Can Europe Make It?

Saving Europe from salvation

National competences are not something one can waive away with a magic wand and reassign to international institutions. Limited sovereignty all round is the road we must travel.

Simon Glendinning
17 November 2014
S. A. Mitchell Sr.’s 1850 map of Europe, depicting the entire continent colour coded according to individual countries.

S. A. Mitchell Sr.’s 1850 map of Europe, depicting the entire continent colour coded according to individual countries. WikicommIn making a short and somewhat critical reply to the authors of the article on the “post-Europe” project, I do not want to give the impression that I find the aims of their discussion unwelcome. The effort to explore ways of thinking beyond Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism is something I wholeheartedly applaud, and the attempt to do so here with reference to the thought of the Czech phenomenologist Jan Patočka is extremely interesting. It is far from a straightforward ambition, but I too think that “hope for a European project” is inseparable from the development of “a philosophical and historical engagement with the concrete structures and institutions of European life.”

Seguing those two – finding a way to move from and between philosophy and concrete life – is of course something of a holy grail for all philosophical reflection. Karl Marx perhaps thought it was beyond philosophy’s reach to do so, but we do not have to follow him in that regard, while following his desire to contribute in some way (putting it in his grandiose terms) to changing the world.

The opportunity provided by a philosophically informed approach to the future of European union is, as the authors suggest, to help liberate discussion from domination by narrowly “economic thinking which sees growth, expansion and accumulation” as the be all and end all of Europe’s ambitions. However, I found the authors’ assessment of “what is needed” or “required” in its place to remain too stubbornly close to a classical form of rational cosmopolitical thinking that is no less "all or nothing" – and which, I will argue here, in wanting everything can get nothing.

Apocalypse Now

I can begin to explain this with reference to what is, in my view, the heart of their thought-provoking article: a wonderful remark from Jean-Paul Sartre on a French apocalyptic anxiety, and its attendant salvationist coda:

When a Frenchman, for example, says to other Frenchmen “The country is done for” — which has happened, I should think, almost every day since 1930 — it is emotional talk; burning with love and fury, the speaker includes himself with his fellow-countrymen. And then, usually, he adds “Unless …”

The authors give a more recent example of this trope with Jeremy Rifkin’s suggestion that “Europe can prosper and save not only capitalism but also its way of life if it carefully follows these steps...”. But the salvationist structure of this crisis narrative applies with equal if not more force to their own contribution. Europe, which “once ruled nearly all the world” is now, we are told “at the mercy of global forces and dynamics”. Once great and central to world history, Europe is now thoroughly decentered and marginalized. Indeed, in a certain way it is already over for Europe, it is done for, and we must now think beyond it to save it, in the form of a “post-Europe” of the future.

The authors summarize the contemporary scene as one of genuine crisis: “Individual nation states are no longer capable of protecting their citizens’ interests against global market forces; transnational, European governance, regulatory and civic structures are necessary. The current ones are not performing their function.” Today, as in the 1930s when Edmund Husserl reflected on the situation in Europe, we might say: “Europe’s nations are sick, Europe itself is sick”.[i]

So we are done for. Unless…

Unless what? The authors suggest that what we urgently need now are renewed “discussions of post and trans-national democratic institutions…far beyond what is currently readily available.” The idea seems really to be that the only truly adequate response to Europe’s current malaise will be through the development of a properly transnational democracy in Europe: the formation of a European government.

The call for transnational democratic governance in Europe is just one side of the story. At the same time, though on the other hand, there is also a call for a revived role for Europe in the world at large. Not a call for a revival of the old Eurocentric world order that is and should be totally over, but for European political institutions to sustain an outlook with a genuinely cosmopolitical horizon: the new “post-Europe” is to become “a useful (not unique) tool to tackle global issues”. It “must have a global justice dimension” and promote “global economic and social solidarity”.

That package – a renewed European political body with a cosmopolitical horizon – is quite an “Unless”. 

