Can Europe Make It?

For a political Europe

A political Europe doesn’t exist, and one cannot pretend it is there, as both neo-liberals and sovranists do. An Agora Europe meditation for Europe Day, 2019.

Nadia Urbinati Caterina Di Fazio
7 May 2019
MS 'Aquarius' deployed in rescue mission could take up to 500 refugees, February 2016.
MS 'Aquarius' deployed in rescue mission could take up to 500 refugees, February 2016.
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Carmen Jaspersen/PA. All rights reserved.

We Europeans are tied with invisible and binding threads: memories of the periodic destruction of freedom and peaceful coexistence, and of political projects that have tried to open a path to cooperation. Today, we cannot fail to call ourselves Europeans. Yet today more than ever, Europe is a ground not of cooperation, but of competition. The kind of Europe that we of Agora Europe want is not the Europe that old and new nationalists want.

In this conflict of different and opposed visions of collective life lies both the challenge of our time, and a testimony to the fact that the concerns that haunt our countries are not merely national and cannot be adequately conceived outside of the continental frame. The challenge of the present times is to understand current political issues as not merely national ones. For many current issues the solution cannot remain at the national level, the level of the nation-state, but they require that we ascend to a transnational level. Additionally, the European Union promised to be an augmentation of member-states’ sovereign power, not a reduction. Based on this promise, the peoples of the old continent can commit to recognizing themselves as actors of a European integration project.

Now more than ever, it is necessary to create opportunities for a transnational public debate to think collectively about how to reorganize the European political space and strengthen our integration. Beginning with Étienne Tassin and Étienne Balibar’s insights, we chose to call our initiative Agora Europe – a series on the European Political Space. Paraphrasing Balibar, we could say of all the member-states, “Pas d’autre France sans autre Europe”(“There is no other France without another Europe”). Agora Europe is a permanent and itinerant agora gathering together hundreds of national and international members whose task is to create opportunities for public debates regarding the future of Europe, to discuss the potential of each country to reshape the European political space and to promote the participation of citizens and social forces in this process on the assumption that the greatest challenges of our time cannot be solved at the national level but only at the European level.

Of the urgent problems belabouring Europe, migration is the gravest one, and the issue on which the Agora Europe Series focuses the most, for our response to the migration issue will determine the continued existence of the European Union as such. Connected to this problem, a few topics we Europeans should address in our current debates are: 1) the relationship – often a conflictual one – between national & European institutions; 2) the question of borders and, more precisely, the process of the externalization of EU borders; 3) the urgency of developing an ethical-political attitude toward the issue of borders, one that takes into account not only the European political space (not understood merely as the Eurozone) but also the Mediterranean space; 4) the problem of where to locate state borders in this liquid space of networking interaction in which borders dissolve and leave us with the subsequent problem of the indeterminacy of national responsibility; 5) the reactivation of a central value that once shaped the European political project, such as European solidarity.

We think that to defend Europe, we need more Europe, a political centre capable of producing democratically legitimate decisions. If Europe is not able to give itself a unified policy on migration, citizenship and asylum, it is foreseeable that the problem of migration will result in a problem of rejection, criminalization, and closed borders. Until now, the European Union has not been scandalized when Italy has closed the ports to NGO vessels. Initially critical, it has however ultimately absolved itself of responsibility: and this risks making the nationalist model a model for Europe.

A sovranist rhetoric of fear

From the Vistula to the Seine to the Po, European sovranists have made the rhetoric of fear the glue of people’s social dissatisfactions. Their trickery lies in making fear the lifeblood of the European Union. The march towards European nationalism began a few years ago, highlighted in various national elections. This was seen in Denmark, and then in Finland. This was seen in Poland, and even earlier in Hungary, the first of the 28 EU countries that paved the way for supranational populism by building a barbed wire fence on the borders with the Balkans and Serbia.

The new fact of our time is this: while in the past, nationalisms were under the banner of the end of the Union, starting from 2015 and coinciding with the highest peak of migration, they have been updated into a new form of European leadership. The rhetoric of the sovranists, not foreign to the history of our continent, aims to make the European Union a hermetic continent ruled by a few clear objectives: the centrality of the white race, the Christian religion, welfare for Europeans by blood.

