Can Europe Make It?

Those who vote ‘euro-sceptic’ and the citizens of the Europe to come

The abolition of freedom of movement within the EU, widely regarded as one of the central achievements of the European project, is not only a real possibility, but already an emerging reality. But so is the fightback. A contribution to the discussion between Etienne Balibar, Bo Stråth and Sandro Mezzadra.

Stephan Scheel
5 May 2014
Blockupy protesters take action against banking and finance system

Blockupy protesters take action against banking and finance system. Demotix/Patrick Gerhard Stoesser. All rights reserved.

What does it mean that parties with an explicitly anti-European agenda will gain a significant share of the 751 seats in the European Parliament, thereby becoming a significant force in an institution most of their voters and representatives seek to abolish?

First of all, it confirms the obvious: the current economic and political crisis of the ‘European project’ is, indeed, existential. What may be less obvious is that this rise of nationalist-populist forces equally signals a deep crisis of European citizenship in its current constitution.

The crisis of European citizenship constitutes the flipside of the crisis of the European polity as a whole. You may remember that EU citizenship grants its holders two sets of rights: First, the right to vote for and stand as a candidate in the European Parliament. And second, the right to move and reside freely within the EU. The crisis of EU citizenship in its current constitution resides in the fact that an increasing number of EU-citizens vote for parties that seek to curtail if not completely dismantle the second right of EU citizenship: freedom of movement.

In this context, it should be noted that a thin majority voted for the introduction of quotas for immigration from EU member states in Switzerland this year. The unexpected outcome of the referendum, which had been initiated by the anti-European Swiss People Party, was celebrated by right-wing populists across Europe as an example to follow.

While a survey in Germany found that 48 percent would support a similar policy, a survey in France concluded that 34% approved the political ideas of the National Front, whose leader Marine Le Pen described the outcome of the referendum in Switzerland as a “display of common sense”.

Fearing the success of anti-European parties like UKIP in Great Britain or the newly formed Alternative for Germany, conservative parties across Europe hastily adopted the curtailment of freedom of movement for EU citizens as an element of their agenda. Whereas David Cameron pledged his government would renegotiate freedom of movement after the next elections in the UK, the German conservative party has devised plans to curb “benefit tourism” through temporary entry bans. The abolition of freedom of movement within the EU, widely regarded as one of the central achievements of the European project, is not only a real possibility, but it is already an emerging reality.

The imminent dismantling of one of the defining rights of EU citizenship under the banner of a resurgent nationalism points to an essential paradox in the current construction of European citizenship, which plays itself out most forcefully in the moment of its crisis.

So far, EU citizenship has been conceptualised as an “additional citizenship […that] does not replace national citizenship.” Quite the reverse, EU citizenship is acquired via national membership in one of the EU’s member states. The legislative frameworks of EU member states not only, “lay down the conditions for the acquisition and loss of nationality of that country”. These national citizenship regimes simultaneously determine the conditions for the acquisition and loss of EU citizenship.

The inevitable consequence, however, is that the allegedly post-national model of European citizenship is haunted by a legacy of nationalism: membership in the community of European citizens depends on national belonging to one of its member states.

In his seminal book We, the People of Europe Etienne Balibar has rightly noted that European citizenship is based on this aporia as it tries to fuse two conflicting ideas of the people, namely ethnos and demos. Whereas ethnos conceives of ‘the people’ as an imagined community of (national) membership, demos refers to ‘the people’ as the collective subject of representation, decision making and rights.

The attempt to fuse these two divergent ideas of ‘the people’ in the current model of EU citizenship is clearly reflected in the Treaty of Lisbon from 2009, where Article 9 of the treaty states: “Every national of a Member State shall be a citizen of the Union.” But the equation of ethnos and demos makes European citizenship a site of permanent confrontation between the exclusiveness of citizenship implicated by its association with a particular national belonging (ethnos) and the democratic imperative of the impartiality of equality and liberty (demos).[1]

Balibar has elaborated time and again on the devastating political consequences of this construction of European citizenship, which has led to an inexorable replication of the logics and mechanisms of gradual discrimination and differential inclusion characteristic of the national order of things.

It has resulted in an ever more pervasive European border regime, whose control apparatuses do not only stretch out into the Sahel zone, but also render the European space one vast borderland. Once EU citizenship – and with it the right to freedom of movement and the access to social and political rights – became an exclusionary affair, a border regime as a means for establishing and maintaining the ‘difference’ between community ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ became a necessity.

Ultimately, the foundation of European citizenship on national belonging implicated from the beginning what Etienne Balibar rightly denounced as “European Apartheid” when he wrote a decade ago: “[…] the addition of the exclusions proper to each of the national citizenships united in the European Union will inevitably produce an explosive effect of apartheid.”[2]

The point is that it is the exclusionary logic implicated by the foundation of European citizenship on national belonging, and its related conception as an ‘additional citizenship’, that accounts for the ease with which anti-European forces can problematize EU citizens as ‘poverty migrants’ or ‘benefit tourists’. All they need to do, is to rearticulate the distinction between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ that is already inscribed in the current formula of European citizenship.

