Can Europe Make It?

Europe in crisis: which ‘new foundation’?

This essay is an English adaptation of the main part of the author’s “discourse of acceptance” for the Hannah-Arendt Prize in Political Thought 2017, awarded by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the City of Bremen (Germany), on December 1, 2017.

Etienne Balibar
5 December 2017

Hannah Arendt in 1944. Portrait by photographer Fred Stein (1909-1967) who emigrated 1933 from Nazi Germany to France and finally to the USA. Fred Stein/Press Association. All rights reserved.In this Festrede, I will try to use an Arendtian inspiration (the "right to have rights” and “citizenship in the making”) to address current developments in the crisis of European construction, contradictory aspects of Europe’s unity and disunity, as well as the prospects for a “new foundation”, taking Europe as an institution whose foundations are neither to be found in a transcendent revelation nor in some eternal natural rights, but purely in the action of those human beings who jointly apply their diversity to its constitution.[1]

I have relatively little time, therefore I must remain at a very general level, only touching superficially on many questions which deserve a complex discussion. Still, I want to frame a problematic that brings together all the dimensions which need to become correlated if we want to understand what kind of history is now affecting us, what the choices are that now lie before us, and also why we have problems in defining them clearly.

In the first place, I will describe what I suggest we might call ‘the double bind’ of Europe: on the one hand, a political constitution of Europe is more necessary than ever, in the best interest of its population, and even others in the world; on the other hand, it has become indefensible and unsustainable in its current form. To follow, I will discuss the conditions required for a “New Foundation” of Europe. This has become a widely debated concept, albeit interpreted in contradictory ways, but in my view these versions are still not radical enough. Finally, I will invoke a Machiavellian principle (which is typical of the “political theory” whose legacy Arendt was reclaiming) to discuss how such a New Foundation could also be related to the origins of European Construction in the after-war period.

At whichever level a community is instituted – local or continental –, it can neither perpetuate nor develop itself if the foundations of its legitimacy and efficacity are not permanently confirmed. This political truth was enunciated in the past with regard to City-States or Nation-States: it must be applied now to the European Union. However, a blatant contradiction arises when we look at the current situation from this angle. How long it will prove possible to retain its effects is anyone’s guess.

On one side, it is crystal clear that “we” citizens of Europe (by which I understand both nationals of the various member-states, plus all the residents on the “territory” of the Union) have a standing interest in the existence of a European political construction, of whichever juridical form. The reason most frequently invoked is that if European nations belong to a supranational system, adopting a common political project, they may well have opposite interests on many issues, but these will not give rise to violent hostility, in the worst case leading to mutual extermination.

I think this argument, based on past experiences, is valid, but it must undergo an even more dynamic reformulation: this is not only a question of a guarantee against war or applying a precautionary principle, it is a question of endowing Europe with the capacity to build the historic path leading from its past, marked by violence against itself and others, to its future, ripe with challenges and uncertainties, in a global context where Europe, while remaining an important economic, political and cultural ensemble, will never again occupy the place of a “center”.

Our future requires a European frame, therefore, for geopolitical reasons, but also because of our position in the world-economy, and – most importantly – because of planetary environmental issues. Between early modernity and the middle of the twentieth century, Europe was able to impose on the world its domination, drawing from there its prosperity (even if very unevenly distributed) and its universalistic civilization (even if brutally imposed on others). Today, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s words, it has become “provincialized”. And more precisely it finds itself located in what I would call in Wallersteinian terms a semi-periphery of the world.

The “great Game” for global hegemony is now played between America (the US and its immediate dependencies) and Asia (foremost China), with Europe as a political spectator and a big market. But Europe is also not inscribed in the peripheral regions of overexploitation (and the death zones) to the South and East of the Mediterranean, even if it has many involvements there through investments, armed interventions, border police operations, and movements of populations.

Accordingly, if we don’t want our labour and our lives to become a simple object of maneuvers disposed of in the hegemonic conflicts; if we want Europe to really have weight on norms of international law and systems of protection, to prevent as much as remains possible the devastation of the environment leading to a gradual extinction of life on earth; if we want to impose commercial and financial regulations without which the “European welfare model” (not yet totally dismantled by neoliberalism) can be saved and adapted to new conditions and activities, we need much more than the kind of norms and governance existing today. We need a political unity and an institutional representation of the common interest – which however is not the same as uniformity eliminating every contest or vestige of diversity. We need a political unity and an institutional representation of the common interest – which however is not the same as uniformity eliminating every contest or vestige of diversity.

Are we getting closer to this goal? The total opposite is true. After the historic turning point of 1989, with the reunification of Germany and the end of the separation between the two “parts” of Europe (leaving aside most of the former Soviet Union), there was much talk of “broader” and “deeper” union, but the reality was a steady destabilization of the political foundations of the EU. From whichever angle and over whichever time span you examine these evolutions, they all converge towards the same negative result, which now appears hardly reversible.

