Introduction EF lecture Etienne Balibar


2009, Euregional Forum Newspaper


In the book We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship – a collection of lectures and essays written between 1999 and 2002 – Etienne Balibar developed his highly original and provocative thoughts on some of the most burning European issues. He addresses such issues as the level of European democracy, the status of the old nation-states within the Union, the relation of Europe to other continents, but also more concrete topics such as the rights of immigrant workers and undocumented residents, the debates around the European constitution and identity, or the lack of a trans-national European social movement.


In Balibar’s thinking and rethinking of these European issues, the notion of borders features prominently and plays a key role – which makes his thinking extremely relevant and interesting for the theme of this lecture series. For Balibar, borders are places where confrontations and problems occur due to the coming-together and concentration of all kinds of differences – differences in world view, religion, customs, wealth and so on. For this reason, Balibar considers borders and border areas to be the very laboratories or workplaces of a future Europe. They are the places par excellence where, through collectively resolving the differences and problems encountered, a new people or, as he puts it, “a project of active European citizenship”, can be constituted, where a material content can be generated for Europe as a progressive emancipatory project.

Within the on-going discussions concerning fundamental European politics, its identity or economic policy, Balibar thus takes up a highly original, but uneasy position. Instead of constructing Europe from within, that is to say, on the basis of the common traits and similarities between the different nations, he asks us to construct it from the outside: on the basis of the unresolved conflicts and confrontations existing at Europe’s borders or peripheral areas, that is to say, at the point of contact with Europe’s political, socio-economic, cultural or ethnic Other.

The most prominent example is no doubt Balibar’s thesis that the civil war in the Balkans in the beginning of the nineties is an image and outcome of Europe’s own history or, as he puts it in We, the People of Europe: “a local projection of forms of confrontation and conflict characteristic of all of Europe” (p. 5). For this reason, the Balkan wars formed, in Balibar’s view, a unique opportunity for Europe to put itself into question and transform itself – an opportunity which, as history proved of course, Europe didn’t dare take. Another example of the Other in Balibar’s work on Europe is the undocumented alien, which is a more complex Other, due to his / her existence as outsiders inside the Union.

These examples clearly show that borders, in Balibar’s theory, are both geographical and cultural, ethnical, economic, political; they are external as well as internal. In Balibar’s own words: “borders are dispersed a little everywhere, wherever the movement of information, people and things is happening and is controlled”.

But Balibar also invites us to radically rethink the common, historically constituted notion of the border itself. Or, to be more precise: to consider the border outside the outdated framework of the nation-state, where borders were employed to clearly demarcate the territory of a supposedly homogenous and self-identical people or nation, over which the sovereign state held absolute authority, and which were meant to secure material welfare for its citizens. According to Balibar, this is no longer a valid or adequate way to represent and think the complexity of the borders of Europe – if it ever was. Balibar rather speaks of triple points and overlapping zones of contradictory civilisations or, as he puts it in a slogan: “Europe is multiple” (p. 5).


Finally, Balibar’s notion on borders is extremely interesting in considering the wider region in which this lecture series is held: the Euregion Meuse-Rhine. It challenges us to regard the Euregion in light of its relatively peripheral position in comparison to surrounding regions, and because of the many geographic, cultural, political and economic borders that run through it – including what Guido Wevers called the ‘seismic fault line’ between the Germanic and the Roman civilisations. This is why the Euregion Meuse-Rhine can function as a workplace, in Balibar’s meaning of the word, for another, more experimental and democratic Europe, a test case for a genuinely trans-national public sphere where citizens are active beyond the narrow confines of the failing nation-states or an abstract bureaucratised European state.

To be more precise, the challenge would not entail seeing the problems and conflicts in the Euregion Meuse-Rhine (such as the controversy over drugs policy) as the last remnants of the old Europe, or as the petty differences between the diverse nation-states that will fade away slowly over time. Rather, they should be considered as constituting the basis of rethinking some of Europe’s basic future political choices.

So we are very eager to listen to Balibar’s lecture which is entitled: “Ideas of Europe: Civilisation and Constitution”, and draw lessons from it in order to rethink the Euregion Meuse-Rhine.

NAi Maastricht, 28 May 2009

Tags: English

Categories: Urban planning

Type: Article