For many of those who believe a positive and constructive outcome will arise from Europe’s political and economic crisis, one argument has become increasingly popular over the years to back up their optimism. It is the "sheer necessity" argument. It basically stipulates that, in the end, European leaders will do the right thing because they have to. Circumstances, so the argument goes, will force rational people with a strong will to survive to do all kinds of difficult, painful, unpopular things, because there is, after all the silly things have been said and done, really only one sensible way to go.
This argument is especially powerful in the pro-European camp that believes that more European integration is the answer to the crisis (the camp to which I belong, roughly). People in this camp understand how unpopular "more Europe" is among elites and citizens at the moment, but they nevertheless believe that it must be done because it's what sheer necessity demands us to do. For this camp, sheer necessity means a combination of a number of things: the market forces of a globalized economy, Europe's relatively weaker position on the global political stage, and the fact that economic integration needs a political counterpart to function properly. The idea is that all of these developments, if not countered by significant steps toward more cooperation in Europe, will cost the continent dearly economically and politically, and will render it obsolete in the medium to long-term. And since Europeans hold on dearly to their lifestyle, freedom, security, and wealth, they will eventually come around to do what they must to keep all that. Skepticism will be overcome, adversaries will be convinced, and steps leading to "political union", or some other step towards more integration will inevitably follow.
I have heard this argument a lot recently. On occasion, I have also used it. But, unfortunately, it ain’t so. At best, the sheer necessity argument is just optimism. More likely, it's naive hope and wishful thinking. Most certainly, it's intellectually lazy. Worst of all, it's entirely apolitical. It is the little sister of the TINA argument that has been invoked so often over the course of this crisis: there is no alternative. It is an argument that destroys the political culture by moving political action to a realm beyond questioning.
The sheer necessity argument ignores at least three fundamental rules of politics: first, outcomes are never pre-ordained, no matter how clear one might think the solution lies in front of us. Politics is not mechanistic, no matter how much the apostles of quantitative political analysis would like to convince us otherwise. There are no anonymous forces of necessity that will lead to foreseeable outcomes. Humans drive politics, not the forces of history. Secondly, irrationality is an option. Humans are incredibly gifted for following their emotions rather than their brains. The sheer necessity argument, in contrast, is based on the assumption that rationality will always prevail. But even if there was a one and only golden solution that would be the obvious one to embrace, there is no guarantee humans would actually pick it. Thirdly, no matter how intellectually compelling a solution might be, people will need to be convinced of it. It needs to be credibly explained why a certain proposal is best for them, again and again. No argument will appeal to the masses just by the sheer beauty if its inevitability. It takes many politicians and experts to clarify it, defend it, and convince people to embrace it. This is where leadership comes into the equation, that most mysterious of all political elements.
This last point is of special relevance to the European context. European integration is NOT just a rational choice, a marriage of reason. It is also an emotional, feelings-driven enterprise. The pre-eminence of identity questions in the European integration debate is testament to that. When making the case for more integration, political leaders need to address the fears and hopes of the people, not just their analytical abilities. Unfortunately, very few politicians have the guts these days to stand up and make the case for more Europe.
The sheer necessity argument is very popular in the current crisis because it offers an easy way out of the central dilemma of our complicated situation (beautifully analyzed by Josef Janning): an impossible status quo stands against the apparent impossibility of overcoming it.
Those of us who argue for more Europe and who believe that it is possible should stop relying on the intellectual laziness of the sheer necessity argument. We must finally begin to fight for what we think is right instead of hoping for our arguments to develop some kind of automatic appeal that will eventually make them the default option. We believe that our solution is the best, but it is not inevitable. By believing it is, we are doing it a great disservice. In effect, we are playing into the hands of the eurosceptics who are already dominating the debate. The only sheer necessity is the need to fight for what we think is right. Otherwise defeat is inevitable.