A new Europe can only come from the bottom up

Simply put, 'another Europe' must be able to suggest alternatives that make sense to the majority of the citizens across the continent.

European Union stars in Paris. Flickr/notarim. Some rights reserved.European Union stars in Paris. Flickr/notarim. Some rights reserved.

Red alert, yet again. The old French-German 'couple' - the engine or the brakes on Europe-making, depending on one's views - is about to autodestruct. Should we tell a few home truths to our German neighbours, who might become our masters, or start cleaning up our own backyard and accept the compromises that may escape the worst? Better, I believe, to understand what is happening by considering the European ensemble as a whole, all of whose components will either sink or save themselves simultaneously. Europe-making has stalled on budgetary constraint. It has become  discredited in the eyes of the public. But that doesn't rule out a unique political system staggering on - one which is neither national nor federal, but an amalgam of the negative effects of both and one which henceforth will mandate everything. This has become all the clearer in the light of recent developments in Italy and France.

Italy repays this with a seemingly irreversible ungovernability, the tally of the Berlusconi years and of 'revolution from above' which, on the orders of Brussels and Frankfurt, brought into government a team of technocrats closely allied to global finance. In the absence of an alternative on the left, a defaulting Italian political class now tries to save itself by evolving from parliamentarianism towards a presidential system. But this attempt occurs by means of a fictional national unity that is totally devoid of a popular base: its success is anything but certain. France, supposedly shielded from instability thanks to the institutions of the Fifth Republic, is also sensing its decline. Elected on the promise of reversing the development of social insecurity, President Hollande remains powerless, unable - or unwilling - to clash with the financial capitalism that controls his every move. His attempts to find a counter-balance by federating 'Latin Europe' or rallying neighbours to fight terrorism in Africa having failed, he can only oscillate between unpopularity and market sanctions at the risk of combining both. Ungovernability on one side, immobility on the other - that is what we call a systemic crisis.

Mind you, this crisis has national origins. But, they in turn arise from European conditions, and have consequences for Europe as a whole – which, inevitably, will exacerbate the crisis if no overarching solution is found. It is not only the ‘periphery’ that is being affected today - it is two founding nations of the community; the most powerful after Germany. Since the establishment of federal institutions has failed, given that no state actually wanted them, policies are still decided according to power relations between member states. Paralysis is unavoidable, if not total break-up. And the peoples who turn their back on the Union will be its first victims. 

It is important to understand the root causes of this situation if one wishes to discover an exit route. I will underline two crucial causes. The first can be boiled down to a single word: rampant inequalities. First and foremost social inequalities, affecting every country (even Germany) but spread in equally unequal fashion between countries and regions - inequality within inequality, one could say, this being further, and dramatically, worsened by the crisis subjecting certain Mediterranean countries to a brutality that isn't so very different from war. This fragmentation of society is the opposite of the proclaimed aims of the Union. It is unlikely that the representative systems will hold out against this much longer, and absurd to think one can restructure the community's policy without tackling the issue through some means of recovery of public welfare.

Which brings us to the second cause: the resurgence of nationalisms which afflict both Europe's ‘dominant’ and the ‘dominated’ powers. It may well be that the European project had underestimated the resilience of nationalism, not only on account of cultural factors or of the trace left by the great tragedies of the twentieth century, but due to the fact that social securities and solidarities were built first and foremost around the notion of national cohesion. Yet, it is certain that a drift towards a monetary union in the service of a purely competitive economic order has unleashed within Europe a 'dog eat dog' war in which the stronger will crush the weaker before being exposed to the shock of a globalization in which everyone is reduced to the status of a mere pawn.

Confronted by such developments, there is no simple solution since what is needed is the coming together of opinions that are currently hostile together with the overthrow of tendencies that have become sacrosanct. All the more reason to immediately contemplate a restructuring of the Union for the purpose of building another Europe.

The latter - as Ulrich Beck correctly underlines in his latest book - can only come 'from the bottom up', or from an unhampered evolution of citizens’ initiatives ranging from debates to protests and even sustained revolt, in the face of the fall-out from this crisis. But this is on one condition - that this protest won’t itself drift into a state of majoritarian nationalist victimhood and that it proves able to suggest alternatives that make sense to the majority of the citizens across the continent.

To be sure, the emergence of a historical leadership would be necessary – together with a political proposal audible for each and every one in their respective idioms. Some have mentioned a European New Deal. Obviously, it won't be coming from Ms Merkel. I would however argue that it ought to come from Germany, or find itself relayed thereby, not because Germany is ‘the centre of all things’ but because the first task is to persuade the German populace to exchange the (relative) benefits they accrue from their imagined economic superiority for a common interest in the longer term. That raises a whole series of ‘ifs’, each one of which is difficult, and overall success highly improbable. And that is why I want to insist on their necessity.

This article was originally published in Libération on 2 May 2013. Thanks go to the author for letting us republish it here, and to Moh Hamdi for the translation from the French original.

Read a reply to Etienne Balibar here (by Bo Stråth) and here (by Sandro Mezzadra).

About the author

Etienne Balibar is Emeritus Professor at Paris X Nanterre and also as a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities teaches part-time at the University of California, Irvine. Etienne Balibar has addressed such questions as European racism, the notion of the border, whether a European citizenship is possible or desirable, violence and politics, identity and emancipation.

His books include Reading Capital (with Louis Althusser, New Left Books 1970), Race, Nation, Class (with Immanuel Wallerstein, Verso 1991), The Philosophy of Marx, Spinoza and Politics, Politics and the Other Scene (Verso 2002), and We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (Princeton University Press 2004). His latest publication is an anthology, French Philosophy Since 1945, co-authored with John Rajchman (The New Press, 2011)