The EU is broken – long live Europe? Not only we can, we should move towards a new and completely redesigned European utopia to save the European project, if we do not want to end in a dystopia of populism and nationalism. We have forgotten that without utopia, there is no better future. As Ernst Bloch once said, a society needs a permanent stream of utopian thinking. Europe needs this now, more than ever, as the continent is shaken by multiple crises. Serbian human rights activist Borka Pavicevic wrote the sentence: ‘The refugees come to ask us who we are. And we need to answer them.’ Right now, the European Union does not have a sufficient answer. The ebbing out of utopian energy is therefore the most ardent problem in Europe. It is thus time to rediscover what Europe once wanted to be: A veritable transnational, European democracy. That democracy can be in bad hands when left to nationalist movements is not only the European experience of the 1920s; it is repeating in front of our eyes today. And precisely this was the motivation for the foundation of the European Union: to disentangle democracy from the nation state to avoid nationalism. Europe thus needs a reset. It must go back to the roots of its own founding idea. The utopia is simple: One market, one currency, one democracy. That’s all! Two of them – the market and the currency – have already been achieved in (most of) the European Union today. As much as national elites were willing to Europeanize the market and currency, they were unwilling to do the same in the political arena. As such, in recent years, they administered their national democracies through largely neutralized grand coalition schemes lacking political contours, leading to a perfect erosion of state functions on the national level.
National elites fiercely resisted every idea to build channels of communication, processes of mutual recognition or transnational voting and party systems, which would allow the European citizens to merge their interests. For this would also have challenged the monopoly of representation of the national ruling classes, both internally and at the supranational level and thus their remaining the inevitable intercessors of ‘their’ citizens regarding the European institutions. In other words: the all so desired ‘politization’ of Europe, where the arbitrage of political decision-making could have been organized beyond nation state sovereignty, never took place. The political system of the EU with the EU Council as its ‘grail’ inherently mirrors this pattern: things in the collective interest of all European citizens are systemically torpedoed by ‘national cards’, be that a common refugee policy or a European unemployment scheme.
The European citizens know this and currently put the EU institutions under pressure from different sides. A rough half of them wants to go back to nationalism; the other half wants a more united Europe. A part of the civil society, especially young people, is therefore, more and more passionate about renewing old structures of the EU and its so-called "Trilogy", which does not appropriately represent the will of the European people, but is only governed by the European Council in a rather in transparent and barely accountable manner.
This raises the question of what we are doing in this nearly Hegelian moment, in which a system is politically exhausted, but at the same time has no power to reform itself, because it is in a populist state of shock and afraid to move. Populism could only be on the rise, because the citizens were the forgotten entity in the whole EU’s institutional set-up, which displays a parliament nearly without legislative power, no accountability and a parliament without control of the budget or the executive power of the EU. The so-called ‘democratic deficit’ of the EU became unbearable in recent crisis years and legitimized critic was left to the so-called populists, as the EU system showed increasing inertia to change. The sovereignty question – who decides in the EU? – became wide open and until it is clearly answered (nation state vs. Europe), the EU will probably not have enough political power to deal with the policies it should better succeed in. One of the most immanent element of the EU’s democratic deficit is that citizens – however the real sovereign of the system – are not equal in front of the law.
Europe's Biggest Problem: the Nation State?
Nation state vs. Europe is the new political paradigm which has replaced the left-right dichotomy in European politics. Especially since identitarian populist movements claim sovereignty back: Salvini against Brussels on the Italian budget, Orban against Brussels on refugees, Poland against Brussels on lawyers’ retirement, Germany against Brussels on carbon pollution in towns etc. Who is this Brussels biest that the nation states now want to fight down, resist against or at least ignore? However, it is in all these cases not the nation firing back against Brussels regulations or orders. It is – to make things more complex – in each case only half of the nation. We are told to witness a time of ‘renationalisation’ in Europe these days. Yet - in reality - we are experiencing across the continent the split of nations: whole societies fall into two pieces.
On the one hand, there is a cosmopolitan, rather urban, educated, flexible, value-open, liberal part of society, clinging to ‘Europe’. Those are, in the wording of former British prime minister Teresa May the ‘citizens of nowhere’. On the other hand, a rather rural, uneducated, immobile, older and male part of society who wants an ideal construct of the nation back to keep control over too many changes and provide security. Those are the ‘citizens of somewhere’. The question is: who can claim to be the real Italians, the real Brits, the real Poles or the real Germans? Who stands for the nation? Who is the people? In the British case the Brexiters, the Remainers or who? Today’s nation state, in a way, is the victim of this historical process.
If – in the theoretical paradigm of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben – an electoral body falls into two or more non-reconcilable parts, the country is in the state of civil war – Stasis, in its Greek expression. Stasis means institutional deadlock. In other words, a system that has not sufficiently adapted to change and that therefore confronts objection from the outside. That is the confrontation EU vs. ‘populists’ today. It is too easy to blame the so-called populists for nibbling at the EU. Rather the EU must answer the question who has the legitimate monopoly of power in the political system of Europe: The nation state or the EU? And how is it legitimized?
