Can Europe Make It?

Reframing? Europe needs bifocals

Take note of the very effective frames the populist anti-Europe parties apply. The previous frame was a technocratic European integration doctrine in which ‘there is no alternative’ prevailed. They have opened a new frame to demonize Europe on behalf of ‘the people’.

Lammert de Jong
3 December 2013

Whichever side is resorting to framing devices is losing,’ Olaf Cramme quotes, regarding how to communicate the meaningful and practical benefits of the EU to its citizens. I beg to differ. Framing is essential to determine the perameters of debate. A frame is a substantive political message, which is used in the political debate to forge a specific interpretation of reality.[i] Take note of the very effective frames the populist anti-Europe parties apply. They are not Eurosceptic but plainly anti-Europe and that in a utopian way. For them, achieving their utopia is less relevant than the imaginative power of the No-Europe diktat. The previous frame was a technocratic European integration doctrine in which ‘there is no alternative’ prevailed. They have opened a new frame to demonize Europe on behalf of ‘the people’.

The No-Europe parties of Wilders (Netherlands) and Le Pen (France) rally the public with the promise ‘to return freedom to our people.’ Consolidating their cooperation in the run-up to the European Parliament election of 2014, together they cry: ‘today the liberation begins, from the [European] elite and the monster of Brussels,’ referring to the humiliating situation in which the old states of Europa must now ask permission from Brussels for almost everything.[ii] These populists don’t compromise over some ‘more or less’ Europe; instead they are defenders of the freedom for ‘our’ people.

Applying a rhetorical twist, the original promise of European integration - ‘freedom and no more war’ is turned upside down into a utopian frame for freedom from the betrayal of Brussels and the national elites! They call for a jihad against Europe, while not so long ago these populists had a Muslim jihad in the frame, which they warned us was the enemy of ‘our’ people, and overrunning Europa.

Populists appropriate ‘our’ people, supposedly a homogeneous collection, with no minorities in sight. The elite is framed as a parasitic lobby that lines its own pockets with frequent flyer miles while haughtily portraying ‘our’ people as European Dummies. ‘Us’ against ‘them’, over and over again! There is no communication with populist positions about meaningful and practical EU benefits. Statistics on what Europe has made possible; presenting Europa in a realpolitik frame; or harping on about the dark consequences of a range of Exits don’t hold water against a populist jihad.

Worn out frames

Populist monolithic frames don’t allow for the negotiations de rigueur in any political discourse in a pluralist democracy. But what are the alternatives? The old frames of ‘state sovereignty’ and ‘homogeneous nation’ are worn out and have to be replaced by new paradigms that help navigate the State-EU tandem in its process of Europeanization.

What do these paradigms have to cover? First of all, we must take the democratic deficit of the European Union to heart. Repairing this deficit is an existential necessity that demands all of our attention. Yet in all its urgency, this European democratic deficit should not obscure the primary source and location fro the emergence of such a democratic deficit, i.e. the sovereign nation-state. This democratic deficit is apparent in the dissociation of politics and the power of the state. As Zygmunt Baumann recently put it: politics in deciding what should be done in accordance to the will of the nation on the one hand and the other, the lack of power to have those things done.[iii]

‘State sovereignty’ seems an indestructible paradigm in the process of European integration; it keeps a strong foothold within the doorframe notwithstanding the transfer of a whole range of state competences to Brussels. Even in the face of the omnipotent neo-liberal market supremacy, ‘state sovereignty’ seems to remain an unscathed paradigm. On the other hand, the European Union badly needs a paradigm that embraces its raison d’être, and that for a very diverse public.

A utopian vista of freedom and peace marked the beginning of European integration. Since then the narrative of European integration has evolved into a flat ‘free market’ paradigm that is rather self-centred and money oriented. What does the Union stand for? At the same time, the State demands a new mandate, having lost its sovereignty. Where does the State stand in relation to the Union? And what is the quintessence of the State today?[iv] These questions are entangled in the process of Europeanization.

Globalization unsettled the state-sovereignty paradigm and thus also erased the democratic signature of the state. The democratic nation-state is out of balance, not – as the European sceptics purport – thanks to the heavy hand of European Union technocratic governance, but first of all because of global interventions. This national democratic deficit can no longer be blanketed over by dramatizing the European Union democratic deficit.

The assertion that only in the nation-state can democracy flourish is really out of date, as this does not acknowledge the waning power of the state. Those Euro-sceptics have missed the changing power game in a globalized world. In view of our global condition, state sovereignty does not make much sense any more, neither as a framework for the idea of popular sovereignty nor as a protection of the social and democratic securities that western European countries established in the last century, after World War II.

A climate of communist fear provided the breeding ground - a frame - for a social-democratic Europe as early as the October revolution in 1917. The social-democratic movements would never have been able to enforce their agenda without the threat of totalitarian Stalinism.[v] They were able to frame the state as the embodiment of social rights and services against a totalitarian threat. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the communist threat was excommunicated and so the political urgency of social protection wore off, opening the door to the neo-liberal gospel of ‘the market knows best’ that became embedded in the EU as well as all its member-states. Public authority lost out to a market supremacy that lives by the survival of the fittest, nibbling away the social-democratic securities of the western European member-states.    

Though ‘state sovereignty’ is an obsolete reality, the concept is alive and kicking, obstructing the recognition of a European commonwealth where Union and State are interlocking constituents. Few political leaders dare to acknowledge that globalization has critically devalued nation-state ‘sovereignty,’ separating power from politics. Market supremacy has taken over ‘public authority’ and in its wake a democratic deficit of enormous proportions has emerged, disembowelling the essence of citizenship.

George Papandreou, former prime minister of Greece, encapsulated the power of ‘the market’ on one occasion - April 2012 – when the European Council had to decide in Brussels how to deal with the Greece deficit problem: “the markets put a gun to our elective heads.” Deliberations among the 27 heads of European states to reach an agreement were abruptly cut short: “because in 10 minutes the markets are opening up in Japan, and there will be havoc in the global economy [without an agreement; ldj].” Papandreou saw clearly: “Our democracies are trapped by systems that are too big to fail, or more accurately, too big to control.”

Ironically, the European Union can be defined as an attempt to fill a national democratic deficit that in its current institutional form only gave birth to another democratic deficit.

Power and politics no longer form a partnership as the ‘state sovereignty’ paradigm postulated: “The problem and the awesome task that will in all probability confront the current century as its paramount challenge, is the bringing of power and politics together again (Bauman, 2009, 34).” [vi] In spite of his intimidating ‘market’ experience in Brussels, Papandreou sees the European Union as having the potential to curb unchecked power, and restore a public authority that also includes the public. European integration has been the most successful cross-border peace experience to date. Papandreou claims that now the European Union must become an experiment in global democracy, creating a European agora, not only for ‘the market’ but also for political deliberations of its citizens, just as in the ancient agora of Athens.

Europe needs bifocals

The nation state and the European Union are in between paradigms that must bring them - each in its own way - into line with globalization. These paradigms are interconnected. While once the State embraced the Nation in a seemingly natural union, the state seems now lost in the process of European integration. At the same time the European Union can’t rise above the populist chatter of becoming an omnivorous super-state without clarification of what we the peoples want the Union to stand for. Europe needs bifocals: one for reading the State, the other for reading the Union.

Carving out a distinction between the Union and the State, the concept of ‘subsidiarity’ has gained currency. This ‘subsidiarity’ won’t work for the simple reason that it has a political dimension. ‘Subsidiarity’ serves a political a la carte. Liberals and social democrats differ on the nature of the State; they also differ on what should be taken up by the Union and what not. We need a bifocal paradigm that rises above these political differences.  

The building blocks of a bifocal paradigm for Europe are: (1) our global condition, (2) the restoration of public authority (by the European Union), and (3) safeguarding the legality of citizenship (by the State). An elaborate exposé of this paradigm has to wait. For now, the following summary hopefully whets the appetite for constructive commentary on a work in progress.

Our global condition

Our global condition consists first of all in the dependence of our good life at home on powers beyond our control, and secondly on a growing awareness that we live at the expense of the rest, the next and the Earth. Intolerable poverty and injustice elsewhere, climate change and global warming, oceanic pollution and the exploitation of the Earth’s resources can no longer be checked off in a don’t know rubric. This knowledge encroaches upon today’s morality, a moral update as it were, telling us that others, including future generations, are entitled to a fair share of the world’s resources.

Meanwhile it’s becoming obvious that we are facing a tough competition from the emerging ‘Rest’, soon to be joined as well from the ‘Next.’ Our good life exhausts the chances of improving the miserable life of others even just a tiny bit, let alone the plight of the next generations, and of the Earth. ’The Rest’ cannot emulate our good life as we live on an Earth Ltd. Yet our understanding of citizenship does not acknowledge our global condition as an urgent political parameter, both as a concern for the life of ‘others’ and with regards to ‘our’ good life entitlements.

