HER WEIGHT on Europe’s general scales cost Albion innumerable lives and untold coin, but by the end of the last (to date) of the great continental conflagrations, the Second World War, Britons could congratulate themselves on a successful centuries-old record of supporting the liberties of Europe. Preserving that same geopolitical heft in the irenic context of postwar European integration would prove another matter altogether, the moral and political clarity of the preceding epoch having quickly dissipated. Labour governments were initially confounded by, and subsequently skeptical of, the transformational Schuman Plan, which led in turn to the European Coal and Steel Community and then to the European Economic Community. The New Statesman, an organ of the British left, went so far as to dismiss postwar integrationist efforts as a vaguely sinister conspiracy involving Franco-German industrialists in collusion with the Vatican. Yet in a matter of only a few years this perfervid Europhobia gave way to a familiar impulse. By the late 1960s, Labour Foreign Secretary Lord George Brown was convinced that Britain’s “role is to lead Europe…Western Europe in the first place, and of as much Europe as will come together later on. For all sorts of reasons, it is impossible for Germany to be the focal power point of the continent…also France, again for historic reasons.” Only Britain, according to Brown, could provide the “countervailing force to all the old tensions of the mainland.” After all, “it is not the price of butter which in the end really matters,” but the grand sweep of the geopolitical hand.

As S.J.D. Green later remarked, these “were not just the rantings of a clapped-out politician, isolated within his own party. They were precisely the kinds of arguments that convinced Harold Macmillan, a supreme operator at the height of his political powers, and in charge of a Conservative government.” Both Brown and Macmillan—joined by too many of their Labour and Tory successors to name—had made a series of fundamental errors. They assumed that European integration would produce an Anglo-Saxon-friendly continental free trade area, as opposed to the very different planned customs union. They took for granted that France and Germany were utterly spent and would never reconcile, let alone form a European axis of diplomatic and economic preeminence. And, worst of all, they woefully underestimated the importance of the “price of butter” in postwar Europe. Whatever equity and goodwill Britain had accrued by dint of its various defenses of European liberty now counted for little. No country, it would become increasingly clear, could alone provide a “countervailing force” to the sheer immensity of the European integration effort.

British policymakers on the left and the right were, as a rule, slow to appreciate the challenges European integration presented to their island’s modus vivendi. As late as 1975, with Britain preparing to hold a referendum on membership in the Common Market, no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher was spearheading the Conservative “Yes” campaign, all the while dismissing any notion that continental economic integration constituted a threat to British sovereignty. In a notorious speech at St. Ermin’s Hotel in London, Thatcher struck back at critics of the Common Market, insisting that “it is a myth that the Community is simply a bureaucracy with no concern for the individual. The entire staff of the Commission is about 7,000—smaller than that of the Scottish Office. It is a myth that our membership will suffocate national tradition and culture. Are the Germans any less German for being in the Community, or the French any less French? Of course they are not.” Thatcher’s rhetoric was perfectly in keeping with a long tradition of British Conservative Europhilia. Winston Churchill, for one, had claimed as early as 1930 that “the mass of Europe once united, once federalized or partly federalized, once continentally self-conscious…would constitute an organism beyond compare.” In all fairness, it was one thing, in the gloom of the 1930s, for Churchill to daydream of a brave new Europe at Kantian peace with itself, and with Britain a valuable friend and sponsor, “linked, but not compromised…interested and associated, but not absorbed.” To do so in 1975, however, was nothing short of folly. It should have been abundantly clear that the prospect of such a semi-detached arrangement was little more than foxfire flickering in the Lernean morass of European diplomacy.

