The New Europe, or the Reinvention of Political Aesthetics

15. 3. 2017

In 1543, a prominent physician Andrés Laguna presented an address at the University of Cologne, in which he referred to a woman who had come to him for medical assistance: “A woman came to me who looked to be in a very bad way: she was weeping uncontrollably, sorrowful, pale, her arms and legs were injured, even beaten, her eyes were vacant, she was shockingly wasted.” The woman was called Europa, and she told Laguna of her sufferings. Once she had been a beauty, but she had been badly mistreated, she had been so badly ravaged that she was now tormented by a number of infirmities. In Laguna’s allegory the intact and beautiful female form represented the healthy and united Europe of the sixteenth century—before the early modern development of nation states. In 1532 Machiavelli wrote Il Principe.

It has been a long way from the once beautiful Europa to the crisis-ridden EU of the 21st century, a path in which the European idea was first diverted into the cul de sac of the nation state and then became embroiled in its, mostly martial, dynamic. The project of a United States of Europe, an idea promoted by Victor Hugo in the nineteenth century and Aristide Briand or Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi in the twentieth, and adopted by the founding fathers of the European Community, is simply collapsing before our very eyes.

Design and plan were poorly conceived; the historical lessons of the past century were not properly learned. It is simply not possible for nation states to constitute Europe; European unity cannot be created by nation states. The male Leviathan, the nation state, is at once the antithesis of a Europe without frontiers, the inclusive female body in which all peoples and nations of Europe have their organic place; all of them are needed to keep Europa in good health. But then they cannot be sovereign, like a nation state. In 1963 Walter Hallstein wrote: “The Europe that we have in mind is no federation of nation states, nor just their common economic space. European politics means the development of regional politics, ending up with a Europe made up of a network of free regions, which means: overcoming the imbalance between large and powerful nations, and small and politically powerless nations.” But the overcoming of the nation state has failed once more. And Germany, the “late nation” for which the work of European Integration was conceived in 1950, has since 1989 rediscovered nationalism, seeking a “national normality” with renewed energy since the fairy-tale summer of the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Germany’s national anomalousness was, however, the condition for European normality up to 1989. Any attempt to think about German and European unification together involved a contradiction; the European idea had to fail again. It was a short path from German “normality” to German supremacy (“the Grexit crisis”) and to German powerlessness (“the refugee crisis”). Whoever first refuses solidarity cannot ask for it later. Europa is once more suffering from multiple organ failure.

The concept “crisis” comes from Greek, and means “decision.” In the midst of a crisis the EU would have to decide once and for all what it wanted to-and should-be: a political unity. Unfortunately, embroiled in crisis, it cannot do so. It is no longer capable of doing the necessary work of shoring up the political domains: populism, the euro crisis, the refugee crisis, and now terrorism—all are treated as separate issues in national silos. Opaque governance and a myriad of EU groupings have long since led to systematic lawlessness, political failure, loss of trust, and populism. The vacuum left by the inefficient European engine room is filled by the perfidious charm of national temptation, which offers no solutions, but does provide the flags, symbols, and escapism of a patriotic aesthetic.

Political communication is always also aesthetic communication. Without aesthetics there is no politics. And above all, the Europe of the EU as a political form has discarded its aesthetic dimension; the grotesque nature of the current crisis is the outcome.

In retrospect it will probably been understood that the EU broke upon its lack of political aesthetic; as the French psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto once said, “everything is language.” The EU built an internal market with which, as Jacques Delors admitted, one cannot fall in love. It was a sui generis system for itself that could not be explained; a narrative that could not be found; it was about multi- level governance without clear competences, about European unity without civic equality. Libraries of books have been written to explain the nature of the European political “beast.” It could not succeed, because its core being was unclear: at root, the EU’s Europe disregarded, and continues to disregard, all the basic democratic ideas that the political history of Europe has ever produced.

In 1792, Immanuel Kant wrote that “the civil constitution of every state should be republican.” Since the time of Aristotle and Cicero, the idea of the republic has been part of the cultural capital of Europe whenever it was a matter of citizens creating a unified political form. It is high time to apply that to Europe. The res publica is a public good, the commonwealth. Nothing is more lacking in Europe today. It is not a matter of integrating states, but uniting citizens. The post-revolutionary republican heritage is also the general principle of political equality. The French Revolution in 1789 established political equality as something beyond class. The European project of the 21st century must be based on the equality of all European citizens beyond nation. Europe must be re-thought from the principle of equality of all European citizens, above in respect of electoral and fiscal equality. If that can gain traction, then one is on the way to the construction of a functioning democracy for a united Europe. Once Europe has got through its current dystopian phase, this will have to be remembered.

Ulrike Guérot

Founder and Director of the European Democracy Lab at the European School of Governance in Berlin. This text has been written for Eutopia Magazine—creative commons, a project of the publishing houses Galaxia Gutenberg, S. Fischer, Laterza und Seuil, in cooperation with TIM:

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