What are the causes? They are multiple, of course, but in the first place I will mention policies implemented to neutralize the financial crisis after 2007, which dramatically increased inequalities between territories (hence nations) and social classes throughout the continent. This is true for revenues, for the safety of employment, for the amount of debts of individuals and collectivities: Wolfgang Streeck is right on this point, from which he however draws hazardous and reactionary conclusions.

At this point an economic crisis became a political crisis, or more precisely, it became a crisis of the political institution in Europe. Evidence of this crisis is given by the increasing tendency to substitute authoritarian and technocratic forms of governance for parliamentary procedures: as in France at this moment, where the voice of citizens is no longer really taken into account, which also means that “output legitimacy” has become the single fragile support of a government’s stability. “Representative democracy” seems to have exhausted its capacities, and one country after another becomes “ungovernable”: witness the UK since Brexit, Spain replying to the independentist challenge in Catalonia with infringements of the rule of law unprecedented in a democratic state… Most spectacular and symbolic, ungovernability has reached Germany, a country that not so long ago could be presented as the political model to be imitated everywhere. This is at one and the same time a germ of instability for the whole of Europe.

There is an obvious reverse side to this ungovernability, which is authoritarian “de-democratization”, and this has its own chain of effects. We should inscribe here the universal backlash of nationalism: this is absolutely not a privilege confined to Eastern Europe (Istvan Bibo’s petits Etats d’Europe de l’Est, which were also, in Arendt’s terms, subjected to “continental imperialism”, before falling prey to Nazism and Soviet totalitarian hegemony). It emerges just as strongly in the West, everywhere activating a combination of anxiety about the disaggregation of the community or the historical “We” with feelings of social demise and collective powerlessness.

The outcome is not only “populism” (a misleading category), but actual xenophobia, hence potential violence, and a rebirth of fascism – or, if we want to avoid mechanically transporting categories from one historical situation to another, it is a constitution of neofascist movements in Europe, with more or less aggressive detachments everywhere on the continent, now close to power or accessing it in some countries. I insist on using this term on purpose: not only is neofascism a danger to the levels of tolerance and exercise of liberties in our societies, it is different from past nationalism and more than its recreation.

I insist on using this term on purpose: not only is neofascism a danger to the levels of tolerance and exercise of liberties in our societies, it is different from past nationalism and more than its recreation. If we refer only to nationalism, we create the illusion that this is a phenomenon of the past that is returning, reviving conflicts of interests and collective passions from before European unification. The truth is that the current phenomenon looks instead in the opposite direction: it is a pathological result of European unity in its current form. In particular, identity feelings which, traditionally, were mutually hostile and incompatible, tend to merge into a common hatred toward the Other, the construction of a “public enemy” of all European peoples, whose specter amalgamates all sorts of ethnic, cultural, religious differences inherited from colonization and imported through immigration – with now an added component: the “refugee problem” that is inflated and demonized, in spite of admirable gestures of solidarity by certain countries, certain cities and associations of citizens. Terrorism, a very real threat indeed, contributes to the same artifact.

This explains why I speak of a double bind situation. In Europe there does exist in fact a quasi-federal system of institutions, juridical norms, and interdependent interests: it was again illustrated negatively when attempts at expelling Greece from the monetary union could not succeed, or more recently, through the obvious impossibility for Britain to really exit the Union, at least without important losses. Conversely, an accumulation of inequalities pushing societies to the verge of explosion, ungovernable states no longer masked by such political recipes as centrist parties “alternating” in power or forming “great coalitions”, technocratic rule creating a gulf between the governing bureaucrats and the governed citizens, nationalist ideologies merging into potential violence against the “enemy from within”, all these phenomena generate an existential crisis for the democratic political form in Europe.

It doesn’t lead to a “revolutionary situation”, or a “coming insurrection”, I am afraid, contrary to the sincere hopes of old anarchists and young activists, who dream of a radical break with parliamentary regimes. Rather, it produces a steady decomposition of citizenship. The Union itself, lacking a sense of orientation, seems now to be awaiting the next financial crisis to learn if it will experience the same collapse as was the case for that other great historical attempt at overcoming national limitations on the continent: the Soviet Union. Some pundits now predict as much.

All this sufficiently explains why, suddenly, there is so much discussion among the political class and the experts, of a “new foundation” for the European project. I am far from rejecting this idea, but I want a more radical understanding of what political conditions it would require, and a critical assessment of some pseudo-solutions.

