Ulrike Guérot: “We need a European republic”

An interview with the German political scientist, who calls for the creation of a European republic which transcends states. She believes that the war in Ukraine proves that Europe and America don’t share the same interests

Picture by Albert Salamé
Vicent Partal
12.07.2022 - 10:38
Actualització: 12.07.2022 - 10:43

Professor Ulrike Guérot is a German political scientist and the founder and director of the European Democracy Lab, a think tank which generates innovative concepts on the future of European integration. Guérot is a popular face in European media, voicing strong opinions. She was recently invited to Barcelona by the Goethe-Institut.

In April 2013 Guérot penned a manifesto, co-authored with Robert Menasse, on the founding of a European republic. They called for the creation of a post-national Europe based on the equality of all citizens beyond national borders. As part of this model, they argued that cities and “historic regions” with deeper roots, such as Catalonia, ought to gain influence and replace the existing states.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Guérot was very vocal against the measures which were introduced and warned that public debate was reduced to stigmatizing citizens who disagreed with the government. This sparked a fierce debate on social media, where she was accused of stirring up unrest and using half-truths in public debates.

Since the outbreak of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Guérot has been critical of German aid for Ukraine. She sees NATO as an obstacle to European integration. While she believes that Russia is a difficult country to deal with, she does not see it as the enemy, prompting her to argue the case for Russia feeling threatened as a nation. This has also caused Guérot problems, including at the university where she lectures.

—Your public image is highly controversial. How do you see yourself?
—I’m someone who’s critical of the current system, which is why I spoke out against the draconian measures that were taken during the pandemic and it’s why I support peace in Ukraine. But I have to say that at the same time I can work for Soros. I’m a complex individual and this affords me certain advantages.

—Such as?
—I’m happy to talk to anyone, to people who hold very different views, and I always say the same things to both sides. About Europe, for example. Or about trying to understand the tough times we are living in. And I say the same things both in private and on TV, exactly the same. Whether I’m the same on TV as in real life is another matter. We would do well to remember what Hannah Arendt taught us: when you give your words to the public, you can’t control what the public will do with your words.

—Shall we talk about Europe?
—Let’s talk about Europe.

—You start
—If we agree that polarization destroys political life and that we don’t want to end up with a great confrontation between the populists and the system —and if we don’t want to spend our day talking about Brexit, Polexit, Italexit and all the other “exits”—, it’s blatantly obvious that we need to rethink Europe. And we need to assume that more Europe, but not the Europe we have today, can help heal this rift between the system and populism. A 60-year-old Polish teacher once said to me: “I understand you well, you’re not in favour of the current European Union because it’s problematic and it doesn’t work. And you want a European republic that is the fusion of legal and political spaces in a European state.” Spot on! That’s what I want.

—This is your proposal, therefore: to create a European republic, rather than a union of states, like we have at the moment.
—That’s right. I want a practical utopia. In the European Union we have a hybrid law and several political spaces which do not merge. Therefore, we have a structural problem which stems from the root, from the concept, from the very political concept of the European Union. I’m not saying I have all the answers, but I do know that structural issues call for structural solutions.

—A European republic would be a structural solution, that’s for sure.
—And I think it would allow us to ease the current tension created by polarization. Because we could calmly argue with the far right when they say that Europe needs to change and that Europe does not work, for example. Fine. So let’s have a discussion about it, because that’s how it is. What’s more, talking about it creates a common space for everyone. The idea of a European republic could be a forum for discussion for Europeans, which could help us to overcome this polarization which we can currently see all around us.

—What you’re proposing is far from simple.
—I think it was Rilke who asked: “And what do you have against difficulty? Because simple things don’t work.”

—It’s 2022.
—Yes. And we have the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, a proxy war in which the Americans are involved, but without directly engaging in the hostilities. Europe is hurting itself by constantly pursuing destructive policies against its own people. The war in Ukraine proves that Europe and America don’t share the same interests, they’re not aligned. At least we can be certain of that. Nevertheless, we isolate ourselves from Russia. And we’re pushing Russia into China’s arms -while accepting, incidentally, that China builds the Belgrade to Budapest railway line, and agreeing that defence budgets need to be bumped up to 2% and that Sweden and Finland should join NATO. In short, we’re accepting American domination. But, alas!, it turns out that the economic war we wanted to wage against Russia has already been lost. There’s little or no inflation in Russia and the rouble is pretty stable. So, if we ever had the feeling, the temerity to believe that we could turn the tap off on Russia and choke it, it’s over now. Russia has won. I know it’s hard to accept, but I think that in any case we must analyse whether we’ve made the right decisions and I don’t think we have. One only needs to take a look at what’s happening in Europe right now: we have inflation, energy problems and our gas supply will be cut off in the winter.

