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The European Republic: equality beyond the nation state

The European Union is under fire from all sides, and while populists draw on nationalist sentiments, it is easy to forget how the EU was once thought of. Yet, if we remember the Union’s aims, diagnose its problems, and reconsider its future, it’s future is not as bleak as some might imagine. With that thought in mind, German political scientist Ulrike Guérot, invited by Radboud Reflects to speak at Radboud University, delivered an overwhelmingly positive message about what the European Union should, and can be: a Republic of European Citizens. During the conversation with the audience, led by philosopher Cees Leijenhorst from Radboud University, it became clear that while to some her ideas seemed too utopian, other participants readily embraced her message of a bright future of a European Republic.

European soul

Diagnosing the current crisis of the EU requires seeing where it went wrong. It may seem strange to us now, after a surge of anti-EU politics, that only 24 years ago, as the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1994, hardly any serious politician doubted what the future of the EU would look like: an ‘ever closer union,’ with the individual states gradually integrating further, until we can see a true European democracy emerging. How different the outlook looks in 2018. “You cannot fall in love with a single market, Europe needs a soul,” Guérot quoted former president of the European Commission Jacques Delors. Yet, she argued, if we look back, we see that only the market has become truly integrated, whereas the people have not.

State and market

In practice, the ‘ever closer union’ has only meant an integration of the market, without the creation of a soul or a ‘European people.’ This, and not the single market as such, was why the recent EU-crisis seemed so intractable. The problem is twofold. Firstly, the common market covers a large number of countries, but in times of crisis there is no overarching institution that truly has the authority to get this market back under control. Secondly, because nation states have retained central importance within the EU, people by default fall back on this model in times of crisis. Individual member states desperately cling to their own authority, but fail to implement coherent policies when it comes to the entire market. A direct result, Guérot argued, of the disconnection of state and market.


Consequently, the ‘blame game’ begins. The story is familiar: northern member states blame the southern member states for their spendthrift; the south blames the north for bleeding them dry. But, Guérot questioned, was that really the problem? No. Showing graphs of the GDP distribution across Europe, a different picture emerges: the classic centre-periphery divide. Whether you live in northern Finland or in eastern Bulgaria, odds are that your income is significantly lower and the Eurocrisis has hit harder. In Bratislava, Milan, or Munich, approximately in the EU’s geographical centre, your chances are a whole lot better. At a more local level, the capital-labour division comes to play a role: the owner of a large Greek company has, in all likelihood, benefited just as much from the crisis as a German banker; a German cleaning lady has been hit just as hard as a Greek harbour worker.

Nation state

If national borders are not what truly divides the European populations, whence the enormous significance they have gained in contemporary politics? That, Guérot pointed out, is because the ‘ever closer union’ never really materialised. Because a true political union has not emerged, purported peoples keep clinging to their national borders, and blaming other nations for the problems plaguing the single market. Hence, nostalgia for the nation state, a wish to be free from interference from Brussels, emerges. The truth is, of course, that this rosy past of the nation was never as bright as it is often imagined to be.

Republic of Europe

Interestingly, Guérot’s conclusion directly leads to the way forward. If the ‘ever closer union’ envisaged in 1994 never materialised, the solution lies in truly constructing a union that is ever closer. That is to say: a union not of states, but of citizens. What has come about in the wake of 1994 is a single market, with slowly and reluctantly integrating nation states. But the EU, Guérot reminded us, was never really about integrating states, but about uniting the people. We only seem to have forgotten that this is the aim, and many undoubtedly have lost hope that this is possible. The future, thus, does not belong to a reluctant union of states, but to a Republic of Europe.

European people

Acknowledging that this vision may indeed seem utopian today, Guérot reminded us of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, quoting him as saying that “in moments of crisis we cannot see what the future will bring.” Crisis, thus, can also be productive and creative, and when the doors of history are open, we had better be prepared. The Europe Guérot envisages has a directly chosen parliament and president, with full governmental authority. Only then can a ‘European people’ – Guérot is reluctant to call for a European nation – truly emerge. For, she quotes French sociologist Marcel Mauss, “the nation makes the race.” What makes the nation is institutionalised solidarity. Living under the same institutions, thus, is what may truly unite the population of Europe to become a people.


In conclusion, Guérot draws on Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben to argue that Europe is in ‘civil war.’ Not a violent one, as in Syria or Ukraine, but nonetheless one characterised by an abundance of verbal violence, with various groups claiming to be ‘the people.’ In reality, the people does not exist. “Those who agree to be equal in front of the law form a republic,” she quotes Cicero. Uniting, and not dividing, the citizens of Europe, thus, is what is required for a truly bright future. The French revolution brought equality beyond class; the suffragettes established equality beyond gender; the civil rights movement sought to secure equality beyond race. Now is the time, Guérot asserts, to implement equality beyond the nation.

By Maxim van Asseldonk