A European Republic: united, democratic, and sovereign. Could a new transnational foundation of the body politic help Europe bridge its divisions, be they economic or identity based? In an interview with Tom Vasseur, thinker and activist Ulrike Guérot discusses the link between democracy, values, and belonging, throwing down the gauntlet before the European elections.

Tom Vasseur: As we approach the May elections, what is the state of utopian thinking in Europe’s political discourse?

Ulrike Guérot: In 2016 I was angry with a system which couldn’t cope with the crisis. We were losing Europe and, while we had achieved so much, I just couldn’t imagine that we would get out of it. So I decided to write a book of anger and then, because I no longer believed in the European project, walk away. But the book (Why Europe Must Become a Republic) came back like a boomerang. It’s funny to see its results. At the German Green party congress, a motion will be tabled to put the European Republic in the programme for the next European elections. Even if we are still in the realm of utopia, the idea has gained traction.

I can feel a sort of despair in the system. The European Commission is spending huge amounts on getting people to vote, because the lower the turnout, the higher the populist share. But whereas five years ago it was all about the ‘new narrative’ – a different story to tell old truths – today the discussion is about reinventing Europe. The speeches of Emmanuel Macron, for example, are no longer about integration, but about European unity, sovereignty, and democracy. European citizenship and democracy point to the core of sovereignty, which is exciting because we have been avoiding these questions for years.

Can the ideal of the European Republic satisfy people’s yearning for a collective sense of identity?

With the European Republic, I’m trying to cater to two things that most people want from Europe: protection and identity. More often than not, regional identity is stronger than national identity when it comes to providing a sense of where you come from. Food, language, identity, these are not necessarily national. For Bretons, it’s la Bretagne, whereas I’m from Rheinland.

The European Republic would not replace people’s local identities but would act as a roof. I based the proposal on the US system of a House of Representatives, for the whole, and a Senate, representing the 50 states. My reasoning sought to see how ‘authentic’ regions, such as Alsace or Sicily, could be combined to form entities of 8 to 15 million people. That size is optimal for a political system as it allows clientelism to work in a positive sense. Because, whether or not they really do, everyone thinks they have a cousin who works for the government.

If running large industries once needed a nation state, today a political system based on smaller entities can function too.

All this is not new. Before the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, 178 regional representatives presented a memorandum to Helmut Kohl, then German chancellor, that was supportive of an ever closer Union run by Europe’s regions. In the 1980s, the Greens were very in favour of a ‘Europe of the regions’. Now, the current trend is towards localisation and decentralisation. If running large industries once needed a nation state, today a political system based on smaller entities can function too. But the European Union remains the opposite: a tool for centralisation. Densely populated areas receive funds more readily and the market has concentrated industries and wealth.

Over the last 100 years, Europe has been stuck between a ‘European Germany’ and a ‘German Europe’. After 10 years of German Europe, all the other countries are turning away, preferring no Europe to a German one. I, as a German, feel that the answer is to deconstruct Germany.

The radical right seems to be headed for strong electoral gains in May with Italian deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini as their possible Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate). What should pro-European politicians and citizens do in the next few months to counter this?

Participation will be key. At the last European Parliament elections in 2014, the average turnout was 47 per cent. We will need 70-per-cent turnout to beat the so-called populists. The European Commission has understood and is reaching out to younger people.

Moreover, we need to change the framing from integration to democracy. We talk about the four freedoms: goods, capital, services, and people. However, the EU as a legal community only covers goods, capital, and services. As political subjects we are still fragmented by national laws when it comes to voting, taxes, and social rights. I argue that we should complete the single market and single currency with single democracy, which would mean every person enjoying the same equality before the same laws across Europe.

The view that sets pro- against anti-European is falling apart. This is our mistake, because we call ourselves the ‘pro-Europeans’ while Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, and Heinz-Christian Strache are very European too. They claim to want a strong Frontex, a Europe of the fatherlands, and an EU that acts only where more local levels cannot. As a historical footnote, Hitler and Mussolini were very much pro-European and dreamt of uniting Europe. The real distinction is whether you base Europe on the legal equality of all citizens and popular sovereignty in a federal structure, or whether you see integration as happening through the nation states and the European Council?

We’re discussing whether the Germans should help the Italians when we really should be talking about both the need for debt mutualisation and the need for Italy to sort out its problems

I’m for the popular, democratic, and federal Europe obviously. First because the current EU is in bad shape but also because, ever since Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, we have known that Europe is about uniting states and citizens. Had we dealt with this back then, we would not be having today’s discussions now about whether Germany should pay to support Italy. The current negotiations are, without it being stated openly, over common funds and debt mutualisation, which are seen as evil. However, you can’t have a currency union without a fiscal and social union. We’re discussing whether the Germans should help the Italians when we really should be talking about both the need for debt mutualisation and the need for Italy to sort out its problems. Fixing Italy’s problems under one common roof is another thing altogether when compared to throwing Italy out because of them. It would be a step towards federalisation. A step which came in the United States, Switzerland, and Canada after civil wars. It was debt mutualisation, the merging and cancellation of debt, which changed it from the United States are into the United States is in 1876. I think Europe is silently approaching that moment.

Of civil war?

I’m just making a historical analogy. But Macron’s recent comment that Europe is at the edge of “a European civil war” did intrigue me. Putting Syria to one side, let’s look at the theoretical paradigm. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agambem speaks of stasis, the Ancient Greek word for civil war, meaning systemic rigidity. Civil war erupts when you have a rigid system that fails to evolve. You could apply this to the EU. We didn’t evolve and build a full economic and monetary union, nor did we achieve fiscal or social union. We did banking union, a sideshow. If a system does not evolve then it always builds up anti-systemic protest, these are the populists.

