Re-Inventing Europe : A Cosmopolitan Vision

Ulrich Beck

Professor of Sociology at the Ludwig-Maximilian Universität in Munich
and Lecturer at the London School of Economics

Europe can become neither a state nor a nation  – and it won’t. Hence, it cannot be thought of  in terms of the nation-state. In fact, advanced  research on Europe has scarcely dared venture  beyond the conventional basic pattern of nation-  state thinking. The EU is considered in  terms of territoriality, sovereignty, jurisdictions,  and demarcation. Even at higher levels of  complexity, when speaking of “governance” or  a “multilevel system”, the legal and academic  parlance of research on Europe remains biased  toward organizational and regulatory systems  designed to conceive of and cast the EU in the  image of the nation-state. 

Sociology’s failure with regard to Europe is  particularly conspicuous. The discipline developed  its instruments in the waning nineteenth  century from the analysis of national societies.  Because those instruments are ill-suited to analyzing  European society, the conclusion in sociology  is that, obviously, there exists no European  society at all worth mentioning. This opinion  has many causes, but one in particular deserves  criticism: the concept of society is the crystallization  point of sociology’s methodological nationalism.  In sociological analysis, Europe must  therefore be understood as a plural – as societies;  it must be understood in additive or, at best,  comparative terms. In other words, the society  of Europe overlaps Europe’s national societies.  This methodological nationalism practised by  social science is becoming historically fallacious,  because it filters out Europe’s complex realities  and space for interaction. In a nutshell, it is blind  to Europe and blinds us to Europe. 

A similar thought pattern stems from the  statement that there is no European Demos,  or populace. What populace is meant – that of  the ancient Greek city-states, the Swiss cantons,  or the nation-states? What about the presentday  societies of our intertwined countries? Do  the nation-states themselves still even have a  homogeneous populace or citizenry? 

The nation-state is everywhere as the tacit  conceptual measuring stick that makes the  realities of Europeanization appear deficient:  no populace, no people, no state, no democracy,  no public. In addition to disinterest and sheer  lack of understanding for the debates of other  member states, there is a steadily increasing  number of transnational communication  processes about common challenges, such as  the recent responses to the war in Iraq, to the  democratic revolt in Ukraine, and to European  anti-Semitism. Instead of making stereotyped  assertions that there is no European public,  people should expand the concept of “public”  beyond its fixation on the nation-state and  open it up to a cosmopolitan understanding  that realistically accommodates the dynamics  from which the transboundary forms of the  European public sphere are developing.   

What is “European” in this sense are conational  forms of identity, ways of life, means of  production, and types of interaction that pass  right through the walls of states. It is about  forms and movements of ceaseless bordercrossing.  Horizontal Europeanization is giving  rise to new shadow realities that are lived in  the blind spots of the aliens’ registration office:  multilingualism, multinational networks,  binational marriages, multiple residences educational  mobility, transnational careers, and  linkages between science and the economy.  Both science and economy are globalized and  Europeanized at the same time and it will be  not easy to distinguish between those two aspects.  These spots are spreading and are being  taken for granted by the upcoming generation.  Contemplating these developments, I see five  lines of thought. 

The first is the issue of the dynamic of  inequality affecting Europe as a whole: what  impact does the dismantling of national borders  in Europe have on the European dynamic  of inequality? For one thing, the nation-based  limits to people’s perceptions of social inequality  begin to dissolve as Europeanization moves  forward. In response to the question of what  legitimizes social inequality, there are at least  two possible answers: the merit principle and  the nation-state principle. The first answer is  a familiar, well-rehearsed one and has already  been the subject of critique. It is a perfectly  logical consequence of the national perspective  and relates to domestic inequalities internal  to the state. The second answer provides an  explanation for the “legitimation” of global  inequalities and makes it possible to identify  the major blind spots and sources of error to  which methodological nationalism exposes the  sociology of inequality. Perceptions of inequality  that are based on the national outlook are  subject to a fundamental asymmetry, as far as  both society and social science are concerned.  The “legitimatory achievement” of the nation-  state lies in turning attention inwards  to the exclusion of all else, thereby banishing  transnational and global inequalities from the  field of vision. 

