The future of Europe: or how to burst the bubbles around our heads?

Choosing a new path for development based upon self-reflection only happens rarely in history. This would be impossible without a fundamental shift in the self-perception of the vast majority of Europeans, including the political and business elite, national political classes, intellectuals and academics, churches and religious communities.

Ferenc Miszlivetz
22 March 2013

During the past year, when the multiple and increasingly political crises of the EU reached a peak, Euro-enthusiastic pundits started to tell us that Europe is in bad shape. After a long period of sleep, the social sciences and critical thinking woke up and raised the alarm about the future of Europe for good reasons, but maybe at the very last minute.  

During the last year much has been said about the causal nature of the complex, puzzling and rapidly changing European landscape. Alternatives to the present misfunction were mostly confined to short term policies. Larger, more complex visions, and longer term solutions, are rare and have not reached a critical mass of the concerned public or the media. Why did the alarm come so late, and why are the suggested alternative therapies so vague and unconvincing?

It is surprising that so many of us are surprised about the increasingly political nature of the present turmoil, whose roots are clearly identifiable in the still profoundly misunderstood velvet revolutions of 1989.  Although fifteen years after Big Bang Enlargement was quite enough time to draw conclusions from a series of warning signs, e.g., accumulating tensions and deepening conflicts on economic, social, political and cultural levels - neither the political nor the economic elite, nor the decisionmakers and bureaucratic apparatus of EU institutions were able to rise to the task.

The European project has been appealing in general for almost everyone, but nobody seems to sign up for ownership. Everyone wanted a stake but nobody felt responsible for the whole. This has inexorably led to a lack of genuine leadership. The rhetorics of a new Eurospeke just about managed to conceal the partial interests of different stakeholders – from national politics via multinational companies and economic institutions to an unelected and, therefore, unaccountable supranational bureaucracy. But that was it.

From the early ’90-s it was clear that eastern enlargement was unavoidable, and that consequently integration would continue under completely different conditions, but with methods and practices that have not changed in any significant way. Conferences and think tank deliberations about 'Europe at the Crossroads’ did not bear fruit: there was no common consensus about the European public good and consequently no written or unwritten European social contract for the post-enlargement period. Given the lack of guiding and binding principles, stakeholders of the integration process remained interested exclusively in their own stake: everyone wanted to have and keep their slice of the shrinking cake of a more than modest EU budget. Under the attractive rhetoric of the European social model and social dialogue, redistribution was determined by the political power and economic influence of formally equal memberstates. European integation remained caught in the iron cage of the nation state, guarded by the apparently omnipotent agents  of neoliberal praxis.

No new players were allowed into the game. 'European civil society’, instead of becoming the agent of diverse values and interests, actively shaping the integration and enlargement process, became an ideological culprit and the substitute for a real Europe-wide social dialogue. Instead of empowering new players to open up perspectives for the endangered integration process, old players did everything to make them ineffective. With the marginalization of regions and the coopting and ideologisation of a European civil society 'from above’,  two important potentially catalytic actors were excluded from the game. Not (yet?) being able to fully empower themselves, they remain part of the discourse on Europe without much chance of fundamentally shaping decision making. They remain sources of hope and frustration 

German Europe vs New Citizenship

Ulrich Beck in his recent book paints a frightening  picture of 'German Europe’ based on German euro-nationalism  and a new German hysteria called stability guaranteed by austerity policy. Beck promotes a bottom-up Europe: a 'Europe of citizens’.  He is right in general terms that Europe could be reinvigorated if ordinary Europeans acted on their own behalf. The question is how do we get there? The everyday European citizens of the various different regions of North and South, East and West are either ignorant  about each other or if they are not, they feel mostly alien, envious, frustrated and threatened by those 'others’.

In more fortunate cases citizens from peripheries are eager to find jobs as gastarbeiter in core countries and if they succeed, they adjust as much as possible to staying there. Interested primarily in survival, they are far from becoming engaged in rebuilding Europe from the bottom-up.

And they are the luckier groups among the losers in a fake social integration. The others, the unemployed millions or those who live in permanent existential fear, outrage and anxiety, are not going to attend seminars and workshops about creating the new European citizen - they are, rather, the anti-citizens of Europe.