In the end, the foundation of EU citizenship on national belonging proves to be a boomerang that can easily be redirected as ‘national preference’ against this ‘additional citizenship’ and its defining feature – freedom of movement – in times of economic crisis and austerity policies. This becomes most apparent, when as now, a growing part of the European demos seeks to curtail and dismantle the post-national element of European citizenship (freedom of movement) in the name of ethnos (national belonging).

Existential crisis

The imminent foundering of European citizenship in its current constitution is the flipside of the existential crisis of the European project as a whole. It is no miracle, as Etienne Balibar points out in a recent intervention, that the discourses on ‘poverty migrants’ and ‘benefit tourists’ reflect the two interrelated root causes of the present crisis of the European project.

First, the discourses on ‘poverty migrants’ and ‘benefit tourists’ present a good mirror image – in a negative way – of the social inequalities that, as Balibar observes, “spread in equally unequal fashion between countries and regions” across Europe. In this context, it should be noted that the panic-stricken invocation of a mass of ‘poverty migrants’ from Romania and Bulgaria who would only use their freedom to claim benefits in richer northern European member states like Austria, Germany or the UK can only flourish due to the apparent failure to develop the social component of European citizenship.

Instead of rendering Europe a space of solidarity through the furnishing of European citizenship with a set of individual and collective social rights, freedom of movement was instead conceived of and used as a tool only to bring about a common market in which the logic of competition and concurrence prevails. It is then no miracle that EU-citizens, especially under conditions of pronounced inequality, mainly encounter and experience each other as rivals.

It is thus the “scandalous failure of the European left” to devise Europe as a space of solidarity, which provides a fertile ground for the resurgence of nationalism across Europe. This is the interrelated second root cause of the crisis. What the discourses on ‘poverty migrants’ and ‘benefit tourists’ illustrate is the successful translation by right-wing populists of the apparent failure to devise a European social citizenship into a call for ‘national preference’. The trope of ‘national preference’ articulates the frustrated longing for social security and solidarity in times of economic crisis, which has been so impressively neglected by European institutions, as a demand to be privileged by the nation-state in terms of employment, social welfare and political rights.

By misrepresenting the imagined national community as a refuge of solidarity against the economic and social insecurities generated by global financial capitalism, EU-citizens exercising their freedom of movement are reframed as ‘outsiders’. In the welfare-chauvinist discourses on ‘poverty migrants’ and ‘benefit tourists’, the deep dissatisfaction with the European project’s failure to provide a substitute for the social protection previously offered by increasingly dismantled national welfare states is projected onto those who enact European citizenship via mobility. This is the existential crisis of European citizenship.

But if the imminent crisis of European citizenship is the flipside of the crisis of the European polity, the renegotiation of the current model of European citizenship may offer the key to rescue and renovate the European project as a whole. Neither the news that only 2.8% of EU citizens actually enact their right to move from EU country to another one, nor studies supporting the claim that most EU citizens “go where they find jobs, not benefits” will reassure fear-mongering national populists and their growing electorate.

Nor will the conclusion that the break-up of the single currency and the abolition of freedom of movement can only replace the reign of unfettered competition that is the existing European model with an equally devastating “race to the bottom” over the lowest wages, tax rates and additional wage costs between European nation-states, suffice to confront the  menacing default of the European project.

The reason is that all these arguments buy into the nationalist-utilitarian logic that underpins the discourses of the anti-European forces. Either these arguments seek to convince the electorate that freedom of movement for EU-citizens does, in fact, benefit their national constituency, or they maintain that it is more advantageous for their national community to remain in the Eurozone. What is needed instead is what Sandro Mezzadra calls a founding campaign – one that seeks to free European citizenship from its national legacy in order to fully unleash its post-national potential, while simultaneously linking it to the question of the creation of the commons as a way to create a Europe that is a space of solidarity. 

Who is being most unrealistic?

Given the current political conjuncture, characterised by a resurgence of nationalisms, a deep disillusionment with the idea of European citizenship and neoliberal austerity policies, whose continued predominance has recently been inscribed in the European project through the Fiscal Compact treaty, this proposal may sound like the unrealistic fantasy of a utopian idealist who lost any touch with reality.

Against this view, I would like to argue, first, that this proposal is realistic precisely because it is radical enough to create the rupture needed “to pave the way to another Europe”, to take up a formulation by Mezzadra. And second, that this proposal could not be more in touch with the bleak reality of the crisis of the European project, since all it proposes is to resolve the two interrelated root causes of this crisis mentioned above by linking European citizenship to the question of the commons and by curing it of its national legacy.

In brief, this proposal suggests working with the idea of European citizenship against the European project in its current constitution.

Since the making of the commons can only be advanced in a collective process of ‘making common’, thus prohibiting by definition any programmatic prescription, I will only indicate a direction for the interrelated process of how European citizenship may by liberated from the national legacy that underpins its current construction.

