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

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.

In the first part, I have discussed the three European Discourses Van Middelaar distinguishes in his fascinating work about the origin of the European Union (De Passage naar Europa: Geschiedenis van een begin, 2009). In that essay, I describe and enrich Van Middelaar’s scheme of the different discourses that are still relevant for today’s Europe, and help to structure the different narratives about the EU. Language matters. However, whoever designates language as the house of being also risks becoming too entangled 'by' language and ultimately trapped 'in' language. Life is more than language. There is always something that escapes language, which means that life is, in many respects, pre-reflexive and pre-linguistic. The way we move through and orient in the European space is not only geographical and linguistic but also spherical. Discourses refer to the different ways we talk about and understand Europe, while spheres pertain to the various dimensions—social, political, cultural—in which European life and identity are experienced and enacted. Following Van Middelaar, in this second part I will focus on a spherical analysis of Europe, divided once again into three and enriched by myself.

The European spheres

Firstly, it is important to note that today we find it difficult to speak for or on behalf of Europe. Who today speaks as a proud, powerful, or assertive representative of Europe? Perhaps the EU commissioners or the elected Parliamentarians? For the post-war alliance of European states, the situation was different. Long before the European community emerged, the term Europe had a certain geographical or cultural meaning. One might think of the universal values of modernity and the Enlightenment, the Judeo-Christian tradition, or simply point geographically to the European continent. But no one could claim to speak for Europe. Without a Parliament, a Court, European Citizens, a currency, a flag, or an anthem, one must conclude that Europe as a political body did not exist.

However, since the origin of the European Union it is possible to speak on behalf of Europe. The European spherical space has since become more than an inspired continent or a shared cultural history. Various entities pose as representatives of the European political body. The summits of government leaders, the Parliament, the European Court, the Franco-German duo, the London-Paris-Berlin trio, national parliaments, the five largest economies, or the President of the Commission—all have tried to speak for Europe. With mixed results: on the one hand, they all seem to assume the existence of a European political body, but on the other hand, their diversity and unstable character reveal this to be an illusion. This reveals a significant source of confusion. Van Middelaar presents a vast array of thought categories as answers to the question of how European space mobilizes: geographical borders, cultural units, an imposing history, legal treaties, and social and economic practices. Therefore, a clear analysis of the legitimacy of Europe is very complex. However, his analysis of spheres can help us clarify this issue.

Van Middelaar also distinguishes three different European spheres: the Outer sphere, the Inner sphere, and the Intermediate sphere. A brief explanation of the phenomenon of the sphere is appropriate here. A sphere should not be equated with space. The sphere is often 'visible' or 'tangible' in the space but not easily recognizable. A sphere is something ‘in between’ people that constitutes both subject and object, determining actors' actions, the prevailing mood within an environment, and influencing people's habits in a living world. It cannot be reduced to a spatial or temporal dimension in a quantitative sense and always encompasses more than geometric and temporal properties. It revolves more around the energetically-symbolic field between people in a space. Think of the atmosphere in a house, restaurant, or football stadium, or the sphere in the country during election time or in the midst of a pandemic.

Why is it important to speak about spheres? We are quite inclined to locate the EU 'there' in Brussels when we think of the commissioners or the Parliament in Strasbourg. As long as we are stuck with the concept of space and understand it too geographically, we quickly reduce the European Union to a place situated somewhere (else), usually outside our own national borders. Van Middelaar sets the tone for this new paradigm of European ‘spherology’ and distinguishes three different spheres of Europe. The spheres partly overlap with the discourses of the previous article (of the States, the Offices and the Citizens), but note, they do not perfectly coincide. They intersect each other and the discourses like concentric circles. Van Middelaar states that each European sphere has its principles of order and movement, which we think are characterized by a self-image and a specific idea of what Europe is. We could add that specific habits and manners reflect the psychology of the players in each sphere, visible in the practices of the different European institutions that characterize these spheres. Finally, we argue that each sphere is also supported by certain distinctive symbols.

1. The Outer Sphere

The Outer Sphere is the assembly of sovereign states on the European continent. According to Van Middelaar, the principle of movement here is the pursuit of self-interest, and order is established by the balance of power between states and territorial borders. When asked about European identity, people prefer to answer geographically: 'Europe is nothing more than a continent.' It is the 'European concert' of warring states, each pursuing the best for their population, strengthened by a national identity and history.

We might say that the flag is the supporting symbol here. It is a spherical world of war, concessions, alliances, and peace conferences. Since the 16th century, they have together shaped the political relationships that have led to territorial areas of sovereign states. Key moments are border shifts or rearrangements including the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. 'Around it' existed only international law, which was still in its infancy and mainly ensured the inviolability of ambassadors and the neutrality of certain bodies. Today, it also includes the right to war and peace.

Consequently, it seems justified to say the citizen of the nation-state became the dominant self-image in this sphere since the 19th century. The national citizen is the constitutive power of the political body and thereby obtains certain civil rights. Together they form the general political will. 'I am a citizen and have certain rights!' and 'our own people first' are important slogans often setting the tone in this sphere. The debate between civil rights and universal human rights remains one of the most important issues for the EU. The border is crucial for the Outer sphere, as an expression of the unity of the sovereign state and the clear demarcation of inside and outside. Therefore, Europe is primarily an outside and only secondarily and voluntarily an 'inside'. This order is more difficult for the other spheres.

Consequently, no one speaks on behalf of Europe in the Outer sphere. When we think of (European) political institutions, it is mainly the individual national parliaments and the attitudes of government leaders in the European Council that we can identify with this sphere. Rules and habits range from adequate gestures like formal handshakes or concessions, to more hostile behaviors visible in vetoes, threats of an 'exit', demands for opt-outs, or boycotting a country. The psyche in the Outer sphere is characterized—mainly thinking of the government leaders—by maneuvering, threatening, and sensing. A wise politician does not just lay all his cards on the table, builds relationships, and stands his ground. The greatest politicians of the Outer sphere have tact; as politicians or leaders, they often see the political game primarily as 'the art of the possible'.

2. The Inner Sphere

The Inner Sphere emerged after the founding pact and christened itself as the Community. Founders Schuman and Spaak wanted a radical break with nationalism and its degenerate forms of the 20th century. The founding pact created institutions (the High Authority and the Court) that broke with the tradition of peace treaties from the Outer sphere. Now, decisions could be made by majority vote in the name of a European interest. The borders of the Inner sphere are defined by the legal boundaries of the jurisdiction and are, by nature, a self-expanding field of action of the participating countries in the treaty or the Union.

Van Middelaar argues that its guiding principle is characterized by an idea of the future. In this sphere, Europe is first and foremost a project, both geographically (expansion to more member states) and in terms of content (expansion to more spheres of action). An original feature is that the treaty texts in advance contain the cordial invitation for their own revision (Luuk van Middelaar, The Passage to Europa, p. 39). The order and stability are not characterized by the balance of power but by the treaty with its legal bindingness for the member states. The principle of movement is thus embedded in the treaty texts, the rule that binds.

Following this thought, we might say the corresponding self-image is that of the legal entity, as the Authority could make decisions from day one to which the states and their inhabitants had to comply. As residents of the European Union, the European citizens has had certain privileges and benefits, but also obligations and bonds. This is particularly well visible in the judge's gavel, symbolizing both the order created by the judge and the rulings handed down. The treaty provides a solid foundation for the Commission but can also be frustrating, as the Inner sphere can usually only appeal to proposals or initiatives in the name of the treaty. This 'abstraction' is both a strength and a problem, leading to many tensions with the Outer sphere. Habits and manners are embodied in countless meetings, resulting in new protocols, directives, procedures, and regulations. In this respect, it is a powerful body, but it is rarely labeled as a European political body. It is the Europe of innumerable documents and letters, loved and hated by many. Decisions must be made here, new proposals initiated, policies implemented, and legislation monitored.

