About re:publica and the vision for Europe

This post is archived. Opinions expressed herein may no longer represent my current views. Links, images and other media might not work as intended. Information may be out of date. For further questions contact me.

Dr. Ulrike Guerot (@ulrikeguerot) delivered a presentation on the topic of European Democracy: “The European Republic is Under Construction”. Her colleague, Victoria Kupsch (I believe she is @La_merle) also appeared on stage to detail the specifics of a certain initiative of theirs. This happened during the re:publica 2015 conference.

I hereby present my comments. As for the video, you can watch it on youtube.

Europe as a political space

Dr. Guerot makes the argument for thinking of Europe as a woman. It is indeed the case that Europa was depicted in ancient mythology and in cultural works as a female. In terms of presentation, I very much agree with this, not so because it may provide an antipode to certain patriarchal narratives, but due to its capacity to inspire us into thinking what that figure may represent. To put it differently, the view of Europe as a woman provides for a greater degree of flexibility, whereas the presentation of the Hobbesian sovereign as a man with a sword in hand has, I think, a more defined set of significations attached to it.

Still, I must note that this concerns the surface aspects of a broader concept. For me, the exercise of genderising abstractions can prove useful and fecund insofar as it enhances the substance of the meaning conveyed. When we think of Europe today, we do not merely relate to some mythical queen of yore who was abducted by Zeus. We think of a political space within which certain states of affairs are made manifest and wherein a potential transnational republic may be established as a successor to the European Union.

Europe and the European Union are two distinct magnitudes. The former is a concept that may be applied to a certain mythological character (perhaps a tutelary figure), to a geographic expanse, to a certain culture or elements thereof. The latter is a political organisation, a quasi-confederation founded on international treaties, which encompasses several European states; states that continue to be understood as nation states.

Our day-to-day life as citizens of this world often forces us to blur the boundaries between the abstract and the concrete: those clear delineations between the magnitudes of Europe and the EU. This confluence can be interpreted positively through the appreciation of the EU as a polity that is deeply rooted in a certain people’s social-political [meta]narratives.

As I have hinted in a recent analysis on Res publica and European Democracy, when we citizens in Europe think of democracy and of the common good—the good of the polis (city - publica) rather than just the oikos (household - privata)—we do not limit our understanding to the ancient Athenian paradigm. We rather draw from a rich tradition in political thought and practice that is not limited to any one place or era or narrowly-defined group of people, drawing lessons from the good cases as well as the bad ones.

We maintain a civic understanding of Europe as a political space, based on an amalgam of shared values, historical experiences, as well as an interweaving web of common aspirations, interests, and objectives. Their codification manifests in the European Union, though we all understand, each in their own way, that the actuality of the Union leaves much to be desired—it is an unfulfilled Europe so to speak.

For the EU to stand as the realisation of this civic conception of Europe, it has to be equal to—or greater than—the best possible examples we can relate to when it comes to the conduct of politics. Republican principles, the enriched understanding of democracy and of sovereignty in what I consider to be a democratic sovereignty (popular sovereignty and state sovereignty), are the benchmark for judging the EU, while also being the compass which may guide political leaders in their decisions for the future of European integration.

To think of the EU as a potential republic is, at the very least, to expect that the supranational level of politics does not fall below the normative threshold we have established at the national level. A Europe qua political space which fails to satisfy such a criterion is one we do not deserve and should not be satisfied with.

Beyond the nation state

Dr. Guerot presents certain facts that illustrate how limiting an early-20th century view of European borders can be. Economic activity and existing industrial clusters suggest that there is considerable untapped potential in regional cooperation, in economic linkages that may cut through more than one nation state. Indeed if European Union affairs can be encapsulated in a single term, this has to be cross-border.

As European citizens, we tend to think of borders within Europe as more-or-less nominal, at least for those countries that are members of the Schengen Agreement. In decades past, travelling around Europe was akin to travelling around the globe: you had to have a passport, while each state could theoretically restrict your movement. This is no longer the norm.

An EU as a federal republic can be one that overcomes the rigidities of the nation state. Inter-regional initiatives will be evaluated in terms of their own merit, scope, and outlook, rather than being filtered through a predetermined mindset of inter-state collaboration. EU funds may perform a much more benign function when they can contribute to the strengthening of nodes of economic activity that emerge organically within transnational regions.

In times of economic crisis, federal spending may attain the form of regional development and capacity building rather than the ill-designed and sub-optimal paradigm of the troika as an agency that imposes austerity in a local economy that already is in a recession (the troika is an inter-governmental arrangement, whose credit channel now attains the form of the European Stability Mechanism, and whose technical expertise is drawn from officials at the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund).

Apart from material gains, having the capacity to initiate democratic processes beyond the nation state also has a two-fold normative significance:

  1. It decouples the principle of subsidiarity from the power play between the supranational or inter-governmental formations within the EU and the national level. Decentralised policy-making will be embedded in a unified, constitution-based republican framework, rather than the current aggregation of competing national tendencies within the [extra] corpus of EU law.
  2. It renders concrete the much-vaunted notion of “European solidarity”. Instead of merely claiming that we stand together with our fellow citizens, we will be deliberating for the sake of harmonising the good of the space (Europe) with the good of the place (any particular region) on those areas of policy that have a European, federal scope.

A not-so-utopian vision

The EU is not a republic. As I have analysed over an extended—and ongoing—series of analyses on Actual Europe, the existing organisation is a quasi-confederation: a supra-national level of politics and institutions, which is founded on inter-state treaties, and is contingent on the collective decisions of the Member States.

Any talk on the “European Republic” is therefore focused on the specifics of a potential state. By “potential” I do not mean “likely”. I only wish to denote the capacity of the existing order to undergo thoroughgoing reform so that its inherent inter-governmentalism is substituted by the kind of rules, procedures, and norms peculiar to the political life of a republic.

The term “likely” signifies a high possibility. We say that some state of affairs has a good chance of being realised. Possibility is context-dependent and, as commonly accepted, the chances of the EU becoming a republic over the foreseeable future are slim at best. It is highly unlikely that the European integration process will deviate from its current trajectory over the short-to-medium term.

Does this render the republican claims utopian? Are the proponents of such views outright delusional?

On the issue of utopia, I would contend that the republican vision is rather modest in terms of substance, since all it basically calls for is the extension at the European level of the democratic principles that already apply at the national level.

As for delusions, I would adopt a more nuanced position:

  • one can be delusional if they persistently fail to appreciate the case at hand, its inter-operating factors and constitution thereof;
  • one may also prove to be labouring under delusions if they adopt a dogmatic stance on either the particularities of their argument or the modal features of their tactics;
  • yet there is no necessary or organic link between a self-constrained, albeit forward-looking, view of integration and the disconnect from the prevailing conditions and/or the qualities of dubitative and inquisitive dialogue.

The discussion on the European Republic is theoretical. For theory to become practice, it has to be tested in the milieu of day-to-day politics. If it enters the political arena and fails to gain traction, then one has to admit that either the theory is not in sync with the spirit of the times or the applied methods fail to provide any compelling message for collective action.

The video of the presentation

Dr. Guerot’s presentation is a little less than an hour long. Though informative, I do think that she has barely scratched the surface!

This video comes with the English translation. I want to thank my friend Gerald-Christian Heintges (@geirchris) for sharing this link with me.