Stronger Europe or democratic sovereignty? Yes please

In search of a new European politics, we must face the fact that we have skirted the political question of identity: how do we redraw the boundaries (symbolic and physical) dividing us so that we can re-democratize the European public space?

European citizens today are confronted with increasingly histrionic specters of disaster: financial ruin, xenophobic regression, a catastrophic reversal of the pax Europaea achieved over the past half century.  In response to this approaching threat, Europeans are offered two distinct - yet misleading - choices: either (a) embrace a strengthened European Union with broader authority to regulate the internal policies of individual European states; or (b) defend parliamentary democratic sovereignty within restored national boundaries.

There is an old Marx Brothers joke in which Groucho, encountering the mundane question, “Tea or coffee?” responds with an enthusiastic smile: “Yes, please!” The comedy lies in what Slavoj Žižek refers to as the refusal of choice. Europeans today, faced with the “choice” between Europe whole and Europe’s fragmentation in the form of democratic sovereignty, ought to respond in kind: Yes, please! An authentic European politics demands no less. It is only by demanding a new synthesis between individual and supranational European political structures that the true spirit of European democracy can survive.

But why, exactly, are the above alternatives false?  Why are Europe and contemporary democratic sovereignty in the end, intimately intertwined?

(1)    Factually, supranational European structures improve the ability of national/local populations to retain sovereignty over their territorial affairs and interests, interests which are now under significant pressure from the forces of globalization (large multi-national firms, outsourcing of labour, mass migration, ecological disaster, global warming, nuclear arms, etc.).  Indeed, the modern Westphalian system of independent nation-states is increasingly exposed to endemic failures of sovereignty, virtually ensuring that nation-states alone cannot achieve important public goals for their citizens. The failures are myriad: (a) failure to effectively regulate financial systems (as seen in the current global recession); (b) failure to protect the environment and, more generally, the global ‘commons;’ and (c) failure to preserve the socio-economic balance between the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, that is so essential to social and political stability.  In short, democratic states remain sovereign only insofar as they are engaged in robust supra-national projects of coordination and cooperation.  In a globalized world, national sovereignty is paradoxically inseparable from its transfer, in certain contexts, to representative and accountable supra-national bodies. 

(2)    Morally and conceptually, true democratic sovereignty depends on coming to terms with the internal exclusions that modern democracy itself introduces into politics.  In the years since the end of the Second World War, democratic states - partially through the rise of the discourse of human rights - have recognized that membership in a particular polity is, at heart, contingent.  Moreover, we have become more sensitive to the ways in which any national self-identity depends on a series of social exclusions, on a drawing of boundaries between us and them, between those accepted and those not - the foreigner, most explicitly, but also the Roma, homosexuals, or even the poor or homeless.  Indeed, the truly democratic state, precisely in the name of its democracy, is tasked with continually redrawing these boundaries, progressively toward greater equality and justice.  

Non-exclusive Europe as the ever-possible

The process of European integration itself is one of continually coming to terms with the limits, instability, and iterability of both law and identity.  While this is undoubtedly a difficult task, there is much in it to admire.  In this sense, the European project - both as political entity and symbolic form - represents the most promising effort of what we might recognize as critical democratic attachment, without which democratic sovereignty would make little sense.  Jacques Derrida wrote powerfully of this potential within Europe.  He considered the consciousness of Europe to be nothing less than the possibility of thinking Europe anew, of exposing its identity to the ‘non-egocentric’: “And what if Europe were this: the opening onto a history for which the changing of the heading, the relation to the other heading . . . is experienced as always possible? An opening and a non-exclusion for which Europe would in some way be responsible?”  For Derrida, therefore, the choice between Europe and national democracy misses the point: Europe and nation-states themselves must be democratized further if we are to remain either European or democratic, at all.