This is, as Viktor Orbán himself called it, the time of “Illiberal Democracy”: of populism and nationalist right-wing movements that nevertheless get elected through democratic processes and democratic elections. This is also a time of paradox, in which it is possible to create a transnational, European anti-Europe league, but seemingly impossible to create a pro-Europe one.

We cannot but want a united Europe. Yet the existing Europe is difficult to defend.

We cannot but want a united Europe. Yet the existing Europe is difficult to defend, because it is essentially a market whose single currency has different fees in different countries, but not a unit of value; whose union is in the system of rules held together by budgetary constraints which, while preventing the various nations from responding to the social needs of their countries, do not assign to the Union any democratic centre of political planning.

Currently, Europe cultivates the excessive indebtedness of many member states, which Brussels responds to by enforcing austerity measures that are inherently poisonous as they undermine prospects for investment, growth and employment, thus generating stagnation and perpetuating ever-deepening economic imbalances within the Eurozone. Without a fiscal and political union, the constraints to which this Europe is bound are likely to exacerbate nationalisms and justify sovereignisms while, at the same time, further locking within the Eurozone those countries whose indebtedness would be exposed to speculative attacks by financial markets were they to abandon the Euro.

The paradox (intentional, non-casual) of this neo-liberal ideology is to present itself to public opinion “as if” there was a political Europe and to pave the way for sovereignists’ propaganda. The fact is that a political Europe doesn’t exist, and one cannot pretend it is there, as both neo-liberals and sovranists do.

Racism and nationalism

Today there are no players with the same negotiating powers, and the differences between member-states have increased. The first divide came about explicitly with the Greek crisis. Interest no longer operates in a virtuous manner, because it pushes such unequal players to lock themselves up or request to be treated differently.

Divergence between national interests emerges clearly also with the issue of migration. There are nations that, precisely because they are by chance situated on Europe’s borders with difficult areas of the world – Africa and the Middle East – are more exposed than other European nations to distress and thus have strong arguments to ask for a different treatment: more economic and personal resources, for example, but also, more attention to human rights.

It is necessary to link financing to virtuous behavior; and we need a European authority to inspect the way money is spent in reception and especially in integration. It is necessary that borders become European in all respects in order to make all countries, not only border-countries, equally interested.

Yet, in the aftermath of the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we continue to witness a process of criminalization of sea rescue implemented by an ever-increasing number of national sovereignties and not even hindered by European governmental institutions. The policies and measures taken to contain migration often break the very same laws, both national and international, upon which our political institutions are based.

Ultimately, it is always up to the government of each member-state to decide whether the state has any obligation to grant security to refugees. Put differently, although a refugee convention exists, whether any particular state is bound to this convention still remains dependent on the decision of the state’s sovereignty and on the casual majority in each state, especially in those who find themselves, by chance, with a part-share in the continent’s frontiers. In those parts of Europe, European borders are governed by local governments, according to the principles, values ​​and political decisions made by the voters of the individual countries. Hungary or Italy are like vicar countries of the Union, de facto delegates (by an authority that does not exist) in the management of borders. This exacerbates nationalism and fuels racism. Since there is no European citizenship and a continental policy that governs the right to asylum, the problem of migration is reduced to a question of national security.

The migration problem has changed European discourse, because it has transported the ideology that in some countries equates immigration with illegality to all the countries of the Union, which has led to very poor and actually very bad political choices: to finance with European money the “reception” centres built on the borders and managed by the countries themselves; to subsidize the authoritarian Turkish government to stop the migrants; to make murky businesses with traffickers in countries such as Libya.

Imagining a criminalised landscape

Europe does not correct nationalism but embraces it, and in some cases exasperates it and nurtures the nationalist policies of the member-states. The immigration policy of the reception centres is not directly associated with a vision of European unity or continental citizenship but is essentially reduced to a policy of restricting and criminalizing access and closing borders.

The Aquarius affair made clear that the European political space understands itself to be able to permit unrestricted freedom of movement within its internal borders – the Schengen area – only by denying movement across its external borders. Moreover, the fact that refugee camps are becoming increasingly established on the borders of the European area – or even outside – is a concrete manifestation of the way Europe, by means of an externalization of its borders, has reshaped its imaginary geography.

