As part of our Monday Talks Series, Verena Humer and Bastian Kenn of the European Democracy Lab discuss their concept of a “European Republic” with Julien Hoez; delving into how this project could herald a new era of European politics, what it would mean for European citizens across the continent, as well as what the future holds in store for the European Republic Project.
Julien Hoez: To begin with, could you explain the idea of a European Republic and where the inspiration for such a project came from?
Verena Humer: One can easily find the inspiration for such a project in the works of Immanuel Kant, Ernest Renan, Étienne Balibar and many more great thinkers all over the world. The idea of a res publica is not new. Our system has just failed to organize as a Republic, under the rule of common law. As we all know “citoyen”, understood in the original meaning of the classical writings from Aristotle to Kant, refers to the citizen who, in the tradition and in the spirit of the enlightenment, actively and independently participates and shapes the community: the res publica europaea.
Ernest Renan says that ‘nation is, what has a common future.’ With this, we want to create awareness that all European citizens do have a common future under the roof of a common law, a common social system, a common tax law and a common democracy. We want to bring scientific discourse into civil society. So that all citizens understand that we need to rethink Europe from scratch in an era, where citizens’ participation is one of the loudest claims. That’s why we invite artists from all disciplines to think about the idea of a “European Republic”.
The “European Republic” is only the starting point for achieving a state of affairs which is basically the same as the global realization of the first sentence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1789, that “all human beings are born free and equal in their rights”. This is Europe’s cultural and ideological heritage and it is therefore Europe’s political task to make this a reality in the 21st century.
Bastian Kenn: For us, the necessity of further European integration is inevitable. Whether it is foreign policy, where Europe is no longer more than one of many players among countries such as China or India, or environmental policy, where no Member State can achieve anything on its own, Europe’s politics must move together. The question is how that will take place. For a very long time, the only ultimate goal we knew were the United States of Europe. However, this model is primarily aimed at the integration of states whereas we want to shift the focus towards further integration of citizens, of course in a structured, state-like framework: That is the European Republic.
From a political science perspective, I believe a Republic fulfils two important criteria: It resembles the original goal of European integration more closely than the United States of Europe and it establishes, at least theoretically, a link between European policies and the common good of all citizens in the EU, regardless of their nationality. As the Republic is centred around the common good, it also asks us to redefine what the commons are in the 21st century. Take water for example, could clean drinking water be a common of the 21st century? The “Right to Water” initiative points toward this direction.
Julien Hoez: Numerous critics of European integration speak about the existence of a “democratic deficit” within the European Union, which, they consider, is one of the major reasons for Euroscepticism. One of the solutions that you propose to address this issue is the creation of a European Republic, including the founding of a European Senate, a European House of Representatives, as well as the creation of a European President who will lead this Republic. How, in your opinion, could this new structure improve democratic participation and address the democratic deficit on the European continent?
Bastian Kenn: The European Republic is a proposal that first and foremost wishes to start a debate on how we want to organize ourselves in Europe in the future. A key point for a reform of the EU institutions is democratic accountability, the possibility for representatives of the citizens to censure or even impeach the executive and a clear separation and balance of power. This is not given in the current EU set-up and the role of the Council is particularly problematic.
Polemically speaking, if a German finance minister decides on the extent to which retirement benefits are cut in Greece, we are far from a functioning democratic system. In the EU, we also have the dichotomy of national interests’ representation and true representation of the interest of European citizens. Take the judgement of the German constitutional court on the European Parliament. It argued that the EP is not a fully democratic body because it doesn’t fulfil the criteria of electoral equality, one (wo)man -one vote.
This is because we included a structure, the so-called degressive proportionality, that makes sure smaller Member States are represented vis-à-vis Member States with a larger population. It is definitely a nice idea to protect smaller Member States, but it hinders us to see ourselves as citizens whose preferences and political opinions are shaped by the same or similar factors, such as employment or housing. Social science already points to the fact the preferences of EU citizens are shaped by politics, not nationality.
This system forces us to assume that, for example all German citizens have a unique, common political interest that originates in their nationality, but this is nonsense. A German cleaning woman has much more in common with a French cleaning woman than with a German banker. Going back to the Greek case, what is likely to have happened is a majority of citizens’ representatives (MEPs) to oppose the massive austerity measures and the road to poverty of so many Greeks, instead of Greek ministers fighting on their own in the Council. The protection of smaller Member States is de facto annulled through the Council, in which all Members theoretically have one vote, but larger Member States often dictate the agenda.
Obviously, the institutional proposal you mention is inspired by the US system which today is seen critically by many given the current state of US democracy. In its essence, however, the institutional structure of the US system is quite sophisticated and comprises strong checks and balances and a clear separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers.
I think we are at the beginning of a debate on how we can adjust or reform our democracies to the age of globalization and the internet. In addition, interesting proposals such as citizens assembly constituted by lot could be valuable additions to lively democratic debates and decision-making. So we are just at the beginning of a discussion on how a democratic system could look like in the 21st century. We can take many elements from the past but we should also be innovative.
