Essay / 17 June 2019

Manifesto for the Founding of a European Republic

Where rescue is haggled over, danger grows.

Sitting inside a burning house, the European heads of state and government negotiate behind closed doors over how much to appropriate for water damage once the fire is out.

Reproaching them for being out of touch with European citizens is beside the point. In fact, they never were in touch with them in the first place. It is the system which neither provides for, nor admits of, legitimate democratic representation: whoever claims, or is assigned, a leading role in the all-decisive EU body, the European Council, has not been elected in twenty-six of twenty-seven member states. As a rule, democratically legitimate, that is, elected, European policy-makers have come into their position through national elections and, in order to survive politically, will be forced to defend the fiction of “national interests”. This puts precisely those supposed to shape and develop the post-national European project in unbearable, and equally unproductive, conflict with the project’s basic idea: to overcome nationalism. Anybody getting in the way of community interests at the European Council summits for the applause of their national electorate will harm all others—including their own country, given the interdependencies of the European single market and the euro zone. And whatever the harm, voters simply will not wise up. Today, no nation state is able to solve a single problem on its own while the EU’s institutional structure, above all the power of the Council, keeps hindering community solutions. What we call crisis today is nothing but this conflict, and what we are discussing is just its symptoms.

Europe is being torn apart. There is a rift opening between political representatives, their self-image as pragmatists, the citizens, and a couple of dreamers. It is the pragmatists whom we can thank for this crisis. Or was it not the pragmatists who were always content to decide what was “possible”? A transnational currency, for example, that cannot possibly work the way it was fashioned, but undermines the very idea that informed it, as national doubts and reservations have prevented putting in place all the political instruments that would be necessary for the supranational management of the common currency. Instead, the problems resulting from this conflict are being renationalized, public debt is blamed on nations, which are then forced to make national austerity efforts, against which people rightly take to the street. And how would those pragmatists who brought on the crisis attempt to solve it? Through bottom-up political pressure? After all, it is the voting citizens whom we can thank for providing those who produced the crisis with political legitimacy. Forcing their representatives to put on a show of defending national interests, they turn away from Europe and, unless contenting themselves with sheer resentment, clamour for a renationalization of political participation, for a strengthening of direct, i.e. plebiscitary, democracy. This would in fact come close to the European idea of subsidiarity, if it were not so loaded with anti-European feeling. As it stands, they cannot even prevent an outsized railroad station from being built, and likewise are railroaded by European politics.

And the dreamers? Alas, the dreamers! They are, and have always been, the true realists. It is to them that we owe the most beautiful ideas and virtually the foundation of modern Europe, the implementation into practical politics of those reasonable but back then utopian-seeming consequences that had to be drawn from the experience with nationalism and European political realists who wreaked havoc on the continent. The first president of the European Commission, Walter Hallstein, a German, once said that “the abolition of the nation is the European idea”—a statement that neither today’s president of the Commission nor the incumbent German chancellor would dare to make. Actually, in all probability, they would not even dare to think it. And yet, it is the truth, albeit a forgotten one.

Today, we might owe the solution of the crisis to the dreamers if only they were heard. That dream, the solution is: the European Republic.

The idea of a European Republic into which the European regions merge, without losing their specific character, in a free union within a common legal framework, instead of being organized in nations competing against one another—that should provide the normative standard by which it would be reasonable to judge any European policy decision. There are no national interests, there are human interests, and these are no different in the Alentejo from those in Hesse or on the Peloponnese.

To found a European Republic we would need to reconstruct the idea from which the European project originated from. For the present-day EU is but a torso that has been sculpted and moulded over time, with pieces later being chipped off again here and there so that nobody is any longer able to recognize the basic idea. Reconstructing that idea would be a revolution in thinking that reality itself could not withstand.

Current debate gets bogged down in fruitless discussions about “more Europe”, which is a meaningless phrase because there cannot be “more” of Europe without challenging the sovereignty of nation states or what is left of it.

In the long run, the Europe we live in is not viable in its political economy and will necessarily implode with national democracies and transnational economy increasingly drifting apart. We live in a single currency area and still act as if these were national economies inevitably competing with one another. But competition does not heal the plight, it causes plight. The land we live in has long become Euroland, and national borders are a fiction, as are national interests: the value chain is a European one.

That is why Euroland needs transnational democracy: a European Republic with equal political, economic and social rights and rules for all. For after the separation of market and state effected by the Maastricht Treaty the reasons for the euro crisis lie in a lacking framework of basic conditions that could offset the loss of national sovereignties by defining a joint political will. Europe’s political system will no longer be able to avoid this issue for very much longer if it wants to stay democratic and social.

It is interesting to note in this context that German federal president Joachim Gauck in his European speech of February 2013 twice referred to the notion of a European res publica, instead of rehashing the history-ignorant phrase of the ‘United States of Europe’.

“United States”—that’s the old European project. Europeans violently conquered territory in America, unified the country in a bloody civil war, and eventually formed a nation that is prepared anytime to enforce its interests with military power. However, the EU is the new European project and in every respect the opposite: it organizes its territory by offering voluntary membership, unifies it by treaties based on the assurance of lasting peace, leaving the idea of the nation behind and building the first post-national continent in history. United States—this is historically retro. EU—this is avant-garde.