Probably the most coherent plan in this sense is now offered by the French President Emmanuel Macron. It really resumes and updates an idea which, in the past, had been proposed by German conservative politicians: that of Kerneuropa (in the terminology of Wolfgang Schäuble’s and Karl Lamers’s project from 1994). In order to create a “strong core” of the Union, several countries from the eurozone would agree to pool their financial resources into a common treasury, or a European Monetary Fund, which then could be used for long term investments, perhaps even a form of collective planning, in order to prevent financial crises, and under the condition of a stricter control of public debts. Explicitly, this idea leads to institutionalizing “multispeed Europe”. And, as such a plan does in fact increase the “quasi-sovereign” status of financial institutions in Europe, a democratic counterpart is needed (at least in the liberal or social-democratic varieties of the plan), which provides greater legitimacy: e.g. a specific parliamentary representation in the “core”, in addition to the European parliament and the national parliaments.

Undeniably there is some rationality in such a project. This arises from the fact that – since the “community” was built in the post-war period – economic government has been the engine propelling the construction of the political unity of Europe, and the center from which integration proceeded socially and administratively. The project also acknowledges the fact that, in the era of financial globalization, “economy” and “politics” do not really belong to separate spheres. Accordingly, there would be no real possibility to further a federalist agenda if economic and monetary policies did not become more integrated themselves: it would simply never materialize. We need much more if the reciprocal function is to be fulfilled as well: namely the political control of the economic government, in forms sufficiently democratic themselves for the” sovereign” to obtain legitimacy.

Granted, but we need much more if the reciprocal function is to be fulfilled as well: namely the political control of the economic government, in forms sufficiently democratic themselves for the” sovereign” to obtain legitimacy. As it appears, the project has two major flaws: first, it keeps the representation of citizens in a subaltern function, meant for consultation only, which doesn’t effectively balance decision-making by the executive or the “directorate” (what Habermas famously called a “postdemokratischer Exekutivföderalismus” – no translation is needed) with a possibility of debate or contest; and, second, it creates a new gap between different types and degrees of membership in the Union, which, while not ensuring that “core” countries will maintain the same interests, is a sure recipe for fostering resentment and stronger nationalism among all the others. In short, rather than a new foundation, the plan appears to develop already existing tendencies towards the concentration of powers and the hegemony of certain nations over others.

Therefore, whereas I completely agree that a new foundation is the order of the day, I suggest that it should be imagined in a more radical way, not just through changes in the existing balance of powers and the delegation of the “piloting” status to some countries. Certain political conditions are always required for a new foundation in history. I can think of five such conditions, heterogeneous no doubt, but effective only if they become tightly combined.

Five conditions

A first condition, already stated, is a material interest of the European peoples, or their great majority, in becoming an active force in the power relations and current conflicts of globalization, in order to transform them for the benefit of European citizens. This cannot rely on “isolationist” or pure “protectionist” ideas (of the kind “make Europe great again” or “Europe first” …). As I said earlier, such an interest amounts to making Europe a power for alternative globalization, particularly in matters of financial regulation and the protection of the environment. A tragic present of proliferating wars and interventions, in the immediate vicinity of Europe, also makes it imperative to push for revitalizing a moribund international law, and nurturing an independent capacity for mediation among declared and undeclared belligerents. Such an interest amounts to making Europe a power for alternative globalization, particularly in matters of financial regulation and the protection of the environment.

A second condition is to define an institutional objective for Europe, which is also a constitutional novelty in history: this should take us beyond the pseudo-federal state that, in practice, already exists in Europe but is officially denied. Economies, territories, cultures are strongly interdependent: in other words, there exists a European “society” (as argued by Ulrich Bielefeld and others), but national political and technocratic elites retain the monopoly of representation and negotiation with the supranational administrations and the “corporatist” powers (multinational corporations, or professional unions). We need a renewed effort to invent a new form of federation, where nationhood is not abolished, but relativized and transformed in order to share in a joint sovereignty.

A third condition means something different, but correlative:  a great political ideal, making it possible to measure the degree of perfection of the constitution. For many years now, with some others, I have developed the idea that, for Europe to become a political reality, we cannot simply keep the name democracy, doing our best to mitigate the strong “postdemocratic” tendency that is fostered by the global concentration of powers in the economy, communications, or the military.

Our aim must be to push democracy beyond the level it had reached in the nation-states when they were at their best with regard to active citizenship. In other terms, there will be no European federalism if, matching the development of executive, administrative, judiciary, and parliamentary powers above the national level, there is not a rebirth and an activation of popular forms of participatory democracy (sometimes called assembly in today’s political discourse), which are not confined to a local horizon, but communicate across borders. Obviously, such an invention can’t be decided from above, and it will meet powerful oppositions and huge obstacles which are not simply conservative (e.g. linguistic obstacles). To overcome these difficulties, we must add other conditions.

