We need to think about the constitution of the EU (part I)

June 11, 2024

The results of the European Parliament elections indicate a shift to the right, and a ‘new phase’ of European politics. While the intentions of these parties are apparent, interpreting the significance of this outcome remains challenging. To understand its implications, one must consider not only potential upcoming coalitions but also the broader dynamics between various European institutions and their power or legitimacy. What is the relationship between the Parliament, the Commission, and the Council? Who has the authority to speak on behalf of Europe? This short essay explores these questions, drawing on Luuk van Middelaar's work and his ideas about Europe's discourses and spheres. At FreedomLab, we have developed a (free) interpretation of his framework to navigate the European space. Ultimately, this encourages reflection on that fundamental question we often prefer to avoid: What is the ultimate goal of the European Union? Given the challenging period of 'muddling through' that may lie ahead, this question is as pertinent as ever.

Opinions on Europe are quickly formed. People tend to be either ‘pro-Europe’ or ‘against Europe,’ or at least ‘Eurosceptic’. These opinions are generally based on a few specific themes and issues. Questions about the nature of Europe—what it is and what it aspires to be—are often only touched upon briefly. Superficial answers are abundant: ‘Europe is a continent,’ ‘Europe is a bureaucratic stronghold,’ ‘Europe is the greatest peace project humanity has ever known,’ ‘Europe is a union with progressive, shared cultural values and history.’ However, public opinion rarely delves into fundamental reflections on the constitution of Europe. This is unfortunate because such reflections could provide direction and orientation for the debate. Beneath the superficial answers lie inevitable fundamental questions about the nature and structure of the European Union, questions that usually remain implicit and unarticulated. Does Europe exist only on paper, or is there a European identity?

Back to the beginning: the ‘origin myth’ of Europe as a union

In 1951, six government leaders signed the agreement for a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in the Salon de L’Horloge in Paris with the idea that economic cooperation would prevent a new war on the continent between its main powers. Therefore, the concepts of a ‘Peace Project’ and ‘Economic Union’ are often cited as the fundamental building blocks of the European Union. However, at the decisive moment, so many treaty amendments were still needed that no official treaty text was ready just before the signing. Still, Europe’s founding fathers remained undeterred and the solution was simple: they signed a blank sheet, trusting the spirit of the agreement to guarantee the letter of agreement. The European Union was born as a tabula rasa, an unwritten page whose content would come later.

This shows that the European Union was—and still is to a large extent—a plunge into uncertainty. This symbolic blank sheet marked the legal origin of what we now call the European Union. What followed was over seventy years of debate and competition over its exact shape, ‘muddling through’ crises and events. In its young history, different discourses and spheres about Europe emerged, each with its idea of Europe’s destination, practices, and interactions. In his book De Passage naar Europa: Geschiedenis van een begin (2009), Luuk van Middelaar provides a fascinating history of the origin of the European Union and sketches a framework to distinguish the discourses and spheres of the EU. At Freedomlab, we have elaborated on his framework, which we will outline below.

Three European discourses

The question ‘Who am I?’ is linked to the question ‘where do I come from?’. Thus, the environment I grew up in and where I feel at home, and our identity are closely connected. The question of European identity is therefore a question of European place: what kind of space does the European Union occupy, and what is its nature? Initially, we can qualify Europe as a continent. This part of the world has certain geographical features: topographically, we can distinguish states ‘in’ Europe territorially from states ‘outside’ Europe. But merely pointing out Europe’s geographical or physical spatiality is limited. The nature of Europe is not fully understood by merely studying a map. The answer to the question of European identity and place is also provided by the spheres and discourses of Europe. By ‘sphere,’ I mean a spatiality that is imbued with meaning, encompassing more than the geographical or geometric properties of a physical space. By ‘discourses,’ I intend the meaning that Foucault associates with the term, powerfully articulated by Heidegger: ‘Language is the house of being. In its home human beings dwell.’

