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Europe needs to transcend the nation state

An Interview with Ulrike Guérot, the Founder and Director of the European Democracy Lab at the European School of Governance in Berlin and the author of Why Europe Needs to Become a Republic. A Political Utopia. Interviewer: Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska.

July 19, 2016 - Ulrike Guérot - Interviews

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AGNIESZKA PIKULICKA-WILCZEWSKA: You say that we need a Europe that transcends the nation. How do you imagine such a world?

ULRIKE GUÉROT: First, I am not the first and not the only one saying this and I think it is an important thing to stress because all the founding fathers of the current European Union said that the European project is to overcome the nation state. I know that such ideas are no longer popular in our political time and the vocabulary we are in due to the current disintegration of Europe, but it is worth remembering that it was always the goal to overcome the nation state. And Thomas Mann, Victor Hugo, Jean Monnet, and many others made the same assertions for hundreds of years. I have just published a book titled Why Europe should become a Republic in which I went back to the history of political ideas and I discovered that from Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Rousseau, and Kant all the writings about political entities tell us that if citizens unite in a political adventure they found republics. And I am choosing this word because Res publica is the organisation of the public good, which is diferent from having a single market or a “United States of Europe” – which are also unclear in terms of terminology, because we do not know if it means comparing Europe with the United States or creating a federation, in itself a very technical and disputed term, having different meanings, for instance, in France and in Germany. But Res publica, a republic, is the word that the history of ideas has given us when it comes to uniting people in a political entity and I believe we should apply this to Europe now.

Nationalism has been on the rise in many EU member states and it is partly because of the various crises the community is currently facing. How this trend could be reversed and what alternative narrative can Europe offer? Talking about a Republic is one thing, but making people believe that this is the way to go is another.

I agree. But I think that there are many arguments, and I make them in my book, why the current wave of nationalism or populism is in a way the reaction to a dysfunctional EU. Hence, if the EU is dysfunctional, then the answer is not necessarily more nationalism or less Europe, but a different Europe. A Europe that functions, a Europe which is democratic, which has parliamentarian structures and in which the people are the sovereign, meaning being able to vote and outvote a government. None of this is true in the current EU. We have a parliament without the right of initiative, we have a commission, which is no government, and we cannot unite in an opposition against it and so forth. You can make many arguments why the current structure of the EU is highly dysfunctional and in a way undemocratic, legal but not legitimate, and that is why people rebel against its current form. I think we need to distinguish between the Europe we want and the EU we have. And the EU and Europe are not the same. Therefore, I think the intellectual task is to think how we can organize a valid, full-fletched transnational, parliamentary and representative European democracy that cares for all European citizens , so that people do not need to go down the route of nationalism and populism to revolt against the EU.

How do you see regional initiatives such as the Visegrad Group. Do you think they constitute a sort of challenge to the EU or a natural phase of development?

I think that regionalism is an important current trend, we have seen it in Visegrad but also let’s say in Catalonia, Scotland or Tirol. I think regionalism as such is a good thing, which comes from below, it comes from the people’s need for common identity and the need to have a Heimat (motherland), a home feeling. To care about what is surrounding them. So I am fully in favour of regionalism, I offer a lot of solutions in my book on how we could constitute a new Europe based on regions, making the autonomous regions the constitutional carriers of a European Republic, which would involve more local parliamentarianism, more stakeholder ownership of the region and so forth. However, having said that, the sense of regionalism that I develop is not the sort of transnational regionalism, which we have in the Black See cooperation or the Visegrad group, because those are still a continuation of the nation state. This sort of regional cooperation structures are only attempts to create a regional dimension, bypassing the nation states, which are separating these regions. So I am fully in favor of regional dynamics if it involves the need to deconstruct the nation state, but if regionalism is to empower state borders to enhance inter-state cooperate then it is not my definition of regionalism.

And what about regionalism that is strictly related to political interests? This kind of thinking has been on the rise in the EU that we are facing the return of geopolitics which will define regional interests for the years to come.

I definitely think that there is a return of geo-strategy nowadays and that has to do with the role of Russia, the global order, and the way the US but also Europe is reacting to the existing challenges. We can see this clearly with the NATO revival drive related to the current confrontation with Russia. But I do not think it is a sort of new regional security outlook. At least in normative terms I would argue in favour of going back to normative orders, according to which we are a defence community called NATO or the European Security and Defense Community, with certain rules and values. I would not like to see regional interests overtaking the interests of the whole body, as it was avoided in the past. I think that if we allow for too many regional divisions, it will not bring any good.

What do you think Brexit will mean for countries aspiring to join the EU? I mean not only Ukraine and Georgia, but also the Balkan countries.  

