Europe's choice

Text-only Preview

Robert Menasse / Ulrike Guerot
EUROPE'S CHOICE - translated by David Bryer
A repugnant and ridiculous ghost is abroad, having risen up again from the mass
graves of Europe: the ghost of nationalism. No, not a ghost - it would dearly like to be
one but is instead merely an old threadbare sheet that the duped and powerless citizen
has thrown over himself so as to experience at the very least the ego boost of being a
bogey man for the political elites. And these elites, instead of whipping off this sheet,
join in the game. And it is this, just before the elections, and this alone, that is the
stuff of nightmares.
1.
Over sixty years ago European nations entered into a conscious and methodical
post-national process. This arose as a consequence of experiencing how nationalism
had led to the worst kind of human crimes and had turned Europe into a wasteland.
Now, further to this, we are experiencing how economics and globalisation are
breaking down all national barriers and leading to dramatic crises with which national
politics are no longer able to deal. The lessons of history and our contemporary
experience all lead to the same conclusion: only a political system which is shared and
transnational can give shape and bring order to what otherwise produces destruction,
crime and misery. The overcoming of the national state is no utopian dream, since
what has developed over centuries in a particular place, through particular stages and
which involves real experiences cannot be called utopian. Those, however, who do
not wish to be part of organising this process but wish rather to stop it in its tracks,
believing in all seriousness that they can opt out of history, such persons must indeed
be called utopians - of the negative variety.
If you listen in nowadays to conferences about Europe, again and again you hear that
Europe is caught in a sterile contradiction: the current system of the EU, the
institutionalised blockade of European politics deriving from constant deference to
that fiction, "national interests", cannot come up with the solutions which the euro
needs in order to survive; but precisely because of this blockade, the system can also
not be reformed. Where the political solution is unachievable, the technocrat
structures prevail, and the discontent not only of the citizen grows but also that of the
officials in Brussels, who meanwhile no longer whisper but now say openly that the
EU does not work anymore - or won't for much longer - and that Europe has been
creeping for some time towards disintegration. All the surveys prior to the coming
elections to the European Parliament indicate that the voters are defecting in droves
to the right-wing populist, nationalist, anti-EU groupings. And no wonder. They are
told incessantly by their heads of state and government, by their ministers, by the
heads of the allegedly pro-European centre parties and by their newspaper leader
writers that it is all about protecting their national interests and national particularities
in Europe, but the citizens can see that the wheels are falling off and that things do not
work like that. And so they conclude from this that these politicians are not strong and
consistent enough to guarantee what they preach, namely the "good of the country",
and so switch to the more radical nationalists. They send the sanctimonious priests of
Euro-politics away and call the grave-digger to the sick-bed to act as doctor!
1

II.
No European state can be saved from Europe, no Eurozone country from the euro.
However, it is possible, nay more, it has been proven that nationalism can destroy
Europe. Nothing would be saved by that course - and in the end, when all the nations
have become impoverished, not even national sovereignty.
The introduction of the euro as the first transnational currency in modern times was a
bold decision, but, above all, it was the logical and therefore right consequence
following from the preconditions of the single market, transnational values and the
transnational movement of money. The euro guarantees Europe's prosperity and its
sovereignty in the global context. But without the national structures of the states
within the Eurozone being superseded, the euro will not hold. For the euro is a
transnational currency without transnational democracy. This is what ails Europe
today. This explains why `Europe' profits from the euro but why the majority of
Europeans have fewer and fewer euros in their pockets or in the accounts of their
banks, which, at the same time, they have to `rescue'. Without a European democracy
there can be no fairness as regards distribution, at the best demeaning help for those
most taken for a ride. It is the task of the next decades to construct a post-national
democracy for the Eurozone, whereby, above all, the concept of solidarity can no
longer be coupled with those hoary concepts of the nation state and national
sovereignty. Every thinking person is aware of the lack of democracy in Europe. But
criticism of this is passed to the anti-Europeans instead of a discussion finally being
started, consciously and consequently, as to how a new European democracy can be
developed and how in the end it should be formulated.
III.
All historical models of democracy have arisen under the social and economic
conditions to which they corresponded. If the economic and social conditions changed
or were superseded, then the corresponding democratic model also sank without trace.
No-one today would wish to return, for example, to the model of Antiquity, even if
the last professors of Ancient Greek are still able to speak about it in such a
fascinating way - for no-one would wish to return to a society which practised
slavery. However, even though forms of democratic organisation have come and
gone, again and again new models have been thought up, developed and finally won
in battle, in each case these corresponding to new conditions. National democratic
systems, therefore, will also in time go under. The sooner we get used to these
thoughts and accept them, the better our future and that of our children will be. For
democracy is seen not merely in the formal functioning of its institutions but also
essentially in these institutions being altogether - and with the citizens' needs to
participate politically guaranteed - in a position to be able to deal constructively with
the given conditions and the challenges arising from these. Today the objective
conditions that require a working democratic structure are the transnational economy
and global interconnectedness. National democratic governments have no longer been
able, as has been proved, to take these conditions into account structurally in a
humane way but are able, as we can see, and against all reason, to block those
moments when this development moves forward; but by using massive brieze blocks,
as the example of the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement shows, where they
prostrated themselves helplessly before the interests of multinational firms - in order
2