—But a conflict like the one in Ukraine and the aspirations of the Ukrainians can’t be seen simply as a game between the United States and Europe.
—Of course not. Clearly, Putin is an aggressor. I can’t deny that. It’s obvious. I don’t deny the facts. But that doesn’t stop me from being able to openly ask myself why Europe isn’t able to look after its own interests and why it allows itself to be manipulated in this way. This is the key issue and I hope that Europe will wake up and be able to become an emancipatory project again, as it was in the past.

—When was that?
—The European projects of 1992 were emancipatory. One was the political union, Maastricht, an ever-greater union between us. And the other was the creation of an Eurasian peace, a partnership which was to stretch from Lisbon to Vladivostok. But both projects have failed. Thirty years on, we have to accept that. Now, we must ask ourselves whether these two projects are still ours, intellectually, emotionally, politically, financially, socially and strategically. If so, we need to consider whether we still have any options left. Or whether maybe there’s nothing left to do with respect to China. And even if that were the case and we could no longer stop China-America from taking over our ports and all the rest, we could always go back to wondering whether those two 1992 goals can still be achieved today.

—And how do we go about that?
—By opposing transhumanism, the idea that we are moving from humans to posthumans and the digital agenda. I want to. I want to oppose it. Because I also think that’s how we can defend the European continent. Not just the territories and the beautiful cities, and the agora and the Greek and Latin culture and the architecture and the Renaissance and all that Europe has done and is doing. A Europe which isn’t America –that begins, so to speak, in 1776. And which isn’t Africa, either. Nor is it China, of course, which has a great culture, but it’s a whole different thing.

—How do you define the essence of this Europe which you propose?
—Here in Europe, we have something very specific that, if we had to sum it up in one word, we could call “republic”. It’s the concept that tells us how people should live together, and can live together, in a single shared political project. It’s Plato and Aristotle and it’s Cicero and Kant and Rousseau, it’s the evolution of our Europe. The question now is whether we want to save the mental structure of Europe, of this res publica, with everything that it entails and has entailed, even today: economy and democracy, agora, freedom, equality, fraternity, everything that makes the European republic, and which is also a jewel in the crown of intellectual thought worldwide.

—Lets pretend that we do want to save it.
—Well, if we wish to do so, we must first consider where we start, what social, physical or territorial fabric we have to start with in order to achieve it. How we ought to think of it. And my answer is that Europe needs a European republic.

What for, exactly?
—Up until the 1970s, before the neoliberal agenda took over, things were still quite clear. But now the European structure of collaboration between what used to be public and private is rapidly being destroyed and the elements which define us as a continent are being diluted. The European industrial fabric is being consumed by Amazon, and the effects are plain to see in every corner of every city. And the Chinese are getting a foothold with their transformation of the surveillance of societies. I argue that if we want to think of a European project, we must think about these basic fabrics, the social fabric, the industrial fabric, the cultural fabric. Recently I was speaking to some industrialists in Turin, and we understood each other perfectly well because they are the kind of people Europe needs: responsible, firmly-rooted individuals. If you only aim to be big —big data, big business, big American, big GAFA, big whatever– it’s no longer a republican model, because it’s uncontrollable on a human scale.

—So how do you see this republic?
—I’m thinking of a European republic built on subsidiarity, horizontal, based on regions and historical cultural identities —that of the Catalans, for example— and deconstructed. We must combine the origin, the local reality, with a functional and emancipatory European state. Which is why many of the structures we have created with the European Union now need to be taken apart.

You’ve been strongly criticised on social media for starting debates like this one. How do you withstand this pressure?
—It’s not easy when so many people start looking and combining anything you do or say, from such different angles. For the time being, I’m protected by the belief that they can’t make me theirs, that they can’t turn me into what they say I am. I’m a complex individual. I’ve worked with the CDU and the SPD, and the European Council on Foreign Relations. I know Javier Solana. And have I worked for Soros? Well, yes, him too!

—You’ve been very critical of what you call the “shrinking space for debate.
—It’s something that’s readily apparent and it’s a big problem.

You’ve taken a very critical position regarding the pandemic, and this has led some to call you a denialist
—As I said earlier: there’s me and then there’s the “Guérot phenomenon”. I do what I do and talk to everyone and trust those who know me. But the media only sees the “Guérot phenomenon”, which they use to reduce the space for public conversation. If you can’t defeat the argument, kill the individual. It’s as simple as that. They deny us the power to change our minds, they deny us the right to be persuaded. It’s totally irrational.

And who’s to blame?
—I think it’s important to analyse what’s wrong with the internet and the bubbles it creates. And, of course, it’s important, very important, to know who pays for these trolls. Who finances the attacks on social media? In the end they aim to polarize, whether we talk about the coronavirus, about Ukraine, about climate change. They want differentiation to be lost, for tangible data to be lost.

—If one voices an opinion, one always puts oneself in danger, don’t you agree?
—Yes. But you can understand someone and it doesn’t mean that you justify what they’re doing. And I’m worried when I see how this is denied, how we are losing the European mental structures, the European ways of thinking. Watch what is happening. If my views on a particular topic are, say, like the far right’s, I become afraid to discuss them, so they won’t accuse me of thinking like them and they start a campaign saying I’m on the far right. And what’s the result? Well, I eventually keep quiet and that ends up reinforcing people who I think are doing the wrong thing, simply because I don’t dare say what I think and be pigeonholed. It’s permanent intimidation.

Is everything moving too fast?
—Yes. There’s a certain haste. Everything’s moving so fast, smartphones, Twitter posts, it’s all so fast. But let’s hold it for a second: do we really need this? Yes? To do what? Do we really need Alexa to refill our fridge, or can we open the door and see what’s in it and what we need to buy? They keep telling us that they make our lives easier, but it’s not clear that it’s actually the case. I want to catch a train, but there are no actual human beings at the station. I have to go online and click who knows where to find the instructions I need. Or I have to explain my problem to a phone bot. And we still don’t know what to do and we tell our problems to a machine! In the end, artificial intelligence and all that sort of thing is nothing but a distortion of our thought processes and an added stress for everyone.

How do we put a stop to it?
—We can read literature. And we find, for example, Sándor Márai describing to us a Budapest in the 1920s, 1930s, when people had a whole day to speak and think while sitting around a fire chatting. Or you read about those stations with one train running every hour, marking a slow, rhythmic pace of life. And it’s a contrast when thinking about what will happen with this transhumanist agenda. Perhaps we’re unaware of what’s going on. Stefan Zweig said that people who are in a period that is not yet over can’t fully comprehend it, precisely because they’re in the midst of it.

But you try to understand it, nevertheless.
—Oh, yes. I do, yes. But what I see, for example, is that my students don’t know what currencies there were in Europe before the euro. And instead of reading books they read on the internet. The printed word has disappeared —I already have students who are millennials, and this generation has a problem with books. But the internet, for example, doesn’t have chapters. Turning to an index to find something is so rational. It all comes down to a historical illiteracy which doesn’t seem to care about what had existed before. And it’s fascinating to see how we change reality using words and how words change our thought structures. Then you see that there’s a very active monster which is trying to make us all think alike, to limit our capacity for debate as much as possible. And, meanwhile, there people who have gone nuts and believe in stuff that is impossible to believe in. We want to be rational and we have to let everyone say what they want, but then you find people who reject the teachings of Galileo and say that the Earth is flat. Come off it! Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to see how, in a democracy, we can negotiate the coexistence of various belief systems and no one has a monopoly on beliefs. And you’re in the middle of it all and you feel that this tension between the two extremes could kill you.

—Or not. Last year I got sixty death threats in the mail. Democracy needs people who are able to debate, who are able to think, who are able to recognize common sense. And a democracy is in trouble, if it lives in a state of fear. For this reason, I sometimes have the feeling that we’re going back to the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s as if Descartes had never existed. Once again, very powerful religious movements are eroding democracy and it’s no longer an abstract discussion. Look at what’s happening with abortion in the US.

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