European Union “We should found a European citizens’ movement.”

Claus Leggewie
Claus Leggewie | Photo: © KWI, Georg Lukas

In March 1957, the Treaty of Rome laid the foundations for the later European Union. The political scientist Claus Leggewie on the value of the European idea and the threats to which it is exposed.

Mr Leggewie, do you see the European idea threatened by recent developments, such as Brexit?
 
The economic, social and political consequences of Brexit are still hard to assess. But that is exactly what could now make European society more resistant to the threats of Nexit or Frexit.
 
Those terms stand for the possible withdrawal of the Netherlands and France from the European Union. Is it right-wing populist forces that are driving these movements?
 
They’re the ones who have made nationalism again socially acceptable in Europe, but many leftist national movements are doing the same. Both are sawing off the branch we’re sitting on.

“Europeans must not let themselves be split up”

What would have to be done to make the EU more popular again? And for what values does it stand?
 
How about peace, security, prosperity and democracy? I know that for many people these don’t count any more. We must cure this amnesia of the past, promote democratic participation and stop the frivolous moaning about the EU. And above all, we should launch a European citizens’ movement, as “Praxis Europa” has done. It is a coalition of professionals of the middle generations from various sectors of civil society, science and culture, who together want to think about a democratic, just and future-oriented Europe – and call a halt to its impending disintegration. Those who were born after 1970 are waking up because they’re recognizing – for example, in the foreseeable consequences of Brexit – what we have to lose. We Europeans must not let ourselves be split up, and must put the enemies of Europe in their place.
 
Why is the absence of war in most European countries since 1945 no longer seen as a result and achievement of the EU?
 
Because it wasn’t the Treaty of Rome or those of Maastricht and Lisbon that secured peace, but rather the balance of terror during the Cold War. And it was also the Franco-German alliance and the German-Polish reconciliation that checked the virus of European nationalism. I had thought for good.

“Wrongly addressed class-struggle”

What unites the forces critical of the EU in Poland, Hungary, France and Germany?
 
The recrudescence of an ethnic-authoritarian nationalism, which wants to put an end to both the EU and democracy. It’s directed against the fundament of our republic, and at the achievements of 1968, the liberalization of everyday life, gender and generational relations that is so unwelcome to the right-wing. And also at many constitutional liberties we take for granted. What unites the nationalists is the rallying cry: The people stand above the law. Orbán, Erdogan and also Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon are expressly striving for an identitarian autocracy by plebiscite, which will sweep away parties, parliaments, the free press and an independent judiciary.
 
Where does this great fear of modernity come from?
 
From the hard-to-endure reverse side of modernity: individual autonomy, risk exposure, permanent confrontation with “others” and “strangers”. In short, from everything that also makes up the allure of modern culture. Its adherents are being attacked with incredible contempt, brazenness and stupidity.
 
Is this a phenomenon of satiety? Or does the right-wing populist critique also somehow contain a grain of truth?
 
Yes, even a large grain. In saying this I’m not succumbing to the left-liberal masochism that has broken out since Trump’s election, because no amount of having been left behind justifies the election of such a sexist and racist. Against that, we must stand quite resolved and, if necessary, organize resistance. But of course we must also bear in mind that contemporary democracy’s crisis of representation and legitimacy has grown out of social inequality, oligarchic tendencies in the political parties and the nation state’s loss of control over global economic and financial actors. The right-wing extremists are carrying on a class struggle addressed to the wrong enemy. Instead of criticizing the real authors of the crisis, they set the people on minorities, foreigners, journalists, professors, experts, cultural workers. The first official act of – God forbid – Chancellor Petry’s minister of culture will be to abolish the Goethe-Institut, public broadcasting and the promotion of critical research.
 

Claus Leggewie,

born in 1950, is Professor of Political Science and Director of Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (Kulturwissenschaftlichen Institut / KWI) in Essen and the Centre for Global Cooperation Research in Duisburg. He was appointed the first holder of the Ludwig-Börne Professorship at the University of Gießen for the winter semester of 2015/16. Together with his colleague Roman Léandre Schmidt, Leggewie founded the pro-European initiative “Praxis Europa”, which was publicly launched in February 2017.