The European Balcony Project, an interview with Ulrike Guérot

The European Balcony project calls upon Europeans to proclaim the European Republic on the 10th of November 2018 at 4pm throughout Europe, from their balconies. It hints to historical dates [proclamation of the republics of Weimar, Bavaria and Austria] and the end of the First World War. Do these historical events bear any resemblance to today’s Europe?

Obviously, there is no resemblance between the situation in Europe in 1918 and today: by then, at the end of World War I, various monarchies were abolished and republics proclaimed for the first time, with the essential claim of general, secret, direct and equal elections for all citizens. Hence, we want to remember this moment of European history through a “Re-Enactment”.

The goal of the Balcony project is not to repeat history, but to remind of history and to avoid its repetition. By doing so, we want to create a common moment of memory (“European Lieux de Mémoire”) and turn historical events into a common European future. In this respect, the Manifesto for a European Republic took, in style and and tone, the proclamations of 1918 as templates. Even though one could argue that the current political situation in Europe shows some features of “Weimarisation”, history is not repeating. It never is.

Hence, a common, let alone single European democracy is still to come. We haven’t achieved it yet. Therefore, we wanted to take the claim of general, secret, direct and equal elections of the 1918-moment and turn it into a European claim today. Most people do not know, that we don’t vote on an equal basis for our common parliament, which is the European Parliament, but in a nationally fragmented way. So as European citizens, we do not yet constitute a single “electoral body”. The European Balcony Project wants to create awareness for the fact, that we as European citizens are still fragmented into national “law containers”, including national voting laws. If we want to shape a European democracy in the 21st century, this has to change!

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Surely you must have had a long period of preparations before your project was launched. How did it come about?

Well, at the beginning, it was more a sort of “What-if-we-were-to-proclaim-the-European-Republic-in-2018” joke, literally done over a cup of coffee in December 2017. Then, by chance Robert Menasse, who liked the proclamation idea from the start, and me were both invited to talk about the idea of a European Republic by the Deutsche Dramaturgische Gesellschaft, end of January this year. I mentioned the idea at the end of my presentation, still more like a joke than anything else. But then, a couple of dramaturges and intendants of German theatres were truly fascinated and came to see me. Kathrin Bieligk, director of the Gesellschaft, was “Feuer und Flamme”, as one would say in German, and did a lot in the first days and weeks to mobilize interest for the idea. From early Spring 2018, a “joke idea” turned into a real project. Robert Menasse spent some private money to temporarily hire a person, so we could get started, as every project needs seed money. Verena Humer joined our team. We approached Milo Rau, theatre director, who committed to help us. The ITI theatre community made advertising and Kathrin Bieligk herself flew to Porto in April to speak at the annual meeting of independent European theatres. From there onwards, there was no way back, sort of: We really had to do it…. By then, I personally felt like in the “Zauberlehrling”, that poem of Johann-Wolfgang Goethe: “Besen, Besen, bist’s gewesen, denn die Geister, die ich rief, werd ich nicht mehr wieder los….”

We then did crowdfunding, built up an interactive project website, collected material on European democracy for a sort of “theatre fundus”, where participants can tap into, as the main goal of the project, beyond reading the manifesto, is to trigger a broad, public debate about the future of European democracy. In July then we drafted the text of the Manifesto.

Over the summer, Verena and the team succeeded in getting international translations of the text, and won ever more participants to do the proclamation in many European towns & villages. They initiated theatres to do a surrounding event, a festival, a discussion, a theatre, art or music performance around European democracy. We are very happy that we succeeded in de-centralizing the Balcony project and that we found many participants who are not living in the “capitals” of the EU, as the European Republic is for the European citizens everywhere in Europe. To unite them and to let them pronounce, at the same moment in time across the European continent, a “speech act” claiming European citizenship on the basis of equal rights, is the core idea of the project.

You also mention that the aim of the project is to create awareness that the future of European citizens is in the hands of the citizens themselves, and to empower them to take responsibility for the European project. What would in your eyes be the most rewarding effects of the proclamation of the European Republic?

The central aim is to make people realize that, if we want to build a European democracy, which is now the claim one can hear all over the place in Europe, then there is one necessary, though not sufficient condition: legal equality of all citizens, especially when it comes to the things which are the “sacred” of every citizenship: the act of voting, taxation and the access to social rights. Most people don’t’ know that in the current EU legal community, goods are “legally equal” in the EU (that is the single market), and capital is “legally equal” (that is the euro). But precisely the citizen, who are the sovereigns of the political system, are not “legally equal” in the EU, when it comes to voting, taxation and social rights. We are pushed into competition against each other. We can never become a European political union under these conditions. For instance, we (or rather: the banks) do have a single IBAN number, but we as citizens don’t have e.g. a European tax or social security number. Industries or companies do have a single European legal format (S.E., Société Européenne), but European citizens don’t even benefit from a single law about European associations. How do we want to organize our interests as European citizens then?

Let alone, that we do not have a single European electoral register, which would count all European citizens from A to Z in one data base. Yet, this precisely would be the very condition to form one electoral body. Without a single electoral body, no democracy. So if our goal is to embed the single market and the single currency into one single democracy, in order to get a political roof for Europe (which, by the way, is still the presumption of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, striving for “Ever closer Union”), then getting a single electoral register would be necessary.

That is why we do the “re-enactment” of 1918: the central claim of the citizens by then was general, secret, direct and equal elections. And that is precisely what we would need in Europe now, in order to organize European democracy around, firstly, the principle of equal rights for all citizens; secondly, on division of power; and, thirdly, on the motto “no taxation without representation”, all to end up with the “post-democratic” way the EU-institutions are currently work. If many people were to understand only this, the project would be a great success, because we could then articulate very concrete claims and bring them to political actors: e.g. it shouldn’t be a bid deal to get a single European Association Law, a European electoral register or a European Social Security or Taxation number. Or even a European passport, which would be the real expression of a European democracy and a real, not a fake European citizenship. British citizens are now most painfully experiencing, that the notion of European citizenship is in legal terms meaningless the very moment the UK is leaving the EU. But the Maastricht treaty promised both, union of states and union of citizens. Only, we never realized the latter. In theory, even with the UK as a state formally leaving, the Brits should be able to remain European citizens, if it had a direct legal meaning. For many Brits, this would perfect today.

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How would a European Republic, without – as you propose -  the Council, but with a legislative Parliament serve us Europeans better? Did you think about the ways in which local practices – from cities and regions – could be scaled up to a pan-European level?

A democracy based on division of power would simply meet the standards, which we would never put into question with respect to today’s national democracies. It would simply mean that the EP elections matter, as their outcome would decide about a real European government, not a “Commission” representing countries. We would end up with a situation, in which we would have full parliamentary accountability, especially full budget control; we would be able to outvote a government that fails or disappoints etc. In short: we could do all the things we do today in our national government. The European Parliament – and thus the European citizens themselves - would have real power.  That would probably, over night, change the voter turn out in European elections.

A European public space would very quickly unfold, as European policy simply mattered. And lastly, if we were to create a Second European Chamber, based on equal footing of, say, some 50 or 60 regions or metropolitan areas throughout Europe, these entities would be politically empowered. Cities, regions and metropolitan areas, meeting in a “European Senate”, would have a very different “level playing field” (as political scientists call it), than the current 28 EU countries.

To decentralize Europe into smaller (constitutional) unities corresponds by the way to the wish of many European citizens, if you look at discussion around Wallonia during the CETA talks, the Catalan case or Scotland. Europe would become finally, what it always wanted to be: Unity in Diversity! The unity is normative – equal law; and the cultural diversity is regional, as it is already today: Rhineland or Bavaria are culturally not the same, but they are together in the Federal Republic of Germany. Similarly, Corsica and Brittany are culturally very different, but both are parts of todays’ French Republic. A European Republic could be modelled like this: nobody would lose identity, but all Europeans regions would have direct political power in the European system. Europe would be normatively united and become a strong actor in the world, instead of disintegrating every day more and becoming a prey for China, Russia or the US, at the detriment of European citizens’ interest. A “Europe qui protège” – that is Macrons’ slogan, but also the one of the Austrian EU-Presidency – needs a political roof. Also, if we really want to fight populism and nationalism, we need to break through the aggregated political representation through the European Council. In essence: in a European Republic, the citizens would have direct and not only indirect power; and their reciprocal regions or towns had more to say. That’s a lot, right? It simply would mean: Europe becomes a single and real democracy!