Fair warning had in fact been given. Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, back in 1962, had cautioned his fellow Britons about the unprecedented nature of the Common Market and the implications of the establishment of a pan-European Parliament and a Council of Ministers. Wary of the influence that those institutions would necessarily attain, Gaitskell pleaded: “We must be clear about this; it does mean, if this is the idea, the end of Britain as an independent European state…it means the end of a thousand years of history. You may say ‘let it end.’ But my goodness, it is a decision which needs a little care and thought.” A year later, the landmark 1963 European Court of Justice ruling Van Gend en Loos would confirm that the foundational Treaty of Rome was “more than an agreement which merely creates mutual obligations between the contracting States....The Community constitutes a new legal order of international law for the benefit of which states have limited their sovereign rights.” Centuries of norms were being overturned at a dizzying rate. At a Conservative party conference some nine years after Gaitskell first made his stand against European integration, the prominent Tory “anti-marketeer” Enoch Powell wondered aloud whether Britain, “which has maintained and defended its independence for a thousand years, will now submit to see it merged or lost.” For his part, Powell flatly stated that he had not “become a member of a sovereign parliament in order to consent to that sovereignty being abated or transferred.” The Conservative reaction to Powell’s speech was cool—2,474 of the 2,798 conference-goers voted in favor of entry—but concerns over the wholesale abrogation of British sovereignty could not be dismissed so easily.

The sovereignty challenge to British involvement in the Common Market was sufficiently compelling for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in 1971, to commission a briefing on the subject, “Sovereignty and the European Communities, FCO 30/1048.” (This document, confidential in nature, was kept under seal for three decades, until the Euroskeptic researcher and journalist Richard North republished an annotated version.) For the anonymous civil servants at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it was a universally acknowledged truth that “the Queen in Parliament has sovereign lawmaking power in the territory, unchallenged by any rival national or international source of authority and that its freedom to enact legislation is in law untrammelled by acts of its predecessors or otherwise.” Nevertheless, membership in the Community would involve “extensive limitations upon our freedom of action.” Of even more concern was the fact that, under the Community treaties, Britain would be “accepting an external legislature which regards itself as having direct powers of legislating with effect within the United Kingdom, even in derogation of United Kingdom statutes, and as having in certain fields exclusive legislative competence, so that our own legislature has none.” Even more ominously, the anonymous civil servants, with considerable foresight, noted that the “loss of external sovereignty” would gradually “increase as the Community develops, according to the intention of the preamble to the Treaty of Rome ‘to establish the foundations of an even closer union among the European peoples.’” The superseding of British sovereignty was an absolute certainty, then, but the drafters of this white paper nevertheless advised “all political parties” not to “exacerbate public concern by attributing unpopular measures or unfavourable economic developments to the remote and unmanageable workings of the Community.”

That Britain was well on its way to ceding core competences to a European Community whose workings could be described as “remote” and “unmanageable” was a dramatic sea change, one all the more remarkable when one considers the thousand years of tradition thereby submerged full fathom five. In the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the quondam Britain had been “A land of settled government / A land of just and old renown / Where Freedom slowly broadens down / From precedent to precedent.” At the height of the Victorian period, the constitutional scholar A.V. Dicey added, in only slightly less poetic terms, that it was “the fruit not of abstract theory but of that instinct which…has enabled Englishmen, and especially uncivilised Englishmen, to build up sound and lasting institutions, much as bees construct a honeycomb.” Tennyson’s lauded precedents were fast losing their force in Europe’s novus ordo, while Dicey’s enrooted institutions were being torn up and discarded in favor of once-dreaded abstractions.    

The ramifications of these profound developments were, however, disguised for years, as Britain proved content to shuffle along as Europe’s “awkward partner,” its “odd man out.” Such was the state of affairs in 1979 that the United Kingdom’s ambassador to France, Sir Nicholas Henderson, could remark that “our decline in relation to our European partners has been so marked that today we are not only no longer a world power, but we are not in the first rank even as a European one.” At the same time, few in Britain could muster any interest in Community affairs beyond basic issues like the Common Agricultural Policy and the Community budget. This becomes all the more understandable when one reads James Callaghan’s account of “one low point” in European affairs, when “nine foreign ministers from the major countries of Europe solemnly assembled in Brussels to spend several hours discussing how to resolve our differences on standardising a fixed position of rear-view mirrors on agricultural tractors.” It was not until the Thatcherite revolution, and Britain’s accompanying renaissance, that more pressing aspects of the continental connection would return to the forefront of international affairs.

