An exchange on power, democracy, journalism, and the future of Europe.


This exchange between Elias Kühn & Nicholas Barrett, based in Brussels and London respectively, touches upon complex, and less complex, notions of power, democracy, journalism, and the future of Europe—to name a few easy subjects.

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The real question is what kind of Europe do we want: liberal or illiberal?

10 February 19

Dear London,

I’ve been in the capital of Europe for two weeks. There’s a square near where I live. On the corner, beneath the bell tower of a church, there’s a bar. It has one room, high ceilings, and an art deco exterior decorated in gold and light blue tiles. When the sun shines they place the tables outside. Wooden tables, turn-of-the-century classroom benches, and the young and old crowd around in the sun. You can bring your own food; they drink beer and coffee, smoke, play cards. Each table speaks a different language, and different languages are spoken around the same table. When you sit there, the sounds of the city are muffled, like an ocean. I’ll take you there when you visit.

Before I start as a Cabinet trainee in several weeks, I’m working as an editor for a magazine. Slow, borderless journalism. They’re asking what it means to be European. I’ve always had the intuition that if you want to answer that question, you have to go to the edges of the continent where the idea of Europe is in flux. Historically, the western frontier has been a frontier of expansion, and the eastern one has been a frontier of defence. But as of late, the battle lines are drawn in the center.

This makes sense because Europe cannot be reduced to an idea, an identity, or a geopolitical or economic reality. It is itself a structuring force. The sociologist Gerard Delanty understands Europe as the central and organizing metaphor of a complex civilization. If Europe is a unifying theme, then you can expect dissent against Europe to come precisely from the center—from where Europe is most present.

Notice that far-right parties are expected to make major gains in the upcoming elections. One-third of the seats in the European Parliament could soon be held by so-called “anti-European” parties. This paradoxical situation is the very result of Europe having become, both physically and imaginatively, a universal structuring force.

That is why it is only partially correct to think that the battle being fought is over Europe itself, i.e., whether or not we want a united Europe. Even the “anti-Europeans” have a stake in whether this project succeeds. The real question is what kind of Europe do we want: liberal or illiberal? Looking at it from this perspective, Brexit is not only a distraction, it is confused about the very terms of the debate.

Don’t take these ideas too seriously my friend. I’m merely teasing a response out of you. And I hope to get one soon.


24 February 19

Dear Brussels,

I want to start by reminding you that there is no longer a public sphere. Habermas is dead, Zuckerberg killed him. What remains are a thousand mini-spheres where journalists operate as cultural ambassadors on behalf of their audience. They know what the readers want and they give it to them. It's not a public service anymore, but a community service.

Here in London, on the brink of Brexit, there is surprisingly little discussion of the European project. We seem to be worried about ourselves and the national consequences of leaving. This is a great shame. I suspect the next century will be dominated by three forces, which will stand alone in their ability to wage large scale wars, combat climate change and tame the plutocratic multinationals. They will be China, the United States and Europe, and every other piece on the board will be a pawn or a pariah. And yet, such an argument is powerless because voters, in all corners of the world, want a quiet life and rarely appreciate that the quiet life depends on the economic and geopolitical stability facilitated within the narrow corridors of power in Beijing, Washington and Brussels.

We started the last century with three big ideas: imperialism, communism and free-market capitalism. Imperialism died halfway through the century, communism fell in 1989 and by 2016 we were down to zero. What's left is a gaping vacuum and if it isn't filled by constructive actors, it will be left to those who wish to divide us to set the perimeters of our political future. Paradoxically, while converting to the quiet life, electorates also want to give the corrupt establishment a kicking, without much thought as to what would replace the establishment once it's had the credibility kicked out of it.

How do we respond? One answer could be to become radicals ourselves. We must not be afraid of disruptive ideas. We must embrace them. The internet is currently littered with popular radicals on both the left and right, many of whom have highly legitimate complaints but are dangerously ignorant and tediously vindictive. But climate change and inequality cannot be solved by liberal half measures. And so now is the time to think.

I'm sure we will return to many of these themes in ways that encourage me to go beyond glib sweeping statements about where we are.

Habermas is dead, Zuckerberg killed him.

10 March 19

Dear London,

When you say the public sphere is dead, what I understand is that it no longer exercises authority. Or said differently, it can no can longer justify our collective ways of thinking, acting and being. This is what I’ve always understood Nietzsche’s madman to mean when he entered the village square and proclaimed God to be dead. His point was not that God did not exist. For all we know, he may exist. What the madman meant was that our moral truths and patterns of behavior could no longer be credibly justified by an appeal to God as a first principle. Religion had lost its absolute authority.

If this is what has happened to the public sphere, it would go some length in explaining our present situation. In the United States, despite #MeToo and climate change, you have a significant part of the country that supports a climate change-denying president who’s been accused of sexual harassment. As for Britain, well, Brexit is tearing the country apart. If we cannot agree on a shared set of facts and values, then the public sphere ceases to exist, no?

In After Europe, Ivan Krastev makes the provocative suggestion that the EU, in order to gain legitimacy, should not attempt to correct its democratic deficit. Creating more avenues for political participation would likely hasten the EU’s collapse because they risk either being hijacked by the few who care enough to vote, or because policy questions are magnified to whether the Union should exist at all. Krastev entertains an alternative course of action: that European institutions focus on longevity instead. Their very ability of weathering storms is a source of legitimacy.

He’s not entirely incorrect. Though I do think he presents a false choice. Correcting the democratic deficit goes beyond increasing participation in elections, because democracy is not simply a matter of voting. It’s a family of institutions that demands competition for political power, inclusive participation, that leaders be held accountable, the rule of law enforced, and where people share a culture of democracy, accepting that it’s “the only game in town.” Talk of longevity likens the EU to an empire with a constitutional monarchy, which is nonsense. No one in Brussels has this ambition, despite Nigel or Boris’ insinuations to the contrary. Plus, in your words, “monarchy is a difficult sell.”


24 March 19

Dear Brussels,

Allow me to be provocative and entertain this idea of the European Union as an empire. Of course, you are right that nobody in Brussels imagines themselves as neo-imperialists, but perhaps we can briefly entertain the idea of a subconscious empire at the bottom of a path paved with noble intent. After all, the EU is a centralized power enforcing laws from Newcastle to Nicosia.

For decades, developments in Brussels have been considered a sideshow in every other European country. Few living anywhere across the continent could name an MEP or their country's commissioner. The European Parliament is barely covered in national newspapers while the Commission operates behind a fog of bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the lack of a European public sphere has created a dangerous incentive for politicians to blame Brussels when things go wrong and hoard the credit at a national level when things go well. Before the global financial crisis of 2008 and the Eurozone crisis which followed, the EU's public relations problem was merely considered a glitch in the system. The EU had long since exceeded its original objective of securing peace by facilitating economic interdependence between member states. Nobody worries about France and Germany declaring war on one another, and as a result, the political will that gave birth to the project has been confined to the archives. What kind of phenomenon should we expect to fill the vacuum left behind?

In 2008, shortly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers two researchers, Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks, published a paper which would go on to spawn a new sub-genre of political science. It was titled A Postfunctionalist Theory of European Integration: From Permissive Consensus to Constraining Dissensus. Hooghe and Marks had set out to explore the politicization of European integration.

Functionalism could be thought of as a sociological version of Adam Smith's invisible hand. According to the theory, every element of society—the family, the school, the betting shop, the brothel—serves a unique purpose that builds and sustains the society as a whole. Institutions, the theory states, become more reliant on one another as time passes. Communities become increasingly complex as they mature, and the individual elements become more interdependent on one another to succeed. As a result, societies ought to move towards a state of greater stability.