But there is a more precise conceptual point at work here. The same false alternative between Europe and democracy is often expressed in a cruder, more extreme form: as a choice between European technocracy and national populism.  This form is itself a symptom of the ‘democratic deficit’ of the European Union.  Again it is Zizek who provides the insight. As he often writes, Europe’s resurgent populism is proof that the postmodern abolition of politics - the promise of liberation from power once and for all - is stillborn. Perversely, given this conception of (anti)politics, citizens are not discouraged from engagement, but actually emboldened to it - so long as the engagement fits within a rigid, always-already determined logic of neo-liberal consumption and administration.  The predominant perception, therefore, of ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ posing a threat to national sovereignty and our ‘way of life’ is a false start: both poles of this equation exclude the space for democratic politics proper

At the heart of our dilemma is the historical failure of the European Union to legitimate the grounds for its own political existence.  In the past, Europe has relied almost exclusively on what Hauke Brunkhorst calls ‘output legitimacy.’ Europe’s citizens have supported supra-national integration because of what it tangibly promised them and, partially, delivered: reduction of barriers to trade, a unified market economy, higher rates of productivity, opportunities to travel freely, greater global influence.  We have, however, substituted the practical benefits of closer union for any real debate about the political grounds upon which that union must, in the long-run, firmly stand.  We have achieved a Europe of coordinating institutions and open markets but we lack a European citizenry, a pan-European, supra-national public sphere.  Democracy, as Jürgen Habermas has long warned, is increasingly and shortsightedly sacrificed at the altar of convenience.

The return of the Gothic

Today, in the face of the sovereign debt crisis, democracy in certain states has been effectively suspended, virtually forgotten as an important factor in addressing national and European problems.  Both Italy and Greece have recently acquired apolitical technocrats as interim heads of government (Italy’s entire Cabinet is comprised of technical experts), and parliamentary democracy has been progressively marginalized to the point where it is regularly overruled by executive emergency decision.  While administrative governments have calmed the nerves of the European Central Bank and the international financial markets, they have unwittingly exacerbated the very crisis of legitimation that plagued the European Union to begin with. 

Because the EU has slowly transformed into a ‘post-democratic regime of bureaucrats’, because we have, in the end, depoliticized our politics, the logics of xenophobia, chauvinism, and anti-immigrant racism have taken hold in even the traditionally most progressive of states (see the recent French and Dutch moves to ban wearing the burqa in public).  Politics proper has been reduced, as Jacques Rancière would say, to police-logic, the mere administration of the closed social body.  We have skirted, in short, the political question of identity: how do we redraw the boundaries dividing us (symbolic and physical) so that we can re-democratize the European public space?  Due to this failure of public action, we have pushed this question to the extreme groups, to marginalized communities separated from the elite structures of governance and with little recourse but to express themselves in anti-European, chauvinistic terms.  

The key insight here is to see these movements as inter-related, that the technocratic dream of a pure post-politics scrubbed of politics (and therefore of democratic self-legitimation, as well) is responsible for the supplementary populist eruptions.  In other words, the more we attempt to inoculate the public sphere against politics, the more politics returns in darker, more intolerant, and more violent forms.  The fault lies not with them, but with ourselves.  

Social justice and self-reliance

The incumbent task for citizens is thus clear: to confront the political question directly.  The era of ‘output legitimacy’ is over.  How boldly Europe embraces new forms of input legitimacy - in which we will have to supply the ideas and the future of Europe ourselves, democratically as citizens - will determine whether and how we overcome the current sovereign debt crisis, as well as our deeper democratic malaise.  The prospects of large-scale redistribution of wealth across borders, brought to a high pitch under the ESFS regime and the all-but-agreed-to fiscal union, presents an opportunity to reconsider the terms of European solidarity and what pan-European social justice might demand.  The crisis, at least, has restored hope that a European politics is still alive and that the debate over what Europe will look like remains open.  However, even accession to a fiscal compact is dangerous if not carefully carried through mechanisms of wide-ranging democratic, participatory debate.  If a fiscal union is in the end crafted under extraordinary economic pressures only by the heads of government, the costs of its questionable democratic legitimacy will be considerable.

Therefore, precisely in the context of such a fiscal union, a genuine European politics would work to create new public, supranational spaces through which citizens could dynamically discuss and argue fundamental political values, fundamental political futures. Only if Europe rediscovers a culture of civic participation can democratic sovereignty on any political level survive.  This debate relies on a fundamental issue.  The big question, which we must now work to answer for ourselves, for we must not rely on others to answer it for us, persists: How can Europeans become citizens of Europe?

If we are to answer this question responsibly - as Europeans - we must decisively refuse the false choice offered to us, and instead redefine it altogether.  In so doing, we will redefine ourselves, freely.  And is this not, in the end, the essence of democracy itself?  

This article appeared in abbreviated form in the Social Europe Journal on 7 February 2012.

About the author

Paul Linden-Retek is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate at Yale Law School and Yale University's Department of Political Science.