Can Europe Make It?

Updating Europe's narrative: "It's the citizen, stupid!"

The founding fathers of the European Union had the citizen in mind, which makes European citizenship a centrepiece of Europe’s narrative. However, in these days of crisis, the civilizing mission of the EU rings hollow in view of its democratic deficit.

Pooyan Tamimi Arab Lammert de Jong
5 September 2013

Flickr/European Parliament. Some rights reserved.

The European Union is in disarray; so much so that one speaks of an existential crisis.

A European narrative that might carry its disparate community through the Eurozone crisis is conspicuously lacking. In the previous decades, the free market economy has been the dominant factor of the Union, advancing what the European Union essentially was about: economic interests.

The forthcoming elections for the European Parliament in 2014 can be considered as a test for the current democratic deficit and the future of the EU. What is the democratic deficit and what opportunities lay ahead if Europe makes moves towards a political union with an ethical core, rather than just being a monetary union that guarantees certain social standards of living? Three issues come to mind: plurality, environmental sustainability, and overarching these, citizenship.

European plurality versus the homogeneous nation

The Eurozone crisis has exposed the fact that more commonality - that is more European policy, i.e. more integration - is needed to keep the Union running, which in turn calls for an update of the European Union constitutive narrative. Calls for “more Europe” have coincided with the enforcement of austerity regimens and budgetary constraints to consolidate the Eurozone crisis, including financial transfers between member-states. All of this was thrashed out in the corridors of Brussels, without democratic decision-making.

The European people are several degrees separated from the seat of European power. The representational architecture of the Union fails as a platform for citizen engagement that binds European governance, at least in the eyes of the public. That has made “more Europe” a source of xenophobia and worrying nativism across the continent.

The timing could not have been worse, calling for more Union power and policy at a time when European citizens feel betrayed by Europe’s moneymaking promise and overruled by a European bureaucracy that tells them there is no alternative to austerity and budget constraints. In the absence of a fitting constitutive narrative, the Union has demanded a degree of European-wide solidarity that is just not there. ‘Why should we pay for the club Méditerannée?’ a Dutch politician asked his Dutch audience. The prism of the market model obscures the option of a Union that harbours solidarity, indeed brotherhood as the European Anthem promises, among its citizens.

When forced by the imminent threat of a Euro collapse, the Union’s crisis management tamed national authorities, preempting a Greek referendum that sought public endorsement. Actually this crisis management brought “more Europe” unmistakably home to its peoples while worldwide economic expertise differed about the wisdom of austerity in economic bad times, leaving the public in disarray.

Against the backdrop of a broken narrative and a disabled citizenship the Union has to reinvent itself by redefining its purpose and healing its democratic deficit, and that for hundreds of millions of people, spread over the Continent as well as across the Channel, a super-diverse public, to say the least.

But “for all its limitations, citizenship of the EU is the best example of a constitutionally established supranational citizenship” (Heater, 2002), forging a unified plurality. European citizenship gives a revolutionary twist to the nativist interpretation that one’s identity and citizen rights are grounded in the place of birth and/or ancestral lineage, i.e. the nation. Migration of all sorts and directions has changed the parameters of citizenship. The idea of a homogenous nation that is frozen in time, ethnicity and place of birth has been taken over by the plurality of people and what they think is home. “There is no place like home” covers nowadays an optional variety of multiple engagements, all of which provide some sort of “home.”

European citizenship recognizes this plurality and disentangles a person’s citizenship rights from the locality of birth and his ancestral lineage, distancing one’s citizen rights from the Blut und Boden legacy of Europe’s war-torn history. In doing so, European citizenship unifies people in transcending the demons of the past. Protecting citizen rights against national bias and infractions of member states is one of the hallmarks of the European Union. In 2011 in openDemocracy, we argued against the Netherlands’ attempt to block dual citizenship to Dutch citizens and to individuals who wish to become Dutch citizens. Why must immigrants obtaining Dutch citizenship distance themselves from the nationality of their home country?

When it comes to the many pitfalls of the conventional nation-state, Hirsch Ballin questions the generalized assumption that the state has sovereign power over citizenship and citizen rights. Awareness is growing that international law actually has something to say about a state that unreasonably deprives or withdraws nationality-cum-citizenship from people. Citizenship can no longer be considered a favour bestowed by the state on its underlings: according to Hirsch Ballin, it is a human right.

However, we should add that a human right does not de facto exist without a sovereign power to back it up. As Thomas Hobbes came to argue in the era of the birth of European nation-states, a sovereign power is an artificial construction without which citizens do not enjoy rights, and, ultimately, even bare preservation. Centuries later, after nation-states decisively failed to provide the minimalist promise of physical security, Hannah Arendt bitterly concluded that the only right which stateless people actually enjoy is the right to have rights. In other words, European thinking in dark times demanded that what we call human rights, including citizen rights, are guaranteed and realized by a bordered political union.