The Kantian Idea of Europe

But it is not really new either. The idea of European nations “becoming one” in the context of a developing world-wide movement towards a globally just condition is perhaps the classic “idea of Europe”. In the 1780s and 90s, when old Europe was still young, Immanuel Kant sketched what has often been thought of as the basic form of this idea: the formation of “a great political body without precedent in the past” on our continent, a political body that would be central to the world-historical movement towards a fully “cosmopolitan existence” for all humanity. [ii]

Kant’s ideas were not particularly well received. Thinking that Kant was proposing the positive idea of a supranational “superior power” that would “secure eternal peace”, G.W.F. Hegel rejected Kant’s ideas as completely unworkable: “the relation of states to one another has sovereignty as its principle,” insisted Hegel.[iii] According to Hegel, while there may be all sorts of noble motivations for them and moral and religious considerations that might strengthen them, international relations between sovereign states cannot be pacified by treaties: any agreements reached are always “liable to be disturbed by the element of contingency” – the agreements may suit all parties at the time, but what if there is a turn of events that means it works out really badly for one of the signatories? What then? Well, says Hegel, “when the particular wills of states can come to no agreement, the controversy can be settled only by war.”

International institutions fair no better on this view. The rights of nations “have reality not in a general will, which is constituted as a superior power, but in their particular wills.” Once again, international pacific institutions are fine as long as things go well for all concerned. But the idea of eternal peace is simply not realistic: “in the actual situation” relations established by the treaties that found such institutions are “continually shifted or abrogated” according to the particular wills of nations and their perception of their national interests.

One cannot but think that Hegel has Kant in view when he criticizes thinking “when it plumes itself upon being cosmopolitan, in opposition to the concrete life of the citizen”.[iv]

Must we follow Hegel then, and conclude that the classic European project (or “post-Europe project” with its more modest global-leadership ambitions) is delusionary and beyond reform? I don’t think so. Not at all. However, nor do I think that leaves the kind of international government in Europe prescribed in this article as the only card left on the table. Hegel may have thought he had Kant’s ideas in view, but in fact not only did Kant just like Hegel regard the positive idea of an international state as completely untenable and hopeless, his whole approach is also, and again just like Hegel, profoundly sceptical of the lofty ideas of what he calls “rational cosmopolitans”. Human beings, according to Kant, do not “pursue their aims…in accordance with any integral, prearranged plan like rational cosmopolitans”.[v] Indeed, according to Kant, the grand projects of the salvationist “Unless” which would replace national institutions with “post and trans-national democratic institutions” are always roads to nowhere but “universal despotism” and “the graveyard of freedom”. [vi] The democratic claim of every rational cosmopolitan may be that “each has power”, but the reality is that (unhappy with the way things are going) they each want power. And in the setting of an international government they do so without recourse to the “concrete life of the citizen”.

It is beyond debate that the concrete lives of the citizens of Europe are much more closely attached to their nation states than to Europe. Rational academics may wish it was otherwise but they are deceiving themselves if they think that it is. They may feel that they are themselves perfectly happily detached from any such atavistic anachronism. But if they think that is a widely shared view they are in fantasy land. Of course, history does not stand still, and maybe one day, as Marx had supposed, globalization will make what he regarded as “national one-sidedeness and narrow-mindedeness” “more and more impossible”.[vii]  Writing in the 1930s, Paul Valéry could already see that the time was over in which “history was made up of events that could be localized”, and in which politics could be pursued within an assumption or wager “on the isolation of events” rather than an “immediate interdependence”.[viii]

But that does not mean that cosmopolitan efforts to realise conditions which cultivate “mutual understanding and peace” would be accelerated by effecting “an amalgamation of the separate nations under a single power”.[ix] That eventuality --- wanting everything --- gets nothing: it crushes the “germs of goodness” in the cosmopolitan idea and, wishing to establish what Valéry called “the harmony of uniformity”, the result would not only be “monotonous” but destroy the very variety that is the “condition of vitality”.[x] In the end, with no one happy, it would, as Kant says, “lapse into anarchy”.[xi]

National competences are not something one can waive away with a magic wand and reassign to international institutions. Again, Kant was right: to the rational cosmopolitan’s proposal for an international state that would allow nations to “emerge from the lawless condition of pure warfare”, one can only say: “But this is not the will of the nations”; it is not the sort of thing that nations (as such) can, intelligibly, will.[xii]

Immanuel Kant. Unknown.

