EU between Elites and Tribalization


By Elisabeth Hellenbroich During the last months a lively debate has erupted in Europe, particularly in Germany centered on the problem that there is a widening conflict between the “political elites and the public.” Aside a recent study by the influential British think tank “Chatham House”, the German historian Jörg Baberowski expressed his concern about the growing gap between the elites and the public in a comment in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ). One should look at these contributions on the background of an article that was written end of 2016 by the former Chairman of the German Supreme Court, Professor Dr. Jürgen Papier, about the “EU and the nation state.” In a reaction formation to the consequence of “Brexit” the present debate focuses on the question of the future EU, the role of the nation state in the EU and what “longer term vision” is needed that could follow this year’s French elections (May 2017) and German federal elections (September 2017). Chatham House: simmering discontent within the public End of June 2017 the prestigious British think tank “Royal Chatham House” published a survey about the present state of the EU elites and the public; the survey was done between December 2016 and February 2017 in 10 countries, and polled two groups: a representative sample of 10.000 members of the public; and a sample of over 1.800 of Europe’s “elite”, individuals in positions of influence from politics, media, business and civil society at local, regional, national and European levels. The study concludes that while there is an alignment between the two groups in their attitudes towards EU solidarity, EU democracy and a sense of European identity, it also shows an important divide in general attitudes, beliefs and life experiences.The elites are more likely to experience the benefits of the EU integration and are more liberal and optimistic. Meanwhile there is a simmering discontent within the public, large sections of whom view the EU in negative terms, want to see it return some powers to member states and feel anxious over the effects of immigration. Only 34% of the public feel they have benefited from the EU, compared to 71 % of the elite.” According to the study the problem is that “there is no consensus among the elite about the balance of powers between the EU and member states.” It concludes that a major reform is needed and that “debates over the future direction of the EU need to be reframed so that they address concerns about a perceived threat to national traditions and cultures as much as they respond to anxieties over economic performance.”  (here is the Chatham House survey: [gview file=””] ) The end of civil society Another essay was written middle of July by the German Historian Jörg Baberowski in the Swiss Daily NZZ under the title “The end of the civil society”. Baberowski’s comment is quite pessimistic in respect to the state of mind of Western civil society. He observes a “dissolution process” of the civil society – a process in which more and more citizens “despise” the establishment and the state, while in turn the elites despise the populist “simpletons”, i.e. those individuals who define themselves increasingly by way of group adherence. This phenomenon is evidenced by the fact that all over Europe movements are spreading which tell the citizens that they are the representatives of the true people (for example the Identitarian movements). “Their weapon is protest, their medium the street and the social networks. Here things are being discussed which in the leading media have no place anymore.” The character of such “populist” movements, according to Baberowski, is that they “despise the politicians and the elite” which they see as increasingly becoming “unrealistic”, with claims to live in the best of all worlds. Some elite were astonished about the success of the protest parties and asked themselves how it could happen that the citizens vote such awkward representatives, after all that which the pseudo liberal elites did… As Baberowski comments, the success of this is not at all enigmatic; “they break the rules of good taste and tell the public via social networks, that they don’t care about the establishment. Meanwhile the ruling class discredits the provocateurs as ‘simpletons’ without understanding that this discreditation is the true cause to vote a protest party.” What is eroding is the model of civil society Democracy of the past was less pluralist, less dynamic, but was seen by the citizens as an order, which they owned, because it corresponded to them and because it mediated itself by way of civilian institutions, Baberowski states. The European “nation state” was a place which was inhabited by people, who despite their social differences could feel as part of a whole. It was a successful project since it combined the functions of protection and prosperity and deprived individual authorities of power without destroying them. “The civil society created barriers against the state’s claim for omnipotence, because the will of the individual was expressed in corporations, associations and parties. Being legally constituted, society was the guarantor to refrain the government from acting arbitrarily. Today however the civilian society has dissolved and been replaced by individuals who approach the state as individuals or members of an ethnically or religiously defined group with exclusively particular interests.” Globalization has opened new perspectives for the educated and prosperous, but it has given very little to the poor. The dissolution of the social environment, the coming into being of supranational economic and political structures, which can’t be controlled anymore by national governments and the tribalization and parceling out of the social environment have destroyed people’s life, that which has kept together social groups irrespective of their differences for such a long time. Some voted out of habit parties which they had always voted for, even though the differences were hardly recognizable. But who believes that the democratic parties give answers to the burning questions of our present time? Should we really wonder about the loss of authority of democracy, if the citizens are merely told that they can’t fight about existential questions relevant for the social order, because it is already decided what has to be said about it? Baberowski argues in favor of restoring some of the most valuable element of the civil society and the nation state, underlining that “without the nation state the will of the citizen can’t be mediated, there is no territory on which rights can be pushed through, except the egoism of the winners of globalization and the educated, who take whatever they need for their happiness.” Their (today’s elite) strategy functions obviously because there is little which connects the social and ethnic groups. This way the “elite” has an easy game to explain its view of the world and turn it into the view of all. It doesn’t even have to push through its world view because nobody confronts it anymore. There is no corrective, no impulse from society, which they have to take into account. As the historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote 150 years ago: Thus the sovereign, after having taken each individual one by one into his mighty hands and transformed as he pleased, spreads his arms over society as a whole. He does not tyrannize, he harasses, weakens, stunts and brings every nation to the point, where it turns into a flock of frightened and busy animals whose shepherd is the government.” Former Supreme Court Judge about „EU and Nation State“ One should look at the two studies on the background of an article that was published in October 2016 by former German Supreme Court Judge Jürgen Papier. In this essay Professor Papier described the “dichotomy” between European Union and member states. He emphasized that given its normative constitution the EU is not an over-dimensioned and alien Super-State, but consists of “an alliance of sovereign democratically constituted states.” He warns however that if one strives for more (and enlarged) Europe and leaves no room for the member states to shape their economic cultural and social lives, “the basic principles of the nation state constitution get sacrificed.” Professor Papier points in particular to the much discussed “principle of subsidiarity” ( it gives the member states of the EU sufficient space to shape their own economic, political and cultural life), which was enshrined in Art 5, Abs 3 of the Lisbon Treaty. It essentially means that the European Union intervenes only when member states are not able to implement their own policies on a national, regional or local level, which given their dimension should be better implemented on the level of the Union. Democracy and Subsidiarity can only be maintained, Papier argues, as long as a further deepening of integration, unification and centralization are not the primary aims of the EU. From Papier’s standpoint the parliamentary-representative democracy remains a model of state which gives the individual and the majority of citizens the biggest chance to exert influence on the shaping of their life conditions and guarantees that not particular interests are pushed by powerful lobby organizations, but issues concerning the “Common Good” and the “Public Interest.” Such a representative parliamentarian system can only be realized in a “nation state”, which is hence indispensable. Also in a United Europe only the “nation state” can embody the values and leading ideas and the cohesion of a society. In these days however, Papier reasons, one gets the impression that political decisions are only taken as “Crisis intervention decisions,” decisions that seem to be made under “state of emergency” circumstances. There is a quasi “permanent state of emergency,” he notes, and this leads to a situation where the parliaments lose influence. The motto for the EU therefore should be “In pluribus unum” in contrast to the US “E pluribus unum” which corresponds to the concept of a Federal State. Papier reminds that Art 4 of the EU treaty states that the “European Union respects the national identity of its member states. This includes the right for self-determination of the people, who by entering into the EU didn’t want to give up that right. If the right for self-determination of the European people, which in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union had so intensively fought for, is put into question or is undermined by a union like central power, this indeed endangers the cohesion of the European Union.”

Wiesbaden, August 2017



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