An interview with Christophe de Voogd

I do think that the only way to solve the crisis of the Union, which is above all a divorce between the institutions and the people(s), should be to listen to what the Union’s people(s) feel, expect and propose…

On the eve of the May 2014 European elections, the Eurobarometer and many national polls indicate a growing sense of indifference, distance and even mistrust towards the EU, its institutions and politicians. Only 32 per cent of Europeans have a positive image of the Union, while 55 per cent of the Dutch would consider leaving the EU, 60 per cent of the French distrust it, and let’s not even mention the British! Even the most enthusiastic Europhiles must admit that “something is rotten in the kingdom of Europe”. Trust, image and expectations in relation to the EU have all lost some 20 points since 2004. We ask ECF Board Member Christophe de Voogd, Associate Professor at the Institute of Political Studies in France, what is to be done.

Where do you see that such developments come from and take route?

Europe is struggling with three major gaps: a gap between the EU and its people, a gap within the elites themselves about Europe, and a gap between the North and the South of the continent. This is illustrated by the despising remarks that one hears in Germany, Sweden or in the Netherlands about the “PIGS” and the “Club Med” countries, while conversely in the South many people accuse the “selfishness”, “arrogance” and “diktat” of the North. This growing split has partly replaced the East-West divide of the 1990s, even if the latter still exists as the Romanian and Bulgarian “bashing” in the West shows.

Also in the cultural world – and this is both new and worrying – more and more voices are adamantly anti-European. The exaltation of boundless “diversity” did not result in a more open and inclusive society, but to some extent resulted in the rise of nationalistic and confrontational narratives inside Europe. The rise of populist, anti-European parties (right and left, northern and southern, western and eastern), combined with the predictions of the massive abstention of other voters from the European elections, represents a huge risk to the European project.

Of course, there is an important distinction to be made between Europe and the European Union. While many recognise, and rightly so, the shortcomings of the current European integration process, echoed by angry public opinion, there is also the alternative of proposing another EU and a New Pact for Europe, as the ECF is doing.

However, the core issue is that many Europeans do not want to commit to Europe as a political union but would prefer a return to intergovernmental cooperation and/or national controls and barriers. At the bottom of it all lies the revival of the good old nationalism, fed with nostalgia for a “golden age” of the nation state. This is obvious, for example, in Alain Finkelkraut’s latest book, L’identité malheureuse or in Thierry Baudet’s theses.

In other words, fervent Eurosceptics call for a strict limitation of any democratic legitimacy to the sole nation state, and do not propose any alternative plan for the EU but a dismantling of it. As was so obvious during the debate around the European Constitution in 2005, they have no “Plan B”.

Is it a crisis of Europe, or a crisis of democracy itself?

At a time of commemoration of World War I exactly one century ago, it is not inappropriate to remind our “born again nationalists” where the competition of nation states and exclusive national narratives led to! Also, at a time of global challenges as vast as climate change, international terrorism and world economic competition, Europe still seems a better and more effective response than the “good old states”.

This is by no means wishful thinking: what the Eurobarometer also shows, besides the crisis of European integration, is the strong expectation of a majority of citizens, asking the EU to deliver more, more quickly and more clearly in many fields. As for the crisis of confidence in the EU, one must also notice that the national frame is also under fire (distrust in the national institutions and elites). The level of distrust is the same in both cases (around 60 per cent). The current political crisis is thus an overall crisis of democratic representation. As the feverish internal debates in many, if not all, European countries demonstrate, it is even more a crisis of the collective identities themselves. 

What differentiates European integration from national integration and what undermines the former is nothing other than the lack of a community feeling. The EU is definitely a community of (economic) interests; it is partly a community of values such as peace, rule of law, social welfare, solidarity, human rights (as defined in many official documents since the Copenhagen Declaration of 1973): the Eurobarometer, once again, clearly shows the identification of Europe with theses values. But, except in a narrow elite, it is not a community of images, common references, common feelings and common dreams. In Max Weber’s words “Europe (the European Union) is a Gesellschaft, not a Gemeinschaft”.

