More justice through more Europe

An interview with Ulrich Beck

While discrepancies between EU member states can be overlooked during win-win periods of growth, recession triggers xenophobic and anti-European reactions in both rich and poor countries. In interview with Nikola Tietze and Ulrich Bielefeld for Mittelweg 36, Ulrich Beck explains how inequality leaves the Union susceptible to decay. Building on the sense of a common European destiny engendered by the crisis, how can Europe be communicated as an opportunity for more power rather than a threat to national sovereignty?

Mittelweg 36: What do the financial crisis and the nuclear energy crisis represented by Fukushima mean for Europe?

Ulrich Beck: I’d see the dynamics and the relevance of both events – the financial crisis and Fukushima – in terms of my concept of the risk society, or world risk society. The risk society is a could-be-society. The term risk refers to the “could-be”, the anticipation of catastrophes in the present. One has to differentiate here between the future, of which we know nothing, and our conception of the future, which is portrayed or socially constructed as a global risk in the widest sense. This catastrophic subjunctive is the typhoon of events that broke into the centre of social institutions and people’s daily lives in the form of the financial crisis (though not only that): irregular, rooted neither in the constitution nor democracy, charged with unacknowledged incomprehension, blowing away hitherto fixed points of reference. As a result, the sense of a kind of community of destiny arises. This is indicated by the abrupt downturns in the financial markets, whose turbulence makes tangible the interconnectedness of different worlds. If Greece declares bankruptcy, is that another sign that my pension in Germany is no longer safe? What does “state bankruptcy” actually mean? For me? Who would have thought that the banks, usually so arrogant, would ask the states for help, and that the chronically hard-up states would rush through measures enabling astronomical sums to be placed at the disposal of these cathedrals of capitalism? Today, it is universally taken for granted. That isn’t to say that people actually understand what it means to be joined by a common financial destiny consisting of insecurity, incomprehension and the sense of cross-border dependency. This anticipation of global risk works its way into the very capillaries of daily life and, as I see it, is one of the major forms of mobilization in the twenty-first century. Everywhere these kinds of threat are perceived locally as cosmopolitan events creating an existential bond between one’s own life and everyone else’s. Such events collide with the conceptual and institutional framework that has so far delineated how we think about society and politics. They challenge this framework from within and at the same time encounter differing cultural conditions and contexts that lead to very contrary cultural and political estimations of the risks.

Mittelweg 36: Is there a specifically European form of anticipation of risk, in this case the anticipation of the financial crisis and Fukushima?

UB: In my view, there’s a difference here between the financial crisis and the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. The financial crisis can simply be individualized in the national sense, i.e. ascribed to certain nations and national spaces. We saw that happening in the Asian crisis, which everyone expected to turn global but which then remained an Asian crisis after all. The Russian crisis remained a Russian crisis, the Argentinian crisis an Argentinian one, and so on. In contrast, the constantly reigniting “global” financial crisis is characterized by the fact that it boomeranged back to the central country of capitalism, the USA. It was therefore perceived as a global risk – at least in its initial stages. The states played at being saviours of the world and rushed to help the banks, infecting themselves with the insolvency virus along the way, and thus the global financial crisis is re-ascribed to nations – not to Europe! Today, southern European indiscipline is blamed, not the global financial crisis. In other words, the crisis is largely perceived within the national horizon, although especially in Europe it reveals an ambiguity: in Greece, Portugal, Spain and also in Italy, the crisis has to do with German, French, British, and American banks and credit institutes; nevertheless, everyone pretends it’s merely a matter of the nation states and their particular problems – “the bankrupt Greeks”. The rating agencies in particular employ this principle of national accountability, thereby concealing the fact that the bailout funds being directed to Greece et al. are also rescue packages for German, French and US banks. To put it another way, the interconnectedness – the mixture – exists, but the centre of attention is focused exclusively on national governments and the questions that arise from them. This attitude sometimes culminates in the idea that the financial crisis would be solved were Greece to leave the eurozone or even the European Union. However, no consideration is given to the consequences of such an exclusion on other nations or even the European space as a whole.

This perfectly exemplifies the dilemma currently facing Europe. On the one hand, there is the reality of Europeanization, in other words there is a close institutional connection and coordination between the European countries and Brussels. In the case of the financial crisis, that means transnational risk redistribution in economic and banking sector. A similar picture emerges in many other realms: in the realm of the law, of course, as the constituting factor of Europe, as well as in the realm of culture, politics – think of the European borders. On the other hand, our actions are based on the perception that we live within isolable containers of power. When things get rough, there emerges the illusion that all problems can be solved by simply isolating the container of power. “We’ll manage this alone – we Germans, we French, we Luxembourgers”. That’s the slogan of Europe’s demise.

Mittelweg 36: But how did Fukushima, a Japanese event, turn into a global political event, a European event, even a German domestic political event?

UB: I understand the issue to be somewhat different in the case of Fukushima. Here one can indeed see that an event in Japan, 8000 kilometres away, is able to cause a change in German nuclear energy policy within just a few weeks. I’d draw the following conclusions from this: first, the perception of risk – such as the risk of nuclear energy – can no longer be limited to single countries. Nuclear energy programmes have turned society into their laboratory and now they have to accept the findings of that international laboratory. Second, the equation that geographic distance equals social distance – meaning that the irrelevance of events grows in proportion to that event’s geographical distance – can no longer automatically be applied. The idea that social proximity is concurrent with geographical proximity and hence with territoriality, cultural belonging, national identity and political system has generally turned out to be questionable.

So, on the one hand, we have a process of de-bordering based on the medial representation of risks, the “could-be” catastrophe. On the other hand, this process of de-bordering encounters different cultural and political contexts in Europe. These global risks are seen as incalculable and are based, at least in part, on incomprehension: since these kinds of inconceivable catastrophes aren’t supposed to occur, there isn’t supposed to be any knowledge to be gained from them. This results in cultural conflicts; a clash of risk cultures, you might say. If you take climate change seriously, you live in a different world from the person who sees it as an impertinent attack on the American way of life, or as a new form of European imperialism. Whether a global risk is perceived and taken seriously as such depends, among other things, on whether there are realistic alternatives for acting in response. For Germany (unlike many other countries), entry into the renewable energies market was a viable alternative. There was also agreement in Germany long before Fukushima to phase out nuclear energy. A year ago, Angela Merkel tried to prolong this process, but not really to end it. One can thus develop a conceptual tool kit to understand the different cultural perceptions in Europe, America, Asia and so on. At the end of the day, the German decision wasn’t so much about pulling out of its nuclear energy programme but about entering the renewable energies market, which could bring Germany a huge competitive advantage in the coming years and decades. In France, in contrast, Fukushima was perceived completely differently; there the economy is almost entirely based on nuclear energy and nuclear weapons belong to national confidence. It has to be noted, however, that in all European countries the governments and industry adopted a very different view from that of the population at large. Even in France, the majority of the population, with the TV images of Fukushima still vivid in the mind’s eye, said they would prefer to withdraw from nuclear energy. It remains to be seen what role this issue will play in the upcoming presidential elections.

Mittelweg 36: 1957 was the year not only of the Treaty of Rome – the treaty that established the European Economic Community – but also of Euratom, the treaty of the European Atomic Energy Community. Is Germany tendering its resignation from European energy politics by dropping out of the nuclear energy programme? Are we, in other words, witnessing a re-nationalization on the part of Germany?

UB: Yes, that’s one element at play in the German decision to abandon nuclear energy. But there’s another element that’s also decisive for what’s happening in Germany at the moment: the end of nuclear power entails a farewell to one of the symbols of first modernity – the modernity that relied on technology and technological progress as well as on social and political progress. Recall that the CDU and FDP promoted their partial withdrawal from the nuclear phase-out as a reckoning with the anti-progressivism of the SPD and the Greens. That strategy has obviously backfired. Phasing out nuclear energy has become attractive for all political parties as nuclear energy becomes more expensive (more controls, insurance) and as renewable technologies become cheaper (as they get better); in other words, phasing out promises future markets worldwide and hence renewed political legitimacy.

As a member of the German government’s ethics committee on the nuclear phase-out, I advocated a European and even global perspective. Interesting is that for Angela Merkel – and I think this is part of the re-nationalization that we are currently witnessing viz. Fukushima – the central operative unit of political decisions and their legitimation is the German state. In this context, Europe plays only a supporting role. Established European contracts are taken into account only in order to directly assert a certain policy, without considering the consequences doing so might have for Europe. Yet any European or cosmopolitan perspective must include asking what it means for other countries if Germany withdraws from its nuclear energy programme. This question should always be present in all considerations. The discussions in the ethics committee were characterized by one theme: if we go ahead, perhaps others will follow. After all, you can’t demand that everyone goes along with you. That would imply the dictatorship of the status quo.

Mittelweg 36: Le Monde saw in Germany’s withdrawal from its nuclear energy programme an economic policy similar to the one you describe: Germany, said the French paper, had put its hopes in the renewable energy industry as early as twenty years ago, making it a leader in the field today. Furthermore, unlike the UK or France, Germany preferred its own territory as an industrial location. The combination of these factors was interpreted as evidence that, by phasing out nuclear energy, Germany is aiming for economic power and eventually economic dominance in Europe. In this light, the German decision to withdraw from its nuclear energy program entails a dangerous element of re-nationalization.

UB: Yes, definitely. The historical novelty of the European Union and its success does indeed rest on having performed the miracle of turning enemies into neighbours via economic interdependence. It’s only during the last two or three years that Germany has taken on a special position in the EU and, I believe, begun heading in a new direction. After reunification in 1990, the unification of Europe became Germany’s top political goal. The German constitution commits German politics to “serve world peace within a united Europe”. My impression is that this principle of the constitution is in danger of being forgotten.

However, at the moment there are several factors at play inducing Germany to take on a special role in Europe. One is the fact that crises such the financial crisis or climate change and other global crises overstretch the EU as an institutional-political instrument. Europe has seen and survived many crises, but for these it is not prepared. Its instruments are either inadequate or have been disabled. As a result, power is again departing from Brussels – if it ever arrived – and returning to the nation-states. The nation-states thereby obtain the initiative, but not in equal measure, but rather with Germany as the decisive economic power benefitting most. The times are over when the EU constitution and European institutions and politics could be defined on the basis of universal consensus. Now what’s crucial is how the governments of the member states perceive the new financial and political challenges. In this situation, Germany becomes a central actor in Europe and from this position can’t avoid turning the political challenges, the shortcomings, as well as extension of the European institutions into a political issue.

Mittelweg 36: But Europe has progressed so far in institutional terms – among other reasons because of supranational European law and the European currency – that its member states can’t simply withdraw.

UB: Right. But – to put it strongly – the exceptionality of the financial crisis doesn’t give a damn about the law. In order to prevent a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions (according to the general incomprehension, at any rate), action needs to be taken as soon as possible involving inconceivable sums of money. That means there’s a lack of institutional political instruments that would make it possible to turn the problems arising from Europeanization into further steps towards Europeanization. Take the euro, for example – a currency that cannot be guaranteed and controlled by any one nation-state. Yet there is neither a European financial regulatory body nor a European economic government that keeps an eye on the consequences of the single currency. Up to now Europe has been equated with Europeanization, in other words a process. More precisely, it has been a process of crisis, in which every new crisis has led to calls for the next step, which is subsequently introduced. That process is currently being denied in Germany. Instead, we have a sort of German euro-nationalism replacing the old deutschmark nationalism. The economic norms, the handling of the currency and the idea of currency security (the debt ceiling) – all these are German terms, visions that boil down to a German Europe. Only under these conditions is the German government prepared to dip in to the German purse, closely guarded as it is by the electorate, in order to put up the money for the European rescue package.

Mittelweg 36: Shifting the focus away from national governmental action towards social mobilization against nuclear energy, could one say that in the context of the Fukushima crisis there emerges a process of Europeanization rather than of re-nationalization?

UB: Indeed. If you step back and pose the sociological question as to what mobilization against nuclear energy through perception of risk means, one can see a cosmopolitan element. Perceived interdependence leads to consternation and sympathy as well as fear, hatred and self-isolation. However, one would need to reconstruct how deeply consternation and sympathy actually ran in the various national public spheres, and to what degree the expression of these sentiments was comparable. I’m sure that there were differences. Nevertheless, Fukushima, just like 9/11, the financial crisis and the many other crises over the last twenty years, led to a cosmopolitan moment – meaning that there emerged the sense of a kind of new community of necessity, a direct connection between one’s own concerns and the questions that keep humanity at bated breath, leading to opposing political mobilizations. This cosmopolitan moment is in evidence not only in Europe, however, but also in Japan, South America, China and the USA. I recently had a discussion with colleagues from Chile, which has many nuclear power stations and where ending the nuclear energy programme is currently unfeasible. Even there the population is enormously mobilized. Hence the cosmopolitan element of Fukushima can be seen beyond Europe and is evidenced by popular protests as well as conciliatory governmental reactions.

Mittelweg 36: Is there too little institutionalization of the cosmopolitan element in the EU, making a re-nationalization as you have described possible? Or did cosmopolitan Europe grant too great a role to the nation-states?

UB: It’s my impression that today, after long phases of re-nationalization, the cosmopolitan element has regained a stronger presence in the public sphere – both in party politics as well as the media. We have an odd situation in Europe: if you take the criteria of institutional architecture into account, the European Union is probably the most cosmopolitan structure there is. However, this expressed neither in the consciousness nor in the actions of the people and governments and obviously still rests on shaky ground. The discussion over a European economic government is now being used to illustrate the claim that the relationship between the European Union and its national member states amounts to a zero-sum game: the sovereignty granted to Europe by a nation-state is lost by the state and won by the European centre. Here the EU is misconstrued as a foreign state and not the combination of national sovereignties. In order to understand the relationship of Europe and its nation states, we need a new understanding of sovereignty. Because Europe does not take power away – it gives it to the nations. By internalizing the European rules of play, the member states – and only they! – gain access to new power options. They gain a voice in the European realm and far beyond, a voice that counts. They can directly influence the results of European politics. The solution to their “internal” national problems – such as criminality, migration, the environment, agricultural development and now the response to the global financial crisis and the euro crisis – ensues from the combined power of the EU. Here it becomes clear what is obviously so hard to communicate: that Europe is the European answer to globalization, enabling it to regain political power to act internally and externally as a community of nations. This is what can now once again be heard from the mouths of prominent CDU politicians.

The conclusion is that the relationship between the EU and the nation-states must not look like the relationship between nation-states, and must not be thought as an “either-or”. Instead, it’s about intermeshing and reciprocity, in order to enhance and extend options for power and action. This becomes particularly visible where countries that are not yet members of the EU but are aiming for membership, such as Turkey, carry out a process of self-Europeanization even into the minutiae of their social and political constitution. The influence of cosmopolitan Europe in the world at large and in its immediate surroundings does not rest on political or military might, but on the Europeanization of national interests. Hence there emerges a reflexive connection between national interests and Europeanization. This connection follows a logic of “as-well-as”, and that’s new. Nevertheless, the reflexive connection between national interests and Europeanization must be followed up and reproduced in the public sphere, so that options for power and action are extended for each individual. Take the example of Eurobonds: it can be argued that German self-interest is equivalent to European solidarity, since if the euro collapses, the German economy will go down with it. The reflexive amalgamation of national and European interests is, however, a complex public process that varies according to the very different political traditions and democratic forms of government in the European countries.

Mittelweg 36: Is the EU be unable to organize consent for its project when it suffers losses because, unlike the nation-state, it can’t claim solidarity and doesn’t build on community?

UB: Yes, in Europe, in each individual nation state, we’ve until now indeed been able to apply the familiar metaphor that, as the pie grows, the size of each piece of pie also grows. There has so far never been a negative distribution situation to the degree we’re witnessing now.

As I see it, a major deficit in sociology clearly emerges here. Processes of inequality and also class dynamics are perceived at the nation-state level. It’s claimed than national processes of inequality and class dynamics remain the central keys to understanding the dynamics of modern society both culturally and politically. The EU, however, demonstrates its own, peculiar, cross-European dynamics of inequality that penetrate through to the national level. Everybody underestimated how politically explosive social inequality would be for the EU. This pertains in two respects: first, the structural composition of social inequality characterizing the European Union is different to that of the USA, for example. To put it bluntly, in the USA there is inequality among individuals, in the EU among nations. Second, the distinction between creditor states and debtor states has become more acute as a result of the global financial crisis. In the EU, that has led to the development of anti-European and xenophobic reactions in both groups of countries.

The economist Branko Milanovic recently pointed out that, in 2007, after the last round of EU enlargement (when Bulgaria and Romania became member states), total inequality in the European Union, with its 27 member states, equalled that in the United States of America, with its 50 states. However, the structural composition of these inequalities is markedly different. Put simply, the main characteristic of inequality in the EU is that the member states are unequal; they are either rich or poor. In the United States, the main characteristic of inequality (independently of each state) is that individuals are either rich or poor. Rich and poor individuals are not, in other words, concentrated geographically, as they are in Europe, and wealth or poverty are not assigned to individuals as their “national fate”, but distributed across 50 states. The EU includes member states such as Luxembourg, one of the richest countries in the world, as well as Romania, which is considered poor by international standards. That means that even the poorest group of Luxembourgers have a higher income than the richest group of Romanians. In other words, Luxembourg’s and Romania’s distribution of inequality do not overlap: Romania’s income distribution ends where Luxembourg’s begins. In practice, this means that all Luxembourgers are richer than all Romanians. This is a radical example, but it illustrates the peculiar structural composition of European inequality among nations and the difficulties of making it visible through a sociology of inequality that remains within the confines of methodological nationalism. If you take the member state as your unit of research, you automatically prioritize the individualization of social inequality within the framework of the nation (as I also did for a long time).

One has to differentiate between two constellations here: first, the situation of a Europe whose national economies are growing – here inequalities among the countries are cushioned by a win-win situation. But what happens when, under the conditions of the global financial and economic crisis, the EU and hence all the member states enter the conflict dynamics of a logic of negative distribution? This is the second constellation. The bailout mechanism for southern European countries has assisted the development of a logic of conflict between the creditor and debtor countries. The creditor countries must introduce austerity measures at home and therefore put the debtor countries on the rack beyond the pain threshold. The debtor countries, on the other hand, see themselves subjected to the dictate of the EU, injuring the national sense of independence and pride. Both result in hatred of Europe being fostered in Europe, since Europe appears to all involved as a conglomerate of impossible demands. Hence the dramatic re-nationalizations mentioned previously. There’s a danger of a nationalism that is not so much aggressive as regressive. It emanates from the fear of losing all sense of security, be it socio-economic or the mental security inherent in the national self-image.

Mittelweg 36: The European Union differs from earlier states and empires that celebrated their origins in myths and heroic victories in that it is a transnational governmental institution born of the agony of defeat and the horror of the Holocaust. Does the European “community of fate” retain its significance today, when it’s no longer a matter of war and peace, no longer a generational experience?

UB: The existential threat posed by the financial crisis and euro crisis has once again made Europeans aware that they don’t just live in Germany, France, etc., but in Europe. Europe’s youth is experiencing its “European fate” for the first time. Better educated than ever before, young Europeans have high expectations, only to encounter impending state bankruptcy and the collapse of labour markets as a result of economic crisis. One in five Europeans under 25 is unemployed. Members of the academic precariat have pitched their tents and are raising their voices, while everywhere from Spain and Portugal to Tunisia, Egypt and Israel, youth protests are calling peacefully yet powerfully for social justice. Europe and its youth are united in anger at a political establishment that is rescuing banks with sums of money that exceed all powers of imagination, gambling away the future of younger generations along the way. If the hopes of Europe’s youth fall victim to the euro crisis, what future is there for a Europe that keeps getting older?

Mittelweg 36: Has sociology failed to analyse European society from the European point of view?

UB: Indeed, sociology has never really conducted a self-analysis of this kind. The new sociology of Europe lacks the European perspective, so that sociological theory and research still falls back into the habits of methodological nationalism. Given that legal and economic relationships in Europe are intermeshed and can no longer be differentiated along national lines, it is impossible to understand conflicts to do with inequality in Germany, for example, without including the European dimension. It has become absolutely necessary to use Europe as that unit of research previously defined as the nation state. Otherwise, the paradox of a real-existing Europe without Europeans remains the blind spot within the national perspective.