You stress the role of imagination in the proclamation of the European Republic. The 2019 theme of the European Cultural Foundation will be “Democracy Needs Imagination”, for we need a new European story to live by. But these days it seems like the imagination is hijacked by the self-proclaimed illiberals. How to regain that imagination and make it future oriented?

We do not think that illiberals are successfully hijacking imagination. Most of the time, they are simply looking back, referring to an idealised past. The past is not imagination, but regression. They are just loud, very organized and – much in difference to the liberal, democratic majority – they have clear goals; no abortion, no homosexuals, no euro, no migrants or no free trade, whatever! It is, inversely, the missing societal goals, the missing offer of any order, that makes the liberal majority of today lose against these minority groups. Because it is never sufficient to defend what is (in this case the EU) against people who want change. You also need to offer change, an imagined future.

For imagination is precisely the opposite of nostalgia. It is to think the unseen. In technology, we do this all the time and we love it: self-driving cars, smart phones or super textiles rather than thick winter coats. Each and every technological revolution is embraced, but in society, most people think statically. It is the work of artists and theatres, to juxtapose new things for society and to try them out: the smartphone was as much an imagination as was the Euro in 1970. Each nation is, at the beginning, an imagined community, not more. Gottlieb Fichte imagined the German nation in 1806, when it did not yet exist, but the idea of it then triggered a political process.

What we think, shapes reality. That’s probably what Bertolt Brecht had in mind, when he said that theatre potentially can change the world, just through pronouncing a new world. That is, in essence, what theatres do and what we want to do with the European Balcony Project: an immense “European speech act”, where citizens across the European continent simply speak out that they want to be European citizens, based on equal rights. It’s not really hard to imagine this. It is even very concrete, doable and could make European citizens start dreaming of it. We actually do hope that the European Balcony Project has the potential to become a huge emancipatory project for all European citizens.

When looking at the map of participating locations and organisations it strikes the viewer how much reactions you have received from central Europe, but how Southern and Northern Europe are not fully represented yet. Striking as especially the South of Europe has had to deal with harsh European measures. How come, and how might readers help you in changing this?

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Well, we still have one month to go and we are just in the process to do a massive outreach to Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, France, Spain and Finland. We do hope that our interactive map will expand quickly. Yet, we agree with your analysis that the inertia of the European South with respect to the European Balcony Project is somehow striking. Probably austerity is one root cause, in the sense that many young people (and our targeted participants are young people!) have already turned their back to Europe. This is unfortunately true.

But beyond austerity, there are probably other factors. The German language area has a specifically dense theatre fabric with a very intense network of theatres. So in Germany and Austria it was easier to get attention via these theatre-networks at once. As we started off with theatre communities before now reaching out to other activists and groups too, this may explain the European South lacking behind with the Balcony Project. Thirdly, especially in France, we do have the problem that the notion of the “Republic” is sort of being high jacked politically by Marine Le Pen: in her presidential campaigns, she always blamed the “système UMPS” (the classical French parties) and stylized herself as the “protector” of republican France in the sense of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. But of course the Republic doesn’t belong to Marine Le Pen, we need to reconquer it. While the notion of “Republic” has been misused by Marine Le Pen, French progressives have been breastfed with political thinkers such as Foucault, Deleuze or Derrida, who have deconstructed the original meaning of the Republic into a sort of sublimated state-oppression. This obviously adds to our difficulty to reach out to progressives in France.

The last thing we want – and we really do want to underscore this – is to give the impression that our project is the next that comes mainly from Germany in order to secure German dominance in Europe. The opposite is true: with offering the idea of citizen’s equality throughout Europe, we want to overcome all feelings of “second-class” Europeans, which are unfortunately prevailing in the East and which arose during the Euro crisis in the South. In this sense, we do understand the European Balcony Project as a huge reconciliation momentum for European citizens  – East & West, North & South – after the societal wounds that the unfortunate amalgamation of banking-, euro-, austerity and refugees crises have provoked in all European countries over the past ten years. The manifesto is out for discussion – it is not about us telling the world how Europe should look like, it is about starting a broad debate on European democracy and everyone is welcome to join! Vive la République Européenne!