The term “postfunctionalism” had already existed in philosophy and architecture to describe ideas that transcended pragmatism. Hooghe and Marks created the sociological theory of postfunctionalism to describe what happens when integration becomes politicised.

Today, the post-cold war consensus has crumbed and millions of people consider the EU as an oppressive monolith. Across the continent, wages have stagnated while the cost of living has rocketed as high-status jobs have coalesced in a handful of big cities, leaving hundreds of regions, and even a few countries, at the wrong end of a continental brain drain. So is Europe the postfunctional continent?

If the EU becomes more democratic it will inevitably create more spaces for its postfunctional critics to undermine it from the inside. But failing to become more democratic will reinforce the suspicions of those who consider the EU an empire.

Allow me to be provocative and entertain this idea of the European Union as an empire. After all, the EU is a centralized power enforcing laws from Newcastle to Nicosia.

7 April 19

Dear London,

Our generation is too far removed from the horrors of Verdun, Auschwitz and Stalingrad. The need to prevent war no longer mobilizes the political will for further integration, let alone does it justify the level of integration already achieved. But the urgent desire for peace that emerged in postwar Europe hid another desire: the self-preservation of the state. The idealism of the European project can only be understood as such—in its relationship to national interests and power.

Upon signing the Treaty of Paris in 1951, effectively integrating France and West Germany’s coal and steel industries, Robert Schuman described it as “a leap in the dark.” Yet what is remarkable is not how ambitious it was, but how utterly modest. The idea of a European union was not new—Victor Hugo had envisioned a “United States of Europe” as early as 1849.

The idea that ministers and technocrats always planned to gradually, but surely, subordinate the nation state to a higher European order is a myth. The sharing of sovereignty was designed to preserve the nation state, not bury it. And when such pooling ran counter to the national interest, it was rejected. The narrow defeat in the French national assembly in 1954 of the plan to create a European army was followed by a rousing chorus of the Marseillaise.

Europe’s function has always been negotiated between national interests. Under the security umbrella of the Cold War, the economic rationale for European integration was paramount. It was the most consistent argument, and it’s repeated so often that I won’t waste my time with it here (though I recommend you read Friedrich Hayek’s 1939 essay “The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism”—I’m interested to hear whether you think it serves as a blueprint for the EU). But even here, economics can only explain so much. Europe’s social market economy is not the same as American free-market capitalism or Chinese state capitalism.

But let’s entertain the idea that the EU is postfunctional (I will use the term in a very literal sense, i.e., focusing less on how the public has become an agent in integration, and more on whether the EU has a function at all). The historian Robin Okey describes how the Eastern European Marxist-Leninist regimes, having lost their revolutionary raison d’être, continued existing for a long time by exercising power in order to exercise power—“like a star that has ceased to give off light.” Is this the predicament of the EU?

I’ll give you a concrete example. The process by which economic and social policies are coordinated between member states in the EU is called the European Semester. Each spring, following extensive deliberations, the Commission gives member states country-specific recommendations, structural reform priorities that they should implement. They can be anything from tax policies to promoting life-long learning.

The problem is that the policies aren’t being implemented. Between 2011 and 2016, just 24 percent of recommendations were implemented and “some progress” was made on around half. If there was an example of European post-functionalism, this would be it, no? An opaque institutional process that is increasingly politicized, resource heavy, but serves no apparent function.

I think it’s more accurate to describe it as “pre-functional.” The “Semester” only emerged in 2010 in response to the financial and sovereign-debt crisis, which laid bare the structural weaknesses of the EU, in particular the euro area. Even when broadly accepted on paper, it takes time for new governance structures to be internalized. And there’s the added complexity that policy is a political game. (The Semester is a colosseum where Brussels and national capitals fight it out over which policy areas belong to European versus national competences.)

The EU is a young creation. To argue that it’s post-functional is to suggest that it had a function and lost it, when in fact it’s being continually negotiated. Peace was never the penultimate function of the European project; it was a means of making integration urgent. When in 1951 ministers from France, West Germany, Italy and the three Benelux countries put their names to the Treaty of Paris, negotiations had been so rushed that the sheet of paper the ministers signed was blank.

This brings me to the dilemma you put forward. I say: open the floodgates! Make the EU more democratic and let’s collectively decide its function. My vote goes to a green Europe, a social market economy that offers an alternative to the American and Chinese models, and to a Union that presents a united front against big tech and multinationals. But whether any of this is feasible we have to discuss. You’re not convinced that “liberal half-measures” will solve climate change and inequality. What do you suggest?

Peace was never the penultimate function of the European project; it was a means of making integration urgent.

21 April 19

Dear Brussels,

I have a feeling that we could spend our lives arguing about what the European Union isn't. Ultimately, we both know what it is we want to see precluded. A divided Europe would quickly fall prey to domestic jingoism and geopolitical bullying at the hands of America and China. It would also be incapable of responding to climate change.

This week I visited various illegal protests by the Extinction Rebellion dotted around London. My favorite was the illegal pedestrianization of Waterloo Bridge. A desolate concrete highway was transformed into an ephemeral garden walkway; it may have been the most pleasant protest I've ever attended. Even without the element of disruption, it was a radical reinvention of space, recreated in defiance of public opinion, for the collective good. What was especially inspiring was seeing activists of every age group, including children, willing to be arrested to register their fear of catastrophic climate change. We must never assume that the next generation will behave like the last.

It is usually the case that countries with a high median age change slowly. According to the CIA World Factbook, the median age in Europe is 42 and will rise to 52 by the year 2050. (As a point of reference, the global average is 30.) This means that by the time Greta Thunberg's generation controls the levers of Europe's democratic institutions, we will already be decades past the point of no return on climate change, which is estimated to be as early as the year 2030.

So no, I cannot tell you that I believe in our ability to force enough liberal half measures in time to save us from the consequences of our conspicuous consumption. Just as it took two world wars for Victor Hugo's idea of a “United States of Europe” to find its way into the hands of Winston Churchill, it may take a series of climate-related disasters for our dream of a green Europe to materialize. But what we can do is use our time and effort to redescribe the present and to live as paragons of our Europe of tomorrow. We can take part and encourage cultural phenomena that does to Europe what Extinction Rebellion did to Waterloo Bridge, by forcing politicians and the public to reimagine the world around them.

For inspiration, we can look to Kraftwerk's 1977 album Trans Europe Express, which can serve as a series of instructional anthems for the continent we wish to cultivate. We must go wherever we are deprived of freedom of movement. We have to weaponize the cultural and physical connections that bind us together to create inclusive art, literature and experiences that remind us that Europeans will always be greater than the sum of their parts. To some extent, we lived this life during my recent visit to Brussels, when we traveled on scooters from suburb to suburb, from conversations in cafes about our predicaments to discussions in dimly lit backstreet bedrooms about our prognosis until the small hours.

Those who share our concerns must live this life, beyond our cosmopolitan creature comforts, and redeploy the power of conversation at the peripheries of our continent, in towns and cities that our economies have left behind.

We must never assume that the next generation will behave like the last.

And yet, one truth we may never tame is that Europe will always be in a state of staggered evolution and reversible deterioration. Its shared institutions and customs will be expanding and contracting for the rest of our lives. The British psychotherapist Adam Phillips once wrote that "madness is the need for everything to make sense, even if that sense is that everything is senseless." And so we should remember that we may never be able to pin down exactly what it is we're all fighting and searching for, which could come at the expense of our collective sanity.

Something similar has already happened here.

Yours forever,



To join the conversation, send us a letter from your capital to:

To read CAPITAL LETTERS in your inbox, visit:

Elias Kühn, Brussels

Nicholas Barrett, London


This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue

This Is Not An Elections Issue
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