The Borders of Europe as Ideas of Europe / Report EF lecture Etienne Balibar


2009, Euregional Forum Newspaper

On Thursday 28 May 2009, it was political philosopher Etienne Balibar’s turn to engage with the problematics of the lecture series ‘The Unresolved Borders of Europe’. Balibar tackled the issue of the borders from the perspective that borders of Europe are based, to a high degree, on certain ideas about Europe and, more precisely, ideas about European identity and politics.

The border is an idea

The structural openness of Europe

Balibar started by affirming what he called the “structural condition of openness of the European space”. This should not only be interpreted, on a purely natural, geographical level, with the lack of clear borders between Europe and Asia. For Balibar, the same openness also applies with regard to European history or political development. Accordingly, he spoke of Europe as a “complex assemblage of peoples, languages, religions and states”. Precisely because of this open, border-less state of Europe, every border one draws, he further claimed, will very much be based on certain ideas about Europe. The most basic lesson one could thus draw from Balibar’s lecture was that ‘the border is an idea’ or, more concretely, that the borders of Europe are ultimately based on certain notions of what Europe is or stands for, both culturally and politically.

Mapping the ideas of Europe

In line with this thesis, the main objective of Balibar’s lecture was to map and reflect on previous and possible future ideas of Europe as well as current debates and dilemmas in the “idealising of Europe”. However, Balibar forewarned that precisely because of Europe’s indeterminate, ‘border-less’ character, a multiplicity of conflicting ideas on Europe will inevitably remain – hence, ‘ideas’ in the plural in the title of his exposé. This multiplicity not only turns the search for, and struggles over the idea of Europe into a never-ending process, but may also constitute the essence itself of what Europe is, what has been the driving-force of its rich culture and politics and what might guarantee its dynamism in the future.

Since ideas on Europe are, to a large extent, ideas about its identity and form of politics, Balibar mapped his ideas of Europe by exploring these two aspects in consecutive order, starting with the issue of Europe’s identity.

Ideas of Europe and European identity

The identities of Europe

Balibar first went through some historical determinations of the European identity. He started off with German romantic poet Novalis, who saw European identity as an essentially ‘lost’ identity – what he considered to be lost was a common European ‘Christianity’, as a result of centuries of secularisation. Next, Balibar talked about the ‘social contract theories’, according to which identities (mainly national ones) were seen as originating from the conscious decisions of a certain people. Balibar believes that previous notions still adhere too much to a pure and homogeneous conception of identity. In the dialectical model of German philosopher Hegel, on the contrary, he saw a more complex notion of identity, according to which the encounter with the Other plays a key role in its constitution. Balibar contended that these different philosophical ideas on European identity still largely determine how Europeans imagine their collective identity, and thus where they (attempt to) draw the borders of European space.

The paradox of the European periphery

As a first example, Balibar referred to the seemingly endless debates on the admittance of so-called peripheral countries to the EU. This discussion usually concerns countries that may have strong historical, political and cultural ties with Europe, but have similar ties with other continents, like Asia, Africa or Northern America (as is the case with Great Britain). Balibar detected a strange paradox in one of the main arguments for or against admitting such countries as EU members: namely, that in order to become members of the EU, these countries already have to be European, possess the imprint of ‘Europeanness’. According to Balibar, this inconsistent reasoning is the result of the pure and homogeneous takes on identity to which he referred earlier, which lead to simplistic binary thinking about borders in terms of inside or outside.

A cross-over of overlapping plates

Against this notion of homogeneity, Balibar put forward the idea that Europe has never been a closed space, nor will it ever become one. He stated that the borders of Europe do not exist, except for arbitrary strategic and technical reasons (such as monetary policies or police controls). He rather conceived of Europe’s space as a “cross-over of several overlapping plates” and regarded Europe’s so-called border regions (such as Russia, the Mediterranean countries) as important parts, which play a key role in the determinations and transformations of its identity.

The post-colonial Other as idea of Europe

Intending to prove the key role of the peripheral areas or borders of Europe for the construction of its identity, Balibar referred to the crucial role of the period of colonisation in the first conceptualisations of Europe. According to him, it was both in the rivalry and in the collaboration of the various European countries in conquering the globe and dividing it among each other, that Europe first saw and defined itself as a civilisation. Balibar then referred to the theorist Edward Said, who claimed that the idea of the “Orient”, as Europe’s “Other” or “anti-type”, was essential to the definition of Europe’s humanist identity. The aim of so-called post-colonial theorists like Said would be to grant to this Other its constitutive, yet historically negated role in order to re-evaluate and rethink the idea of Europe.