In this first part of two articles, we start with Europe and its different discourses. Following Van Middelaar, we can distinguish three European discourses: the Europe of the States, the Europe of the Citizens, and the Europe of the Offices. These discourses are not merely representations or reflections of power constellations. Each discourse arises from the desire to shape Europe in a particular way, making it inherently normative. They are the means by which political battles are fought, the reasons for those battles, and the means by which power is acquired. These discourses on Europa are not neutral, and have taken shape over time. Each is characterized by its conceptual framework, principles of direction and movement, a power dynamic, and an orientation towards good and evil. In actual speech and public debate, they often intermingle and are difficult to distinguish from one another. No one speaks the language of a single discourse consistently; we usually use various European discourses simultaneously, which sometimes contradict each other.

1. The Europe of the States

The first discourse is the Europe of the States—the more traditional term being confederalism. Here, it is argued that European politics can best thrive through cooperation between national states. The starting point of this thinking is the peoples and states themselves. The idea prevails that European states have organized themselves in a balance of power for centuries and will continue to do so. The main political framework consists of power and the national interest. Therefore, the legitimacy of Europe resides in the national rule of law. Only the States possess sufficient authority, power, and capability to establish European cooperation. Sovereignty of the national states is highly valued, and this discourse distrusts central institutions. The Europe of the States favors diplomatic summits of government leaders and aims for peace and maximum prosperity for the populations of the separate countries. An important origin myth of this discourse is the princely power and the history of warring states. What has been is given precedence over the present and the uncertain future: the ideologues of this discourse base their legitimacy on the great historical developments of the past. The discourse of the States is mainly supported by historians and geopolitical thinkers who emphasize the cooperation of states as the highest political form of Europe. Alongside the government leaders, geopolitical thinkers and diplomatic heavyweights often speak in this discourse.

To deepen Van Middelaar scheme from a more philosophical stance, we could associate political realism with this discourse. Here, the political oppositions of war and peace and friend and foe often outweigh the moral distinctions of good and evil. Common sense and a realistic view are the main strengths of this group. Historians tell us that the political will of sovereign states drives history. The Europe of the States may value European institutions, but mainly to show how they dance to the tune of their sovereign masters (Luuk van Middelaar, The Passage to Europe, p. 22). If cooperation and treaties on a common market and currency are applauded, it is only because the decline of the nation-state and sovereign will is not at stake. In short, the partnerships reflect the national political will. Each treaty only shows and represents the relative power of the states and their aspirations and vision for Europe. Icons in this discourse include figures like French President Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) or a geopolitical thinker such as Robert Kaplan.

2. The Europe of the Citizens

The second discourse is the Europe of the Citizens, traditionally known as federalism. This discourse seeks to transfer certain powers of the national states’ trias politica to a European institution, such as the Parliament, the European Court, and a European government, where legitimacy rests on a European electorate. Therefore, a European public and public opinion are crucial to leap over national states and directly influence the citizens. Van Middelaar notes that just as the spokespeople of the States discourse are not necessarily the states themselves, the spokespeople of the Citizens discourse are not simply the (national) citizens (idem., p. 25). Mainly writers and intellectuals pick up the pen here, often without the ‘flesh and blood’ citizens being aware of it or wanting to have anything to do with it, to try to speak on behalf of a European citizen.

Again, we could further develop Van Middelaar’s analysis based on his own work. The highest goal of the Europe of the Citizens is often cultural unity, and the minimum political game is political unity. This is thus more than mere economic unity. The origin myth of this discourse lies in the French and American Revolutions, which brought citizens to power. Since then, the Europe of the Citizens often refers to the European Civic Spirit. This discourse only became a clear political actor much later and made its ‘official’ debut after World War II. While the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) was an important starting signal for the Europe of the States, the ECSC (1951) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) are significant for the Europe of the Citizens.

The discourse of the Citizens is fond of terms like construction and project, referring to a European public that still needs to be created and a European world that still needs to be shaped. In contrast to power and interest in the discourse of the States, this is primarily a Europe of ideals and wishful thinking. Its ideologues focus on a radically different future and want to break with the past. The present mainly serves as a springboard for a better Europe in the near and distant future. Grand plans for Europe in 2050 or 2100 are not uncommon. This discourse appeals to the unknown and hopes to resonate with a broad audience.

