When Brussels sneezes, Europe catches cold: what is at stake in the next European elections?

“I tell you: one must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.”

– F. Nietzsche

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of euroscepticism. With the European elections just a week away, we encounter an institution in crisis. The future of a continent is decided and nobody cares. The public ranges between euroscepticism and political apathy. Even Jürgen Habermas, one of the greatest supporters of the European Union, claims that there have never been true European elections. At most, European elections have been an elaborate opinion poll for national parties. At its worst, nobody showed up. The average turnout of the 2009 elections was 43% with dreadful results in countries like Slovakia (20%), Lithuania (21%) or Poland (25%). Even among the original member states, the turnout was at an historical low point. For instance, only 43% of all Germans voted. Such numbers should make us question the European project. What does it mean to be a European today and what is at stake in the next elections?

Diagnosis: operation succeeded, patient deceased

After the Second World War the European Union steadily emerged as a project of the political elites. The majority of European governance decisions were discussed by the officials of the member states without much participation of the European people. European elections only started in 1979. The idea mobilising these elites was as old as the Enlightenment: peace through international commerce. If nations become dependent on each other through trade agreements, they will not wage war. As 70 years of peace within the Union show, this operation succeeded.eu-flag

However, international cooperation went further. In a globalizing world, more and more domains were handed over to the European level to ensure effective governance. Today around 70% of all Belgian legislation has a European origin. The political elites however have been reluctant to hand over the initiative to the people. The augmentation in European competences has not been accompanied by a sufficient democratisation of the supranational institutions. A lot of decisions are still made in rather obscure circumstances and the infamous influence of lobbyists, not all with good intentions, is well known. Consequently most Europeans are still ignorant about what the EU can do and how it functions. For all we know, the EU is a misty cluster of institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg. You can do the test yourself. What is the difference between the European Council and the Council of Europe?

This evolution has a backlash effect when suddenly the Europeans receive a voice. In 2005 the new Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, the predecessor of the current Lisbon Treaty, was rejected in national referenda in France and the Netherlands. The people feel disenfranchised by the rule of technocrats in Brussels and politicians, worrying about the next electoral results, feed on populism and widespread resentment. It is however too easy to blame all anti-European sentiments on opportunist politicians. They did not create this sentiment, but only used it to their own advantage. The true perpetrators were the European technocrats themselves who refused to include the people in the European project from the start.

Instead of a transnational political sphere, the EU has created a system of executive federalism, which is mostly a euphemism for ‘Europe decides, the member states implement’. Democratic politics resides in the nation-states, but the real decisions are already made on a higher level. Europe knows what is good for you, even better than you do. National parliaments are torn between creating consent for resolutions already concluded and upholding the illusion that they still have a genuine democratic debate. For EU officials this creates a comfortable position. They can agree on unpopular matters while avoiding accountability, as we have experienced through the rise of the austerity policies.

This hollowing out of democracy is not the simple result of greedy politicians or technocrats either. They had their reasons to keep the public out of the discussion as much as possible. Throughout the 70’s and especially in the 90’s, the illusion became mainstream that the sole responsibility of politics is market governance. The economy requires an apolitical, neutral policy. Just like inthe natural sciences there is only one correct solution to every economic problem. Political debate and the inclusion of the uneducated masses are a hindrance to good economic policy. The capitalist system regulates itself and government should only provide the framework for economic competition. As the high priest of neoliberalism, Friedrich von Hayek, once said:“ Planning and competition can be combined only by planning for competition, not by planning against competition.” The welfare state and its way of politicizing economic antagonisms have not been fashionable in contemporary economics. The prime evil of this theory is of course that Hayek combines economic exploitation with authoritarianism to protect the exploiters. The European Union has been good to the few at the expense of the many.

We, the people of Europe?

