EU Futures

The aim our EU Futures project is to launch a longer-term “conversation” on the future of Europe, what “Europe” means, and what its next steps ought to be. These are important matters also for Americans, given the interdependence of the global economy, the global nature of the challenges that confront us, and the different routes the world may take depending on the path Europe chooses. However, we are not so much interested in the answers to these questions as in the (hopefully democratic) process by which they will be decided. Our underlying concern is with the prospects for democratic politics under conditions of globalization, where nation states no longer have the means to defend the “social contract,” subjected as they are to the dictates of financial markets, and where there is no equivalent of “social citizenship” at a supranational level.

By “democratic politics” we refer to precisely to the ability of citizens to determine their own future, building on Niklas Luhmann’s assertion that what is special about democracy is “its unusual keeping open of possibilities of future choice.” 20th century narratives of exponential growth and economic development based on rising GDP are failing to deliver on promises of equal opportunity, wealth redistribution, and fundamental rights for all citizens. This has led some to embrace a new “anti-politics,” marked by an absence of hope for the future. The people least likely to vote are those most disenfranchised—the poor, the unemployed, and the young—raising the question whether democracy itself is in crisis. If, as Habermas claimed, the goal of democratic societies is to “erect a democratic dam against the colonizing encroachment of system imperatives on areas of the lifeworld,” this perceived loss of “voice,” or democratic agency, and the withdrawal of energy from politics, on the part of today’s youth, especially, is worrisome.

On the other hand, as the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon observes, the world is far from entering a phase of political apathy. “Counter-democracy” (the various means by which citizens exert pressure from without on the democratic state) is alive and well, as the activism and demonstrations in cities around the globe attest. The diverse range of protesters can collectively be seen as reviving democracy in the public sphere. Their actions force governmental awareness of (if not accountability for) grievances arising from overbearing state apparatuses and the subsumption of politics and people to the interests of capital. (Witness the national conversation on economic inequality happening now the United States—where the topic was verboten—in the lead up to the 2016 elections.) Even when criticized for their lack of concrete demands, the movements’ popularity can be attributed to the fact that they feed people’s appetite for what has been lost to distant representatives, remote state management, and mainstream media chatter. It is this sense of ownership and authorship, not only of domestic law but the general direction and disposition of the world historical changes that are underway, that has the potential to change the conversation from nationalist anxieties to a shared cosmopolitan future.

As we undertake this new initiative, the European Union is attempting to move beyond the crisis that made it the focus of so much negative attention in recent years and to reassert itself as global actor. However, as it embarks on its path of “smart, sustainable, inclusive growth,” its ability to ensure social and territorial cohesion so that the benefits of that growth are shared, one of the stated goals of its Europe 2020 Strategy, is in question. While it has put in place the necessary safeguards against future crises like the one it experienced in 2010, there has been growing frustration over its inability to manage the most destructive and disorienting consequences of its austerity policies. The result has been a surge in support for parties with xenophobic roots. When a unanimous committee awarded the European Union the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, it was in recognition of its historic achievements in advancing peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights on the European continent. But now a North-South divide is emerging in Europe to replace the East-West one. Recent developments, in particular, the emergence of “winners” and “losers” from the economic crisis, could justifiably be construed as a betrayal of the European project, which was meant to be about uniting people, not just states.

We are optimistic that the European Union could function as a space of genuine solidarity among its members, instead of as a juridical framework for competition among them. However, the push for revised EU priorities will have to come from the Europe’s citizens, with a view toward their own long term interests. In the words of French philosopher Etienne Balibar: “The legitimacy of the European project cannot be decreed, or even invented, through legal argument. It can only result from Europe becoming the framework for social, ideological, passionate conflicts about its own future.” If a deeper political union is to emerge now in Europe, its contours are likely to be determined through an unprecedented democratic process; European citizens must be given the chance to consider the merits of deeper integration, a job made easier by the transnational nature of today’s threats, but nonetheless daunting in the current climate of fear and mistrust.