The agreement with Turkey, the rejection of the boats to Libya (it is worth noting that when Italy’s Minister of the interior Matteo Salvini decided to close Italy’s ports to migrant vessels he explicitly referred to former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s “Stop the Boats” policy as the best model to contrast migration) are nothing but an attempt to push the edges out of the European space itself.

Indeed, in response to the so-called refugee crisis, Europe produced the idea of a direct association between securing existence and closing borders, so that the relationship with any “others” happens on the basis of fear and criminalization. Fear, far from being reduced, remains central on the emotional level, even while we are witness to the constant effort to reduce it, so to speak, on a physical level.

Fear, far from being reduced, remains central on the emotional level, even while we are witness to the constant effort to reduce it, so to speak, on a physical level.

In some cases there has even been a criminalization of migrants or a pre-emptive suspicion that they were “fake” refugees who came to take advantage of the “generosity” of our protection systems, which has come in very handy to those who thus achieved a double objective: to blame the weakening of the welfare state on a supposed explosion in the demand for protection (instead of an express will to diminish it) and to install the mental framework that links the welfare state with excessive generosity, unbearable in times of crisis.

A critical look at this way of arguing and the assumptions on which it is based allows us to deduce many things about ourselves. For example, if a politician insists on taking care of “our own” before taking care of refugees, she is probably not interested in doing either. If a country treats immigrants so insensitively, it is very likely to behave in a similar way towards its own citizens. People without rights are not those illegal "barbarians" who threaten our identity and security, but the first symptoms of a possible reversal of civilization. Historical amnesia helps this consolidation of dis-humanity as we Europeans forget the exploitation and cruelty connected to colonialism which has made many European states powerful and rich. Colonialism is not extinguished and operates through different means, with corporations and at the bidding of the market and at a time of the very philosophy of human rights, such as the sacrality of the property right, a visa for conquest and exploitation by rich countries and corporations.

Hospitality as of right

Given the difficulty of distinguishing between migrants and refugees, and the pernicious uses to which the refugee concept has been used, we ought perhaps to introduce new categories, encompassing both: the “roamer”, which is intended to demarcate the mobile part of humanity, and the “exile”, which indicates forced displacement. Together with the rights of circulation, residence and asylum contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we believe that the right of free movement must also be defended. And we call for the recognition of hospitality as a fundamental right and a shared European responsibility.

Europe is today an issue of borders: how they are understood and interpreted, how porous they should be, how much freedom of movement can be allowed. Hendaye, a little town on the French-Spanish Basque border, is the place where the Agora Europe project was first conceived. For what may seem to be a simple contingency, we thought that if Agora Europe ever had to cease to be an itinerant agora and have a headquarters, it should have been placed on that border, because, extraordinarily for the current geopolitical situation, the Basque border still remains a free space, where the border, barely marked by a river, and devoid of control, is a crossroads and a fluvial and maritime passage rather than a line of interruption.

Just a few months have passed, and the migratory routes, due to the dangers of the passage through Libya, have already been redirected. Now the preferred route is the one that from Morocco leads into the Strait of Gibraltar, towards Tarifa’s southern-tip-of-Spain. The question is for how long the Basque free border will remain so.

Freedom of movement

The centrality of borders and freedom of movement in the definition of the European political space shows all its gravity in the case of Brexit, since the outcome of this British divorce would manifest itself not only in duties on goods but also with visas denied to people. It is worth mentioning that Europe was born not only with the iron and coal treaties, but above all with the 1957 Treaty of Rome and in order to resolve the issue of migration.

The first problem tackled by the European states that began to think in terms of a Union was that of its frontiers, so that they were not only exit doors but also entry doors – this was functional to the need for labour in the countries of Northern Europe, but it was soon turned into a fundamental civil right. Europe was born as a project to build a free space and no longer subject to the logic of national borders. It was born in coherence with and as an enrichment of the problem of the affirmation of a cosmopolitan right, which is a person’s right, and which protects free movement.