Of course, European protection of citizen rights will be considered as overweening ambition in the quarters of the nation-state, and hard to swallow for the proud carriers of (nation-) state sovereignty. However, this interference should not be seen as “[…] nothing else than the humiliation of the state” (Davies, quoted in Kochenov, 2013) but rather what it aims for: a protection of human rights. Yet, the image of the nation-state as being not good enough for its citizens will continue to make European integration a contentious issue - Gefundenes Fressen for populist appeals that play on nativist instincts.

Being unencumbered by a nationalist bias and the limitations of individual states, the European Union has strengthened the European presence in the global theatre where individual European states would have been losing out to established and emerging global powers, including “international finance” and “the market.” The enormous asymmetry between the power of anonymous markets and “state sovereignty” necessitates countervailing European statehood. Yet, it’s not “state-sovereignty” that is of primary concern but rather popular sovereignty and national citizenship that has critically lost out in the process of globalization.

What does “popular sovereignty” mean when the “sovereign state” is overruled at home, and rather powerless across its borders? Taken all together, European citizenship is a better match for global forces that have permeated the borders of the nation-state. The European people are not so easily washed over by globalization as would have been the case were they a diverse collective of homogenized national citizens only.

The next and the rest and the earth

Is European expansion the real answer to globalization? Thijs Kleinpaste (2013) comes to the contrary conclusion that radical localism is the only hope for fulfilling the democratic content of our lives. This localism is a search for authenticity, small-scale, pure and tangible, with locally-produced food from the farmer and fish out of the lake. To be authentic marks one’s identity, providing some anchorage in a “liquid modernity” (Bauman, 2000) without meaningful foundation.

But what about the other part of the democratic equation: a burgher’s ambition to assert her or himself – individually and collectively – in the face of the powers-that-be in our globalized world. That other part, exercising popular control over the conditions of our life, should not be overlooked in the process of feeling at home again. Kleinpaste’s thesis that we must define ourselves as essentially local burghers does not answer the question of how to do so in the global theater of today’s world. A citizen’s power to determine the conditions of his life is questionable, to say the least. Radical localisms won’t change that. Of course, there is an interaction between the two. Feeling powerless in the world at large reduces our engagement to manageable local proportions which makes us feel at home in some sort of authentic personhood. That’s where localism is born.

This localism may help us to believe that we control our lives, but do we really?  Even when we consider our localism to be of radical intent, will the powers behind climate change, pollution, distributive resource injustice, corrupt banking, unlimited greed, you name it, become pliable to our wishes? Moreover, are human and social rights safely secured against wicked forces in the hands of these authentic burghers?

Not long ago development aid pundits posited the “trickle down” theory, which promised that wealth in the hands of the few would - as a matter of fact – be beneficial to the poor. It didn’t happen. Must we now believe that radical localism, or authenticity if you prefer, will “surge upward” and so enable a burgher to determine the conditions of his life? To be fair, the search for authenticity serves as a hiding place for people who have given up exerting themselves as burghers in the real world. Personal authenticity provides a balmy niche for the death of one’s citizenship. Philosopher Simon Critchley (2007) describes this as “passive nihilism”, born out of a powerful sense of political (and religious) disappointment, with a “motivational deficit” as its direct result. The burgher closes his eyes, ceases to feel anger in the face of injustice, and retreats into so-called self-realization, i.e. yoga, botany, and whatnot.

The ethos of the Union charges European citizenship with accommodating its citizens’ discomfort regarding the contrast between European wellbeing and 'the next and the rest'. 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. It is a moral update as it were, telling us that others, including future generations, are entitled to a fair share of the world’s resources. Yet these global affairs are beyond a citizen’s grasp, overstretching one’s national citizenship. The gap between what is wrong and what to do about this creates a moral instability: motivational force is sucked into a normative black hole as it were (Jong, 2011).

Being enlightened about the misery and mismanagement of the Earth does not automatically imply the desire to right what is wrong; it does not mobilize political engagement. Peter Sloterdijk (2013) suggests that the threat of global catastrophe is nowadays the only authority that can make people move to do the right thing, combating cynicism and apathy. A friend of ours agreed to this formulation, yet halfheartedly: “… only when I know that I’m making a difference.”

Even in a dark post-enlightenment perspective the European Union offers a more dependable platform for a citizen’s engagement than the traditional nation-state. The EU furthers the commonwealth of its people in a globalized world, facilitating the engagement of European citizens in global affairs. The ulterior importance of the European Union is that it adds political efficacy to one’s citizenship in a European public sphere, for the benefit of The European People as well as for 'the next and the rest', sustained by The Earth when reaching out for a sustainable civilization.

In his entertaining book Peter Westbroek explores The Discovery of the Earth (Westbroek, 2012). He draws the ascent of a symbiotic worldview that conceives Earth and Man as one symbiotic organism that is evolving since time immemorial. Only that which lives in symbiosis with the Earth continues; the rest disappears. While nobody knows exactly how to understand this symbiosis, present civilizations won’t do for sure. Within that symbiotic worldview, European citizenship is an infinitely small step forward in the civilization process of the Earth. Yet it is a step!