Time to let go the EU and to move away from Unites States of Europe. Time to discover the citizens in the European project and to remember, en passant, that citizens and not states are the sovereign. To put it simple: the role of its citizens in the EU is still not clear in the European Union today. The Maastricht Treaty promised de facto a ‘Union of States’ and a ‘Union of Citizens’. Yet, only the former materialized. To make this concrete: In essence, British citizens, now affected by Brexit, would – in theory – stay European citizens, despite the fact of the United Kingdom leaving the EU. Nothing demonstrated more crudely that ‘European citizenship’ right now is only an empty shell. Thousands of British citizens living in continental Europe are affected through Brexit; as much as many European citizens, living and working in the UK. Focusing on the notion of ‘European citizenship’ when thinking about ways and steps to change and improve European democracy thus is important.
But when it comes to what the French sociologist Pierre Rosanvallon calls ‘le sacre du citoyen’, i.e. the sacred good of the citizen, the essence of citizenship, we cannot be described as European citizens. 1 The one principle that needs to be applied to Europe is this: in a democracy, citizens are all equal in front of the law: equal in voting, taxes and social rights. Europeans citizens remain compartmentalized by national law containers. A political project can never function like this. If we want to realize one European democracy, we need to strive for the principle of political equality. If the French revolution brought legal equality beyond classes, the European revolution of the 21st century must bring legal equality beyond nations. That would be a compelling offer for Europeans citizens to untie behind, from South to North, from East to West. This is probably the only compelling offer capable to heal the wounds of the cumulated European crises. Europe cannot succeed, if, within the same political project, the nation state is basically used as tool for competition, be it on taxes or on welfare. The entire reshuffling of the political system of Europe stems from the principle of political equality, which is also the conditio sine qua non for a fully fletched transnational, representative parliamentarian democracy in Europe, corresponding to the principle of division of powers. The principle of political equality and the principle of division of powers are two things never put into question in national democracies: time to grant Europe democracy this treatment.
A general, direct and equal voting system (‘one person, one vote’) for all European citizens would thus be the next important step in establishing a political unity on the continent. The objection that such a move outweighs the citizens of the small states – e.g. Luxemburg or Malta – by the big states, especially Germany, does not hit, as it is precisely the parliamentarisation of the vote, which would de-homogenize the German vote: not all Germans vote the same. Though full parliamentarisation, the system would be shifted from ‘nationally aggregated’ voting towards a ‘politics-tops-nation’ system, in which the political orientation matters more than the ethnic or national background. It does not matter which nationality one has, when it comes to the question, whether one would like to see European unemployment insurance. In this precise decision, probably Germans citizens would have given a diversified vote, whereas the German representative in the European Council as aggregated vote opted against.
Recently, the EU has finally, albeit a bit late, discovered its ‘misunderstood citizens’ (or ‘verkannte Bürger’ in the words of the German social historian Hartmut Kaelble) as political subjects.2 It was only in 2018 and 2019 that countless citizens’ consultations were carried out in all European member states as per EU Council decision in the run-up to the European elections. However, the problem has never been that we do not know what the citizens of Europe really want, it is the lacking possibilities for its implementation that is the problem. In fact, the crucial problem seems to be that we are now constantly talking about European citizens, but the crux of the matter is, of course, that none of us is really a European citizen. When it comes to European democracy - and the question of how European citizens will be able to participate in the future - the citizens themselves are the real players.
The ‘Delors approach’ could still serve us well today and should inspire us. This means that it is important to set a timeframe in case you cannot achieve something immediately. This requires a treaty, a clear goal, a timeframe and clearly defined intermediate steps, or milestones. And finally, a cut-off date for the changeover to a European system. The introduction of the Euro followed the same approach: A treaty was made, which specified a deadline and a cut-off date, the project was divided into intermediate steps and everybody was committed to one European goal. There were three steps: The European Monetary Institute was created in 1994, the exchange rates fixed in 1999. And finally, on 1 January 2002, all coins and banknotes were converted. According to this approach – treaty, timeframe, intermediate steps, deadline – we could bring about a European citizenship via a treaty over the next 5, 10, 15 or 20 years. We could define intermediate steps – a European social security number by 2030, a European tax number by 2035, and finally a uniform European ID card by 2040. If this seems too daring, one could implement this with a neutral impact on the existing population, i.e. the change would only apply to European citizens born after conclusion of the treaty. Over the next 18 years we would thus socialize future generations into a European citizenship and hence into a European democracy, just like we have socialized everybody into the euro since 2002 and children nowadays cannot even remember that things used to be any different. The establishment of a true European citizenship, which would give European citizens that triad of civil, political and social rights, would then basically mean the completion of a political union in Europe, where European citizens would have equal rights and could start to establish a real European democracy.
1 Pierre Rosanvallon, Le Sacre du Citoyen, Paris, 1994.
2 Hartmut Kaelble: Die verkannten Bürger. Eine andere Geschichte der europäischen Integration, (The Misunderstood Citizens. A Different History of European Integration), Berlin, 2019.