The issue of migration therefore calls into question our conception of what we define as the European political space. The vastness and urgency of the problem are due to its two-dimensionality: on the one hand, it is a matter of understanding whether we can actually speak of a European political space, if there is in fact such a space, or, if not, how it can be instituted. On the other hand, in the absence of such definition, we’re tempted to resort to the traditional model of the nation-state to describe Europe and its space, but then we clash with the evidence of a paradoxical process: to maintain freedom of movement within the Schengen area, i.e. within its borders, Europe has begun a very risky process, that of the externalization of borders.

Among the issues on which the political battle of the future of Europe will be fought, the thorniest will be the one that has always been a problem for us Europeans: freedom of movement. For the difficulty that our right-wing governments impose upon migrants from other continents will also be fatally felt and also suffered by all Europeans.

The difficulty that our right-wing governments impose upon migrants from other continents will also be fatally felt and also suffered by all Europeans.

In order to stop the progress of the “others” in Ventimiglia or the Brenner or Calais, it is still necessary to demand the documents of all Europeans, who then ­– on the borders –must be identified not as Europeans, but as Italians, French or Germans. Europe was born with an almost perfect freedom of movement and risks running aground on freedom of movement. Here then is the aporia of the sovranists who are candidates for the conquest of the European Union: bring back passports in force.

Raise the stakes!

What can progressive and democratic Europe say and do? The change in pace that the archipelago of the democratic and progressive forces should propose to Europe confronts us with the following paradox: the most realistic project today is the most utopian one.

The Ventotene Manifesto is more realistic today than it was in 1941. And, above all, it is more pragmatic than the one that has so far governed the Union. It seems to us that Europe can come out of the border impasse only by raising the stakes, that is to say by bringing the problem back to where it must be addressed: creating a European authority for political decision-making.

The difficulty in resolving this dilemma in such a way as not to change the identity of the European project comes from the following historical fact: Europe was born with the ambition to break down internal borders but without a declaration of sovereignty. The freedom enshrined in the various treaties, the last one being that of Maastricht, is now no longer secure, neither for non-Europeans nor for Europeans. To become a secure freedom in critical times, to prevent freedom from being sacrificed on the altar of the national emergency, it is necessary, indeed vital, for the European Union to take a step towards a more complete or “perfect” union, which gives itself a federal democratic decision system with a government that does not respond to the governments of the member countries but to the citizens of Europe.

Defining a European political space

Today’s problem consists in understanding how, within the system of representative democracy, it is possible to introduce moments of active and direct participation. Representative democracy is perceived by citizens as often not being enough. On a European level, this is felt ever more strongly: the European elections, the MEPs, the European institutions themselves, are too often the furthest away a citizen is able to imagine. It is our task to create a space where the citizen, as well as Spanish, Dutch, Czech, English, Portuguese… also feels European. This space should be that of the city or municipality itself, as the experience of Riace, among others, showed us.

The second problem of today is to define a new political project, as much European and transnational as possible. ​​Bernie Sanders and Yanis Varoufakis’ idea of a Progressive International to be opposed to a Nationalist International is one of the many plural voices echoing in the world for the institution of a political Europe and a political space of solidarity.

And yet it is clear that the formulation of a new political project cannot disregard the existence and use of a space of ​​plurality. Without a space, whether institutional or public, academic or municipal, in which to gather and confront, there cannot be a new political project. Indeed, it is only the plural movement, or political movement, that creates, de facto, the political space. A movement that, at the level of political existence, deploys itself into three different and complementary forms: distanciation, protestation or resistance, and participation. The third problem of today is also relative to space, more specifically, to what we define as the European political space.

The institution of the political space passes through a coordinated and plural, participatory action of citizenship.

As for the institution of the European political space, it can be achieved in two different ways. First of all, it means talking not only about the future of Europe, but above all about the political dimension of Europe. It is a matter of understanding whether the process of constitution of the European Union was also political, or whether the political dimension has been forgotten or omitted. In short, it is a question of understanding if there is indeed a European political space.

Secondly, the challenge is to create this space. Now, the institution of such space can only pass from citizens. The institution of the political space passes through a coordinated and plural, participatory action of citizenship. If the constitution of a European political space cannot rest only on the elections and on the institution of political representation, it is after all necessary that its complementary antagonist, the direct, active and plural participation, is really such, that it to say, is not only open to but addressed to all citizens and residents. Political participation today, for us Europeans, is the task of standing for a political Europe.

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