Unfortunately, I think that Brexit has a very high, negative symbolical value and will unleash uncontrolled political forces, as it sends a signal to populists all over Europe. UKIP sends a signal to Marie Le Pen or to Kaczynski that the EU has become relative and you can decide whether you belong to it or not. We also saw the data of the Pew Study which came out a few days ago saying that less than 50 per cent of population on average still believe in the project of the European Union and that a rising proportion of people in many EU countries want to vote about staying in or leaving the EU. Brexit might now lead to similar referenda in the Czech Republic or even France and in consequence – to a domino effect. On the analytics token the unfortunate thing of the Brexit-discussion was that it was still framed in dichotomous terms of leaving or staying. I think that the whole Brexit discussion does not offer any intelligent answer about what Europe we want to live in and what Europe we need to construct. The real question is not exit the EU, but how to construct a democratic, parliamentarian and social Europe, as it is clear that this continent only has a chance if it stays united.  So if you ask, if Brexit sends a negative message to enlargement countries, the Balkan countries and others, then I answer yes. But why these countries want to join a project, which is fading? There is a huge question mark. If you set such a negative example as Brexit, other countries should really ask themselves why do they want to join the European Union. And here is the much more fundamental thing. Why do we have a system in which we ask all the communities to become nation states first before joining a supranational entity? It is weird in a way. This is a very tricky question, why we need to have Kosovo as a state, to then enable this newly created state in the European body called the European Union, which in essence has the ambition to overcome the nation state. Let me make this argument a little deeper. The problem with Brexit is similar to the problem with the Balkan countries. That is, in the EU people are not sovereign of the political system. The Maastricht Treaty told us that we are a citizens’ union and a union of states. But in fact we are only a union of states. If we were a union of citizens, then the UK would now have to leave as a state, but the British citizens would stay directly the citizens of the European Union, which is not the case. That is in essence what Nicola Sturgeon is revolting against in Scotland – as most Scots wanted to stay, but will lose their European citizenship now, being hostages by the UK as state. And this is in essence the betrayal of the Maastricht Treaty, as people are the real sovereign, not nation states. If we want to reconstitute Europe as a political project, the people, the citizens, need to be the direct sovereign of the political system in Europa. And that would mean to abolish the European Council and replace it by a two-chamber system. And if you then extend that different Europe to the Balkans, the problem is no longer whether Kosovo or Moldova or Bosnia as states join the European union. The thing then would be whether we integrate the citizens of those areas into the Res publica Europea. And that is a very different thinking to the inclusion of nation states in a post-national structure called the EU. I think the European Union needs to step out of this trajectory if it wants to survive as a European project.

When you look at the near future of Europe are you a pessimist or an optimist?

Pessimism and optimism are about the glass half full or half empty. I am more a believer in a Hegelian dynamics, something needs to die for something new to emerge. There is always a thesis and antithesis. If you ask me whether I am worried about the developments in Europe – yes, I can see that there are reasons to be worried. And I am not the only one and I am not the most important one. There are many other people such as Martin Schultz, the current president of the European Parliament, who say that the implosion of the European Union can no longer be excluded. If you look back in history, whenever we had a constitutional change, when empires collapsed or when the Soviet Union broke down, when the Berlin Wall fell, whenever a system comes down, difficult times are ahead; stressful, uncontrolled times. I am worried that one can see this coming. And the other question is what my normative ground here is. If I argue that the European Union needs to profoundly change into a European project based on sovereignty of citizens and people, then at some point we will need to expect a move from A to B and we need to figure out how we do it. So we will need to accept a constitutional change in Europe. For a real, transnational European democracy, we would actually need a new European constituante beyond nation states. And the only thing I can wish for is that we have access to all the resources available on the European continent to make that change a peaceful one. And here I am rather optimistic, because 1989 was the moment when Europe showed to the world that it can do peaceful revolutions. Normally in history revolutions have not been peaceful, but we did have a huge constitutional meltdown in 1989, we embedded that into a new project and we kept it peaceful. As Europeans we proved that it is possible. I do not rule out that there are difficult times to come, but I also think that if we are committed we can manage that. What we should not do is deny that we need to change: I actually think that keeping the EU as it is will lead into more populism, nationalism and ultimately disaster.

I am going to ask a speculative question and obviously I don’t expect you to be a fortune teller, but at the same time you probably have some thoughts about that. Do you think that in thirty years’ time Europe will be in the same shape when it comes to membership?

No, I think that Europe will be profoundly changed. I think there will be no such a thing as membership or accession countries, I think Europe will have learned to be post-national. We will be still in a learning process but I think we will manage to learn how to live in a new, truly transnational democratic setting because you never go back in history. All those who think that the future is in the past, which is going back to nation states and reintroducing national currencies, have not understood that in no point of history you went back. When the Roman empire broke down or when Bismarck failed, always a new thing came, not the one before the last. Nothing was the same ever again – you can never re-establish the previous system. And this is why what nationalism and populism are telling us is totally ahistorical. What will emerge will be something new, we do not know what this will be, but there are some meta trends which we can observe. For instance, there is a lot of regionalism, we can see dominance of towns in political systems and there is demography at work. In 30 years Europe will be beyond the belt-curb of demography, we are having many old people now, but we will have biologically much less older people then, so the new demography will be fresher in some sense. We will probably be through a needle ear of a very game-changing technological development, centered round the relationship between men and machines, the man-machine connection. Consider for example the google watch and the algorithm driving us. We have yet to figure out how this all will impact on our democracy. Will people vote with an IP address in the future? There is a lot of good literature about it, in 30 years’ time we will probably be driven by automobiles, which are driving without us. Thus a valid question to pose is: how technological changes and robotics will influence our political system and how the political system will digest such a change. I would like to add that although I do not have a crystal ball, whatever will be there, we will no longer be asking ourselves the question of whether Albania or Bosnia are joining the EU as the 30th and 31st member states. I think we will be done with this question by this time. 

Ulrike Guérot is Founder and Director of the European Democracy Lab at the European School of Governance in Berlin. Since April 2016, she has been Professor and Director of the Department for European Policy and the study of Democracy at the Donau-University in Krems, Austria. Her new book Warum Europa eine Republik werden muss! Eine politische Utopie (Why Europe Needs to Become a Republic. A Political Utopia) has just been published.

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