The Political Representation of the European People

By Etienne Balibar, Emeritus Professor at Paris X Nanterre and Anniversary Chair of Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University, London. He has addressed such questions as European racism, the notion of the border, whether a European citizenship is possible or desirable, violence, identity and emancipation. His books include Reading Capital (with Louis Althusser, New Left Books 1970), Race, Nation, Class (with Immanuel Wallerstein, Verso, 1991), The Philosophy of Marx, Spinoza and Politics, Politics and the Other Scene (Verso, 2002), and We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (Princeton UP, 2004). Originally published at

English version of the political philosopher’s interview with Vadim Kamenka of L’Humanite Dimanche (21 June)and Ana Maria Merlo for Il Manifesto (15 June).

IM/HD: We are today witnessing the advance of nationalist, xenophobic and extreme-right groups in every successive European election. They have even managed to enter government, for instance, in Italy. What’s going on?

Etienne Balibar (EB):This trend has been ongoing for years and reveals a crisis in the current form of European construction, which is probably irreversible. It is moving from one country to another, but the formula is the same: the effects of austerity measures on the poor and middle classes as well as the development of social and territorial inequalities are the logical result of so-called free and undistorted competition. These elements crystallise within the malaise created by the technocratic government of the EU and its member states. They foster nationalism, xenophobia and a loathing for democracy.

But ever since the Greek crisis and Brexit, it has also become clear that it is neither possible to leave the EU, nor to expel a member state. Obviously, some political forces believe in an exit from Europe, but no government can impose it. I think the situation will further deteriorate as we head towards a mutual neutralisation of hegemonic forces in Europe due to the lack of an alternative project on the part of new individuals, emergent groups or political movements. The consequences of this development are unpredictable.

IM/HD: Will we see an EU showdown with Italy, similar to the one in 2015?

EB:The statements of the president of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, are revealing. He has said that he wanted to avoid the errors made in 2015. But what errors is he referring to? Is he talking about the content, about the wilful destruction of an economy and a society? Or is he merely talking about the form this took, which hadn’t respected the procedures? The European leaders know that they cannot show the same open contempt towards the choice made by the Italians with which they treated that of the Greeks. But I do find it telling that they want to avoid a conflict with the extreme-right while they deliberately sought it with the left-wing government.

IM/HD:Do the suggestions for an overhaul of Europe put forward by French president Emmanuel Macron during his speech at the Sorbonne or the plans laid out by German Chancellor Angela Merkel really take into account the full extent of the crisis that Europe is undergoing?

EB: What plan? It’s mere window dressing. Of course cultural exchanges are important. But it won’t take us very far if it’s only to proclaim once again the common destiny of the European peoples. The crux of the matter is the EU economic and financial structures. Banks have already been consolidated. The project to transform the European solidarity mechanism into a monetary fund was inspired by the rules of the IMF. And Germany and the Netherlands still don’t accept a common budget without guarantees against transfers.

Ever since the crisis of 2008, economists have repeatedly said that a single currency cannot work without a common budget. But Germany only accepts minor adjustments, and it is likely that the French government will head in the same direction. This will seal the sovereignty of financial institutions instead of limiting competition between European states and producers and thereby strengthening solidarity.

The project that is here outlined certainly doesn’t attempt to ward off the splitting of Europe into hierarchical economic zones: attractive zones for foreign capital, subcontracting zones, zones for the supply of a cheap workforce and holiday zones for the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. What happens in Greece today is striking. The salaries and pensions have collapsed, current accounts are picking up, and the tourism industry is running at full capacity. The environmental and sociological consequences are terrifying.

IM/HD:Macron’s Sorbonne speech at least mentioned the necessity to fight against the rise of the extreme right. Does nothing in the project that is currently under discussion pick up on this dimension?

EB: Frankly, I find it astonishing that no debate on the crisis besetting European construction is taking place in the European Parliament. Maybe it would be a cacophony, speeches with fascist leanings would be delivered by populist forces, some of which are already in power or about to enter government. But we can’t ignore the fact that the crisis of the system is also its lack of democracy. The more profound it gets, the more technocrats will argue that the population should not have its say. They fear that their capacity for action will be paralysed.

