The Promise of Europe

Photo by Sabine Vielmo


The Promise of Europe

We need institutions for transnational democracy.

What is the main takeaway from the German election?

There is a French saying: “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”. The German election showed that we have a big gap in representation. And this is true for all of Europe: important decisions are not made under national scrutiny, such as during elections. All crises are international and require coordinated responses, where institutions like the European Union (EU) provide some kind of coordinator response. Those institutions, on the other hand, are not responsive to citizen scrutiny – they lack mechanisms of legitimacy.

When you say gap in representation, you are actually saying: democracy doesn't work anymore.

I don't think it ever really worked. But there are moments when this becomes more transparent as a result of pressure from below – moments where democracy becomes completely isolated from the people. Today, political parties are responsive only to capital.

Status quo versus change?

I remember seeing a poll before the election that asked citizens: do you want change? And everyone said, yes, we want fundamental change. But then they picked parties that don’t represent change in terms of how they interact with citizens, how they communicate their messages or the ideas they promote. I feel that an election like this is just rubber stamping for what parties have been doing all along. I just couldn't see what the big differences really were. It all seems very superficial.

What would a different democracy look like?

One of the main things that needs to change is how we conceptualise democracy at the intersection of the national and the international level. Institutions like the EU are important – but the EU really needs to be re-politicised. At this moment, decisions are made apart from citizens. We need a debate about what the EU is and how it works and how it can be made responsive to politics. We need institutions for transnational democracy.

The process of democratising the EU has stalled for years, if not decades.

Something fundamental needs to be done. Let's start with a debate around the nature of the necessary changes, what it will take and what the costs are. We have perspectives from the right, from the left, from the center of the political spectrum. But how can we have a transnational debate around these ideas? People need to know in order to care for things that are really important to their lives.

Europe was glaringly absent in the debates before the election and in the discussion since.

This is really disappointing. Elections are turning into a farce. Every four years you vote for a chancellor, but every chancellor is like the other chancellor. Scholz has a chance of being chancellor because he's like Merkel. There just isn't enough scrutiny and criticism of the old way of doing things, or opening up to new ways of doing things.

What is a path forward for Europe and the EU?

We need to rethink European citizenship to make it more open to politics. A lot of people say the EU that we now have is skewed towards neoliberalism, that it has embedded neoliberalism in its foundations. I feel there may be ways in which we can work with some of the institutions and revise other parts – and turn them into transformative projects by just asking questions: What do you want this institution to do? And how can it change? This could be a progressive cause for a lot of progressive parties.

This would mean European parties.

Exactly. Right now, the main divides are national because elections happen at the national level. We just don't have any mechanisms for making democracy transnational. What is needed are ideological allegiances that cut across national boundaries and parties, coordinating programs with each other and coming up with candidates that don't represent national constituencies.

As a student of Kant and Marx, would you say that we are living in reactionary or in revolutionary times?

Well, we only know the answer to this once things have happened. I think there is hope because there is a crisis. And whenever there is a crisis, there is the possibility for fundamental and radical change. On the other hand, we can't just wait for the crisis to unfold.

We need to act.

A crisis needs agents who are able to articulate grievances – to give these reflections a constructive spin in terms of connecting the problems to visions of change and to alternative ways of thinking about the system. But unfortunately, I don't think we have agents on the left or in the progressive movements who are able to capitalise on this crisis.


Book: Uncovering the personal in political theory, Lea takes us through her coming of age during the fall of communism in Albania in her new book Free.

Book: Diving into Lea’s careful and original interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, her other soon-to-be-published book is a must-read.

Podcast: Political Scientist Lucy Kinski talks about the European democratic deficit and whether the European Parliament should be the one to fill it.

Journalism: Alberto Alemanno (Professor of European Union Law and Policy at HEC Paris) is optimistic that European democratic innovation is possible – from top to bottom.

Book chapter: THE NEW INSTITUTE’s Fellow Jonathan White analyses Europe’s response to the COVID-crisis as a continuation of emergency policies that are centered on the structures of the European Union.


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