Vive la Republique Europeenne!


Picture of Ulrike Guérot
Ulrike Guérot

Founder & Director of the European Democracy Lab and Author of “Why Europe must become a republic”

Ulrike Guérot is a political scientist and the author of the 2016 book ‘Warum Europa eine Republik werden muss!’

The European Union is finished: long live Europe! Not only can we move towards a new and completely redesigned European utopia, we must do this to save the European project from ending in a dystopia of populism and nationalism. We have forgotten that without a utopia – an ideal society – there is no chance of achieving a better future. As German philosopher Ernst Bloch once said, society needs a permanent stream of utopian thinking. The ebb of utopian energy is therefore Europe’s most serious problem.

It is high time to overcome the idea of the nation state, and rediscover what Europe once wanted to be: a true transnational democracy. Democracy is not necessarily secure when left in the hands of a single nation, as Europe experienced in the 1920s, and as we are seeing today. This was precisely the motivation for Europe: to disentangle democracy from nation states and avoid nationalism. Europe needs to return to the roots of its own idea.

The utopia is simple: a single market, a single currency, a single democracy. And two of them – the market and the currency – have already been achieved, thanks to the EU. Yet now – if we do not want to sacrifice them – we need to press on and put in place the final, most difficult piece: one democracy. For that to happen, we need to wake up from the dream that nation states will ever deliver ‘Europe’.

As much as national elites were willing to Europeanise the market and currency, they were unwilling to do the same in the political arena as it would have undermined their own power bases. In recent years they have administered their national democracies through largely neutralised grand coalitions that lack political contours, leading to a perfect erosion of state functions at a national level. It suited them to cling to fictional national power while accepting economic governance at a European level. Therein lays the reason for today’s populism.

National elites have fiercely resisted every attempt to build channels of communication, processes of mutual recognition or transnational voting and party systems – all of which would allow peoples of different nations to merge their interests. Such moves would have challenged the monopoly of representation by the national ruling classes, both internally and at the supranational level, and diminished their position as the inevitable conduits between ‘their’ people and the European institutions. In other words: the desired ‘politicisation’ of Europe, where political decision-making would be organised beyond nation-state sovereignty, never took place.

It is time to discover the place of citizens in the European project

The political system of the EU, with the Council at its heart, inherently mirrors this pattern: projects in the collective interest of all European citizens, whether a common refugee policy or a European unemployment scheme, are systematically torpedoed by ‘national cards’. If Europe wants to become a democracy, politics must trump national affiliation: the Council must go.

It is also time to let go of the EU and to move away from the idea of a United States of Europe. It is time to discover the place of citizens in the European project and to remember that citizens – not states – are sovereign. As French sociologist Pierre Rosanvallon put it, the EU was built on a lie. The lie is that the EU is equally a union of states and a union of citizens, as promised in the Treaty of Maastricht. But the union of citizens does not exist. Brexit is the best example: if European citizenship really existed, the United Kingdom as a country could leave the EU while Brits could remain citizens of the union. In reality, they will not. Here is the betrayal.

Upgrading citizens within the European political project ultimately means striving for a European Republic. When citizens embark together upon a political project, they don’t go for ‘united states’; they create a republic. A republic is created by people who decide to be equal before the law. Nationality is not in the definition. A republic does not have ethnic contours or prerequisites; rather it has, in the definition of Cicero, ius aequum – equal law – for all citizens.

The EU is far from offering that. European citizens remain compartmentalised by national law, and a political project can never function like this. If we want to realise one European democracy, we need to strive for the principle of political equality. If the French revolution brought legal equality beyond social class, the European revolution of the 21st century must bring legal equality beyond nations. That would be a compelling offer behind which Europeans citizens, from south to north, from east to west, could unite. This is probably the only way to heal the wounds of the cumulated European crises. And there is no reason why this should remain a utopia.

We have forgotten that without a utopia there is no chance of achieving a better future

The principle of political equality means voting equality, tax equality and, over time, equal access to social welfare. Europe cannot succeed if, within the same political project, the nation state is used as tool for competition, whether on taxes or on welfare. The entire reshuffling of the political system of Europe stems from the principle of political equality: this is the essential condition for a fully-fledged transnational, representative parliamentary democracy in Europe, corresponding to the principle of division of powers. The principles of political equality and division of power are two things that are never questioned in national democracies. It is time to give European democracy the same treatment.

Putting aside the myth of state sovereignty and leaping from the United States of Europe to a European Republic would just achieve what the EU’s founding fathers once aspired to. “We do not form a coalition of states, we unite people,” wrote Jean Monnet, who envisioned a radically denationalised European society.

This comes very close to what political theorist Hannah Arendt described as ‘integral federalism’. Arendt’s essay ‘What is freedom?’ could be the compass towards a European Republic – a network democracy of autonomous European regions and towns, something made easier in a digital era that offers citizens new forms of direct interaction and political participation. Arendt was in search of the hidden tradition of freedom, and in favour of spontaneous forms of political organisation, among citizens, in towns or small entities, which form republican bodies. She distinguishes between state sovereignty and freedom, because, if sovereignty is the right of non-interference, it contradicts the principle of pluralism:

“The famous sovereignty of political bodies has always been an illusion, which, moreover, can be maintained only by the instrument of violence, that is, with essentially non-political means…if men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce”.

Arendt’s ‘integral federalism’ is in line with the thinking of contemporaries such as Swiss cultural theorist Denis de Rougement and French philosopher and author Albert Camus, who at the genesis of European political and economic integration in the 1950s advocated strongly against state-based, intergovernmental federalism. That would end, as Arendt predicted, in the hollowing out of European democracy, or in what German sociologist Jürgen Habermas recently has called “executive federalism”: the capture of people’s freedom by nation states.

As the EU marks its 60th birthday, this is the Union we live in. If we really want European democracy, it’s time to move out of it and to head for the utopia of a European Republic in which sovereign European citizens manage their democracy free from nation states.

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