In idea at least. However, the nation states continue to pose a problem, as they stand between citizens and European democracy. The European Council, and with it the nation states, claim authority over the process of European integration—which cannot come about as long as a mendacious and melodramatic show of defending national sovereignty is put on for the public of national electorates. The sovereignty of national states is the illusion that Europe is suffering from (again).

Bringing to the discussion the notion of the European res publica, Gauck cautiously indicated the threshold that may take European integration to an entirely new political level; a level at which the European citoyen,and not the nation state, would be constitutive for the new European commonwealth. Perhaps even unintentionally, the president thus pushed open the door to a discussion about founding a European Republic! This discussion has long been overdue. This is now, in fact and at last, about a resolutely different post-national Europe.

Once Europe will develop, via the banking union and the debt repayment fund, toward a bailout union, joint decision-making on expenditure will have to be reorganized to make sure that the principle of “no taxation without participation” is functioning at the European level and divorced from national decisions and vetoes against bailout packages: Euroland as the nucleus of a European Republic needs a redesigned parliamentary system, above all a Eurozone parliament, which decides on the allocation funds throughout the entire European res publica, with European regions being assigned a greater role in the parliamentary system than nations; a parliament with the right to initiative, based on an electoral system without national candidate lists, with a budget cycle that is tied to the legislative period, sufficient fiscal capacity, which necessarily implies having at least a share in European tax sovereignty, and, in a long-term perspective, Eurobonds to compensate for the systemic deficiencies of the euro system.

The logic of a European res publica would also call for transnational distribution of the profits gained from the pan-European value chain, with a balance found between centre and periphery. In this logic, an all-European unemployment insurance, for example, would make the turn toward a European welfare system an experienceable reality, all the more so in the current time of recession. Such an insurance would help to build a European-wide identity in the sense of a res publica and would move public discourse away from obsessing about “net transfers” between donor and recipient countries toward a more social Europe, reconstructing itself in this crisis.

Economy, currency and politics all belong together, and it will take pan-European politics, legitimized by a new type of supranational democracy, to regain primacy over economics. A national export balance is not a strategy! In fact, it is nothing short of European balance sheet fraud if eighty per cent of a member state’s so-called export earnings are made in the EU internal market.

In his speech, president Gauck consistently put the idea of a European agora on a level with the European res publica. Such an agora has to be underpinned with coherent educational and media policies. Democracy needs educated and informed citizens, a claim that national democracies have long abandoned. If only for that, they will go under, as did ancient democracy, however humanistically embellished, together with the slave-owning society—although the ideal of democracy has not vanished from the face of the earth with it. Massive public investment in educational institutions and transnational media must be made to provide the basis for a self-determined and self-confident debate on what that entirely novel thing is supposed to look like: the post-national democracy! The issue is securing Europe’s governmediality: that is what Gauck’s agorais all about. 

The notion of the res publica is the single most valuable thing that the history of political ideas has produced in Europe since Plato. In a globalized world, it is Europe’s unique selling proposition, which a European “sense of unity” may become grounded in, as res publica implies commitment to the political organization of a community from which social justice and general welfare may also be derived as normative objectives. This is not found in the USA, where the depreciation of precisely such claims is leading to a palpable disintegration of public life, and not in autocratic-oligarchic Russia, not to mention yet pre-democratic China. Res publica thus is what makes the core of Europe!

Nobody today knows how the absolute new, the unheard-of, the avant-garde project of global history, post-national European democracy, will in the end be institutionally constituted. Discussing this issue, with the fantasy of dreamers, with all the creativity that this continent is capable of, is the task that poses itself to us today—instead of encouraging people to get dressed up, like the productive forces are, in historical guise which, since 1945, has been neither chic nor comfortable, and far from functional. Otherwise, what once was the European peace project will, if anything, only be haunting Europe as its own spectre.

Long live the European Republic!

Translated from the German by Michael Strand


Robert Menasse

(*1954 in Vienna) studied German language and literature, philosophy and political science in Vienna, Salzburg and Messina. Between 1981 and 1988 he worked at the Institute of Literature Theory at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. His first novel Sinnliche Gewissheit, published in 1988, is a semi-autobiographical tale of Austrians living in exile in Brazil. His later novels were Selige Zeiten, brüchige Welt (1991, Engl. Wings of Stone), Schubumkehr (1995, Engl. Reverse Thrust) and Die Vertreibung aus der Hölle (2001, Engl. Expulsion from Hell). Most recently, he wrote about the future of Europe and the European Union, criticizing tendencies of re-nationalization movements, and developing his vision of the European Republic, about which he debates among others in the essay Der Europäische Landbote (2012, Engl. Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits), and most recently in the novel Die Hauptstadt (2017, Engl. The Capital) awarded with the German Book Prize. Menasse has been honored with numerous awards for his literary oeuvre, among others with the Heimito-von-Doderer-Preis (1990), Hugo-Ball-Preis (1996), Friedrich-Hölderlin-Literaturpreis (2002), Heinrich-Mann-Preis (2013), Max Frisch-Preis der Stadt Zürich (2014), and the Prix du livre européen (2015).

Photo credit by Rafaela Proell.


Ulrike Guérot

is a political thinker and the founder and director of European Democracy Lab.