Ulrich Beck is a German sociologist whose name I encounter from time to time – from his work on risk society (which I don’t pretend to understand). He has now jumped to almost best-selling status in the UK by virtue of his small book with the fairly self-explanatory title of "German Europe"
It appeared in English in April and has got the English chattering classes drooling covering, as it does, two of the hate subjects of the English – Europe and the Germans.
The book itself seems a bit incoherent – a bit of knock-about fun at Angela Merkel's expense; an emphasis on her (and Germany's) Protestant/Lutheran discipline (rather missing the point about the Catholic contribution to the concept of the social market); some obvious assertions about the new divisions in Europe; and then some wishy-washy points about the future.......
I would say that the first thing we have to think about is what the purpose of the European Union actually is. Is there any purpose? Why Europe and not the whole world? Why not do it alone in Germany, or the UK, or France?
I think there are four answers in this respect. First, the European Union is about enemies becoming neighbours. In the context of European history this actually constitutes something of a miracle. The second purpose of the European Union is that it can prevent countries from being lost in world politics. A post-European Britain, or a post-European Germany, is a lost Britain, and a lost Germany. Europe is part of what makes these countries important from a global perspective.
The third point is that we should not only think about a new Europe, we also have to think about how the European nations have to change. They are part of the process and I would say that Europe is about redefining the national interest in a European way. Europe is not an obstacle to national sovereignty; it is the necessary means to improve national sovereignty. Nationalism is now the enemy of the nation because only through the European Union can these countries have genuine sovereignty.
The fourth point is that European modernity, which has been distributed all over the world, is a suicidal project. It’s producing all kinds of basic problems, such as climate change and the financial crisis. It’s a bit like if a car company created a car without any brakes and it started to cause accidents: the company would take these cars back to redesign them and that’s exactly what Europe should do with modernity. Reinventing modernity could be a specific purpose for Europe.
Taken together these four points form what you could say is a grand narrative of Europe, but one basic issue is missing in the whole design. So far we’ve thought about things like institutions, law, and economics, but we haven’t asked what the European Union means for individuals.
What do individuals gain from the European project?
First of all I would say that, particularly in terms of the younger generation, more Europe is producing more freedom. It’s not only about the free movement of people across Europe; it’s also about opening up your own perspective and living in a space which is essentially grounded on law.
Second, European workers, but also students as well, are now confronted with the kind of existential uncertainty which needs an answer. Half of the best educated generation in Spanish and Greek history lack any future prospects. So what we need is a vision for a social Europe in the sense that the individual can see that there is not necessarily social security, but that there is less uncertainty. Finally we need to redefine democracy from the bottom up. We need to ask how an individual can become engaged with the European project. In that respect I have made a manifesto, along with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, called “We Are Europe”, arguing that we need a free year for everyone to do a project in another country with other Europeans in order to start a European civil society.The Council of Europe published recently a series of lectures by various intellectuals on the crisis and Beck's Europe at risk - a cosmopolitan perspective gives a good sense of his book - and his other contributions. Self-indulgent academic sloganising which comes from too much time in incestuous discussions.
Earlier in March, the Guardian had given us a typical piece of shallow British prejudice in their coverage of the same topic - giving us Beck and a German comedian (resident in the UK). Almost 500 respondents took part in the subsequent discussion thread - which confirmed just how little Brits seem to know about Germany