But what arethey doing about it? I wonder when the time will be ripe for public debates about the problems of Europe on a European level and not in a small committee of the Commission or of the heads of states. The situation is certainly worrying enough for a debate to take place in the European Parliament without waiting for a common agreement between Macron and Merkel on a minimum programme.

The “reconstruction” programme won’t get Europe out of its current crisis. Let’s stop the hypocritical discourse dividing Europe into those who pay and those who receive. As if German, Dutch or French tax payers were subsidising southern Europe. This really is the true “populism”.

All creditor countries are profiting from the differential salaries and interest rates. Germany is able to export everywhere because it is producing in national conditions while selling on the global market with a currency that is not too strong. This explains the entire opposition of German capitalists to amending the contract of 1992. It is the foundation of their European governance. Macron has never even contemplated attacking it.

IM/HD: Why are left-wing factions so unable to weigh in on the current debate?

EB: If the left wants to rebuild itself, this can only happen in many countries simultaneously. The left has to conceive of itself as a European Left, despite the many difficulties. In this sense, the idea of a trans-European campaign launched by Varoufakis seems right.

Such a campaign is necessary in order to break down the barriers and bring the debate onto the citizen’s level. But this is not self-evident. Many believed (myself included) that unification from above would exert sufficient pressure to trigger off a cross-border debate despite the many obstacles such as language, political cultures, organisational crises, the rise to power of technocrats, the monopoly of national political elites. All this made people withdraw into their own territories which are slipping from their grasp. And this is exploited in demagogic and backward discourses. But the left must face the real world.

It was also an error to believe that the European construction would render the national question obsolete or relativize it. The current crisis proves the opposite. No nation or region has the privilege of nationalism to themselves. The purely negative conception of national interest remains the most commonly shared matter in Europe. Every single country is afraid of being exploited by a neighbour or dissolved by a globalisation in which Europe would merely be the humble instrument.

IM/HDAre such examples as the Aquarius and the 600 people who cannot find refuge on a continent as rich as Europe proof that conservative ideas and nationalist movements deploying the mythical threat of massive immigration have won out in our societies?

EB: The only advantage in this appalling episode is that Europeans cannot perceive of the problem as purely Italian any more.

For years, France has had an attitude of repugnant hypocrisy. It gives lessons to others, but from Calais to the Italian borders migrants and those who help them are being harrassed. Inequalities and humiliations are creating this identical “hostile environment” to the one the British government made a hue and cry about. What I’m also scandalised about is the fact that France hasn’t even accepted a tenth of the refugees it had promised to take, while Angela Merkel accepted hundreds of thousands of them. Finally, we have to admit that the policies of the Visegrad group are not so very different from our own: they’re only more sincere.

The question everybody is asking is how to balance all the dimensions of the problem. Rationally, looking at the number of displaced persons and the capacities of member states, there is nothing irresolvable. It’s not an invasion. It is necessary to create the proper means to receive them, teach them the language, help them get through… The other aspect is the Mediterranean hecatomb which is taking genocidal dimensions. It’s an extreme phrase, but how else are we to define the elimination of thousands of individuals based on their race – an elimination that is tolerated, anticipated and organised by default. It’s a rampant genocide, taking place not in a closed territory but in a borderland between states. History will hold us accountable for this.

IM/HD: What would your main propositions for the genuine rebuilding ofEurope look like?

EB: Europe can only be relaunched by addressing three questions. First, the question about the role it plays in globalisation: can it change its course and if so in what direction? Secondly, faced with neoliberalism, can a social European project be revived, and if so with which supporting forces ? Thirdly, can an equilibrium be found between the representation of the citizens by and large and the representation of nations or nationalities. In other words, can Europe invent the representative, participative and pluralist federal framework that it needs?

I insist on this question because it is the key to the other ones. Each one of our countries suffers from the pathology of representative democracy, because the formal powers are not localised at the same place as the real powers.

But the era of representation won’t end as long as public institutions exist – Habermas is certainly right on this point. The question of European finances needs to be linked to the question of the political representation of the European people.