We should not lay our heads down at the tomb of Europe and follow the spectre of euroscepticism. We should first ask ourselves whether a genuine European democracy is possible. The ghost looking over our shoulder however is quick to reply that such a democracy requires a genuine people. No European democracy without a European people. Such a people is a collection of individuals with certain traits in common, like a history, traditions, a Weltanschauung. The European continent is scattered with such peoples, but they are too different from one another to account for a common European identity. The German mentality is incompatible with Greek or Italian temperament. At the level of the nation-states, the political order can be legitimated because the population shares a common identity. Such a commonality does not exist at a higher level. To justify solidarity with other persons the government should rely on the sentiments of empathy within the population, which have geographical limits. I feel solidarity for my fellow Belgians, but less for my fellow Europeans. We still think of Poles or Bulgarians as foreigners instead of fellow citizens.Constitution_We_the_People

The ‘no demos thesis’ is however based on rather simplistic assumptions. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote an article on the US Declaration of Independence and the US constitution that can be helpful to frame the debate. Derrida confronts the peculiar paradox of signing a constitution. The text states all kinds of things about ‘We the people’, but this people is only formed after the document is signed. What does the constitution then talk about? Derrida argues that every constitution is both performative and constative. A constative statement is a statement that simply describes something to be the case, like me describing that ‘There is a computer in front of me”. A performative is a statement that not simply describes a state of affairs, but changes the reality at hand. A pastor saying ‘I baptize this child’, while performing the appropriate ritual, is not simply describing his actions. His statement is the action. A constitution combines both functions. It performatively brings some entity, ‘We the people’, into existence. Yet it also describes something already to be the case. The ‘We the people’ does not simply appear after the signature. The Founding Fathers believed they were writing the actual desires of an already existing population on paper. This people is hard to identify, since at the moment of the writing, they were still British citizens. US independence and sovereignty was both described and called into existence at the moment of signing the document.

The Eurosceptic spectre is not convinced. The constative description of a European people in the Lisbon Treaty is simply false. There is no such thing as a European people. Hence the entity created is stillborn. Again Derrida knows better. If we can learn anything from the children, it must be that constative statements do not merely describe facts, but are promises. When a child asks, for instance, why people have different hair colours, you can reply with a small exposition about hair pigmentation. But afterwards the child asks where these pigments come from and you will talk about genetics. But where does genetics come from? Of course, this process can continue ad infinitum. There is no final ground underlying this chain of beliefs. There only comes a moment when the adult says to the child to trust them. Children learn to trust adults on certain information, even if there never is an ultimate ground justifying all beliefs. As the enfant terrible of Cambridge University Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote:” The child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief.”The same counts for every constative statement and even more for a constitution. The constituted people is a promise without an ultimate foundation, but still we trust it.

A promise of course necessarily assumes that it can be fulfilled, but the kind of promises Derrida writes about are more peculiar. There is no ultimate ground, but only the trust that the people exists. The child arguing with the adult, does not simply believe in the rectitude of the adult’s last statement, but believes in the possibility of demonstrating its rectitude. Hence the promise of the European people does not claim that there ever will be a truly European people, but trusts in the fact that such a people is possible. The future fulfillment to which the promise refers, is not an actual moment in the future that will once be present, like when you promise that you will be somewhere tomorrow. The promise of the European people refers to a possibility in the present that is not actually present. This actual presence is always to come, but will never arrive in an actual moment. Derrida distinguishes these two kinds of future by calling the first, a moment not yet present, futur and the second, a moment never present but always to come, avenir. The latter is the substantive of à venir, or ‘to come’, which means that the promise refers to a moment that is always getting nearer, but never being reached. Something that is to come is already present in its absence. You know that the possibility of the ‘to come’ is real, but the actual presence of it has not yet arrived. The European people, just like any other people, is such an arriving entity to come. It does not yet exist, but its possibility exists. Peoples do not exist, they are always on the brink of existence.