Seventy years after the Treaty of Rome, it is clear that the European project of the Inner sphere has been partially realized and remains partly a project. Those who interpret it positively say that many results have been achieved, and much work remains to be done. Those who interpret it negatively think it has gone too far and call for a reduction of the Inner sphere's power. One way or another, it is clear that the Inner sphere, with the European Commission as its most symbolic body, has significantly expanded its domain to various spheres of action and member states but has simultaneously underestimated the influence of the Outer sphere.

3. The Intermediate Sphere

In between the Inner and Outer sphere, a third sphere has emerged, which Van Middelaar calls the Intermediate Sphere. It is hardly visible, but this is precisely its strength and flexibility; it intersects and overlaps both other spheres but also has a certain uniqueness; it emerges as a side effect of the founding of the community and has become increasingly prominent and important in history. It concerns the ‘collectivity’ or ‘togetherness’ of the states, most clearly visible in the regular meetings of government leaders, formalized in the European Council in 1974. This is a Europe of the members. Within ten years, this grew into the highest authority within the European Union. The Inner sphere feared it would be a parasitic institution because the European Council operated by veto and decided by strong consensus only (instead of by majority).

The characteristic round table of the Council, with rotating chairmanship and the unending conversation between government leaders, is the primordial symbol of this sphere. While the Commission concerned itself with the price of cheese, the European Council wrestled, with varying success, with the fundamental political topics that demanded a joint response to cross-border crises in the past two decades, such as the Eurocrisis, migration crisis, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, etc. Even before that, the member state sphere moved between the Inner and Outer spheres of Europe, creating a discourse that could not be reduced to the other spheres and discourses. Therefore, it has no clear name or distinctive institutions or bodies; it is the Intermediate sphere of the Member States as a collective or gathering. Both the principle of movement and the principle of order contain elements of the other two spheres. Concerning the Inner sphere, the self-interest of the member states is important, but also the growing awareness of the collectivity of interests. This is the crux. The nations remained on the map as nations after the treaty, each with its own culture, habits, and history. Moreover, each nation-state has a population full of expectations and desires towards their parliaments and government leaders, who had not themselves decided on the founding pact.

The principle of order of this sphere consists of elements already encountered in the other spheres. It comprises three components: balance of power, law, and membership. What France can demand is not granted to Luxembourg; the position of the state matters. Europe is not a symmetrical affair of members. But France was also the first to resume its empty seat during the first constitutional crisis of 1965-1966, seven months later. This way, it realized that leaving the club was harder than presumed. There is an awareness of being condemned to each other, which governments have sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed to convey to populations until today. The UK's departure from the Union does not contradict this I would say. The difficult relationship the ‘Island’ has had with the ‘Continent’ shows that 'being condemned to each other' is not only treaty-based but also historical, cultural, geographical, and economic.

Consequently, the self-image has a dual character; one sees oneself as a resident of one's own country, but European motives also play a role, pointing beyond one's own borders. One relates to oneself as part of a gathering of populations in Europe. Therefore, we might better understand the European identity from this sphere not as a community but as a fellowship. It is one public that can be mobilized behind a goal but also hopelessly divided and distinguished into sectional interests and different cultural and language communities.

The most important aspect of the Intermediate sphere is that it acts as a collectivity concerning the absolute outside, meaning Europe as a geopolitical player on the world stage. The outside world demands a common point of contact. Initially, this took shape in the 1950s and 1960s as a trade bloc in discussions in Washington or London, but later, the awareness of joint political interests also penetrated the Intermediate sphere. Events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 9/11 attacks, and more recently, the euro crisis, the migration crisis and the war in Ukraine, all call for a joint foreign policy.

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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