In the EU, today’s national politics are divided into camps based on your position towards Europe, not on Left or Right: Brexit versus Remain or Macron versus Le Pen. This is what Agamben calls civil war, the political body falling to pieces.

How do you judge the decision of European Parliament to trigger Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union on Poland in 2017 and Hungary in September 2018? This could see the two countries stripped of their EU voting rights. Would a European Republic have similar provision to guarantee the rule of law?

Obviously there should always be provisions to protect inalienable human rights and the rule of law, but the Article 7 proceedings, as much as I support them, are structurally flawed. Either you reason in terms of non-interference or you do not. Why is there interference into decisions regarding when judges retire? I agree that Article 7 is today’s agreed-upon mechanism, but it is still an interference into a sovereign member state. The real question is on what is basis is it legitimate, other than Poland signing the Lisbon Treaty in 2007.

The same applies to the Commission’s non-acceptance of the Italian government’s budgetary proposals. The Commission is not directly elected, so this is executive federalism without clear parliamentary consent. The cases of Italy and Poland point to the problem of sovereignty. It can only be solved with one person one vote, division of powers, and no taxation without representation. The EU lacks these very classical things. It derives its legitimacy from a deferred and complex chain. For example, the Council is legitimate because of the presence of the member states. But this chain is indirect and thus unaccountable, that’s why opposition builds up. In the European Republic that would change, the whole idea is to move towards a system that corresponds to our notions of democracy, including a parliament and a senate with two senators per region.

national politics are divided into camps based on your position towards Europe, not on Left or Right

Nevertheless populists would still get around thirty per cent of the vote. This number is very important, because of the 80/20 principle [that holds that often 80 per cent of the effects come from 20 per cent of the causes]. The populists have crossed the 30-per-cent mark, that’s why they are getting so much attention. Like the Nazis in 1930. However, we should not forget that populists make up only a third of all parliamentary representatives. In today’s EU, in which all governance comes from the Council of the EU and one country’s veto can often block things, it can seem that countries are falling to populist forces like dominoes – Hungary, Austria, Poland. And when they control the government, their ministers join the Council and gain veto power. But they always represent but a part of the country. Had we the parliament I dream of, the actual two-thirds majority for democracy would be reflected at the European level.

What would be a first step towards getting there?

Creating an electoral register on which all European citizens are listed from A to Z independently of their country. Currently, we don’t have such a roll call of European citizens. This is crucial, the moment you go through general, secret, direct, and equal elections, you form a political body. As the European Parliament voted against transnational lists in February 2018, we will still vote for national lists at the European elections. They are direct, secret, and general, but not equal. By the way, this is what makes a nation. It maddens me to hear talk of identity, ethnicity, and Heimat [an evocative German term for ‘Homeland’ or place of belonging]. The Germans in the 19th century were not Germans, but Rhinelanders and Bavarians. They were made into Germans through equal law, starting from in 1848, and later through Bismarck granting the same social rights to all Germans. The same goes for France. Corsicans and Bretons don’t have the same identity or language. They were made into French citizens through the process begun by the French Revolution. It’s the process of general elections that forms the nation, or better the republic, on the basis of equal law.

You have said that the Left should reinvent the concept of Heimat. What elements are necessary for this?

Everybody has Heimat in the sense of where they were born, grew up, or have made their lives. But making an identity out of it can be a problem. The concept of Heimat needs to be deconstructed and its meaning extended beyond physical territories. Two additional aspects are important. Family and friends form a social Heimat and ideas and political allegiances form an intellectual one. In rare cases the three are congruent, but in most cases they are not. We also need to avoid you can claim the right to keep your place of birth as it is for the rest of your life, just because you are happy there. History does not work like that and it’s dangerous.

The concept of Heimat needs to be deconstructed and its meaning extended beyond physical territories.

If we apply the concept to the refugee crisis, two sides are losing their Heimat. Those fleeing have no Heimat anymore. That’s why they leave in the first place. And those living in places receiving refugees feel that their Heimat is being destroyed. The real problem is that the places receiving refugees already lacked opportunities and had been neglected – it was already not like it used to be. The arrival of refugees acts as a trigger for people to voice grievances rooted in the damage caused to local economies and communities by the centralising effects of the single market.

Europe, in your view, is the idea of Grenzenlosigkeit [boundlessness, applicable to thought and ideas as to territorial borders], but at the same time you feel that it can be a source of fraternisation and of a distinctive identity. Could you expand on how you think these points of contrast can be reconciled?

It’s not about reconciliation, but a dialectic. We are always very proud of European values, but what are they? In essence, the universal claim that all people are born free and equal in rights, the values of liberté, egalité, fraternité. However, today Europe is about security. Defending our values in the name of security, really we betray them. Secure lives and wealth are good, but they are not values.

You can compare it to making risotto: you need to add the water – the solidarity – very, very slowly and build it up.

The one core European value is working towards a planet on which all people are born free and have equal rights. Obviously you will need borders, because to make people equal in law in a political body, you will need to exclude others, at least for a moment in time. Borders will be needed to decide which people can benefit from, say, a European unemployment scheme. The question is whether you perceive this as a permanent or temporary arrangement.

Once we have the European Republic with one person, one vote, equal taxation, and shared laws, we will have entered into institutionalised solidarity and will need to determine with whom we share. If there is too much pressure from those who want to enter your system from outside, a nation falls into ugly nationalism. This is the dialectical moment we are in. You can compare it to making risotto: you need to add the water – the solidarity – very, very slowly and build it up. If we agree that Europe’s task is to make its European values reality, then we need to do it risotto-style. Let’s start with Europeans and take it from there.

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