A fourth condition I would call an effective demand for the new foundation, by which I mean not only Europhilic sentiments, supporting governments which commit themselves to working for a new foundation of Europe, but actual collective movements that involve real, active citizens, with their diverse cultural heritage and their anthropological differences, joining forces across borders. Such transnational popular movements can be protest movements (e.g. against fiscal injustice and tax evasion, a plague affecting all European citizens even if it benefits certain states). Or they can be movements pushing towards cultural revolutions that can no longer wait (e.g. to transform those economic modes of production and consumption which have become self-destructive). This may seem very far away in a period of nationalist reaction and declining interest in Europe amongst the population, but I don’t see why we should declare it radically impossible. At least we should try.

Finally, a fifth condition only articulates all the others: it is the explicit definition (which I don’t call exactly a program, although it would have the function of orienting the “party of Europe”) of the political problems that need to be resolved for the European construction to overcome the current crisis. Marx was certainly wrong to believe that “mankind sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve”, but the reverse proposition does make sense: only problems which have been actually formulated can be resolved… therefore, a politics for the new foundation of Europe must define its strategic “battles”.

Or, to put it in less militaristic terms, it must clarify the “campaigns” to be organized in order to transform obstacles into terrains for initiatives and communications among people. This is true when it comes to tackling inequalities (based on profession, generation, gender, race, and affecting residence, education, security, health…), to which the current triumph of the principle of competition over solidarity has given free play. It is also true when it comes to tackling the new “national question” in Europe: a crucial and most difficult question which has certainly inherited many determinations from the past (resulting from imperial domination, national antagonisms), but was substantially transformed only when nation-states, on both sides of the Cold War divide, also became “social States” (I once coined the name “national-social State”). And a fortiori it is true when (in Kantian and Derridean terms) it comes to meeting the challenge of hospitality, addressing the effects of migration and other movements of people at global scale, which can’t be dealt with through the current mixture of dishonorable bribery and military interventions, but call for a “just” combination of humanitarian commitment and North-South cooperation…

Growing inequalities, unhappy identities, uprooted populations: these are the problems Europe must confront in a collective manner in order to move into the twenty-first century (already well advanced) not passively, but as a historical agent, combining within itself multiple agencies.

Let me finish with a philosophical reference. In a famous passage from his Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (III, 1) (that Arendt knew well, as shown by her elaborations on this thinking in On Revolution and the essay on Authority), Machiavelli explained that a “republic” (or a polity) is able to last only if it proves able to compensate for the corruption generated by weak leadership or citizenry through a return to the origin, reviving its founding principles.

This political theorem would seem to apply directly to the current situation of the European Union. There are difficulties in implementing it, however. In the first place, the “principles” on which the Union is grounded never received a single interpretation. We can even say that they were an object of permanent antagonism, a struggle between different ways as it were, which also evolved over time. In a sense, therefore, several “new foundations” have already taken place, although their true meaning was never openly acknowledged. This happened after the “Fall of the Wall”, when the common currency was adopted by most countries and the idea of a “social Europe” was dropped, or when the procedure of ratifying new treatises among states replaced a failed attempt at having citizens in each country adopt a Constitution project (let us observe in passing that referendums in Europe seldom have the effects predicted…). It happened again when austerity policies were imposed on countries (like Greece) whose possible default threatened the banking system. From my point of view, regarding their long-term effects, these were forms of “corruption” rather than a “new foundation” …

Which leads us to our second difficulty: how can we justify a new foundation that reverses certain decisions already inscribed in texts or treatises? How can we reverse a dominant ideology and a government’s practice which has produced the victory of certain social interests over others, while simultaneously claiming to continue a project that is already ancient, but remains unfinished? How can we suppress the recurrent confusion between relativizing the boundaries of ethnicities and paralyzing the capacity of the demos (or, as Kalypso Nicolaidis would say, the demoi in the plural), hence the democracy itself?

Clearly, we need a new work of interpretation, a revised understanding of the “founding narratives” of the European Union. Hence we need to clearly distinguish between the philosophical prehistory of Europe (more or less mythical references to medieval Christendom, to “Perpetual Peace” projects, to cosmopolitan utopias), the political origins of the federalist project (particularly in antifascist resistance), and the historical beginnings of supranational institutions (at the time of the Cold War). This is a complex web of intricate references among which we may have to make choices to give an orientation to our effort.

For a new foundation, I don’t think that we now need a neoliberal Monnet, or a European De Gaulle, or even a Willy Brandt who would be able to fulfil his promises. Rather, we need people like Altiero Spinelli and Ursula Hirschmann, who wrote and circulated the Manifesto di Ventotene in 1941, but in the hundreds, to collectively write the new federalist Manifesto, taking into account what the Europeans need, and what the world expects from them.

[1]  openDemocracy is proud to carry this English adaptation of the main part of Etienne Balibar’s “discourse of acceptance” for the Hannah-Arendt Prize in Political Thought 2017, awarded by the Heinrich Boell Foundation and the City of Bremen (Germany), on December 1, 2017.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData