Raphaël Glucksmann on the EU crisis: ‘We need a new social contract for Europe’

5 January 2017

Raphaël Glucksmann in Brussels, 9 December 2016.
Raphaël Glucksmann in Brussels, 9 December 2016.

For the French essayist, the only way for the EU to avoid destruction at the hands of populist and nationalist parties is to revive its democratic forces and create a vision able to “speak to Europeans’ hearts”.

We are faced with a social crisis that can either be resolved well – by renewing the social contract – or badly. It is clear today that people calling for a good solution are having trouble making their voices heard. Meanwhile, those urging a bad solution – through nationalism, xenophobia, fear – are enjoying great success.

The 1929 crash made millions of people unemployed across the western world, and the 1930s saw a true political, social and economic crisis in all western democracies. There were two ways out: one in the style of Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the New Deal and the invention of a new social contract. And then there was the second option, which led to the deaths of millions.

Today, the problem is that the progressive parties able to propose a new social contract aren’t getting their voices heard. Instead we are witnessing a tidal wave of nationalism. Every election seems to take us by surprise; but we have to abandon the state of denial that let us disregard the possibility of Brexit, or the victory of Donald Trump in the US Republican primary and then his election to the White House. Just as we have to stop thinking that Marine Le Pen won’t be President of France in 2017 and that she can’t be. We must leave this attitude behind and understand that yes, it is possible, that everything is possible. Including the end of the European project.

We must of course fight the lies and the nationalist propaganda that have particularly ensnared social media. But that is not enough. When faced with the discourse of the extreme right, fact checking is not enough. Moral condemnation is not enough. Reminding people of the dark years of the 1930s is not enough. Two things are indispensable: first we must understand where this crisis is coming from. And this crisis, it is coming from us, from our inability to give a sense to the European project and to European and western democracies in general, from our inability to keep the promises we have made. It is therefore up to us to provide a sound diagnosis for the crisis and, then, against the discourse of the extreme right, to propose not only moral condemnation, but also a vision, a project to oppose to the nationalist project.

How did we get to this point? We must go back to a time when everything seemed to be on the up: it is 11-12 December 1998 in Vienna. EU heads of state and government have arrived for a summit. At this moment, there is no Kaczynski, no Farage, no Orban, no Boris Johnson, not even Berlusconi or Sarkozy. Only good people. At this moment, Europe is content, dominated by pro-European social democrats open to the world. They are called Jospin, Blair, D’Alema and Schröder. You could imagine they are discussing ways to make Europe more democratic, to create a social and ecological Europe. But, as the D’Alema, the president of the Italian-led Council put it at the end of the summit, “it’s a disaster: for 90% of the time we discussed duty free and the fate of duty-free shops in airports within the context of the single market.” All of Europe’s modern Left had come together and, instead of discussing European democracy, of creating a European power and a more just European society, it discussed duty free.

In fact, they were discussing a small problem because they fundamentally believed there would be no big problem, that eternal peace had been achieved, that democracy would never again be challenged and that, in substance, they would culturally dominate Europe for centuries to come. They had adhered, without saying as much, to Francis Fukuyama’s vision, declared after the fall of the Berlin Wall, of the end of history. It would run along pre-set rails; it was enough to let it happen, for the European project to continue all by itself and for eternally democratic societies to emerge spontaneously. That Left, that elite, has failed.

And we are in this mess because, at a moment before the extreme right had seized power in our minds (before perhaps seizing it in reality), we were not able to give a meaning – a juster meaning – to the European project and to our societies. We theorised a way to live together, but we didn’t practice it. We thought that human rights had been achieved and we didn’t mobilise when they were being violated. We have therefore left our own slogans devoid of substance. This is why the extreme right, the reactionaries, the nationalists have today been able to seize hold of the public discourse and the hearts and minds of Europeans.

We must therefore take their criticisms seriously. When the sovereigntists tell us that it is aberrant and anti-democratic to have a single currency without a democratic political governance of that currency, they are right. When they say that abolishing borders between European states without creating shared justice and legal services, nor shared ways to protect them, they are right. When they say that having a single market without shared social and environmental laws creates dumping, they are again right. We cannot therefore counter their arguments by simply saying they are wrong, because sometimes they are right. They are right because they are targeting our own incoherences.

What to do then? We must admit that we are reaching the end of the European project’s current middle-ground approach. But where the sovereigntists are wrong, and where we must fight them, is when they conclude that the lack of a shared justice department means restoring national borders. They are wrong when they think we must leave the single currency because we do not have a government for the eurozone. On the contrary, it is down to us to create this justice system, this government. So defending today’s ‘middle-ground’ approach doesn’t work: this is why we must create our own vision, one as coherent as that of the sovereigntists, the nationalists, the reactionaries. We must completely adopt it, which means accepting the need to recover all the values that the Left, that progressives in the general sense, have thrown in the gutter. Words and ideas like cosmopolitanism, living together, a federal Europe. We must brush them off and give them a meaning, so that this time they are truly able to say something and they are truly presented within a coherent project.

For until now, what have we been proposing to the electorate in different European referendums or elections? We have been proposing a kind of status quo defended by the majority of European socialists and conservatives and we have been opposing the symbolic and coherent vision of a return to nation states. We are sure to lose, because we are opposing something that make sense with something that doesn’t. Sovereigntism makes sense. It speaks to people’s hearts. Europe in its current form doesn’t. That is why, even if the polls still indicate that people are initially spontaneously pro-European, we will still lose elections because those campaigns are based on enthusiasm. Now, how can you generate enthusiasm for a half-hearted project? The only way to stop this nationalist and sovereigntist tsunami is to take up the mantle of a coherent, democratic and ecological Europe much more than we have done so far.

As long as this Europe is unable to replace the bridges that we have on our banknotes for faces that are able to express something; as long as we fail to come to an agreement even on that, we will be unable to counter to the symbolic war that the sovereigntists are waging. We have lost in advance.

Europe has a problem with symbols. With the ability to create a shared narrative. With the ability to speak to people, to their hearts, to their gut feeling and not only to their rationality. And this is linked to a particular relationship to the world – a praiseworthy, open mindset that doubts and doesn’t want to fall into dogmatism – that emerged in the 1960s. At that time, our parents’ generation wanted to deconstruct the old myths that saturated society. They deconstructed the nationalist myth, the statist myth and even the revolutionary Marxist-Leninist myth. But then, they didn’t reconstruct or invent other symbols. Nor could the next generation create even the slightest political horizon, the slightest symbol that could mobilise people. Today, we are paying for this symbolic emptiness in which the European project believed it could continue growing without creating meaning, without speaking to the heart and to citizens’ gut-feelings.

Since I’m speaking about symbols, we have long claimed that while generations of Europeans fought and died for their national flag, no one ever sacrificed themselves in the name of the European flag. Until the day when, during the Ukrainian revolution, young students died with the European flag in their hands that apparently doesn’t appeal to people’s hearts. Yet no European leader – including those on the left – used this event and its symbolic reach to tell their citizens that people who are not even part of the European Union are prepared to die just to carry its flag. Not one, because we are unable to create a symbol, nor even to see it when it already exists.

As for words, we need to give them back some meaning. If not, expressions like ‘living together’ for example will no longer mean anything. French people, like all Europeans, don’t share much across the social classes and the environments in which they live. It is for this reason that I am campaigning for a universal and obligatory European civic service. We must make young people meet and spend time with each other: we cannot construct a cosmopolitan society and a united Europe if we never take young people away from their environment so they can mix with each other. Not even political parties, which once guaranteed this mixing, still do so. Trade unions, which once created a form of integration, have virtually disappeared.

So before saying that certain communities are by definition not integrable, let us analyse and realise that we are faced with a crisis in our structures of integration. And disintegration doesn’t uniquely concern children of recent immigrants, but also people living in peri-urban areas who, to express their disintegration, vote for the extreme right. It is impossible to speak about the European Union with these people, because all that they feel is that there are two parallel worlds: a world that profits from open borders, and another which has never been as sedentary because it is confined in its district and its environment, whether a suburb or a village.

And this is the result of an error made by liberal democracy, which consisted in letting the spirit of individualism develop, fed by opening markets and national borders to colonise public space. From the moment when public space is colonised by this individualism, there is no structure nor narrative that can create shared meaning and would a ‘people’ to form and coalesce. Out of this emerge leaders who say “it is the fault of so-and-so and the only structure that will allow you to feel like a people is me.” This is what Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump say to us, presenting themselves as the sole guarantors of national identity. The same thing risks happening to us if we are not able to reconstruct these structures and this shared narrative.

Throughout Europe, there is the energy, the desire to go towards the other to do it. But this energy and the initiatives that emerge here and there have completely shattered. From now on, our mission is to ensure a literary, intellectual and political opening up to these initiatives. If not, we will lose. The next national elections are as I see it lost in advance: the next failure that truly counts for those who believe in Europe are the European elections in 2019. We must each understand that the existing political structures are no longer enough, and that it will be necessary to create new ones that represent all these initiatives and which offer a vision. This starts with those initiatives that can do battle against the coherent project of the sovereigntists, reactionaries and xenophobes.

We are experiencing a structural crisis in the West’s model of development, in liberal western democracies, and we truly need a new deal. Cyclical economic crises can lead to profound economic, social and identity-based crises. We cannot escape them through simple cyclical effects. The division is much deeper and we can only solve it with a new Europe-wide social contract. People who think this populist and xenophobic wave will pass are mistaken about its nature: it is not just from discontent, from people being fed up. Sovereigntists, reactionaries and nationalists have been undermining the body of society for thirty years now, expressing ideas that they have strengthened and now taken to the front line. Today they are the strongest. They are more motivated and they are more prepared, because the facts appear to be on their side. This wave will only disperse if there is, among progressives, a jolt from that translates their words into fact the words.

This text is the transcription of Raphaël Glucksmann’s speech at the conference “Relaunch the EU” on 9 December 2016, in Brussels.

Translated by Simon Pickstone

Factual or translation error? Tell us.