“It’s the citizen, stupid”

The “neo-liberal” narrative of the European Union, lacking both a liberal and social-democratic ethical core, has fallen flat. Europe is struggling to redefine its raison d’être, not as a corporate mission but rather in terms of the Union’s constitutive core. Attempting to reconnect the Union with its original narrative Kochenov (2013) presents The Citizenship Paradigm, based on a fundamental assumption: that the European Union has been created with the individual, the citizen in mind, promising peace and a better life for all. This he calls "the ethos of the Union". Upholding the principles of democracy and human rights lies at the core of what the Union is about. This ideal is not to be questioned, as this is what all authority in a democracy exists for in the first place. The internal market is a tool, a key tool to achieving the grand promise of the Union.

But it is not the only tool, nor should it be substituted for what Europe stands for. Equating Europe with the market is misleading. Jean Monnet’s famous statement – federalize their wallets – and their minds will follow – which, alas, has not yet been fulfilled to its fullest potential, indicates the instrumental nature of economic integration. To regard the Union exclusively through the prism of money and market clouds the vision of what the integration project stands for: the ideal of peace and a better life for all.

Tracking the Union’s history, its narrative has evolved from freedom and peace; stability and prosperity; citizenship and human rights. All these chapters claim self-evident truths. The integrative power of the European Community of Coal and Steel sought a permanent peace for the European people; the internal free market promised opportunity and prosperity for all, while European citizenship centers on safeguarding democracy and human rights, which includes citizen rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights. The founding fathers of the Union had the citizen in mind, which makes European citizenship and citizen rights a centrepiece of Europe’s narrative. These rights constitute the might of the Union, not as a given but as an historical mandate, something to guard for its citizens, now and for later generations.

In these days of crisis, the civilizing mission of the European Union rings hollow in view of its democratic deficit. The citizenship paradigm does not hold water when the European public lacks adequate representation in the forum of European governance. Much of European governance is conducted out of the public eye. Because of the actual division of power between “The Institutions” (the Commission, the Presidency of the European Council and the European Central Bank) on the one hand and the European Parliament on the other, the public perceives representatives of other nations determining their fate in Brussels rather than a European government that is bound by their own democratic vote [for the European Parliament]. This is a structural democratic deficit, obstructing the coming of age of European citizenship.

European citizenship will only add relevance to people’s engagement - overcoming a motivational deficit - on the essential premise that first of all Europe’s democratic deficit is corrected. As long as this is not the case, people’s engagement is undermined twice, firstly by the reduction of state sovereignty in a global world, and secondly by running into the walls of European governance that is not bound by an equitable representation of the people. The Union must operate in a public sphere, as Jürgen Habermas (2013) has long argued, so that a European Parliament that embodies the sovereignty of European citizens can keep checks on its governance. True, for scholars of European integration such as Femke Van Esch (2013), it may well be the case that structural democratic deficits have been “neatly covered” in the fine print. However, for ordinary citizens the current state of affairs is illegible and does not inspire one to take on what Obama called the mantle of citizenship” at the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington.

The layout of European democracy according to the “méthode intergovernmental et méthode communautaire” is basically unintelligible, even for the more educated citizen. No wonder that the European citizen speaks volumes only by not showing up at election time, or casting a vote for an emergency exit. For European citizenship coming to maturity, an updated all-embracing narrative must connect the European people to the ethos of the Union while an institutional reform tackles Europe’s acute democratic deficit: ‘It’s the citizen, stupid!”


- Bauman, Zygmunt (2000) Liquid Modernity. Polity Press: Cambridge UK.

- Critchley, Simon (2007) Infinitely Demanding, ethics of commitment, politics of resistance. London-New York: Verso.

- Heater, Derek (2002) World Citizenship. Cosmopolitan Thinking and its Opponents. London-New York: Continuum.

- Esch, Femke van (2013) Europese vooruitgang is niet gebaat bij principieel debat. In Sociale Vraagstukken, March 28, 2013.

- Habermas, Jürgen. Democracy, Solidarity and the European Crisis. In Social Europe Journal, May 7, 2013.

- Hirsch Ballin, Ernst, interviewed by Robert Dulmers. ‘Er is geen aan/uit knop voor migratie’. In De Groene Amsterdammer, May 22, 2013.

- Jong, Lammert de (2011) Being Dutch, more or less. In a Comparative Perspective of USA and Caribbean Practices. Amsterdam: Rozenberg Publishers.

- Kleinpaste, Thijs (2013) Nederland als vervlogen droom. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Bert Bakker.

- Kochenov, Dimitry (2013) The Citizenship Paradigm. Draft paper based on the talks given at Cambridge (Centre for European Legal Studies (CELS)) in the Fall of 2012 and at Princeton (Law and Public Affairs (LAPA)) in the Spring of 2013.

- Sloterdijk, Peter, interviewed by Koen Haegens. De politiek is een reparatiebedrijf geworden’. In De Groene Amsterdammer, June 13, 2013.

- Westbroek, Peter (2012) De ontdekking van de Aarde. Het grote verhaal van een kleine planeet. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Balans.

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