European Elections Special

“The EU is destroying everything”

Camille de Toledo is a radical critic of capitalism. Thore Barfuss sat down with the French writer to talk about the future of the EU.

The European: Mr. de Toledo, why do we still need to debate Europe after all these years?
de Toledo: I see a lot of confusion when distinguishing between a belief in the European project on the one hand and believing in the politics of the EU on the other. We must be cautious not to lump the two together. To have a vision for Europe doesn’t necessarily equal defending the EU and its policies.

The European: To many people, the two go hand in hand.
de Toledo: But the gap between the concept of Europe as a whole and the EU is growing bigger and bigger. If we don’t manage to create a critical European movement that is going to change the European Union, then we yield the floor to the nationalists with their anti-European paroles. It is very important to have a third way that is pro-European but at the same time very critical of the EU.

The European: It’s funny that you use the term “third way”. In the English language, it normally stands for a political alternative that reconciles both left-wing and right-wing politics. In Germany, however, it is most commonly associated with the GDR, where the so-called “Dritte Weg” described the desire for renewing the GDR instead of seeking German reunification. But back to topic: Does the need for a third way show that the age-old European narrative of peace and wealth is outdated?
de Toledo: Maybe, then, the expression “third way” should replace by third space. The peace narrative did work in the aftermath of the Second World War and up to the decline of the war generation. Up until Mitterand and Kohl, we had political leaders who embodied and carried a European vision based on the idea of a peaceful continent. The narrative that was used to build the European Union worked because the politicians were part of this story. But there has been a turn in this narrative.

The European: How so?
de Toledo: Kohl and Mitterand failed to address the question of politics and only focused on the idea of the common market. Their failure to incorporate politics created the gap between the narrative that was used to build and cement the Union and the actual politics of the latter.

“Recharter Europe!”

The European: What do you mean when you refer to “actual politics”?
de Toledo: On the one hand, it was all about the common market and competition. But come election time, politicians would suddenly go back and tell voters: “Remember, we are doing this to prevent war!” That discrepancy is still there – in fact, it is growing by the day. But the main problem is an even bigger one.

The European: Namely?
de Toledo: We can trace the EU’s democratic problem back to its very beginnings after the Second World War. The Union was built without involving citizens – they were simply bypassed. The founding fathers turned the European project into a technical question. Governments drew up, debated and signed the Rome Treaty back in the 1950s, but never asked the people about it. When Giscard d’Estaing and Schmidt implemented the first European elections in the 1970s, it did not cure Europe’s democracy ills. They used the same rhetoric as their predecessors, telling people: “Be European! It prevents war on this continent!”

The European: What are you suggesting should be done instead?
de Toledo: I believe we should recharter Europe by founding it again on the people, on a sense of emancipation. But before this can happen, we have to address a couple of pressing questions.

The European: Such as?
de Toledo: The question of whether we are Europeans or not, the question of the European nation, and, the most important question of all: the question of language and translation. How should the European people get involved in a political community that doesn’t have a common language? There is one main error in the political ideas of Habermas and others when they talk about the future of democracy: They talk about political space, they talk about political compromise, they talk about rational citizens – but we do know that politics is quite another thing.

The European: What differentiates the two?
de Toledo: Politics is passion! Politics is emancipation! Politics is struggle! The theorists want to avoid all of this, particularly the moment when they have to answer the people. The next step in thinking about Europe is whether we take the risk of increasing citizen participation or not. If we don’t address this question now, it will be the nationalists who do.

H6. “Think about Europe as a force”

The European: You argued that the old narrative of peace and welfare is no longer working. But if we look at what is happening in Ukraine, it becomes clear that peace cannot be taken for granted. Couldn’t the crisis in Ukraine be a new impulse for the old narrative?
de Toledo: Let me start by saying this: It is important to acknowledge that nations can be progressive and reactionary. When we talk about the grand Western European nations, it is clear that those nations are rather stable nations and strong enough to withstand outside shocks. But when we relate to nations like Ukraine, we are talking about nations that were beaten throughout history – beaten by Russia, beaten by Poland, and beaten by Germany.