My thesis is that the initial European approach of securing peace through economic integration, the famous “méthode Monnet”, did achieve a lot materially but never received mentally from the citizens more than the so-called “permissive consensus” for further integration; never a fully-fledged commitment. At the end of the 19th century Ernest Renan anticipated people’s disaffection towards today’s Europe with the following words: “A Zollverein will never be a homeland”.

What role for the ECF?

What Europe dramatically lacks is an “imagined community” as defined in the national context by Benedict Anderson: “Imagined, because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. This imagined community in its turn can only be shaped by shared narratives.

ECF’s project Narratives for Europe is exemplary in this respect. It shares, compares, juxtaposes diverse narratives from across Europe and contributes to the creation of a community of images, thoughts and emotions.

And this is precisely where and why the role of ECF can be decisive: connecting people through arts and culture, and making shared narratives visible and heard. Why are shared narratives key to the European project? Because they deal by definition with time; they speak of the past, the present and the future gathered in one comprehensive storyline: and they answer two existential questions: one of identity (who I am), and the other of belonging (where I am in the world). And they do this by appealing to imagination, the very condition for creating links between people who will never meet each other.

However, these considerations by no means imply that Europe must follow the same pattern as the former nation building. Here is the great misunderstanding that pollutes the whole debate around European identity. This confusion must be cleared up for two decisive reasons.

First, there are other imagined communities than nations. All the great religions, for example, create a sense of belonging (the Muslim “Umma” or the Christian “Church”). Moreover, several major political “imagined communities” have not been national: the Roman Empire, especially after the granting of universal citizenship (212 AD) created a sense of belonging above the various nations. And in European cultural history, how many of these imagined communities between academics, writers, artists! Think of the word “Universitas” or of the expression “République des Lettres”…

Second, what the idea of Europe brings forth is precisely the refusal of any exclusive narrative. As the British historian Anthony Pagden puts it: “Europeans are I suspect unusual in sharing in this way a sense that it might be possible to belong to something larger than the family, the tribe, the community, or the nation yet smaller and more culturally specific than humanity.”

What ECF promotes is precisely the notion of multiple identities and belonging, as well as shared narratives that avoid both the risks of a hegemonic one-sided “European story” and the anarchy of diversity for the sake of diversity. As HRH Princess Laurentien said in her speech at the ECF Princess Margriet Award last March, “Shared narratives combine unity and diversity”.

And the good news is that the majority of European citizens (56 per cent) feel at the same time national and European; and this feeling of a possible “double identity”, among and despite so many signs of declining European commitment, is rather steady. But there is even more and even more encouraging for an institution like the ECF: when asked which elements could foster a common citizenship, the Europeans put at the top of the priorities… culture and history! This clearly shows that they understand the challenges and see the solution: precisely in this shaping of a common (not an exclusive) narrative.

I do think that the only way to solve the crisis of the Union, which is above all a divorce between the institutions and the people(s), should be to listen to what the Union’s people(s) feel, expect and propose… The current debates organised by ECF around a New Pact for Europe are therefore more than welcome: by proposing various scenarios regarding the future of the EU without any taboos, by gathering all kinds of speakers and by opening the debate to the general public, it does exactly what the context requires: giving the word back to the citizens.

Interview by Isabelle Schwarz,  ECF Head of Advocacy, Research and Development


Mr. Christophe de Voogd is a Senior lecturer in History with 13 years of experience at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris. He currently teaches political history and philosophy, as well as political speechwriting at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques and at The European Council (Secretary General) in Brussels.

An experienced cultural manager, he worked for 11 years as Director of the Institut Français in the Netherlands and as Coordinator for Western Europe for the Department of Cultural Relations at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  He also worked as an adviser for French Ministers, including Jack Lang (Education and Culture). More recently, he founded a blog called Trop Libre at the French think tank "Fondation pour l'innovation politique". He has written three books and numerous articles and is a regular media commentator on French, European and Dutch affairs. Mr. de Voogd holds a PhD in history and a diploma in international relations of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris.