Kalypso Nicolaidis concludes our ‘Euro2025’ series with a look beyond the new EU term, on which it has focused, to the long-term future of the continent.
Although Europe has never ceased to reinvent itself, we the peoples of Europe love to announce to the world that peace, like diamonds, is forever. That is a nice thought. But peace is never a done deal. Its foundations need to be reinvented by every generation, every polity, every era. Deep peace is not an inheritance but a way of life. It is not about harmony but struggle. It needs armies of defenders, with all sorts of clever strategies, all sorts of ingenious weapons, all sorts of parochial accents.
Journeys of reckoning often have to do with re-knowing something anew that we had almost forgotten. Can we know peace anew?
We can do so through many different paths. One such path is this: a European pivot from space to time. The EU and its critics have focused on the politics of space, a space made single by markets, regulators and judges, a space where free movement reigns supreme and from which we can choose who and how to exclude. What if the EU were to refocus on the politics of time, time when we reflect back and look ahead, time that can be slowed down better to engage with the needs of the next generation, time to allow for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions …
Would it not be okay to renationalise space a little if we could radically Europeanise time? Inspired by the journey of Er, who at the end of The Republic comes back from the dead, can we shape our present life to serve future lives through the virtues we abide by?
This is not an easy proposition, Plato’s myth of Er would have warned us. In the European psyche, Lachesis of the past and Atropos of the future seem to have switched places. European citizens used to be moved by fear of their past and trust in the future, but are now nostalgic for the past and fear the future most. They have witnessed the rise of emergency politics as the new normal, with states desperately trying to match the pace of markets. Traditional politics, that of electoral rhythms and opinion polls in between, remains a relentlessly short-term affair.
Tocqueville in his time was already bemoaning the popular obsession with the present. He saw how the longue durée stood as a luxury, a pastime for those who don’t have to worry about a roof over their heads and food for the kids. And yet we now know that it is urgent to act long term. Our planetary future is at stake.
In Europe, incomplete integration is not the problem: unsustainable integration is. Arguably, the European Central Bank stemmed the euro crisis in 2012 by reasserting political time in a fateful utterance about ‘whatever it will take’. We require a quantum leap. Today the EU as a whole must stand in as the guardian of the long term.
Perhaps this is the silver lining of the EU’s democratic deficiencies. If mistrust in the people was part of its DNA, the long term can be the EU’s democratic redemption. An EU that is democratically challenged for short-term accountability can be democratically enhanced for long-term responsibility.
Let us dare to think of this moment as the third democratic transformation. Robert Dahl, the foremost analyst of democracy after the second world war, described two great historical transformations: the birth of democratic city-states in ancient Greece and Rome, and the emergence of large-scale representative democracies in the 18th century. It seems as though the evolution of representation towards increased inclusiveness may have reached its limits.
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After the polis and the nation, the third democratic transformation will be transnational, as the only way to secure our planetary future. And it will be so inclusive as to stretch democratic time much beyond the voters of today. We will invent a transnational democracy with foresight, to match the long-term planners and autocrats of the far east and elsewhere who threaten to beat us in the mastery of time.
We will stop trying to transform closed and self-centred democracies through vertical restructuring beyond the state. Instead we will practise the art of managing democratic interdependence through horizontal connections and reciprocal vulnerabilities between local spheres, smart towns, cities, regions and states. We can be committed to perfecting our national democracies and at the very same time to a cosmopolitan regard for the welfare and autonomy of others, including those others yet to be born.
We live in a world of second chances, not last judgements. Let us not trivialise this opportunity with serial last-chance summits. Let us instead turn our public spaces, our schools, our screens, our parliaments into the time vessels that our children deserve.
Take back control
What if Brexit in the end gave humanity its motto for the rest of this century? We must take back control of our future, prevent a man-made catastrophe that will dwarf the oxygen apocalypse of two billion years ago. Only because it is fragile is our universe creative. The Anthropocene, or age of man, will only last (at least for a while) if we recover our humility in a world formed and reformed gloriously in our absence by comets and bacteria.
How will this happen in a world of predatory super-states governed by manic supermen? Can we still affect today the mindboggling technologies and man-made life forms which may one day erase this very particular stardust aggregate that is the human? How trivial it will seem hundreds of years from now to have focused so passionately on our human entanglements, still blind to the life-world entanglements that were to determine our survival.
This piece is excerpted from the author’s Exodus, Reckoning, Sacrifice: Three Meanings of Brexit