The European: How does that impact their present condition?
de Toledo: The nationalistic feeling is still very strong in countries like Ukraine. They are using the wrong narrative, a fascist narrative, instead of an emancipatory one. We are stuck in a situation in which the defeated nations from the East are using Europe to re-affirm their sovereignty, their national entity.

The European: Why?
de Toledo: They are relatively young nations and they only rely on the European Union to defend their nations against Russian aggression. In a situation like this, we can not tell them: “Guys, let’s move forward.” There are other challenges we have to address first: What kind of education would create a generation of European citizens, beyond nations? How to think about Europe not in terms of the past, but in terms of the future.

The European: What does that entail?
de Toledo: We must think about Europe as a force of emancipation, education, translation, new ways of relating to identity, plural identities, multicultural societies – these are pressing issues.

The European: All of that takes a lot of time – a valuable and finite resource in political processes.
de Toledo: Well. We know that there are economic means. When we want to save the banking system, we find resources. But right now, anyway, we are stuck. The typical argument that is often put forward these days goes like this: If you’re against the EU, you are a nationalist. Yet in some places in Europe, I see new movements that relate to something I would call subterranean politics.

The European: What does that term mean?
de Toledo: Subterranean politics, or underground politics, carries a whole new way of thinking about governance, ecology, women-and-men policies, etc. It could emerge at some point. But I’m nevertheless worried.

The European: About what?
de Toledo: I am worried that the media and the political establishment in Brussels will turn a blind eye to these subterranean movements. They are not listening to their arguments, they are not listening to their calls. Instead, they listen to the cries of fear of multiculturalism, the fear of the other. They turn towards Viktor Orbán but not towards subterranean politics. They are playing with the devil.

The European: European politicians in Brussels in some ways remind me of the clerics in the Vatican. While in the rest of Europe Christianity is losing its influence, the men in Rome are as strong as ever, and since they never leave their own universe, they barely realize what is happening outside their tiny enclave. Is the centralization in Brussels one of the reasons for that blindness?
de Toledo: I wouldn’t blame centralization as the main problem. We still live in a very decentralized day and age. If we think about the EU as a federal state or the United States of Europe, then we realize that the EU is quite limited in its capabilities and is not as powerful as many may think. For instance: the EU has barely any power over culture or language. That is the problem!

H6. “We have to radically change it”

The European: Why?
de Toledo: The EU should be less powerful in economic affairs and more powerful in building schools, in building programs for students, in building transnational citizenship, in learning and teaching languages, in social programs. The main problem with the EU lies in the treaties. Look at history: Who really wanted an economic common market after the Second World War?

The European: The United States?
de Toledo: Exactly. They forced the negotiations between France, Germany and others to make that happen. Why? Because they had to create a capitalist barrier against communism. And therefore we are very much in an “American Europe” where free trade is the common ground and culture only plays second fiddle. It is all about competition, all about free trade, common security policies, the control of our borders. It is all repressive. Nothing about emancipation, nothing about education. Look at what is coming out of the treaties at the moment.

The European: What are you referring to?
de Toledo: They have built a wall between Greece and Turkey. A 10 kilometer wall! There are police in the waters to control the borders! This is what the EU budget is spent on. They are giving a lot of money to Ukrainian nationalists to fight against Russia and they played a very bad “influence game”.

The European: Do you?
de Toledo: Let’s think about the negotiations with the United States. The free trade agreement between the EU and the United States that is currently on the negotiation table would request France and Germany to abolish their policies in favor of books like the price fixing for books in Germany. What kind of political system is this? What kind of future lies in an agenda to bring down trade barriers?

The European: You’re very dissatisfied with the European Union at the moment.
de Toledo: I remain a European – albeit just a cultural one. But the EU is destroying everything that we had hoped and wished for. It is betraying us and we have to radically change it.

The European: What needs to be done?
de Toledo: You can’t change it from within – you need outside interference in the form of the European citizens. We have to rely on them to restructure the Union. If the people are unwilling to participate in this undertaking, we will remain in a situation like this one. Democracy consists of two words: “dêmos” and “kratos” that became “cracy”. In the European Union there is a lot of “kratos” but barely any “dêmos” – we need to change that.

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Did you like the conversation? Read one with Guy Verhofstadt: “Nobody wants a European super-state”

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