Immanuel Kant. Unknown/WikicommonsBut Kant does not leave it there, as Hegel does. Instead, Kant argues for the “negative substitute” of the positive idea: the formation in our continent of a relatively stable “federation of free states”. This set-up cannot secure eternal peace: “there will always be”, Kant acknowledges, “a risk of [war] bursting forth anew”.[xiii] However, it can still make war less likely, and can still serve as a model of international right. As Jacques Derrida has argued, international institutions like the UN or the EU do not signify that a total loss of sovereignty for nations is the condition of peace. No they “have signified that limited sovereignty is a condition of peace."[xiv] Limited sovereignty all round, not a new sovereign power constituted as a superior power over the old nations. This is the road we must travel if, today, we want to maintain any of the vitality and international relevance of old Europe in a new Europe to come. 

Pressing ahead

It would be beyond complacent not to be alive to “all that is not going well in the capitalist states and in liberalism” in our time.[xv] Moreover, in an age of daily news media “we are”, as Valery already felt in 1939, “harassed with reading about things of immediate and violent interest. In the public press the news is of such diversity, incoherence, and intensity that the little time we [have], out of twenty-four hours, is entirely taken up with that”.[xvi] In this situation, massively amplified and qualitatively transformed today, politicians of all colours and at all levels, but perhaps especially at a national level, are increasingly rendered “structurally incompetent” to do anything to address our problems, and the “field of discussions, deliberations and decisions” in elected parliaments is massively reduced too. [xvii] As the British Prime Minister David Cameron admitted in a recent interview “every day, in modern politics, you are fighting a battle of handling the media… I want to run a country not a 24-hour media channel. What you have to do is handle that stuff but at the same time keep your eye on the long term horizon.”

Perhaps today, more than ever, it can hardly be done, especially not in the national arena: the eye no sooner looks ahead than it is dragged back into what is immediately and interdependently in front of us. In this situation strong international institutions which bend the arc of history towards the horizon of what is rationally ideal are, indeed, our best hope. Kant rightly speaks about the infinite improvability of international institutions, and describes this as a movement of “continual approximation” to the ideal. But, again, the ideal itself is regarded as a totally “impossible” and “impracticable” one: what is in question then, concretely, are not efforts to realise the rational ideal of an international state but endless efforts at the improvement of the negative substitute.[xviii]

We should heed Hannah Arendt’s warning to the best-intentioned humanitarians:

Contrary to the best-intentioned humanitarian attempts to obtain new declarations of human rights from international organisations, it should be understood that this idea transcends the present sphere of international law which still operates in terms of reciprocal agreements and treaties between sovereign states; and, for the time being, a sphere that is above the nations does not exist. Furthermore this dilemma would by no means be eliminated by the establishment of a “world government”.[xix] 

To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau -- to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves EU-government men and women, I ask for, not at once or soon a United States of Europe, but at once and for the foreseeable future, a better United Europe of States.

Oh how dull that must sound. But it is so much better than nothing, and so much better than the ideal. In his “Message to the 21st Century” Isaiah Berlin made the point with typical elegance:

I know only too well that this is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march—it seems too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois, it does not engage the generous emotions. But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory.



[i] Edmund Husserl, “The Vienna Lecture”, in The Crisis of European Sciences, Northwestern University Press, 1970, p. 270.

[ii] Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose”, in Political Writings, CUP, 1991, p. 51.

[iii] GWF Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, OUP, 1968, §333-4.

[iv] Hegel, ibid., §209.

[v] Kant, ibid., p. 41.

[vi] Kant, “Perpetual Peace”, in Political Writings, p. 114.

[vii] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, OUP, 1998, p. 7.

[viii] Paul Valéry, “Foreword” to History and Politics, Pantheon Books, 1962, p. 15.

[ix] Kant, ibid., pp. 113-4.

[x] Valéry, “Towards a Correspondence”, in History and Politics, p. 348.

[xi] Kant, ibid., p. 113.

[xii] Kant, ibid., p. 105.

[xiii] Kant, ibid., p. 105.

[xiv] Jacques Derrida, “Unconditionality and Sovereignty”, Oxford Literary Review, 31, 2009, p. 129.

[xv] Derrida, Specters of Marx, Routledge, 1994, p. 69.

[xvi] Valéry, “Freedom of the Mind”, in History and Politics, p. 203.

[xvii] Derrida, ibid., p. 79-80

[xviii] See “Translator’s Introduction” to Kant’s Perpetual Peace, Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1903, p. 129.

[xix] Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, George Allen and Unwin, 1967, p. 285. Italics added.


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