then to arrange a legal, democratic majority in parliament (no longer legitimate,
however) to paint this abject surrender in glorious technicolour.
Even the concept "political apathy", which more and more people adopt, is a
whitewash. In reality it is plain resentment that the political elites see themselves
faced with. Why then do they react in such a wrong way, why do they stir up this
resentment even more by competing with the popular populists, they themselves being
unpopular populists? The flaw in the system of European democracy is here laid bare.
As long as those politicians who bear political responsibility for Europe can only be
elected nationally, then they, in order to ensure their political survival, have to
promise their voters to obtain advantages of a national nature from their European
dealings. But nationalists are better at nationalism and also look the part because they
don't appear to have been involved in all the cracks now appearing in the European
system. This stupid competition between the national elites and the nationalists, which
the system forces on them, explains why the idea of a European democracy doesn't
engage people and at the same time prevents them from seeing that it is not the EU
that is to blame for the slow seeping away of national democracy but rather that it is
the national democrats who are to blame for Europe's democratic shortcomings.
How the alternative, a post-national, democratic Europe can be built up politically,
economically and culturally, this, at the end of the day, is what the debate should be
about. And the aim of this would be to show that an alternative Europe is not the
problem but the solution to the threats to democracy that we see today.
IV.
Alongside the historically logical erosion of national democracies, which have not
yet evolved into a developed, transnational democracy, the actual threats to
representative democracy today take many forms and are not just a problem for
Europe. There are at least four of these, the first being the paradigm shift from
democracy to efficiency. The subordination of politics to the demands of efficient
capital exploitation and the maximisation of profit, even when this destroys human
livelihoods, by definition systematically sucks out any meaning from democracy, if
such politics are also so organised as to still seek democratic legitimisation for this.
The second threat involves the social question. Democracy is not guaranteed by the
abstract right of political participation but by equal opportunities, which, only when
these exist, makes participation possible. Sociologists have long known that sections
of the middle class are fearful of social relegation, that their votes in elections are
intended to show their anger and deliver a warning, and so they vote against their
objective interests; also long known is that the poor don't go to the polls anymore
because the bottom fifth in society no longer believe that their own vote could have
any influence on politics. The third threat lies in the political economy of the internet,
including the effects of its perverted use a la NSA (National Security Association), the
ramifications of which as regards representative democracy have yet to be fully
understood. And the last point concerns something demographically determined,
namely the political disempowerment of European youth, whose role in the formation
of a European future is slipping from our fingers and whose futures are being
betrayed. The proportion of the votes of young people between 18-25 in all the
populist European parties is above the national average, for Orban and Le Pen, Lucke
and Wilders offer the "alternative", and this fiction, in the desolate institutional maze
of European crisis management, seeks to find its way into a disillusioned public
3