Re-thinking Europe’s universality

Central in these attempts at redefinition is the supposed universal character of a European identity. This is the idea that Europe, of all world cultures, is most based on a non-particularistic notion of identity and community, and is therefore an open, all-inclusive project. Balibar disagreed with those who simply dismiss this claim to universality, by pointing to the particularistic motives behind it, such as economic self-gain or cultural self-promotion – something that is subsequently generalised to discredit universality as such. As opposed to this cynical view, Balibar observed how the idea of universality is in fact radically being reasserted and rethought by precisely those who were historically its worst victims, namely the colonised; it is even being used as a weapon against its previous European colonisers.

Europe as province of the universal

In this regard, Balibar referred to historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s thesis (developed in his book Provincialising Europe) that the tension between universalistic and particularistic tendencies runs through, and divides every culture in our globalised world; Chakrabarty believes that it is rather a case of what Balibar called ‘conflicting rationalities’ running through every culture – which is thus also true for Europe itself. The colonial debacle has not divorced Europe forever from a universalistic self-conceptualisation. It can still become a ‘province of the universal’, but it should be more humble in its attempts, while also becoming more open to what Balibar called “alternative interpretations of the human”.

Political ideas of Europe

But also ideas about the type of politics Europe stands or should stand for, or what type of political community it forms, determine and animate the ideas of Europe and, in extension, discussions on the borders of Europe. Balibar devoted the second part of his lecture to the political ideas of Europe.

The double meaning of politics

Balibar started by emphasising the double meaning of the word ‘politics’, inherited from the Greek word ‘politeia’. This can either refer to the gathering of people discussing and collectively deciding on public affairs, or to the internal system and logics of political institutions. This dual definition of politics can still be seen as haunting European politics, for instance in the popular struggles against the so-called ‘Eurocracy’, referring to the supposedly high and mighty bureaucratic European institutions that are said to operate in complete isolation from its European citizens. According to Balibar, these two meanings of politics are today being reformulated in terms of what he called “the two monsters of political theory”: the European ‘demos’ (or: ‘political people’, according to the first meaning of ‘politeia’) and the European ‘federation’ (according to the second, institutional meaning).

Whither European community

Balibar then went on to complicate this picture even further, by saying that due to the dual, conflictual meaning of politics in Europe, and the ensuing failure to clearly think the European people as a political community, two other notions are increasingly more successful in imagining the kind of community Europe is, or creates. The first notion sees Europe as a quasi-ethnic, cultural community (according to the Greek ‘ethnos’), the second as an “elect civilisation” and “a nation with a historical mission” (cf. Greek ‘laos’). Balibar regarded both as undemocratic or, to be more precise, as acting against conceiving the European people as a political community, which decides on its own form of community, through discussion and deliberation.

Radical democracy

Balibar then referred to the work of social and political philosopher Jacques Rancière, who locates the problematic, conflictual status of democracy in Greek thought in the fact that the citizens to which it referred also clashed: democracy then referred to those classes who enjoyed full rights and privileges in the community, but also to those who were excluded from these communal and political circles of privilege. Democracy in the most fundamental sense then concerns not so much the process of collective decision-making by the privileged classes, as the extent to which the excluded are allowed to take part in that process, which always entails conflict. One could thus say that the dual, conflictual meaning of democracy is based on the conflictual social process of democracy itself.

Towards an insurgent democracy

Balibar used these reflections on the essence of democratic politics as a springboard for his own notion of it, which he called “the insurgent moment of democracy”, or “insurgent demos”. Balibar conceived of this insurgent democracy in terms of a combination of social movements and struggles that, although rooted in social conditions, act as political forces – not so much by expressing political positions as by expanding the frontiers of the political polemically. This European demos would function as a constituent power, which is not so much a source of legitimacy for its supra-national institutions, but rather a source of the latter’s political life. Balibar’s notion or idea of European politics can thus be seen as navigating between the two, conflictual meanings of European politics as European demos and federalism. His insurgent notion of democracy does not challenge the existence or idea of specialised federal political institutions at a European level as such. Rather, it argues for the necessity, not so much of a European people that can legitimise those institutions through political representation, but of a revolutionary collective agency on a European scale that transforms the social relations, thus heavily influencing the politics and policies of the European institutions. He saw a precedent of this insurgent democracy in the political practices of the inhabitants of the classical cities, but also a current manifestation of this phenomenon, in what he referred to as “the new emerging trans-national public sphere”.

The global financial crisis as an opportunity for European democracy!