This requires nothing less, to cite once more the seminal work of Balibar, than “collectively inventing […] a new image of the relation between membership in historical communities (ethnos) and the continued creation of citizenship (demos) through collective action and the acquisition of fundamental rights to existence, work and expression […].”[3]

From this follows, however, that the tension resulting from the paradoxical foundation of European citizenship on national membership cannot simply be resolved by dispensing with the idea of ‘the people’ as ethnos. Here I agree with Balibar that a convincing notion of European citizenship is inconceivable without the construction of a fictive identity in the sense of membership in an imagined community, which is carried by the conception of ‘the people’ as ethnos.

The answer to the conundrum of how to imagine European citizenship without reference to national belonging resides in thinking ethnos (membership in historical communities) through the lens of a demos (the continued creation of citizenship through collective action).

This allows us to conceive of a European citizen as a member of the historical community, which collectively creates the Europe to come through its common actions. In this conception, membership to the community of European citizens is no longer inherited via membership in one of its national constituencies. Membership to the community of European citizens is acquired through active participation in the making of the history of what Jacques Derrida has called the Europe to come.[4]

European citizenship ceases to be an ‘additional citizenship’ acquired via national membership. It becomes a form of democratic citizenship, in which “membership in the community is something that […citizens] create and permanently recreate through their common action.”[5] The making of the Europe to come and the commoning of the European project are inseparably interwoven in the creation of a truly post-national model of European citizenship, without being reducible to one another.

Finally, I would like to emphasise that these two interrelated processes are already under way. The founding campaign for another Europe is no abstraction. It has already become conceivable in a number of initiatives and movements across Europe. I only have the space to mention three of them. The first is the March for Freedom: from May 22 onwards, the beginning of the elections for the European parliament, asylum-seekers, refugees, (undocumented) migrants and supporters from all over Europe will march from Strasbourg to Brussels to protest against the curtailment of freedom of movement by the European border regime, understood as the direct result of the exclusionary matric of the current model of European citizenship explained above. This exclusionary matrix can also be directed, at any time, against those who do hold formal EU-citizenship, as the recent deportation of an artist and her son from Belgium to Italy demonstrates. From this it follows that the abolition of the exclusionary matrix underpinning the foundation of European citizenship on national membership is not only of concern to those who currently suffer its most devastating consequences.

The second instance of an emergent founding campaign is the call for a week of actions in the context of the elections for the European parliament, to protest against austerity policies under the heading: “Solidarity beyond borders – Building democracy from below”. The protests resemble a warm-up for the blockade of the opening ceremony of the new building of the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt in autumn. What the violent police repression against the demonstration of the transnational blockupy-network last year suggests is that the ECB is, indeed, the most appropriate target for denouncing the EU’s impoverishment policy.

Third and finally we should also apprehend the movement of the thousands of young people from Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal to more affluent member states as a social and political movement in its own right and, hence, an integral element of the founding campaign for another Europe. To my mind, these movements are a material, embodied insistence on what Etienne Balibar calls equaliberty – the democratic imperative of the impartiality of equality and liberty.[6]

What this last movement exemplifies is that the commoning of the European project is inseparably interwoven with the question of freedom of movement. The thousands of young people from the impoverished south and east of Europe are exercising their freedom of movement as a means to appropriate the life opportunities, economic possibilities and social securities of which they have been dispossessed, by austerity policies ironically inflicted on their societies in the name of growth and stability.

This does not only hold for the thousands of young people from Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal, but also for the “new European citizens” from Bulgaria and Romania, who suffered for more than a decade under tight austerity policies, by which their governments sought to meet the fiscal criteria to enter the Eurozone.

While these movements are, to a certain extent, driven by economic necessity and a deep frustration with national political elites, they are equally an expression of the desire for another Europe that is based on the principle of equaliberty. In a way, these people are voting for a Europe of solidarity with their feet, thereby contributing to the material constitution of a European demos through freedom of movement.

At the current conjuncture, nobody knows if the European project will survive. But if it does, it will survive thanks to the people who march to Brussels, the people who blockade the ECB and the people who enact freedom of movement as a way to re-appropriate life opportunities in the context of impoverishing austerity policies. It is these people, and not the “euro-sceptic” voters, who are the citizens of the Europe to come.


[1]Balibar, Etienne (2003): We, the People of Europe. Reflections on Transnational Citizenship. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, p. 8-9.

[2] Balibar “We, the People of Europe”, p. 43.

[3] Balibar “We, the People of Europe”, p. 9.

[4] Derrida, Jacques (1992): The Other Heading. Reflections on Europe Today. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[5] Balibar, Etienne (2010): “Historical Dilemmas of Democracy and their Contemporary Relevance for Citizenship” in: Rethinking Marxism 20, No. 4, p. 524.

[6] Balibar, Etienne (2014): “The Proposition of Equaliberty”, in: Equaliberty. Political Essays. Durham: Duke University Press.

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