Opinion

Horizontal integration and the European political community 

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In mid-2018, at the provocation of the (then) president of the Portuguese Bar Association (Guilherme Figueiredo) and the executive president of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (Guilherme d'Oliveira Martins), I took on the scientific coordination of the conference entitled 'European political community: revealing the everyday Europe of European citizens', which took place at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, on 15 November 2018. 

On that occasion, speakers were confronted with a number of concerns about the European political community under construction, including: 'What is missing in official and social communication on European issues? How can affective communication between European authorities and citizens be generated? How can civil society contribute decisively to the reciprocal opening of national public opinions? How can the media media media mediate the political positions/controversies that European issues provoke in other member states? How can we optimise the potential of digital technologies to guarantee democratic legitimacy based on the value of the rule of law?

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These concerns are even more pertinent today because COVID-19 has shaken the foundations of life in society and individuals have felt it in almost every aspect of daily life. Perhaps the most profound impact of the pandemic was due to the limitations of movement, as mobility produces a significant human and cultural linkage/effect. People-to-people contacts have reduced European tensions over time - to some extent Erasmus has done as much (or more) for the integration of the continent than cohesion funds - and their drastic reduction has unfathomable legal and political implications. 

Perhaps the pandemic has brought the turning point to approach European integration from the perspective of individuals, from the experiences of everyday life, from the hustle and bustle of horizontal integration - albeit in a virtual environment during the health crisis - and not so much (or not only) from vertical integration. When one speaks of republican citizenship or European democracy, proposals for institutional reforms in the EU immediately appear, always from the perspective of vertical integration.  But perhaps it is time to address the problem from the perspective of horizontal integration, or a shared horizon of life, in which a collective will can be communicatively forged. As Ulrich Beck explained, only when individuals understand the EU as their project, only when they are able to adopt the perspective of the citizens of other member states, will it make sense to speak properly of a European democracy.1 The EU's democracy is not only a project of the individual, it is also a project of the individual.

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According to Jürgen Habermas, there would be no reason to suppose that the formation of a political sense of "co-ownership" had to be limited to the confines of the nation-state. Against the critical objection that there is no "European people", Habermas argues that the very idea of the Volksgeist was an important constructive element of historiography which, through the elaboration of proud national narratives, served to construct a new collective identity during the nineteenth century.  However, the genuinely natural character attributed today to national consciousness - designed by historians and disseminated through modern media - ignores the artificiality of the creation of this state of consciousness2.   

In this sense, for the formation of this European identity, however weak it may seem at first, the emergence of a European public political space, i.e. a context of communication that transcends national borders, would be relevant. Everything depends on the discursive exchange of arguments and opinions that transcends national borders. And the obstacle of linguistic diversity is not an impediment to this, provided that new technologies and new actors enter the scene: interest groups, non-governmental organisations and political parties that have organised themselves at the European level, as well as intellectuals and opinion formers equally recognised in the EU3.          

No moment in European integration has been more conducive to the realisation that all European citizens share the same political destiny than the pandemic. To this extent, "how then to ensure that as many individuals as possible have the opportunity to learn to see themselves through the eyes of others" (i.e. citizens of the EU)? This question could be broken down into several others: "How can we open privileged channels of communication between individuals? And which channels should we open? And who would be the translators, i.e. the intermediaries, the agents who communicate the interests and realities of each one?" (translation understood here in the broad sense of the term, that of "leading towards us", revealing mentalities and world views, since we are only interested in what we know4).  

More than ever, it is time to scrutinise the European political community, revealing the everyday Europe of European citizens5 , and to do so starting from civil society, from what it can do in this sense, beyond public power. It is important to consider to what extent the climate of trust in European solutions to the health crisis can create a political space that reconciles Europeans and promotes compromise between divergent visions for Europe. Vertical and (above all) horizontal integration solutions need to be devised that allow a choice between different policy alternatives for the Union, rather than the 'lazy' choice between simply being against or in favour of remaining in the EU.  

This is certainly not an easy undertaking, but it is not impossible either. It all seems complicated because European citizens from North and South, East and West, from the more and less robust economies, etc. increasingly yearn for different and sometimes contradictory things. However, at the end of the day, the divergences between European citizens are also reproduced within each member state, and it has been possible to manage or accommodate them democratically.

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This is where solidarity between citizens who take responsibility for each other comes into play. The idea of fair burden-sharing can spread through learning processes, it can be stimulated by the perception of economic and political needs. And so loyalties accumulate and traditions change. The more individuals are aware of the influence of EU decisions on their daily lives - and the more the media reveal this - the more their interest in exercising their democratic rights also as European citizens will grow. 

The solution is widely studied and requires a different practice from both (i) national governments (which tend to nationalise successes and Europeanise failures in order to win elections), and (ii) national media (which can make a decisive contribution to the mutual opening of public opinion in Member States), as well as (iii) national political parties (which have sown the winds of separation between national and European politics and are now gathering the storm of populism). 

The Conference on the Future of Europe should become a forum for reflection and dialogue on the many issues involved in the development of a European political community. It is important to consider how European and national authorities can develop effective communication with European citizens - communication that responds to people's concerns, creates empathy and fosters European identity - and to explore the extent to which civil society can contribute to this. 

At a particularly difficult time for European integration, constantly provoked by populism and its manifestations of "collective bestiality",6 this is perhaps the great challenge currently facing the EU (and, from a broader perspective, Western legal and political culture itself), in defence of its most recognised and precious heritage: the rule of law, democracy and human rights.  

Alessandra Silveira. Faculty of Law, University of Minho

References:
  1. Sobre o tema cf. Ulrich Beck, A Europa alemã – de Maquiavel a «Merkievel»: estratégias de poder na crise do euro, Edições 70, Lisboa, 2013.
  2. Cf. Jürgen Habermas, Ay, Europa!, Editorial Trotta, Madrid, 2009, p. 89.
  3. Cf. Jürgen Habermas, Ay, Europa!, cit., pp. 89-91.
  4. Cf. Eduardo Prado Coelho, Unidos na diversidade?, Paula Moura Pinheiro (ed.), Portugal no futuro da Europa, Gabinete em Portugal do Parlamento Europeu/Representação da Comissão Europeia em Portugal, Lisboa, 2006, p. 75.
  5. A ideia é avançada por Ulrich Beck, a propósito de um contrato social para a Europa, cf. A Europa alemã – de Maquiavel a «Merkievel»: estratégias de poder na crise do euro, cit., p. 101.
  6. Cf. Stefan Zweig, O mundo de ontem: recordações de um europeu, Assírio & Alvim, Porto, 2014, p. 22.