Balibar saw a possible application and relevance of his notion of insurgent democracy in the present global financial crisis. Balibar was hopeful about the possibility that under pressure of mass political action and debate by an active European social citizenship, the central European financial institutions could be made to be used in an alternative way and steered towards alternative goals. That is to say, less technocratic and neo-liberal and more oriented towards the maintenance of productive investments and the protection of jobs.


– A first question addressed one of the causes Balibar mentioned for the persistence of very reactionary, identity-related ideas on Europe, namely processes of economic competition, which would set peoples in Europe up against one another. It was asked whether this is sufficient as an explanatory model, especially since these ideas seem to originate from the majority of the European people itself, and whether this doesn’t seriously undermine Balibar’s plea for a more active, militant and progressive European citizenship.

Balibar started by stressing that he did not think a natural logic exists that would either prevent the European people or masses from giving in to reactionary thoughts, or would conversely lead them to affirm the type of politics that are not in their best interests. On the contrary, he stressed how mass movements are always historical constructions. Next he went on to say that he considered the recent, explicitly anti-European stances based, for instance, on the idea that the European construction has destroyed certain rights and has caused a massive transferral of jobs due to unlimited deregulation, to be progress. According to him, it would force the political representatives and institutions to address the economic issues at a European level, and no longer at a national level. This would be a step forward, because the problem with addressing economic issues at a national level, Balibar further claimed, is that national parties and governments, whether conservative or social-democratic, usually speak a double language, in which everything that suppresses jobs is attributed to Brussels and everything that defends them is attributed to themselves. It is such hypocrisy, according to Balibar, which makes it very difficult for the peoples of Europe, most often working class people, not to become reactionary.

– It was then asked whether the socialist party in the Netherlands (SP), which also has a very anti-European stance, especially with regards to economic and labour issues, could be seen as an example of such seemingly reactionary parties and which could nevertheless have a progressive effect by forcing European politicians to better address economical problems on a trans-national scale.

Balibar stated that from a social point of view nothing proofs that the European construction is in itself progressive. According to him, the EU emerged due to geopolitical and economic reasons, not as a result of progressive social parties. Still, it was in Western Europe that a form of social citizenship emerged that, even if it was unequally incorporated in formal institutions, formed the core of democracy. Balibar claimed that it would not have been possible for the EU to build itself without incorporating these social rights. Moreover, it provided a political possibility for progressive forces within Europe to argue that the European construction will have to incorporate those rights or, if not, will finally crash.

– It was further noted that, in the Netherlands, certain political parties are using the same argument of protecting the strong tradition of social and labour rights to plead for closing the borders, not only between the EU and Eastern Europe, but even around the Netherlands itself, in order to keep cheap labour out, which is said to undermine those rights.

Balibar affirmed his belief that a common economic and social European policy, with an equalisation of social rights at a European level, would form a better protection for national social rights than closing the national borders and returning to a purely nationalistic kind of politics.

– Another question focused on Balibar’s thesis of the predominance of understandings of the demos in terms of ethnicity or a chosen people, over notions focusing on institution building. It was asked what institutions he thought were missing from the way Europeans talk about the concept of democracy, especially in light of the clear incapacity of the European bureaucratic institutions in this regard.

Balibar started by saying that the current state of democracy at a national level should be used as the standard or measure that can form the basis for discussing democracy at a European level and for deciding whether it constitutes progress or not. He disagreed with positions that believe democracy is functioning well at a national level and is missing at a European level, thus fearing and resisting the transferral of national democratic institutions to a European level. The crisis would be as much a crisis of democracy as it is of the nation-state. According to him, it is this crisis of democracy at both levels that delegitimises public institutions and stands in the way of addressing the issues that were already under discussion and caused parliaments to get stuck on imaginary problems of identity, origins or civilising missions. Finally, Balibar held a plea for both more participation and direct democracy at a local level and more accountability at a European level, for instance, by increasing the power of the European Parliament in proportion to that of the European Commission.

– Somebody referred to Balibar’s earlier stress on the importance of a cross-border European social movement and labour union and asked whether this could be an example of such missing and highly needed democratic institutions.

Balibar first stressed his belief that social movements, trade unions, popular culture initiatives and even socialist or communist parties have been very effective in securing and enhancing a certain degree of democracy at a national level in Europe. Secondly, he said that with a revival of social movements he did not mean their institutionalisation in the construction of Europe. According to him, the type of social initiatives and activism, without which there would never have been any advances on the road of democracy, is not something that can be written in the constitution or that one can incorporate in a plan. It is mainly something one can try to contribute to.

Tags: English

Categories: Urban planning

Type: Article