By the summer of 1988, the continent of Europe stood poised on the brink of a new and seemingly propitious era. To the east, Communist regimes were reeling from nationwide strikes and singing revolutions in Poland and the Baltic states; to the west, mandarins in the European Community were diligently implementing a Single European Act that would bolster the common economic area and, in time, forge an ever-closer political union. It was during this period that, according to then European Commission President Jacques Delors, the continent was approaching a “saut qualitatif,” a “quantum leap” brought about by an “acceleration of history.” This would not be the controlled, gradual evolution toward a closer union, but something far more momentous. In a series of speeches and interviews given throughout that heady year, Delors extolled the virtues of the coming “social Europe” presided over by a pan-European government, the “amorce” or “germ” of which would be provided by his own increasingly influential Commission. At this historical juncture, the notion of a federal Europe was no longer the feverish product of etiolated postwar idealism; it was a genuine geopolitical possibility.

Ambitious transnationalist policymakers like Delors were not about to squander the unprecedented opportunity. Much work remained to be done, but on July 6, 1988, Commissioner Delors presumptuously reported to the European Parliament that “ten years hence, 80 percent of our economic legislation, and perhaps even our fiscal and social legislation as well, will be of Community origin.” His only concern was that certain national parliaments would “wake up with a shock one day, and that their outraged reaction will place yet more obstacles in the way of progress towards European Union.” (Delors was well aware that the warnings of those like Gaitskell and Powell had hardly been heard, let alone heeded, by their countrymen.) In another address, delivered on September 8 to the British Trade Union Congress in Bournemouth, Delors proclaimed: “We are living through a peaceful revolution in which we all must participate. We all must adapt.” British trade unions, for their part, were invited to join “the architects of Europe” in the “irreversible process” of integration.

A sense of confidence was palpable in the Commissioner’s speeches, but it should be noted that the French word he routinely used to describe the kernel of a European federal government—amorce—can also be taken to mean “primer” or “detonator.” Delors’ revolutionary rhetoric concerning the irreversibly accelerating project of European integration served as just such a trigger, and it was an exasperated Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who provided the expected “outraged reaction.” In a blistering speech to the College of Europe in Bruges, given in the immediate aftermath of Delors’ address to British trade unions, Thatcher argued that the “European Community belongs to all its members” and “must reflect the traditions and aspirations of all its members,” including a refractory Britain. Capturing the tenor of the times, Thatcher added:

Indeed, it is ironic that just when those countries such as the Soviet Union, which have tried to run everything from the centre, are learning that success depends on dispersing power and decisions away from the centre, there are some in the Community who seem to want to move in the opposite direction. We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.

It was a clarion call concerning European integration—one issued from the very heart of Old Europe—and a fitting riposte to Delors’ provocations.

Thatcher later expressed surprise at the extent to which her Bruges speech had provoked “stunned outrage” in “Europeanist circles.” Delors, for example, had immediately declared the “marriage contract” inherent in the Single European Act to have unraveled. Yet she could have been under no illusions, particularly given that her speech began with the joke that her lecturing on Europe “must seem rather like inviting Genghis Khan to speak on the virtues of peaceful coexistence.” In any event, the British state had openly thrown down a Euroskeptical gauntlet. As Jonathan Collett later observed, the Bruges speech “began the transition by which the Conservatives ceased to be ‘the party of Europe’ in British politics, moving fitfully, by lurches, lunges and sidesteps, to a position now known as ‘Euroskepticism.’ The term itself was invented in the process.” Euroskepticism would, in the coming decades, come to dominate British political discourse, and the terms of the debate over European integration hardly changed since Delors and Thatcher sparred over the merits of the “peaceful revolution” well under way in the summer of 1988.