The history of inequality presupposes the  history of equality, that is, the institutionalization  of norms of equality: without equality  there can be no comparability and therefore no  politically relevant inequality. The distinction  between global and national inequalities is  based on the fact that within different national  arenas there are powerful norms of inequality  at work – relating, for example, to civil, political  and social rights, and pre-political national  identities. It is these norms of inequality that  establish both the comparability of inequalities  within the national arena as well as the incomparability  of inequalities between them. 

The EU is an arena where formal  sovereignty can be exchanged for real  power, national cultures nurtured and  economic success improved 

This is the prerequisite for the political legitimation  of socio-political activities within  the nation-state and passivity towards others  “outside” it. If inequality itself were the  key political criterion, it would be extremely  difficult to justify why prosperous European  societies make such huge efforts to organize  financial transfer systems within their own nation-  states on the basis of national criteria of  poverty and neediness, while a large proportion  of the world’s population is threatened daily  with starvation.

 The methodological nationalism that  underpins the sociology of inequality unreflexively  makes nation-state bounded equality  both a presupposition and a constant. This in  turn obscures the fact that it is the nation-state  principle itself that generates the increasingly  scarce resource of legitimation through incomparability  – scarce on account of the dramatic growth and growing consciousness of global  inequalities. To put it another way, the nation-  state principle institutionalizes the act of  looking the other way.

 What does this mean when applied to  Europeanization? As the barriers of interstate  incomparability between inequalities fall away  (for example, through a growing European selfawareness  or through the institutionalization of  equality and self-observation), the European  Union can be expected to enter a period of  turbulence – even given constant relations of  inequality.

 The issue can be illustrated with the help  of a simple example. The slogan “equal pay  for equal work” was and still is a key demand  of the workers’ movement. However, the trade  union struggle for equality has come up against  a “natural” boundary, namely that of the nation-  state. As natural as it is within Germany  to struggle to maintain national agreements  on pay and conditions and to fight for wage  parity between East and West Germany after  German unification, for a long time it was  just as natural to ignore wage differentials in  comparison with other European countries.  Looked at through national spectacles, differences  in wage levels between Bavaria and East  Berlin are considered illegitimate, while the  same differences between Bavaria and Belgium  are seen as legitimate. But what happens  when these same differences are viewed and  judged through European spectacles? Aren’t  differences in wage levels between European  countries illegitimate in that context? Shouldn’t  European trade unions be demanding “equal  pay for equal work” for every European worker?  Or must this principle be discarded? 

These are far from being merely academic  questions, something that became abundantly  clear in January 2004 when a great deal of heated  polemical debate was conducted in different  national public arenas over the move initiated  by some members of the European parliament  to strengthen the institution’s identity by standardising  members’ parliamentary allowances.  Huge inequalities exist here with regard to levels  of payment for the same work. An Italian  member of parliament receives 11,000 euros  before tax, his German party colleague is paid  about 7,000 euros, their Spanish neighbour has  to make do with 3,000 euros, while their new  colleagues from the Central European countries  get no more than 1,000 euros. No immediate  plans exist to reduce these extreme inequalities,  as the EU foreign ministers succumbed to  public pressure and quashed the initiative. 

Neoliberalism has appropriated the old  motto of the workers’ movement in a new form:  equal pay for equal work – as long as it is equal  low pay! The unions seem to be faced with two equally unacceptable options as a result of this.  One is to resist this move and demand equal  pay for equal work – as long as it is equal high  pay! This was the route taken after German  unification, although it is generally agreed to  be economically fatal and politically utopian.  The second option is no less appealing, where  the unions find themselves in the perverse position  of taking up the slogan of their enemies  and demanding different wages for the same  work – in other words: defending existing wage  differentials between European countries. This  forces the unions into a neo-national position.

The second is that Europeanization is initiating  a historically new positive-sum game:  Joint solutions serve the national interest. Europe’s  crisis is a mental one. National governments  are struggling with seemingly national  problems in a national setting and are trying  to solve them by going their own national ways  – and are failing. The export of jobs is an example,  as is the attempt to control the taxation of  corporate profits. Mobile business organizations  operating within global networks are able to  play individual states against each other and  thereby weaken them. The more the national  perspective predominates in the thinking and  action of people and governments, the more  these businesses succeed at expanding their  own power. That is the paradox that must be  understood. The national frame of reference  violates national interests. The EU is an arena  where formal sovereignty can be exchanged  for real power, national cultures nurtured and  economic success improved. The EU is better  placed to solve national problems than nations  could possibly do acting alone.1No matter  where one looks in Europe, it is the same  situation. The ratio of old people to the total  population is rising to uncomfortable levels,  pension systems no longer function, but the  necessary reforms are thwarted by the organized  resistance of the groups affected. To escape  this trap, the connection between the decline  in population growth, the aging of societies,  necessary reforms of social security systems,  selective migration policy, the export of jobs,  and the taxation of corporate profits could be  defined and cooperatively worked on as a European  problem. This approach can and would  benefit all governments currently contenting  themselves with sham solutions in the deadend  of the nation-state. 