Our global condition must be dealt with on penalty of a moral collapse as well as a global catastrophe, a matter of survival. Mind you, we live in the Anthroposcene, which is a term that represents the idea that we have entered a new epoch in the Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the arrival of the human species as a devastating geological force. [vii]

Public authority

Due to global forces the state has lost much of its power to get things done for the nation, causing a dramatic lack of public authority. Public authority is a double-edged authority, on behalf of the public as well as backed by the public. The EU should be authenticated as a utopian attempt to engage citizens in global affairs, and so restore public authority in the global theatre. Pope Francis might take his stand in his “Joy of the Gospel”, an apostolic exhortation denouncing the ‘dictatorship’ of a global economic system and a free market that perpetuates inequality and ‘devours’ what is fragile, including human beings and the environment.[viii] The European Union is a better measure to deal with our global condition, but it can only be dressed with the mantle of public authority when its democratic deficit is addressed.

The legality of citizenship

The State has lost its power to get things done for the nation, yet the State constitutes the legality of citizenship. Habermas emphasizes: “The national states are more than merely the custodians of treasured national cultures; they safeguard a level of justice and freedom that the citizens rightfully want to continue (translation; ldj)” [ix] For its citizens, the State is the tactile contact organization for the execution of their citizen rights. The quintessence of the State is to provide a constitutional anchorage (Frissen, 2013, 95) in a ‘liquid modernity’ without meaningful anchorage. In constituting the legality of being a citizen in a democratic state, the State rises to prominence in a European frame. This legality produces standards of public, social and economic interactions, within the state as well as in supranational formats: “I want to live in a country where the law is not just a word in a dictionary”, an activist in the Ukraine stated against Russian pressure during the upheaval in November 2013 following the Ukraine’s government rejection of a free trade agreement with the EU.[x]

In spite of all the national differences, a multitude of people have aspired to join the European Union, searching for this legality. These people have become citizens that count on the legality of the state to do justice, to protect their democratic rights and freedom. Legality is the core business of a democratic state. In the process of joining the EU, candidate countries have to remodel themselves according to the legality of a democratic state. They are vetted according to the Copenhagen criteria of democracy, the rule of law, human rights and minority protection.

But as Michael Meyer-Resende warns, today, once a state joins the Union, its democratic credentials cannot be taken for granted. Being a member, the upkeep of this legality of the State should be overseen by the European Union. This requires a stronger human rights architecture for the European Union. As much as the EU is concerned with running a free market, safeguarding the legality of citizenship of its member-states must follow.

Considering our global condition, Europe needs bifocals to steady the course: (1) the restoration of public authority by the Union and (2) safeguarding the legality of citizenship by the State. Only then can the European Union claim public authority on behalf of European citizens over powers that are now beyond our democratic control. Only then are European citizens secure in their freedoms and their rights.


[i] Frissen, P.H.A. (2013) De fatale staat. Over de politiek noodzakelijke verzoening met tragiek, p. 164. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Van Gennep.

[ii] Wilders en Le Pen sluiten Europees verbond – ‘historische dag.’ In: De NRC, 13 November 2013.

[iii] Bauman, Zygmunt (2013) “Europe is trapped between Power and Politics.” In: Social Europe Journal, 14 May 2013.

[iv] Schinkel, Willem (Ed.) (2009) Globalization and The State. Sociological Perspectives on the State of the State. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[v] Steven van Schuppen, “Democratie, gelijkheid en markt.” In: De GIDS, number 6, 2013, p. 13- 33.    

[vi] Bauman, Zygmunt (2009) “Uncertainty and other Liquid-Modern Fears.” In: Schinkel (Ed. 2009).

[vii] Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene. In: New York Times, 13 November 2013.

[viii] Pope sets down Goals for an Inclusive Church, Reaching Out ‘on the Streets.’ In: New York Times, 27 November 2013.

[ix] Habermas, Jürgen (2013) Een toekomst voor Europa. Edited by Paul Schnabel, p. 45 - 46. Amsterdam: Boom – Stichting Praemium Erasmianum.

[x] Ukraine in Turmoil After Leaders Reject Major EU Deal. In: the New York Times, 27 November 2013.  

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