TWO DECADES LATER, Europe was once again perched on the precipice of a new, albeit less promising, era: one of geopolitical, economic, and demographic decadence and decline. Much to the chagrin of those British Euroskeptics who had hoped Bruges would prove a turning point, integration in Brussels had continued apace, from the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 to the Lisbon treaty of 2007. But ultimately those efforts had done little or nothing to forestall the coming economic meltdown. European policymakers have long been proponents of the “beneficial crisis,” described in one 1975 Commission report thusly: “great things are almost always done in crises,” which are the “occasion of progress, by provoking a crystallisation of latent wills.” Although the British Euroskeptic will could seldom be described as “latent,” there was a definite sense that the impending collapse of the Labour government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the wrack and ruin increasingly evident in Europe together represented a beneficial crisis of a very different sort, whereby the British ship of state could at last be righted. What had been woven in Brussels over the decades could perhaps still be raveled out, and the man to do that was the leader of the Conservative opposition, David Cameron, the presumptive prime minister in waiting.

In the years running up to the 2010 parliamentary elections, Cameron obligingly delivered to the British electorate a series of “cast-iron” guarantees on European policy. “If I become PM,” proclaimed Cameron during the 2007 debates over the controversial Lisbon treaty, “a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations. No treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a referendum.” The rising star from Witney likewise called for the abolition of the Human Rights Act—“it has to go”—and its replacement by a new British Bill of Rights that would be drafted without interference from bleeding hearts in Brussels. The tough talk was welcome in Euroskeptic circles, but it meant little if not followed by concrete accomplishments. One of Cameron’s predecessors, John Major, had adopted similar rhetoric, deriding his Labour counterpart John Smith as “Monsieur Oui, the poodle of Brussels,” only to prove disappointingly Euro-enthusiastic on matters like the Maastricht Treaty and the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Cameron’s European tergiversations began almost immediately. In June 2008, less than a year after his initial “cast-iron guarantee,” the Tory leader acknowledged that events on the continent had made it “almost impossible” to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and that “we may have to say, well look, we’re not happy with this situation, here are some of the powers we’d like to have back. But we can’t give you that referendum on the Lisbon treaty because it’s already been put in place across the rest of Europe.” In recompense, Cameron merely exhibited a less than steely determination to “never let that happen again.” Euroskeptics began to suspect what should have been apparent all along: Cameron was a pragmatist, yet another in a long Tory line of reluctant partners with Brussels. This would be confirmed when the Conservatives, having failed to garner a parliamentary majority on their own, entered into a coalition with the openly Europhile Liberal Democrats, a party whose leader, Nick Clegg, had long insisted that Britain was “a European nation from head to toe,” whose “standing in the world is entirely dependent on our standing in Europe.”

Lacking a strong mandate and saddled with a left-of-center coalition partner, Cameron’s government could make little headway against the tides of Europe. Tory efforts to curb the influence of European human rights law over domestic criminal sentencing would be frustrated at every turn by Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile, tensions over the broken promise of an EU referendum would, on October 24, 2011, prompt a Tory backbencher revolt which required brutal suppression by Conservative leadership. Keen to shore up his right flank, Cameron used the occasion of a December 2011 EU summit to oppose treaty changes that would serve to further centralize European fiscal policy-making. To raucous applause, Cameron thereafter informed Parliament that he “went to Brussels last week with one objective: to protect the British national interest and that’s what I did.” By late January 2012, however, the European fiscal compact was moving ahead, and Cameron was facing a backlash from the left and the right for having cast a “phantom veto.” As Douglas Carswell, a Tory Euroskeptic, put it: “I don’t see how the veto is really a veto if we allow the fiscal union to form, and then find ourselves subject to the EU institutions being used to govern that. In effect we will find that for all the talk of a veto, we find ourselves hauled into this process.” A fleeting moment of triumph had revealed itself as nothing of the sort; instead, it was the whole story of Tory Euroskeptical posturing writ small, encapsulated in the contradictory events over a span of a few months.