Mittelweg 36: How dangerous is the situation for Europe?

UB: Against this backdrop, I discern three overlapping processes that lead to the emergence of a new danger Europe is posing to itself: first xenophobia, second antisemitism and Islamophobia, and, third, hostility towards Europe. Xenophobia is nothing new and is always there. We sociologists are relatively unconcerned regarding antisemitism, so long as it remains contained within a few fringe zones. This problem has nevertheless grown massively due to hostility towards Islam. Critics of Islam have managed to present their rejection of the religious backgrounds of certain migrant groups in Europe as a kind of Enlightenment-inspired thinking. This is a paradoxical process that has gripped mainstream society. In Germany, it is represented by the name Thilo Sarrazin, but there are others. Under the conditions of crisis, we’re witnessing the growth, the overlap and the reciprocal aggravation of xenophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and hostility towards Europe. The result is that support for Europe is receding substantially – to an extent that I personally couldn’t have imagined.

Mittelweg 36: Combating xenophobia, antisemitism and Islamophobia is to a certain extent part of the EU’s self-understanding, as can be discerned from the various initiatives of the European Commission and institutions such as the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. In terms of the politics of memory, the EU focuses particularly on the history of national socialist crimes. However, the Europe of today bears at least two further memories of political violence – the memory of colonialism and the memory of Stalinism. Why doesn’t the EU build on these three memories, which Dan Diner described as mutually counter-active?

UB: Yes, that’s the question. First, I see these three memories to be de facto differently weighted. The colonial memory is least present in the EU constitution. Yet there is insufficient attention paid both to the relevance that the colonial countries had for the formation of Europe’s nation-states as well as the importance of the post-colonial countries for the development of the European Union itself. The Holocaust and Stalinism are more clearly accentuated. Yet colonial memory may have played a key role in the EU stance towards the events of the Arab spring in Northern Africa. Beyond that, the question arises as to why Europe’s special position of representing three memories is not being used as a source for new orientation and ideas for the future. This question constantly plays on my mind, without my having reached a satisfactory conclusion.

My current diagnosis for Germany is merely an unshakeable love of the status quo. On the one hand, we are one of the most dynamic industrial countries in the world and also among the most reliant on the global market. On the other hand, reunification obviously exhausted the need for change. A new, “without me” attitude is taking hold of thought and action. Even in the sciences, the theories about the liquefaction, even meltdown of social relations that have been around for a while now receive only lukewarm attention – despite the permanence of high-level intellectual debates being conducted here in Germany. The key intellectuals in politics and the public sphere have reacted to the intellectual and political departures being experienced in other parts of the world with unbelievable indifference. Today’s disoriented Germany, heaving, sighing and fumbling in the dark, didn’t come out of the blue. Our Munich research group has used the theory of reflexive modernization and world risk society to develop a figure of thought that by now has clearly become an everyday experience: the victory of radicalized modernity creates side effects that suspend the fundamentals and the coordinates of institutions as well as of personal, individual lives, in doing so politicizing them. Suddenly, burning questions arise: Europe – what for? Is the financial crisis dislodging democracy? What does family mean? I’ve tried to introduce this cosmopolitanism sociologically and to differentiate between “cosmopolitanism” as a normative and political theory and “cosmopolitization” as de facto social development. Cosmopolitization in its many forms can be described using the example of outsourcing-capitalism. This isn’t just a variation on globalization, but also a form of cosmopolitization, whereby the workforce of the rich (i.e. European) countries experience their replaceability and thus enter a direct relationship with the “global Other”. This direct relationship with the “global Other” is not one of interaction and discourse, but a relationship that challenges workers’ existential interest in secure employment. Put bluntly, this leads to an economic enmity that is of great everyday relevance for xenophobia, antisemitism and Islamophobia as well as hostility towards Europe. This economic enmity is a form of cosmopolitization without interaction or communication. It has nothing to do with philosophical cosmopolitanism, and in fact is practically its opposite. It is still a new relationship, one very relevant to reality, in which the “global Other” is present across all borders to enter the very midst of our lives in Europe.

I’d hoped that my distinction between cosmopolitanism (norms) and cosmopolitization (facts) would trigger a discussion of these developments, particularly in Germany, where cosmopolitanism has a great tradition. The classics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – Kant, Heine, Goethe, Schiller et al. – debated how cosmopolitanism, patriotism and nationalism related to one another. I’d imagined that this high culture, praised in Germany at every opportunity, would provide a means to rethink Europe and Germany’s self-description as a nation in the global era in a new and surprising way. However, I’m forced to recognize that this debate, which is being vividly conducted in many other languages, is falling on deaf ears in Germany.

Mittelweg 36: What difference would an increase in democracy in the EU – for example by creating a more powerful European parliament – have for the European crisis? Is it a crisis of “not enough democracy”, or is it something entirely different?

