"Populism actually splits the nations itself."

Ulrike Guérot, author of the book Why Europe should be a Republic: A political utopia’, makes her case during the Tegenlicht Meet Up Eurotopia. In a Skype conversation, she laid down her vision for the future of Europe. A relevant talk for every European.


Do you feel that your ideas receive a totally different reception nowadays than maybe five or ten years ago when you were more part of the European system?

Yes, there is a big resonance board, but they are not similar. It is really a question of whom you talk to, who listens to who and who looks for what. People always talk about the establishment, but if you ask me where the ideas of the European Republic are now well received, than it’s not in the European Parliament or in the commission. It’s not the official Brussels who listens. There are many other people out there: the churches, youth organizations, civil society associations, progressive movements, etc. There are really different constituencies in which ideas are now awaking and these milieus are connecting. Official MP’s or national newspapers or the EU institutions aren’t really listening to the discourse.

Do you feel you need them to achieve something? How will we implement this idea on a practical level? Because there is such a strong tendency towards other ideas on a political level in Europe. National politicians don’t want to talk about Europe too much and the people are focusing more on nationalistic tendencies.

First I would dispute this. I frequently get this question and there are two questions in it. First, is what you say not completely opposed to the renationalisation trend? And the second part of it is how do we go from A to B, is this totally a utopia? I would answer to the first thing that I would dispute whether we are really experiencing a renationalisation. I think what we see beneath the surface is that the discourse about renationalisation is there and that’s the way we frame it, but I would dispute that this is the reality. Because my argument or my thesis is rather that populism actually splits nations. That is what we see in the UK with Brexit, the Britons wanted to protect their national identity against the European continent. What they got was the implosion of the British nation. Today, if Theresa May has one problem, it is the unity of the British people. The City of London, the young people, Scotland, Wales, whatever you have, but no more unity. The same for Poland, we saw the Polish people against the peace in the streets. You have Austria nearly split although Hofer didn’t win for three percentage points, so my argument is that populism, instead of driving us towards a renationalisation, is only the surface of the discourse, but beneath, it actually splits the nations itself. So we can discuss where that will lead us. That is an interesting question, because if we could be relaxed, which is difficult in these times, we could argue – in theory at least – that if Europe is to overcome the nation state, then we need some energy to break these nation states up. So if populism splits the nations and what we get is societies and people struggling for either a progressive agenda in difference to those struggling for an identitarian agenda, than actually, wouldn’t we get what we have been calling for, which is precisely the politicization of the European discourse? And that’s the question mark. But let me just do another quick sentence of how to go from A to B and whether it is really illusionary. First, obviously it is illusionary. Second, any illusion or utopia starts with a first step. I’m receiving many emails these days, but one was very pleasing to me came from the regional parliament of Saarland: they asked me to come, to discuss the Republic in the Saarland regional parliament. I mean, this is one step. The current regional parliament of Saarland, which is a part of Germany, is a real parliament. If these people are in real life discussing these ideas than the utopia is already in real life.

Okay, wonderful. I’m going to fire up the next question: a lot of people told me these regions can be a solution or a more local identity, but if nations can be xenophobic, nationalistic or non-working, than creating 50 regions can also create more problems. A region can be xenophobic or nationalistic, or if you wish, regionalist, but on a real practical note as well, if decision-making with 28 member states is difficult, how is it going to work with 50 regions?

Well first, obviously, I do not want to sound naive, the world won’t be a better place with the European Republic and we are not Lenin, we don’t invent the better people. I want to say this upfront, we are not Animal Farm here, we are not inventing or educating better humans, life would be more or less the same, we change the system. And I say this on purpose because every system has its flaws so if ever there is a European Republic, it will have flaws. And then, being not naive means also that regionalism today comes along with proto-fascistic tendencies or if you look to all this discourse about Heimat identity, Tirol, Bavaria, women back to the kitchen, the whole thing, I mean, many times the notion, the connotation we have with regionalism is more a right-wing, populist, sort of connotation. I think there is a problem here and the problem is indeed that the left or progressives, that the left has no notion of Heimat to offer to people. I think it’s a problem because people, also workers, rural people, need Heimat, need identity. But the left has no positive connotation because it’s always a transnational or cosmopolitan scheme. I think the left should invent a sound or some notion of what Heimat and identity is, without turning that into a proto-fascistic type. I hope you understand me, so, Lega Nord and all this is obviously not the sort of regionalism that I want. I think it’s the duty of the left to think about positive connotations of identity and about Heimat, so that people actually do not need to go to the populist to find identity. And then the second point of the question was, if it’s 60 or 55 or 23 is that any better than the current 28? The answer is yes, because you create a different level playing field. Today’s European Union has the flaw that we have three big elephants, one of them is Germany, the other big elephant is, now leaving, the UK, France is also a big elephant. It’s three big elephants and then tiny ones and then very tiny ones, like Malta or Luxembourg, there’s obviously a very very great asymmetry. Nobody cares about the interests of the Portugese or even the interests of the Dutch, are you taken care of in terms of what your national interest is in the European system? There is a big flaw in the EU system, these three big elephants and the idea of having level playing fields with similar population strata, there’s research done by Leopold Kuhn, who is an Austrian sociologist and who twenty years ago did a lot of work. He studied why political entities between 8 and 15 million are basically best to function. And they are best to function, it’s pretty ironic, because clientelism works best, which means that you do not feel governed from far away, say governed from Washington, governed from Berlin, governed from Moscow. But in small entities you think you have a cousin in government that helps you with a problem. So, whether you have a cousin or not in government is not the thing. The thing that you believe it makes these small entities work. So if we could conceive the level playing field argument, that would be my argument.

Final question,which is related to one of the directions of a solution that was mentioned in the audience:  shouldn’t we be working on a more social or a good working Europe focussing on welfare? Instead of changes in the political system or new regions and those changes, shouldn’t we be working on a more equal Europe that would solve the problem with populism and people feeling disconnected from the decisions that are taken?

Obviously, I mean, in the book, I have a whole chapter, I have three chapters of the new political order, the new territorial order, the new economic order, I offer three types of reconstruction of Europe. And obviously, the political order goes with a new economic order and vice versa, so one idea of having these regions also as the constitutive elements of the republic, the Utopia, how I paint it, is also that decentralization first is an economic argument for better economic performance and by the way this is not a left argument. Most conservative economists say you need decentralized economies to act as the backbone of economies and so on and so forth. So decentralization, second because what we see in metatrends, like decentralization of energy supplies, in Germany we are now doing sustainable energy, we are moving away from the big energy centers to small nets and small grids and so there is a decentralization factor also in the way we produce energy and you can mirror this in the economic fabrics. And then it’s better for the people in the rural areas and my idea was, if you want to enforce this, if you build the system upon the regions, they have more leverage in the political system, so that was the idea that this economic decentralization goes together with the political leverage in the system. So yes I agree, we need physical clips like European employment scheme, we would also need to discuss about European bottom income, or basic income, so I totally agree, we need to reconstruct the European economic system along with the political system.

That’s going to be it for now, Ulrike Guérot, thanks a lot on behalf of the entire audience here, thanks a lot for joining us.

comments on this article
There are comments on this article
in Amsterdam
comments on this article