Towards a European spring

Individuals should be able to feel that not all of the risks of the world, and especially not those of banks and states threatened with bankruptcy, are being dumped onto their shoulders. But that something exists that deserves the name “European Community”.

Ulrich Beck
19 March 2013



A performance of political theatre in Syntagma Square, Athens. Demotix/Nikolas Georgiou. All rights reserved.

The crisis of Europe has been analyzed from the perspective of political institutions, the economy, elites, governments, and the law, but not from the perspective of the individual. What does Europe mean for individuals and what principles can be developed on this basis for a social contract for a new Europe from below?

More freedom through a cosmopolitan Europe

Europe is not a national society and it also cannot become a national society, because it is composed of democratically constituted national societies. And in this national sense, Europe is not a society either.

European ‘society’ must rather be conceived as a ‘cosmopolitan society of national societies’. The task is then to find a form of European union that, by virtue of its communal strength, legally protects every individual in every national society and at the same time enriches and enhances the freedom of every individual, by bringing him or her together with individuals with other languages and political cultures.

Everywhere in Europe young people are becoming aware that, although the culture of their native country is certainly important and constitutive of their identity, it is not sufficient for understanding the world. Young people want to become acquainted with other cultures because they sense that cultural, political, and economic questions are closely embroiled with globalization.

According to this analysis, young people experience European society as a “double sovereignty”, as the sum of national and European opportunities for development. Contrary to what is often expected, they do not describe their identity as an independent European identity. Nobody is only a European. Young Europeans define themselves in the first instance in terms of their nationality and then as Europeans. In this sense, young people experience a cosmopolitan Europe in which national differences and antagonisms mix and becoming blurred: more freedom through a cosmopolitan Europe.

Why is this individual experience of a lived Europe practically absent in the current controversy over the euro crisis and the European crisis? The chief reason is that European integration is mainly conceived, not only in politics but also in research on Europe, in a one-dimensional, institutionally oriented way.

The growing together of Europe is conceived as a process that occurs vertically – from the top down – between European institutions and national societies. The question of how individuals experience Europe plays no role in this analysis.

Europeanization then means, on the one hand, the formation of supranational institutions (public bodies, the European Commission, financial union, etc.) and, on the other, the repercussions of this supranational institution-formation on national societies – for example, the adjustment of national norms and institutions to European guidelines. Vertical Europeanization becomes confined to the integration of the nation states at the level of institutions. In this view, the house of Europe is empty of people. Nobody lives there. And the absurdity of this view is that nobody notices!

Less uncertainties through a social Europe

The European society of individuals is at the same time also shaped by risk capitalism, which on the one hand dissolves prevailing moral milieus, forms of belonging and of social security, and generates new risks on the other.

Individuals should be able to feel that not all of the risks of the world, and especially not those of banks and states threatened with bankruptcy, are being dumped onto their shoulders. But that something exists that deserves the name “European Community”, because it takes the renewal of social security in these unsettled times as its programme and guarantees it. Then the auspicious concept ,“European Community” would stand not only for the experience of freedom and for the maximization of risk; not only for an epicurean Europe, but also for a social Europe!

Any new social contract designed to win over individuals to the European cause must answer the question: how can we reconceptualize the realistic utopia of social security so that it does not end, as it does at present, in one of two dead ends – either the defense of national welfare-state nostalgia, or the reforming zeal of neoliberal self-sacrifice? How can we square the circle of elevating European politics to the level of transnationality, while at the same time winning national elections?

More democracy through a Europe of the citizen

The foundation of a new social contract for Europe is not, as Rousseau believed, a volonté générale (common will) that transcends individual interests and is absolute.

Rather, it is the recognition that old institutions that were assumed to be eternal are collapsing, and that there are no ready-made answers to key biographical and political questions in a Europe of individuals – and that this is not a defect but enables a surplus of freedom.

European society, understood in this way, is a laboratory of social and political ideas, the like of which exists nowhere else. What counts in large-scale politics, as in individual lives, is uncovering alternative futures and thereby, in a spirit of curiosity and experimentation, overcoming the dread of the past and responding effectively to the risks of the present.

The European project – enemies becoming neighbours – is in danger of failing. Many Europeans feel like Helmut Kohl, who said of the current German chancellor: “That lass is destroying my Europe!” They can no longer endure the cultural hegemony of the Euroskeptics and are demanding: stop your whining!

At this decisive moment, Helmut Schmidt, Jürgen Habermas, Herta Müller, Senta Berger, Jacques Delors, Richard von Weizsäcker, Imre Kertész and many others are calling for a transcendence of a Europe of empty pieties, Europe without Europeans, and for the foundation of a down-to-earth Europe, a Europe of citizens, a Europe from below - not only in word but also in deed, by “doing Europe”.

Their idea is that a voluntary European year should allow everyone, not just the younger generation and the educational elites, but also retirees, the employed, and the unemployed, to realize a part of Europe from below, in another country and in another language area (see Manifesto ‘We are Europe!’). This would not be work geared to securing the immediate essentials of life, but a mode of action aimed at political participation and structuring that creates connection and cohesion in the Europe of the citizen. 

A European spring?

Let me summarize: The malaise is rooted in the fact that we have a Europe without Europeans. What is missing, the Europe of the citizen, can only develop from below.

How can we awaken Europe’s and the world’s social and environmental conscience and shape it into a Europe-wide, indeed a worldwide, political protest movement that unites irate Greeks, unemployed Spaniards, and the middle classes who are staring into the abyss – forming the political subject to implement the social contract?

Who could trigger the European spring? Those who form the new underclass; those who cannot afford health insurance; those whose retirement benefits were cut; those who have to take out loans in order to be able to study. It is not the superfluous, nor the outcasts, nor the underclass, but individuals from the middle of European society who will protest in the public squares of Europe, as they are already doing in Athens, Madrid, Rome, and Frankfurt.

What could be the source of the power of the European movement? The euro crisis has stripped neoliberal Europe of legitimacy. The result is an asymmetry of power and legitimacy. There is a surplus of power and a dearth of legitimacy on the side of capital and the states, and a dearth of power and high legitimacy on the side of the protesters.

This is an imbalance that the European movement could use to press home its core demands – for example, for a global tax on financial transactions – in the enlightened self-interest of the nation states and against their own narrow-mindedness, and for Europe. An exemplary, legitimate, and powerful alliance between protest movements and the avant-garde of the nation-state architects of Europe would implement this Robin Hood tax, an alliance capable of making the political quantum leap into a world in which state actors would emerge to act transnationally within and beyond national borders.

The following insight may be helpful against the reflex to dismiss this idea as hopeless: the chief adversaries of the global financial sector are not those who are protesting on the public squares and before the cathedrals of finance, however important and indispensable they may be. The most convincing and tenacious opponent of the global financial sector is – the global financial sector itself.


The London School of Economics hosts an event entitled German Europe: are there alternatives? on Thursday March 21 with speakers Ulrich Beck, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and Mary Kaldor, chaired by Richard Sennett. The debate is free and open to all with no ticket required. For event details see the LSE website.

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