sphere, just like water, after a pipe bursts, seeps into the walls and brings the
framework crashing down by rotting it from within. To believe that the votes for
Marine Le Pen will again quickly drop from 25% to only 6 or 8% simply because at
some point the French economy will grow by 1% is naive. As long as we fail to tell of
Europe, so long will people listen to the tellers of national fairy tales and in these tales
look for figures with which they can identify.
"More Europe", however, is a hackneyed phrase, and "better communication" a
useless concept if the political elites are not ready to say what "more Europe" means,
but are instead fearful of convincingly pleading the case for an innovative,
consequential and post-national political concept. They don't for one moment notice
that that they ultimately bring the idea of Europe into disrepute by depicting
themselves in their soap-box oratory as "hot Europeans": for who wants a future
which is the product of the temperature chart of politicians?
At a time when world structures are fracturing digitally, and where the internet
determines, first, the nature of cultural interaction, secondly, people's perceptions (or
their fragmentation into algorithms) and thirdly, the pace of human affairs ... in an
age where all boundaries are being dissolved (the financial markets, the economy) -
or an age with no boundaries (the supply chain, energy supply, ecological problems,
cyberspace) ... the discourse on Europe nevertheless clings to boundaries as never
before: the fiscal boundaries imposed to rescue the euro, boundaries around access to
social welfare benefits for EU citizens, boundaries for refugees, boundaries at every
step of the way. Now, where national boundaries have been de facto overcome, where
lorries no longer have to stop at turnpikes, where passport checks have ceased to be,
and where capital meanders through European banks with no border checks, national
governments are bolstering with renewed strength the so-called defence of "national
interests" in order to "come to meet them where they stand", namely in national
misery or, what is the same, the misery of nationalism. To wit, Germany which is
against a transfer union. To wit, France, which is against any change to its energy
policy. To wit, Great Britain, which wants out. While at the same time we have
European citizens linked together through high-speed trains and Easyjet, airborne
business people and the surface leakage of European travellers: a transnational
Europe, long enmeshed and entwined luckily through transnational trade, exchange,
relationships and dependencies of all kinds, not to mention the indissoluble tapestry
made up of common memories and shared catastrophes; and the post-1989 youth of
Europe, who, provided they have never ventured out of Europe, now no longer have
the least notion what a national boundary means.
V.
For in the 21st century it is no longer about the people or the folk (deriving from
`follower'[German: Volk/folgen]) and boundaries, but rather about citizens and about
the development of a political organisation and regional (self-)administration that
goes beyond the moribund and limited possibilities of the nation states, who can no
longer prevent any problem on their outer borders, neither can they solve any problem
within them. It is about inventing European demoIcracy with a capital `I'. It is about
organising a European civil society and of giving it a voice in the European system. It
is about de-homogenising national discourse and the creation of a space for
transnational discussion and policy-making. We can talk of German opinion as little
as we can of French opinion, Finnish or Portuguese - whether it concerns the euro
4

crisis, energy policy or crime is completely immaterial. There are French people who
support changes to their energy policy, while there are German energy monopolists
who do not. The lesson from the first half of the 20th century was after all that
"national interests" are that very same fiction, the assertion and defence of which
bring immeasurable and real suffering to seduced, deceived and defenceless people.
The insistence on this fiction of national interests within post-national development
produces this unproductive contradiction, which cannot lead to any reasonable
synthesis, as a result of which the voice of civil society and the interests of citizens,
however, usually lose out. Multinational companies use this in that they exploit the
advantages of the single market and at the same time seek somehow to duck paying
tax by playing national governments off against each other to the detriment of
European citizens, who are held captive in the narrow prison-cells of national identity
and a social-political straitjacket. They are thus unable to defend themselves from the
costs of this game, against which they rebel both rightly but with no prospect of
success, being disenfranchised. At the same time rich French people today briefly
change their citizenship and become Belgians in order to evade the wealth tax of their
own country. It would be hard to find a more vivid example of how the concept of
nation can be perverted.
It is essential to recognise that in this way national democracy cannot function any
longer but that European democracy also in this way cannot function yet. And with
that said, everything hinges on the one important question for the year 2014, which
must be put to all European citizens, not to the nation states: are we ready and willing,
on the basis of the equality of the Union's citizenry, to develop a truly democratic,
that is, a consistently post-national Europe? Are we ready, for example, to seriously
discuss - for the Eurozone first - a European unemployment insurance system, or
universally-applicable European industrial relations matching the social relationships
of the European supply chain that have been in existence for a long while? A single
security benefit for citizens of the Eurozone could be an answer. Are we ready to talk
about a common tax system with an equal assessment basis? Are we ready as
European citizens to set up equal and common parameters for our, albeit individual,
quest for happiness and to take seriously the principle of equal rights for all? Or are
we happy to consider it in all seriousness as the most reasonable thing under the sun
that the unemployed in Germany are allowed to brag about being the champion world
exporters, full of hate for the "lazy" unemployed in importing nations, while the
problem they both have is rather the European millionaires who sit in London and
mostly get off scot-free from paying any taxes?
VI. At present the euro system is forced into economic, country-to-country
comparisons. On the question of transfer union a distinction is made, often with
chauvinistic overtones, between donor and recipient, or northern and southern
countries. And yet not all of Germany is rich, and not all of Greece or Italy is poor. If
we could only learn to understand Euroland as a common national economy, which it
has anyway long been, it would then be possible, both logically and humanely,
to consider transfer systems which would establish a fiscal equalisation scheme from
one (always privileged) centre to an economic (always disadvantaged) periphery; or
(transnational) from urban to rural regions, afflicted as these are today with
infrastructural problems throughout Europe. The whole concept of export within the
Eurozone is also misleading but it nevertheless affects current discussion concerning
5