UB: In many ways, the crisis has emerged from a deficit of democracy. This deficit of democracy, however, shouldn’t be understood only in an institutional sense, but also in the sense that the people feel cut off and partly steamrolled by Europe. So far we’ve largely been dealing with a neoliberal interpretation of Europe, meaning that the economic factors of the common market have priority despite the existence of political institutions. The EU is dissolving national labour markets along with their internal security and in doing so exposing workers to new competition – which brings me back to cosmopolitization. In this sense, Europe poses a threat to the existential situation of many working people without granting them the opportunity to have a say or a chance to act in this matter. The trade unions are organized at the national level and can’t really intervene. If in doubt, the representatives of the European Union prefer to let the markets prevail and interpret any opposition to this merely as national resistance. In return, the people of Europe feel like they aren’t being taken seriously and can shift onto Europe neither the sense of social security that they experienced in the nation-state nor the perspectives of upward mobility that they associate with nation-state democracies. It’s therefore essential to think about a social Europe and how to link up national welfare benefits with Europe. The workforce must be able to see that the social securities of the national welfare states are not only being dismantled but also being re-built and extended via Europe.

When discussing Europe and democracy, one also has to think about forms of a European public sphere. “Create the Europe of the citizens now!” would be a surprising and essential answer to the euro crisis. It’s about initiating the Europeanization of Europe from below, about diversity and self-determination, about a political and cultural space in which citizens no longer confront each other as disenfranchised enemies. For example, an opportunity was missed by failing to put the draft of the European constitution to the vote on the same day throughout the whole of the EU, and thus to achieve a European result. Additionally, the condition that all European decisions must be reached unanimously undermines the development of the concept of a European public sphere. Unanimity is not reached at a family meal, let alone in politics. A European democracy must include European citizens’ movements – such as a movement supporting a European financial transactions tax. Why not organize a European referendum on phasing out nuclear energy? What we’re lacking are political polls that encompass all of Europe, that show that we’re dealing with issues that can’t be solved in the national contexts alone, and hence that illustrate that Europe has a dimension that enriches everyday life. Such polls necessarily include a battle of opinions. However, even when the result is negative, they will have demonstrated that Europe is not untouchable, but that it can be influenced and moulded by concrete decisions.

Mittelweg 36: Developing the idea of a European public sphere implies thinking about a European discourse. What might such a discourse look like and how might it be conceptualized, given the multitude of languages along with the recognition of this multitude?

UB: Translators are the new leading figures of the twenty-first century and at the same time probably also its proletariat. Indeed, we can no longer think the European idea of a public sphere or the European idea of society within the framework of national communities of language and solidarity. Europe is not an extended family, where anonymous friendships develop out of a common language. Not only consensus but also controversy can serve to unite the European community, subsuming, as it does, other communities. This above all includes controversy about the responsibility for political action and the attribution of this responsibility, as we are currently experiencing in the debt crisis. Such a controversy is an open, public process. Pace Jürgen Habermas and his consensus theory, I believe that what constitutes Europe is dissent and conflict about what makes up Europe.

Mittelweg 36: You once wrote that Europe needs a “dialogic imagination”. Does that mean we have to look for a narrative of dialogic imagining rather than a new idea of the public sphere? Who should and may take part in such dialogic imagining?

UB: I believe it’s more sensible to answer this question not in the sense of universalism, not with a master plan, but normatively. Where does dialogic imagining occur in Europe? Which conflicts emerge therein? Take as an example the family or even romantic relationships. We think of the family as fairly homogeneous and tend to understand it as a national family – bowing to the holy trinity of common passport, common mother tongue, common domicile. This, however, is increasingly becoming a figment of the imagination, since more and more people are loving and living on a European scale or in cosmopolitan forms of family and partnership. In Germany, every third child under five grows up in a bi-national family. Given this backdrop, one ought to ask how far a “dialogic imagination” can develop in such life circumstances, or if it fails to develop why that should be and what problems arise in the process. In our book Fernliebe (“Long distance love”), Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim and I discovered that even where individuals are willing to conduct their family, partnership and love lives across borders, either on the basis of their hopes or their concrete romantic and sexual relationships, this choice turns into a constant obstacle course of national rules and suspicions. Nevertheless, it’s here that potential spaces for dialogic imagination emerge.

Mittelweg 36: Are the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg or the European Parliament of the EU places for dialogic imagining?

UB: That is an empirical question. My initial response would be that European law and the European Court provide institutionalized spaces for dialogic imagination, which national law and national constitutional courts do not. European law is, in my eyes, one of the most avant-garde and most cosmopolitan actors in Europe, because it constitutes the EU. However, it remains to be seen whether the national courts will assert themselves with the argument that European law endangers democracy. Dialogic imagination takes place in very different ways in political parties as well. Feeling the pressure of the crisis, it seems to me that the European voices are collecting around the finance minister of the current German government, Wolfgang Schäuble. In any case, he is trying to find a European and dialogic wording for German interests. Maybe Merkel will now make her European volte-face, following from the energy turnaround. The Greens also provide examples of European voices – for example Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Cem Özdemir or Jürgen Trittin. It’s one of my hopes that we are witnessing a generational phenomenon here. It remains to be seen whether those who have experienced Europe in their education, their relationships or partnerships and who take multilingualism for granted, will be better able to live a dialogic imagination.