The climate activist Isabelle Fremeaux writes: “When crisis enters the psyche of a culture, a crossroads of possibilities appears. One way forward involves being paralysed by fear, the other being moved by courage.” Moving beyond the impasse requires tapping into a deeper level of our humanity and asking who we are and who we want to be as a society. Europeans living through what they perceive to be the dismantling of their democracies are understandably wary of deeper integration. The lack of a truly pan-European debate on the continent’s future is yet another sign of the problems confronting the integration process, while national and regional identities tend to trump citizens’ feelings of European-ness. For citizens to invest in any ambitious transnational solution, they would have to be convinced that nationalism and protectionism (versus the vagaries of globalization) are no refuge against current threats.

At its best, globalization’s rapid transfer of information and ideas promises to translate increased awareness of the lives of people elsewhere into real expressions of solidarity in national and international communities. This sort of interdependence involves transfers of knowledge, resources, and personnel aimed toward global justice, not merely monetary aid to fill holes in a not-yet-flat world. Currently, such efforts proceed relatively independently of representative government—through charities, NGOs, transnational organizations, and government bureaucracies. But these can be disruptive to democracy when coupled with agendas that challenge domestic institutions. Ideally efforts to secure substantive equality and equal protection at home and abroad are democratic where they proceed through nationally generated processes of deliberation and reform. They are likely to be less democratic even where they may be legitimate, when their sources are the external imposition of international bureaucracies or the internal tumult of revolution. However, nations that act together to facilitate democratic participation and promote engagement outside the narrow national or regional interest, as has been the case of the European Union, act in their own long-term interest as well.

The EU remains the world’s most successful example of regional integration, its largest economy, and its largest trading block. It holds the world’s largest share of foreign direct investment and is the top trading partner for 80 countries. Beyond business partnerships and comparative advantage, there is a decentralizing yet cooperative spirit latent in globalization—which the European Union has availed itself of in the past—that has great potential. Harnessing this ethos, the European Union could again transform itself into a bulwark of democracy by maintaining an environment promoting knowledge transfer, freedom of movement, and smaller-scale commerce. If the EU were to respond to globalization’s threats by shoring up its democratic institutions, bringing its policies into a closer alignment with the real interests of its citizens, and facilitating networks of solidarity, its members will be not only better protected from systemic risk, but could become models for orchestrating alternative, sustainably integrated economies, including for the United States.

Our project seeks to recapture something of the cosmopolitan vision that animated the European construction at its beginning and that is still the source of Europe’s “soft power” and attractiveness. As Ulrich Beck observed, reality is becoming cosmopolitan, but not by political decision or design. Today’s world is more conflictual, confrontational, and poly-centric than ever. While it is possible for the EU harness this new interconnectedness for the good, doing so may require abandoning policies that are undermining the moral and political conditions of its existence. Freed from the dogma of the growth imperative and enhanced competitiveness, we believe that globalization could give new life to the idea of an “ever closer union” and new purpose to regional and transnational cooperatives.

The European project needs to be radicalized, in the literal sense of returning to its roots. A new narrative confirming its raison d’être would communicate the collaborative and forward-looking nature of any “project,” altruistic in its concern with longevity. Such a reinvigoration could open new pathways for democratic participation. As the American essayist Rebecca Solnit writes, “with a new story, much becomes possible, both in the imagination and on the ground.” A new, more inclusive European story would connect Europe’s contributions to transnational cooperation and regional integration to the transformative power of trust and respect, reinvigorating prospects for democratic politics within, between, and beyond its borders.

