The EU Inside Out

This project, funded by the European Commission Delegation in Washington, DC, explores the prospects for democratic politics in Europe against the backdrop of the profound transformations taking place on the European continent in response to the global financial meltdown and the crisis it has unleashed in the Eurozone. It does so from two vantage points: from the “center,” through a series of debates with European ambassadors, and from the “edges,” through a series of conversations with European artists and writers, intellectuals and activists, and a “European Voices” cultural festival. Our focus, as the idiom in the project title implies, is on the transformations occurring in the “constitution” of the European Union and its citizenry. The global crisis did not, strictly speaking, precipitate the Euro crisis—the latter was a dislocation waiting to reveal itself—a flaw in the design of the euro that can be traced back to the decision to pursue a monetary union without a fiscal or political union. However, it makes its resolution urgent, given the interdependency of the global economy and the different routes the world may take depending on the path Europe chooses. Europe’s challenge, but also its opportunity, is to reconstitute itself on a new, democratic foundation.

Our goal is to launch a longer-term conversation with both “official” and “unofficial” representatives of the European Union around global challenges to democratic ideas and institutions in which the value of the EU as a model for transnational cooperation, regional integration, and cultural coexistence is highlighted. We look also at some of the difficulties Europe faces in responding to global challenges, brought to light by the “crisis.” This second set of challenges, largely internal, stems from what is widely referred to as Europe’s “democratic deficit.” Finally, we explore what is being done, in particular in response to the crisis, to reanimate the idea of Europe and to revitalize democracy in the European context. Our working hypothesis is that Europe’s crisis, however seemingly unremitting, marks not an end but, as the Greek root would imply, a turning point for Europe and for European democracy.

Organized by the new Center for the Study of Europe at Boston University, the project reprises two earlier initiatives of the Institute for Human Sciences at Boston University: a series of debates with European ambassadors in 2007, and a series of conversations with European artists and writers (Europe’s cultural ambassadors) in 2009. The combination of “official” and “unofficial” perspectives in our current project is essential given our focus on “democratic politics.” Europe’s democratic deficit does not emerge sui generis in the birthplace of democracy; it is an outgrowth of an integration process that while initially setting member-states on the road to “an ever closer union,” has more recently led to a rekindling of national divisions. The deficit is twofold: it is partly structural, owing to the design of the European institutions, which were modeled after international organizations, and partly linguistic/civic/conceptual, given the lack of an analog of the Habermasian public sphere to negotiate change. In this view, any process of “democratization” of the European Union that promotes increased participation of citizens in European decision-making must be accompanied by a “politicization” of the European people, opening space for European citizens to debate, discuss, and determine more precisely what “Europe” means and what its next steps ought to be.

Whereas a central leitmotif of the European construction was avoidance of conflict, our project takes “dissent” as a point of departure, building on insights into the central role of conflict in social evolution. We share the Forum of Concerned Citizens’ recognition that “acting in an uncertain world requires the wit, imagination, and effort of all stakeholders rather than the designs and impositions of so-called experts and tough leaders.” Our aim is to be inclusive of the diversity of voices that constitute “Europe”: official and unofficial, popular and underground, native-born and immigrant, German and Greek, etc. We use the language of “center” and “edges” in our project metaphorically to refer to “official” and “unofficial” political arenas: the European institutions on the one hand; the European public square on the other. Our thesis, beautifully articulated by essayist Rebecca Solnit, is that ideas originate not in bureaucratic chambers, but in the “street” where they are picked up and represented by artists, writers, activists, and intellectuals in a manner that sparks public discourse and seeds future politics. We do not distinguish between “center” and “periphery” in critical or geographical terms, as if French, German, and Dutch voices were more integral or representative of “Europe” than Polish or Greek voices.

“Crisis” serves a heuristic function in our project (much like “citizenship” and “identity” in our previous projects); it is not the object of our inquiry, but the prism through which we explore prospects for democratic politics in the shifting European context. It is the nature of crisis to give birth to something new. If Europe’s crisis could be resolved through the ordinary workings of existing institutions, as the French philosopher Etienne Balibar argues, it would not be a “crisis.” A crisis, he claims, is “a contradiction that can be resolved under pressure of necessity only at the cost of transforming existing institutions, overcoming the institutional, moral, and social obstacles to its own resolution.” We are not interested in “analyzing” the European crisis along its various dimensions (as a crisis of leadership, a crisis of solidarity, a crisis of imagination, etc.) but in thinking through it and beyond it. Because “Europe” and the “idea of Europe” are in flux, our project is by necessity future-oriented. It highlights the dynamic nature of the acquis communautaire (Europe’s “center”), and the ferment of ideas in the European public square (its “edges”).

The crisis has exposed the weaknesses in Europe’s democratic structures and institutions, it has undermined the legitimacy of the European Union, and it has eroded European solidarity. Our project, therefore, seeks to chronicle, from the perspectives of Europe’s political and cultural ambassadors, the strengthening of European democracy, the restoration of democratic legitimacy, and the emergence of new practices of solidarity in the European space, as Europe confronts its crisis. While we can not affect these outcomes directly (or even indirectly) from our vantage point in the United States, we can play something of an intermediary role, facilitating conversations between political actors (official and unofficial) that form the basis of democratic politics; garnering support for the European Union, especially as global actor, among our various constituencies, American and international, local and online; and highlighting conditions of globalization underlying the crisis that could form the basis of new networks of solidarity. Indeed physical distance and national origin are increasingly irrelevant given the premise that enacting new modes of political participation does not presuppose proximity, commonality, or identity.