Consequently, the no demos thesis assumes a faulty definition of a people. The latter is not a collection of individuals with certain traits in common, but the possibility to come of such commonality. Hence the European people should not be expected to manifest itself in actuality, but should be anticipated. The paradoxical conclusion seems that, on the one hand, we anticipate the European people, but, on the other hand, we claim that this anticipation can never be fulfilled. The people is always to come. The magnificent philosophers Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston already asserted:” Who knows what miracle you can achieve when you believe.” A European people does not presuppose one common trait, but a common belief in Europe as a worthwhile project. Afterwards, there is room for miracles.

Is the European Union doomed to wait for something that will never happen, while doing nothing? Of course not, anticipation is an active endeavour. Miracles are hard work. But if you anticipate something, you need to know what you are waiting for. You need to project an image of the anticipated in the future. The constitution creates an image of what it deems to be the European people. The question then becomes what is to be projected?

Democracy is dead, long live democracy!

As euroscepticism argues, European culture is essentially marked by difference and pluralism. The European continent is the harbour for many different cultures with not a lot in common. There is however one thing we all have in common, namely the fact of this pluralism. Europe’s history has been a story of trying, succeeding and failing to account for the other. Recognizing someone else in his or her radical alterity has been the main project of Europe. This is now consolidated in article 2 of the Treaty on European Union; “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”

That is why Jürgen Habermas argues for a constitutional project founded on the fact of pluralism. Difference constitutes European commonality and should consequently be institutionalized. We already know a name for this institutionalized difference: democracy. The collective power derived from public discussion should be legalized in real, governmental power. A democratic society is one where all political decisions are made by the collection of individuals who are affected by these decisions. Hence a European public sphere needs to be founded to make possible the European communicative power to legitimize and determine any European governance. The European people is not simply the passive populace of whom acclamatory consent is demanded, but the origin of legitimate power.

Consequently, the image of a future Europe is both something actively anticipated in public debate, but also something always to come, since the ultimate goal of the Union is dependent on the precarious consensus of the public. The constitutional project determines the future form of the EU, but the direction of this process is under continual debate.europeanparliament

A European citizen today is hence a peculiar creature. He is both member of a promised European people and of a certain nation-state, with its own constitutional project. Difference is not just a fact between peoples, but is inscribed in every individual. That is why the rejected European Constitution claimed two constituent powers: the European citizenry and the European peoples. Every European is affiliated to his national identity and to the general interest of all Europeans. Hence the constitutional debate is not a supranational meeting of high officials in Brussels, but a transnational discussion of all European as European peoples. Being a European does not mean declining a national identity, since being a European is recognizing the difference between European peoples. Consequently a transnational constitutional debate should not take the form of a Pan-European media concern delivering news from Brussels to everyone. Instead, it should be the interpretations of all the different perspectives in Europe, which do not simply, like in our current predicament, co-exist, but engage with one another.

What is at stake in the upcoming elections?

Europe is not a fact, but a promise. It is however up to us to decide what that promise should be and we are faced with a stark choice. Either we do nothing and let the technocracy of executive federalism go on. Brussels decides whatever Wall Street whispers into its ear and the rest obeys. Even not voting equals voting for the status quo. This option provides us with a clear image of the European people. We are the acclamatory, consenting crowd before the Holy Communion of the Market. This is not even a possibility to come, it is simply the present reality. Or we can embark on the dangerous trip of transnational democracy. It is the claim that Europeans should decide what the Union is and should be and it is up to us to create the necessary communicative power and take real, legal power. In this sense the Greek protestors are more Europeans than Barroso or Merkel. The upcoming elections turn out to be about a simple choice: the security of the barracks or the uncertainty that is called democracy.

Further reading

J. Habermas, The crisis of the European Union: a response

J. Habermas & J. Derrida, “February 15, or what binds Europeans together: a plea for a common foreign policy, beginning in the core of Europe” in L. Thomassen (ed.), The Derrida-Habermas reader

J. Derrida, ‘Declaration of independence’ in Negotiations: interventions and interviews (1971-2001).

G. Vattimo & S. Zabala, “The technocrats must be voted out” in The Guardian (23/12/13).

F. von Hayek, The road to serfdom.

L. Wittgenstein, On certainty.



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