trade imbalance. Just as little as exports between Hessen and Brandenburg are
weighed up and compared, so the same should go, for example, between Germany
and Spain. For as long as there have been statistics on exports within Europe, it is has
been shown that Europe does indeed have a single market but as yet no consciousness
of a political macro-economy with collaborative control and taxation. There is indeed
a legal single currency in 18 countries, but there are in addition to this national
account systems and national budgets that are subject to the sovereignty of the
national parliaments. This is the sterile contradiction that can produce only one thing:
a crisis! Euroland has been a single market for a long while but simply not yet in the
socio-political sphere of national parliaments and national public spending. A Europe-
wide unemployment insurance would be a solution that would match the way things
are clearly seen to be developing: underlying this is the idea of an indirect, brokered
financial transfer not based on countries' borders; this would, besides, have the effect
of establishing a sense of identity.
In the structure of European governance as it has been to date - since the hold that the
nation-state approach has over it has not been effectively broken free of - the
individual national economies of Europe that are in the Eurozone must, as it were,
compete against each other with an eye on, for example, productivity, exports or
growth: the flaw in the structure of European governance up till now has been that
individual countries are preset detailed macro-economic goals, which they are
supposed to reach in their own ways, without, on the other hand, a properly regulated
level playing-field as regards, say, tax or socio-political regulations, having been
created within the Eurozone. It cannot work!
VII.
As long as the EU structures remain as they are, then Colin Crouch is right in his
book, `Post-Democracy' when he says, "You can always vote but you have no
choice." Whoever offers the right to vote only nationally in European elections but
who in national elections demands that this subordination to transnational economic
interests be scrutinied , should not be surprised if voting is no longer seen as enabling
political participation. And whoever now, before the elections to the European
Parliament, invokes the political participation of citizens but who through the
imposition of national conditions creates divisions as regards the opportunities in life
and possibilities of these citizens - whoever celebrates "the European Peace Project"
without meaning social harmony - whoever points to indicators showing growing
prosperity in balance sheets and statistics, where what is needed is a social Europe -
should not be surprised if the votes are for the party of the demagogues, who will
furthermore see themselves validated by the consequences of the vote: it matters not
what majority will be voted for, the Commission will - based on a neo-liberal
navigation chart - set up the same initiatives, the lobbyists will bow and scrape, the
Council will come to decisions in the dead of night without clearly assignable
responsibility and the interests of European citizens will be betrayed.
No PR campaign can with any promise bring home to European women citizens the
significance of their voting rights. Where European democracy is emasculated, the
populists triumph and, once the European Parliament were to belong to them - the
abolition of the 3% provision could generate Weimar conditions in the European
Parliament - this will give grist to the mills of those who always knew that the EP is
6