Despite the setback of the “phantom veto,” the ever-deepening eurozone crisis has only amplified calls for the long-promised EU referendum. Even the Labour Europhile Lord Mandelson has called for a “fresh referendum,” the better to establish a national consensus on European integration. Liberal Democrats, for their part, appear unfazed by the prospects of a vote, confident as they are that the British populace would balk at the allegedly deleterious effects an exit from the EU would have on British trade, banking, and immigration policy. For the Conservative leadership, regardless of the result, such a referendum would constitute a welcome opportunity to make good on electoral promises and thereby lure Euroskeptics back into the fold, while fervent Tory Europhobes and members of the UK Independence Party can finally sense the long sought-after plebiscite within their reach. And yet most policymakers, including Cameron, are operating under the assumption that a referendum will not actually result in EU withdrawal, but rather in a renegotiation of membership terms and the repatriation of certain competences.

Only a few analysts, including Christopher Booker, have demonstrated the wherewithal to see through this widespread parti pris. The very basis of the European project, in Booker’s words, “has always been the acquis communautaire: the rule that once powers are handed over to Brussels they can never be given back. That is why it is futile to talk of Britain negotiating a ‘new relationship’ with Brussels involving repatriation of powers. It cannot happen, because it would be in breach of the project’s most sacred principle.” Only under the terms of Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty can Britain craft a “framework for its future relationship with the Union,” and this can only be done if Britain gives notice of its outright withdrawal. Ultimately, Britain’s decades-old surrender of its sovereignty can only be undone through the most drastic course of action, one unlikely to be backed by a largely Euro-enthusiastic British establishment.

THE UNITED KINGDOM, in this decadent day and age, faces a myriad of challenges, from an unsustainable welfare state to a sharp decline in geopolitical influence. As a result of its effort to maintain influence in the heart of Europe, and to continue to guide continental affairs in a new and uncertain era, it was rewarded with a wholly foreign Community acquis. With an economy weighed down by EU regulations, and a criminal justice system hamstrung by European human rights laws, Britain has little to show for its acquiescence. Yet with its empire a distant memory and its transatlantic relationship frayed, if not quite in tatters, Britain has become, as its deputy prime minister put it, “a European nation from head to toe.” All the while Jacques Delors’ “peaceful revolution” continues apace, spurred on by beneficial crisis after beneficial crisis. Even something as momentous as a British EU referendum, it seems, can do little to stop the “irreversible process” set in motion so many years ago. Europe looms larger than ever, and British politicians from Churchill to Cameron have consistently proven unable to steer events in their nation’s favor.

Pessimism like this is nothing new in the British public sphere; fortunately, it often proves premature. It was in 1694 that a pamphlet entitled Proposals for a National Reformation of Manners appeared on the streets of London and Westminster, in which the Society for Reformation declared: “a thick gloominess hath overspread our Horizon, and our Light looks like the Evening of the World.” In the coming decades, however, that Cimmerian shade would be dispelled, as Britain made unprecedented strides in the cultural, technological, legal, political, and military spheres. At another desperate point in its history, as it approached a daunting war with Hitler’s empire, Winston Churchill would describe the “long, dismal, drawling tides of drift and surrender, of wrong measurements and feeble impulses” that had beset his country. Yet Churchill’s ultimate faith in the “life-hope of the British nation” would not be misplaced, as the events of the Second World War would prove.

Lately, there has been no shortage of “wrong measurements” or “feeble impulses,” as “tides of drift” once again surround a kingdom shorn of its sovereignty. To be semi-detached from Europe is nothing new for Britain; this has been the case since the days of the Gough Map. But it has seldom, if ever, been so adrift as it is today, the self-congratulatory tone of the recent Olympiad notwithstanding. There is at least the prospect of an in-or-out European Union referendum on the horizon, and thus the prospect of a return to the days of settled government, freedom, and reliance on precedent. If it proves impossible for the British to extricate themselves from the European acquis, the evening of the world we once knew perforce will descend a little deeper.

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About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.