Verena Humer: I think we all can agree to the existence of a “democratic deficit” within the European Union to a certain extent. People tend to identify with systems they are familiar with and have influence on (to a certain degree at least): their social surrounding, cultural background, their nation. The European Union has somewhat failed to connect with it´s citizens on an emotional and rational level. For many people it feels remote, unapproachable and hazy.
To install this new structure would make the democratic processes more transparent and should therefore generate more trust in the institution. If the majority sees itself as a citizen of a specific country instead of a citizen of the European Union this great endeavor can not prosper – and more direct democracy would be a reasonable step to gain trust and willingness to participate.
Julien Hoez: As we all know, the European Union has its share of faults and there are many across the Union who call for ambitious reforms to be undertaken. In which ways would your idea for a “European Republic” be able to alleviate the challenges that the European Union is currently facing?
Bastian Kenn: First and foremost, it would add the political to the economic. We have a functioning common market, but we do not proper democratic control of this market. One market, one currency needs to be supplemented by one democracy. We simply need common policies to address common challenges. In certain policy fields, the nation-state as an institution can no longer address the most pressing questions of our times.
Foreign policy, tackling climate change, addressing tax evasion are just a few examples of issues that urgently need European solutions. It is here, where the European Republic could provide much greater benefit to European citizens than the individual Member States ever could. We need to make sure that these policies are made in a fully democratic fashion. The European Republic is our contribution to these challenges.
Verena Humer: Europe is struggling to find new ways of shaping its democracy. European citizens request new forms of political participation. The European Republic will empower citizens as sovereigns of the system. We want to embed the one European market and the one European currency into a single European democracy. The European Balcony Project proclaims the general political equality for all European citizens beyond their national origin.
And that’s a challenge we can’t alleviate with one single project – but our project should be the beginning for many debates and citizens-talks about overcoming the nation states and becoming one single democracy without nation borders. It’s about realizing that we are more than Austrians, Hungarians, Norwegians etc. – all of us are people with individual/regional needs who live on one planet. With this project we want to open the minds of all citizens towards a common democracy. This is what we hope for.
Julien Hoez: Since the election of Emmanuel Macron, we have seen a revival of the debate surrounding the concept of European federalism; for instance, Martin Schulz called, a few months ago, for the creation of “United States of Europe” by 2025. However, there is still a strong current of Euroscepticism across the continent, which could develop into further “Brexit-like” events. Would a European Republic be a “United States of Europe”? Do you see any differences between the two visions, and what would those be? How would you assuage not only the general concerns of Eurosceptics, but also of those who fear deeper integration?
Verena Humer: The system of the EU is exhausted and lacks in power to reform itself. For example, if one state of the EU is lurching towards bankruptcy it’s easy to blame just one government. But in the long run it is necessary to stick together as a community, no matter what. The European Republic reaches further than a “United States of Europe” as so far as the res publica doesn’t hold on to several States but to a common democracy without nations; a transnational community.
As Ulrike Guérot puts it:
“The problem is that political and social integration have not kept up with economic integration; they are now out of step with Europe’s economic unity. (…) Europe is the common legal roof; below that roof, every people is autonomous.”
So it’s not about loosing ones identity under that roof, it’s about taking part as sovereign of the system. We want that everyone can see and identify with a bigger picture than we do at the moment.
Bastian Kenn: Macron’s initiative for Europe deserves respect and should be met by constructive debate throughout the EU. Frankly, most of his proposals are not new but have been sitting in the EU’s drawers for a long time. It is about time that they are publicly discussed and implemented. Yes, there is Euroscepticism regarding the current working of the EU but if you look at the numbers, a large majority of EU citizens is in favour of the EU – even in countries such as Hungary or Poland. I currently do not see another Brexit on the horizon. It is quite cynical, but I think the current Brexit debates serve as good deterrence to the other Member States. (for difference USE and European Republic, please see above)
Julien Hoez: Where does the European Democracy Lab intend to go from here? Do you intend to participate in the upcoming European elections in order to start transforming this project into a reality?
Bastian Kenn: We see our task rather in developing proposals and test if they work in practice or not as well as contributing to an alternative European discourse. For example, as the idea of a Europe of the Regions is a prominent feature of the Republic, we just started a scientific project to assess the status quo of regional parliaments in the EU and work with deputies to develop concrete proposals on how this could be enhanced. In addition, we also do a lot of advocacy work on Europe more generally, this could be organizing a workshop in a school or participating in the organization of public marches to show support for the European project. Another activity is a close cooperation with theatre and cultural institutions.
Verena Humer: So from 9th to 11th of November 2018 we want to get out on the street with our idea, we want to address and reach all citizens with it. The project includes events, talks, panels and artistic interventions in many European theaters, organizing citizens debates to frame and accompany the proclamation of the European Republic. The citizen’s manifesto, written by Ulrike Guérot, Robert Menasse and Milo Rau, will be read by various prominent artists – on 10th of November at the same time throughout Europe, in big and small towns, capitals and regions, to decentralize the European idea.
This intervention will empower the European citizens and set out for their normative unity. With this, we want to accomplish Europe’s old mantra, that Europe is “unity in diversity”, meaning: normative unity for all European citizens, whilst being culturally different and keeping their local or regional identity. This is how we intend to shape a new progressive European discourse.