We could further add that the citizen represents not only a political entity but is also morally engaged with one another in the European space. The honorable notion of human infinite and unconditional worthiness and the fundamental equality of persons is an unshakeable foundation in the discourse of the European Citizen, from which morality is founded and society constructed. The prevailing opposition is therefore that of good and evil and human dignity and indignity. Not political realism but political idealism provides the ink for the pens of the intellectuals and essayists who try to crystallize the Civic Spirit of Europe in a discourse about European civilization and the European soul. But it is at the same time the jurists who particularly value the creative power of the rule, clearly visible in the language of construction (idem., p. 25). Since the first treaty came into force, Europe has been an unquestionable fact for the jurists.

3. Discourse of the Offices

The third discourse is the Europe of the Offices, focusing on a powerful European bureaucracy. The traditional term is functionalism, and its origin is the letter. This discourse tends to dismiss politics as somewhat trivial. More fundamental than the game between governments are the diffuse economic and social forces shaping daily life (idem., p. 18). This discourse has no grand visionary goal or weighty ideals; executable plans are the aim. Cultural unity is not primarily on the agenda for the future, at most secondary: European unification is a process of convergence by aligning underlying social and economic policies. The States set overarching goals and guidelines, but the European bureaucracy should steer this convergence process independently. Functionalists and bureaucrats of the ‘Offices’ live in a depoliticized present, often embodied in the image of the technocrat. They are mainly supported by the empirical scientists of integration, who eagerly use irrefutable models and statistics. Words here are often numbers, spoken mainly by economists, and more generally by experts and consultants.

As a philosophical movement, we might add to Van Middelaar that this discourse has affinities with pragmatism: what works is true. The logic is that of efficiency; means are aligned as efficiently as possible with predetermined goals. Plans must be well-calculated and critically questioned. Pros and cons need to be weighed to reach well-considered decisions.

Consequently, the moral framework of this discourse revolves around utility. The prevailing opposition is between pros and cons. Does our country benefit from this treaty change? ‘We want our money back!’ echoes Margaret Thatcher’s voice. Measurements and polls are central here. Research into sovereign debt, consumer behavior, tariffs, subsidies, governance practices, and trade flows determines the functionalists' agenda. The magic word of the Offices is integration. Ideally, the homogenization of economic interests, uniform rules, and social conditions leads to seamless integration. Cultural and political integration will follow naturally from economic integration. The spokespersons of this discourse are often senior officials and economists, embodied in figures like Jean Monnet in the 1950s, former ECB chief and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, or inequality economist Thomas Piketty.

Table I: The Discourses of Europe

This table shows the different discourses about Europe. The table provides a rough representation of information found in the various chapters of Van Middelaar's book (2009). As Van Middelaar himself never proceeds to such a schematization, this table remains a (free) interpretation by the undersigned. The spheres are also further deepened and elaborated, with the terms marked with an (A) as ‘Added by the undersigned’. I have attempted to reflect the discourses as accurately as possible. It should be clear that the basic rule of the spheres and discourses remains that they intersect and mix with each other. One should not perceive them as strictly separate and distinct discourses and spheres.

No discourse is pure and untainted. Reality is complex, and the schematic distinctions serve merely as guidance for understanding the question of who and what Europe is. The interplay and conflict of discourses constantly bring new power constellations, forms, and concepts to the stage. Instead of quickly dictating what is right or wrong and hastily forming an opinion on what Europe should do, this framework encourages us to first step back and navigate the various narratives in the debate about Europe.

To read 'Part II', click here.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
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4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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About the author(s)

Economist and philosopher Sebastiaan Crul writes articles on a wide range of topics, including rule of law in digital societies, the virtualization of the lifeworld and internet culture. He is currently working on his doctoral degree on the influence of digitalization on mental health and virtue ethics, having previously published dissertations on the philosophy of play and systemic risks in the finance industry.

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