not a proper parliament. "Let's abolish the EP", is not only the call of British
diplomats whose role and power is already a thorn in the side of the EP: the EP is
frowned on to some extent by German jurists during Karlsruhe's time in the saddle,
when it was proposed that the Deutsche Bundestag could, as it were, mutate into the
`Congress' for the entire Eurozone, a political scandal which, to understand, you
would clearly have to be non-German.
VIII.
Victor Hugo's hour has come round again and his Confreres at the Hambacher
Festival of 1832, the hour of the res publica europaea! It is the dream, ever-present
still but still unrealised, of an independent, enlightened and emancipated Europe!
If Europe does indeed wake up again, then it will be a question of organising a res
publica, a European body politic, European solidarity, a partnership of values, a
European civic spirit, a common history and common future and with these the
invention of a political Europe within the cultural and economic sphere of Europe.
That is the lesson of the 20th century that Europe in Brussels, where the euro rescue
script is being written, would have to learn, but where it is in the throes of being
kicked out of touch. It is not via a border that you gain admittance to Europe but
rather by the acknowledgement of a European res publica. Europe was and, above all
else, is an idea! Whoever today wishes to rescue the European idea must criticise the
system of the EU, perhaps even accept the creative power of destruction in order to
make the genesis of a new Europe possible. The current EU system - with Karlsruhe
and referendum in mind - is systemically not in the position to bring about those
solutions that its citizens need.
Following the latest Franco-German suggestions of Glienicker and the Eiffel group,
together with the recent and convincing memorandum of the French economist,
Thomas Piketty, for a political union, there could be a concept for the Eurozone with
a viable future which the other EU nations could join in stages: the Eurozone is
equipped with a common fiscal capacity, a Eurozone budget that goes well beyond (c.
3-7% GDP of the Eurozone) that which is currently made over to the infrastructural
and cohesion fund within the EU in transfer payments. The fiscal redistribution takes
place simultaneously with European unemployment insurance, which maintains the
character of an automatic stabiliser. The ESM (the European Stability Mechanism)
could become the embryo of a European Finance Ministry to which a Eurozone
parliament, a parliamentary voting body for the Eurozone, would maintain the
legislative right to take initiatives and exercise budget rights. In this way the Eurozone
could act as a powerful magnet for other EU countries and these could in time join
this Euro-democracy.
This would strengthen democracy within the Eurozone: the shell construction of a
European executive authority would be placed opposite a strong European legislative
body. The democratic system of the Eurozone would move in the direction of a
division of powers a la Montesquieu. Whoever thinks this is building castles in the air
should look at the Westerwelle Report of September 2012 on the future of Europe.
The "permanent President of the European Group", as suggested on the Franco-
German paper of 31st May 2013 could be seen as a future European Treasury, that is
as European Finance Minister in spe, who would manage the Eurozone budget. In
such a shell construction the question about European democracy would finally be
7

applied horizontally (a European legislative body vs. a European Executive body) and
no longer vertically: Nation State vs. Europe.
IX.
The Commission would have to be developed into a future Euro-government, as
described already in 1994 in the so-called Schauble-Lamers document, and, at the
same time, its (neutral) functions regarding competitive rights would have to be
separated from its political functions. The Commission would be divided up into
single Ministries (and simultaneously reduced in size), which can arise from the
present Directorates-General: a Ministry for Foreign Affairs (the current EEAD), a
Trade Ministry, a Ministry for Development, a Ministry for Agriculture, a Ministry
for Energy, a Ministry for Cyber Communications etc. Only in this way can political
decisions be clearly assigned. The individual Ministries could represent the ruling
coalition of the European Parliament, and political lines of demarcation would
become visible, instead of every Commissioner, as is the case today, being perceived
as merely a national representative, who gets caught up in matters that are in direct
contradiction to "national interests", this being the reason why most of the proposals
coming from the Commission are felt to be undemocratic.
In brief: are we prepared to take our great and precious historical inheritance from the
French Revolution seriously, where the words are: Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite? Are
we prepared to realise finally the principle of equality through a European democracy,
that is, to get rid of unequally large and unequally strong countries in Europe, which
gives European citizens unequal opportunities? Historically it is the regions in Europe
that give us the continuum - national borders have always shifted back and forth and
are purely arbitrary lines on the maps. The regions of Europe are all roughly of equal
size, ideal administrative entities, in which citizens both female and male would be, in
the best sense of the word, sovereign, that is, each in their own way and according to
their evolved culture and mentality, similar enough in pan-European circumstances to
be able to organise their social life and political participation. These regions unite
under the strong roof of a European Republic, which could become part of the
European story, a story which the unimaginative "pragmatists" are allegedly seeking.
X.
History happens largely by default and not as a result of `grand bargains'. But it is
high time to think about in what direction we want the European idea to develop in
the 21st century and how we might dare to make a new European beginning, when the
system we have had to date finally runs of steam. We must set our hopes therefore,
before the next European Parliament elections in 2019, on a new European
Constitution Convention in which European citizens, over and above the heads of
their national delegates, can directly participate via an elaborated representational
system, so that the formation of a European res publica can become a matter that is of
concern to a truly civil society. Even if, in this century, we are hopefully spared the
`big crash', which again and again in history has marked a break between epochs,
there is no doubt that the creeping disintegration of the old Europe has already been
underway for some time, while the new Europe, which has long been a reality in the
consciousness of many European citizens, is waiting for its constitution, one that will
take it effectively into the future.
8