Mittelweg 36: Could one forward the theory that the conflicts currently being waged in the context of the finance crisis and against the background of Fukushima are an expression of existing European society? From this point of view, the processes of re-nationalization that we mentioned before are signs of an extended struggle for a European society and its form.

UB: Yes. That’s shown by the youth protests in European cities, as I said, or by the fact that the future of Europe has by now become headline news. Amidst the awareness of the crisis, signs emerge of a change of level and perspective. The discussion, in which the alternatives are presented in almost too clear-cut a fashion, is clearly about Europe as a whole – including national societies and nation-states. In this regard, Europe is essentially taking shape against its will. Returning to the consequences of the risks facing Europe and their representation, here we can witness the cosmopolitan imperative posed to Europe as well as to Germany. This is “cooperate or bust”. Cooperation will transcend competition, lack of it will lead to failure. There are two processes that are, in a sense, running simultaneously and counter to each other: one moment everything appears to be moving towards re-nationalization and, as a result, powers are being withdrawn from Europe and reclaimed at the national level. The next moment everything turns around and starts moving towards Europeanization again, following the realization that re-nationalization is causing us to become a danger to ourselves. Merkel’s policies have so far seesawed in this way. First the chancellor emphasized Germany’s national interest with an eye to local elections, then she followed it up with European solutions. We are indeed dealing with two intermeshed processes: re-nationalization and Europeanization, or cosmopolitization – processes with open ends. At least we can say that we are living in highly political times!

Mittelweg 36: According to your cosmopolitan approach, differences between nation-states, groups and persons are not the problem but the solution. One can counter that with the observation that the EU’s Europeanizing dynamics is thanks to its ability to guarantee legal equality and the promise of equal living standards for all EU citizens. How far is the recognition of differences between nation-states, groups and persons even viable for the EU?

UB: First, let me recall that I see cosmopolitanism as one of many possible social approaches to alterity. There is racism, which leads to essentialization, hierarchization and the clear valuation of the differences between groups. On the other end of the scale there is universalism, which claims absolute equality among humans – undoubtedly one of the great achievements in the history of mankind, but which effectively devalues or even ignores the peculiarities of mankind, in the shadow of its own viewpoint as it were. This leads to serious problems. The same advantages and disadvantages also apply to the universalistic model of Europe. The ideal can be a re-strengthening of the nation-states via the mutually exclusive alliance of nationalisms with controlled boundaries, within which patriots fight against the “system Islam”. Then there is nationalism, which defines equality within national confines and places alterity essentially on the outside. This view is shared by the proponents of a nationalist Europe. Multiculturalism, in turn, places alterities side-by-side as homogeneous cultures or nations. Cosmopolitanism, finally, can be considered a specific synthesis of these different variations of the social attitude towards difference. My model of a cosmopolitan Europe certainly requires a minimum of universalism, of equality. However, in contrast to a universalistic Europe, it places the dialogic imagination – the recognition and inclusion of the voices of the excluded Other – at the centre. Unlike the idea of a federal Europe, the cosmopolitan perspective aims not for the dissolution of nations, but for their continuation with a new significance; the cosmopolitan perspective assumes a minimal universalism and still presupposes the recognition of the Other internally and externally.

I believe that the problem you define in your question concerns not the relationship of equality and recognition of diversity, but clarifies the cosmopolitizing dimension of the comparability that is developing in Europe. So far we have witnessed and evaluated inequality within the framework of the nation state, and were able to ignore differences as external differences. National borders institutionalize incomparability, so that for the German point of view the income of a skilled worker in Africa or the UK becomes irrelevant. The EU qualifies this function of borders. This leads to increased comparability, while at the same time the conditions for equality are being created. Take the development and determination of the income for EU parliamentarians: until 2009, the EU member states were responsible for the remuneration of their EU parliamentarians, which led to radically different salaries being paid out for doing the same thing. In 2004, Italian MEPs received a gross income of about 11,000 Euro, their German counterparts about 7000 Euro, and their eastern European colleagues only a fraction of that sum. For a long time, it was understood that the national parliamentarians’ remuneration could not be compared. However, the mere existence of the European parliament created comparability. It thus made the differences between the parliamentarians visible and at the same time introduced the necessary condition to initiate equality. The uniform regulation for European members of parliament, introduced in 2009, fixed parliamentarians’ salary at 38.5 per cent of the basic salary of a European Court judge and made these salaries part of the budget of the European parliament. This example shows how national authorization of differences is being relativized and will, I propose, fall apart. This process increasingly politicizes differences and inequalities within Europe. From a sociological point of view, it is important to recognize this, since it is possible that the differences and inequalities themselves are not on the rise at all and may even be receding, yet are nevertheless becoming a more pressing topic. I therefore believe that the relationship between equality and the recognition of diversity contains major sources of conflict. How this relationship is to be formulated in cosmopolitan Europe has yet to be answered.

Mittelweg 36: Who should guarantee the specific proportion of recognition of diversity and equality in the EU?