The ideological foundation of a German Europe is that of the modern European nation-state and its international framework, the Westphalian system. This system contains all of the inherent contradictions and tensions which remain subtle and manageable during relatively stable periods, but become a primary source of nationalist fervour, populist and extremist movements, scapegoating and mutual exclusion in times of severe and prolonged crises.

Our time is such a turbulent period and the EU, whose original function was to offer a new model to replace the chaos of the Westphalian system, is itself in chaos. Instead of offering common solutions and joint multilateral efforts to mitigate  severe financial, economic and social pain, its strongest memberstates have reintroduced bilateral negotiations and agreements with third partners in order to secure their national energy supply, meanwhile criticizing smaller memberstates if they try to follow their example.

Instead of burdensharing, the EU under German leadership introduced methods of punishment under the auspices of 'austerity measures’. So we should not really be amazed about the escalation of scapegoating, mutual accusations, exclusion and national introversion.

The entire construction and mission of the EU envisioned and targeted the creation of a new sort of democratic polity, a set of transnational institutions, regulations and citizens’ rights, in order to mitigate, manage and finally articulate these traditional social-cultural and political tensions within its expanding boundaries. What might be surprising, and what has been revealed in these past few years of the crisis is how weak and socially empty and insensitive these institutions and regulations are, and how little de facto solidarity remains among European citizens belonging to economically and culturally different regions in times of real hardship and severe existential troubles.

Europe needs a new debate

The development of the new monster, German Europe, is a natural offspring of the preconditions provided by the 'nation state-freemarket’ paradigm. And it is a direct consequence of the failure of the European project. European integration was envisioned and expected to achieve exactly the opposite. 

Up until the explosion of the more political than economic European crisis, it was the bubble around the heads of many Eurocrats, pundits and political experts. The bursting of the bubble has revealed sharp antagonisms, strong emotions and a deepening cleavage between the European South and the North. The emperor is naked: Europe under German diktat is not the EU of citizens. There is no unity in this outburst of diversity.

The story is not only about a few countries of the 'lazy and corrupt’ South. Political sentiments in the eastern periphery are less directly anti-German. Anti-German and anti-Merkel protests and sentiments are a permanent feature in Portugal, Spain, Italy Greece and lately in Cyprus. Strong – sometimes even violent – protests against superimposed austerity measures and interference in democratic decisionmaking in Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary are more inclined to target the EU in general. One million people  marched in the streets of Budapest in January 2012,  chanting: 'we won’t be an EU colony!’ But since Germany dictates EU economic policy, this difference between the South and the East is marginal.

The southern and eastern periphery of the EU is set against its northern and western core. This schism might escalate into the protracted and sharp conflict that Mary Kaldor calls a ’new war’. In the absence of viable alternatives, this structured peripherialization might become (and partly became) the hotbed of resurfacing nationalisms, racism and all kinds of possible social, political and cultural exclusions.

But the real picture is even more profound: existential fear about the future, lack of trust in politics and governance, scapegoating and xenophobia haunt the entire continent. The ground is shaking under the feet of the 'stable middle classes’. They see Old Europe’s population ageing and shrinking, while immigrants pour into European megacities and regional small towns. The world of relative certainties is replaced by a new world of growing uncertainties. Europe is changing size, colour and scope. Strong and dynamic opposing tendencies are blurring black and white pictures. An island of stability, peace and tolerance is giving way to unpredictability, perplexity and permanent change. What Steve Austen calls the 'staccato society’.

It is true that in times of growing existential fear and uncertainty, fundamentalist ideologies and practices have a greater chance of attracting people even in old or ’consolidated’ democracies. It is also true that European citizenship, supported by crossborder solidarity, is not the immediate priority this season. From many angles the downward spiral looks unstoppable. Citizenship and solidarity make sense only when citizens feel a natural belonging to their respective communities. For the time being, there is nothing natural about a post-and transnational European demos. To give this aspiration a real chance, a lot needs to be done.

A grand debate should be launched about the Future of Europe – a debate which was dismissed after 1989/91. An open, bottom-up dialogue might not result immediately in solidarity among Europeans. But it might help to reveal opportunities as well as constraints. This, however, should start immediately – in fact, it has already begun in smaller and bigger circles throughout the continent. We need to find out how to connect these local debates and turn them into a grand debate on the future of Europe.