Organized by the Center for the Study of Europe at Boston University in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut Boston, the project has three components:

1) “European Voices,” a series of conversations with European artists, writers, and poets, centered around the question: What is the future that is emerging now in Europe? This openness to the future is a key feature of democratic societies, which, to paraphrase Claude Lefort, gather and preserve indetermination, in contrast to totalitarian societies, which act against this indetermination. Because the new always emerges at the periphery of a system, and not in the center, our primary interest in this series is to be in conversation with those who inhabit society’s margins, and who are, therefore, in the best position to sense the emerging future. Europe’s future is the concern not only of academics and politicians, but also, of ordinary citizens, whose cares and frustrations are more likely to be represented in art and literature than in current political debates, where they are increasingly drowned out.

2) “Interferences,” a parallel series of conversations, organized in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut Boston, featuring voices from European and American media, academia, and politics, centered around questions pertinent to the transatlantic relationship. Here our guiding question, taking up Federica Mogherini’s injunction, is How can the US and Europe lead the global transition from actual global disorder to a new global order based on cooperation and partnership instead of competition and confrontation? If the US and Europe are to succeed in this endeavor, they need to acknowledge their interdependence, and the fact that their futures are inextricably linked. But they need to find new ways of working creatively with this interdependence, to allow a looser coordination in which they accept that their differences need not impede progress toward building a new global order.

3) An “EU Views” podcast featuring interviews on the emerging future in Europe. While the above events are geared to our local communities (academic, cultural, journalistic, as well as public at large), we anticipate through the podcast to engage a wider audience in our project of re-thinking the prospects for democratic politics.

All three components of the project reflect our concern with the prospects for democratic politics under conditions of globalization. How can we channel people’s cares, concerns, and aspirations into an effective politics that addresses all three levels of civic engagement: local, national, and international community? Our project seeks to capture some of the energy of “change” and “renewal” that we are witnessing in much of today’s demonstrations, activism and grassroots democracy. There is a widespread sense that we are on the brink of a shift: the various “systems” on which our lives depend are at breaking points, yet efforts to create alternatives are increasingly thwarted by economic imperatives. Europeans are living through what Etienne Balibar terms an “interregnum,” where “the old national order is dead, but the new post-national union of states, whether called a federation or not, is unable to take shape. On the contrary it is being increasingly dismantled and distorted.”

The project draws on the work of MIT’s Otto Scharmer, author of Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges and Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies, and in particular, from his thesis that the core leadership challenge of today is to facilitate a shift from “ego-system” awareness, which is marked by a concern for one’s own well-being, to “eco-system” awareness, which is marked by a concern for the wellbeing of the whole system and even the whole planet. Scharmer’s work demonstrates that the quality of results in any system is a function of the quality of attention, or awareness, that the actors in that system operate from (traditional awareness, ego-system awareness, stakeholder awareness, or eco-system awareness).

Our aim is to help expand people’s collective capacity to envision a future that does not yet exist, and to fuel the common consciousness and common action necessary to realize it. We use the term “conversation” (versus “dialogue” or “debate”) deliberately, in order to invite a more active involvement in our project, which has as its objective to facilitate a shift in awareness on the part of those participating. In our experience, open and meaningful conversation is the most powerful method for harnessing collective wisdom and for generating the sort of “shared awareness” that is a precondition of effective political participation and action.

The European Union grew out of a shared intention to create a future that was different from past. The transformation of Europe into a post-national entity through the cooperation of nation states, limiting their sovereignty in the name of greater interdependence and solidarity, ultimately produced the world’s largest economy, benefitting, potentially, 500 million citizens in 28 states. The success of the EU, according to Otto Scharmer, “suggests that good economics and good politics require defining one’s self-interest broadly (eco-centrically), not narrowly (ego-centrically), so that it is aligned with the well-being of others and the whole.” Sadly, he adds, the difficulties Europe has faced in confronting its economic crisis prove the same point: “Bad economics and bad politics result from defining one’s self-interest too narrowly.” If, as Scharmer suggests, Europe’s recent difficulties stem largely from a reversion to a “nation state-centered” way of thinking by Germany and others, one immediate task is to persuade nations who have benefited from current arrangements to exchange those immediate benefits for a common interest in the longer term.