UB: If one avoids seeing Europe as an institutionalizing nation-state that imposes equality and at the same time wants to provide for Europe’s national identities, two processes will have to be separated and dealt with at the institutional level. The first of these regards the distribution of recognition. In the nation-state, the majority is the measure of what is recognized and what is not, as can be clearly discerned in questions surrounding the national integration of immigrants. In Europe, the distribution of recognition is completely unclear and cannot be translated into a distribution of material goods, such as educational opportunities or similar. The distribution of material goods, secondly, must be defined in separation from the distribution of recognition. That leads to the question of how much inequality is viable for a cosmopolitan Europe that relies primarily on the recognition of differences. Answering this is one of the key issues of the development of a social Europe.

Mittelweg 36: How and where should sociologists observe European society? So far, you have pointed out the specifically European inequality structures and discrepancies between states and regions, as well as associated migration and mobility. Do you see further topics for a sociology of European society?

UB: When Edgar Grande and I wrote the book about cosmopolitan Europe, we asked ourselves where it is possible to experience and observe Europe as a society beyond its institutional form. Our answer was: in the life contexts of European families – having defined European families as having parents from different countries or as having developed and maintaining family networks that cross generational borders. We were expecting to find, for example, multilingualism, background differences and similar factors, which would not be identified as European within the families themselves, but would indicates traces of the experience of a European society in the family. However, it was impossible to carry out this approach empirically. The given data are organized by nation state. Even European data is based on national state surveys. To think within a transnational dimension of “as well as” contradicts the categories and practices of the data set, however it is indispensable for the analysis of the experience of European society at any level, not only that of the family.

As long as sociology bases its data collection and theory development (implicitly) on nationalism, it is still imprisoned by the nation-state. It should not ignore the national construction, such as national family laws, but it should investigate where and how people act, and thus create structures that deviate from the national construction and create a new reality, for example in families. In this regard, a sociology of European society would also include a sociology of European families or a sociology of European education, and would address the strongly promoted mobility of the Erasmus generation and its results. Instead, we have a sociology of education that pertains to Germany, the UK, etc., which might even enter into national comparisons, but which only touches indirectly on the transnational forms of life, educational biographies and careers of mobility. European mobility, however, is rare as a category of research in European sociology.

Social theory has also largely neglected the topic of Europe. This topic, even in comparison with other global-regional powers, for example, the US, China and Brazil, enables new concepts and insights from a certain social-theoretical point of view, namely that of cosmopolitan sociology. It is strange that sociology – which gained significance in the nineteenth century and as a matter of course has analysed national societies and researched the institutions of the nation-state in relation to the term society – has been able to distance itself so little from nationalism. The entirety of our terminology demonstrates the ignorance about Europe inherent in sociological theory. Sociological theory still builds on the idea that the nation-state and the national society are a unit. Global society is attached to this unit as “the enlarged nation and nation-state”. The national viewpoint might still recognize regional structures between national and global society, regarding the social as national, international and then global. The historically new and hitherto uncomprehended political aspect of the European Union is, on the one hand, the connection of national societies and European law, and the national, but intermeshed governments on the other. This aspect disappears out of social theory’s line of sight. Hence the complex structure that is Europe remains to be discovered by social theory.

Mittelweg 36: How should a policy that is structurally European be shaped in a situation where Europe no longer means a win-win situation, in order to counter the danger that, as you described above, Europe poses to itself? Who could advocate and advance such a policy?

UB: What characterized Ostpolitik in the divided Germany of the 1970s could and ought to constitute present-day European policy in the face of the financial crisis: a policy of unification across borders. Why was the unification with the GDR, massively costly though it was, such a matter of course? Why, on the other hand, is the economic integration of debtor countries such as Greece and Portugal so frowned upon? This isn’t just about who foots the bill. It’s about rethinking and redesigning the future of Europe and its position in the world. The introduction of Eurobonds would not be a betrayal of German interests. The path towards a union of solidarity reflects, like the recognition of the Oder-Neisse border in its time, well-considered German interests. It is an expression of European-German Realpolitik. Why should Europe not introduce a financial transaction tax? It wouldn’t do anyone any serious harm, not even the banks. It would, however benefit all member states and open financial opportunities for action for a social and ecological Europe able to grant its workforce the promise of security through Europe – and hence take up a cause of particular importance to young Europeans.

While Ostpolitik of the 1970s had the slogan “change by rapprochement”, today’s slogan could be “more justice through more Europe”. Just as many vilified talk of the normalization of relations with the Communist block as treason, so today the demand for “more Europe!” is a slap in the face of national confidence. Merkel’s politics of to-and-fro-and-back-and-forth might be excellent preparation for a future Social Democratic-Green Party project. As soon as the SPD and the Greens manage to convey the idea that a social Europe is more than just an introverted scrooge, but – citing Hegel – an historical necessity, even the SPD will regain popularity and start winning elections. This, however, depends on its courage to openly declare European policy its main project, like Ostpolitik was some forty years ago.

This interview was conducted in the late summer of 2011.

Published 29 December 2011
Original in German
Translated by Nadja Kinsky
First published by Mittelweg 36 6/2011 (German version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Mittelweg 36 © Ulrich Beck / Mittelweg 36 / Eurozine



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