With a long delay, 'Europe’ has to start to learn about herself. This learning process might be neverending, but it might be fruitful. The speed of bubble bursting can be accelerated: civil fora, universities, parliaments, online and offline magazines, regional TV stations, European movements and political parties with crossborder aspirations, social networks, trade unions, etc., should be interconnected by it. This new debate will be effective only if it is able to break out from the small niches of social and political fragments – so it needs creativity, courage and openness. But it also needs a warning alarm.

Towards a new European social contract

The debate I’m suggesting should be fundamentally different from the debate during the constitutional convention. The voices of the most vulnerable groups such as the Roma, migrants, the disabled, women, unemployed, youth and the ageing population should be clearly heard, amplified and finally understood.

Future European citizenship, as well as transnational democracy, has to be based on inclusion and provide perspectives to the hopeless, marginalized, criminalized and ignored strata of citizens. Their existential demands and interests should be the main impulse for a new debate. The stronger and better-organized players and stakeholders, such as governments, business, trade unions, chambers, etc., should carefully listen to the voices of the excluded.


Remembrance day of the Roma Holocaust in Budapest. Demotix/David Ferenczy

This might not be possible without severe disagreement, conflict and controversy. But a new European Social Contract cannot be imagined today based upon harmonious agreements, mutually shared world views and the expectations of 500 million citizens and their representatives. Only a combined bottom-up and top-down approach might help to provide the proper conditions for such a widescale debate which would pave the way to the re-formulation of the European public good. This could be the common denominator upon which a transnational social contract might be based.

There exists only a narrow margin of opportunity to reach this goal. Choosing a new path for development based upon self-reflection only happens rarely in history. This would not be possible without a fundamental shift in the self-perception of the vast majority of Europeans, including the political and business elite, national political classes and middle classes, intellectuals and academics, churches and religious communities. Today they are more than a little entrapped by the Euro-centric world view of European universalism. The bubbles of the White Christian Club, determined by the well nurtured and stubborn self-image of the greatness of former colonial powers and empires, are still haunting internal discourses and decision-making.  

For the world empires of the 19th and 20th centuries, it is seemingly difficult to absorb the fact that their Europe (our Europe) will never be the same as it used to be. Neither will its integration processes be so well protected as they were by outsider global policemen, during the Cold War.

'Europe’ has a fundamentally different meaning, message and potential today which needs to be digested and further articulated by itself. If it really wants to turn its mission into a positive and inclusive social project of open-ended regional integration, it has to say farewell to its old image, way of thinking, speaking and acting.

The New Europe will be – as it partly is already – a cultural, religious and ethnic mix and one should understand this as a strength rather than a weakness.  It will include a critical mass of Muslims and citizens of other religions and non-European cultural habits. Millions will continue to migrate and try to settle from Asia, Africa and even Latin-America. This might be seen as a threat of reverse colonization but also a potential for the renewal of an ageing and not yet too diverse European society.

European citizenship and citizenry, therefore, cannot be pre-defined upon the basis of national belonging. There has to be a new direct legal base for European citizenship – which would dramatically change the internal social landscape and open completely new perspectives for minorities like the Roma. European democracy – once invented and constructed – needs to be founded upon new, cosmopolitan principles of citizenship.

This is not to suggest ignoring or dissolving nation(member)states. It suggests finding new legal, institutional and socially hybrid versions and mixtures of direct and representative, formal-procedural and substantive versions of democracy. The inclusive forms of democratic procedures and decisionmaking need to be invented on the transnational, European level.  This would turn Europe into a different kind of political power.  

The process of reconsidering and reinventing democracy in an age of uncertainties will not be smooth. But when else can it be done? The alternative is a protracted (and in unforseen moments accelerated) decay and disintegration of existing institutions which will conclude in the self-destruction of the achievements of European construction – an unstoppable negative spiral, according to Mary Kaldor.

All of the bubbles waiting to burst were once close to reality or, as many believed, were reality. Those times are gone and will never return. The bubbles of imagined realities have to burst sooner or later. The longer we carry them around our heads the more bitter and painful it will be to face real realities. It is better for them to burst now.  That might open the way towards a new European citizenship based upon a new social contract. And hopefully to a new postnational way of re-imagining and reinvigorating democracy.

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