Who is guilty and who is innocent, who  will get ahead and who will fall behind  the military or human rights, the logic of  war or the logic of treaties? 

Looking at everything from the national  perspective jeopardizes national prosperity  and democratic freedom. Ensuring the health  of the nation and the economy, effectively  coping with unemployment, and promoting a  lively democracy all require the cosmopolitan  viewpoint. Transcending national and postnational  sympathies, cosmopolitan Europe  does not threaten the nation-state but rather  prepares, facilitates, modernizes, changes, and  opens it for the global age. 

The third line of thought is that Europeanization  requires a memory culture that spans  borders. In the words Thomas Mann wrote in  anguish about World War I: “Alas, Europe,” by  which he meant the calamity of the Western  world. Two and a half thousand years shredded  by war and bled to death. At the centre of  every village in Europe stands a large monument  engraved with the names of those killed  in action – 1915, 1917. On the wall of a nearby  church one then finds three more names from  the same family on a stone tablet listing the  casualties of World War II – killed in action,  1942; killed in action, 1944; missing in action,  1945. That was Europe. 

How long has it been? Not very. Until  the late 1980s the peoples of this belligerent  Europe faced off in a nuclear stalemate. The  policy of drawing East and West closer together  seemed possible only through recognition of  the seemingly eternal division of Europe. And  today? A European miracle has taken place. Enemies  have become neighbours! That wonder is  historically unique, actually even inconceivable.  At precisely the most wanton moment in the  history of states, a political invention comes  along that makes possible what is almost unimaginable  – states themselves transform their  monopoly on power into a taboo on violence.  The threat of violence as a political option,  whether between member states or against  supranational institutions, has been banished  once and for all from the horizon of the possible  in Europe.

That change became possible because Europe  has experienced the advent of something  qualitatively new – national horror about the  murder of European Jews. The national wars  and expulsions are no longer remembered  only within a national compass; the national  space for commemoration is bound to broaden  to a European scope. A Europeanization of  perspectives is occurring (at least the first  signs of it).

 Such cosmopolitanism in the opening of  communication, in the acceptance of interdependence  through inclusion of the stranger  for the sake of common interests, and in the  historical exchange of perspectives between  perpetrators and victims in post-war Europe  is something other than multiculturalism or  post-modern non-commitment. Although this  cosmopolitanism is intended to rest upon cohesive  and reciprocally binding norms that can  help prevent a slide into post-modern particularism,  it is not simply universal. For an entity  like Europe, interacting with the range of  cultures, traditions, and interests in the weave  of national societies is a matter of survival. As  Hannah Arendt argued, only the infinitely difficult  forgiveness granted and received through  remembrance creates the necessary trust in the  relationship between states and nations and  empowers them. 

The fourth line is the understanding of European  society as a regional world risk society.  The macrosociology of Europeanization is in  danger of repeating the same mistakes made by  methodological nationalism, only at the European  level – of getting caught up in what might  be called a “methodological Europeanism”. In  order to counter this tendency, Europeanization  should not be defined and analysed purely in  endogenous terms, but in exogenous terms, in  relation to the frame of reference constituted  by world society. Let me make just a few brief  comments on this point. 

The experience of modernity is one of  risk, in the sense that, along with its successes,  modernity has also conjured up the possibility  of its own self-destruction. However, this  insight of reflexive modernisation needs to be  opened up to the cosmopolitan point of view  and thus to the question as to whether the  threats posed by modernisation are perceived  as the side-effects of one’s “own” decisions or  of decisions made by “others”. The dynamic  of inequality that characterises the world risk  society can thus be illuminated in terms of  the distinction between self-induced threats  and threats emanating from others. To put it  in highly simplified terms, Europeanization  refers to self-induced threats, while the ways  in which modernity threatens to self-destruct  in the Third World are perceived primarily as  a threat emanating from others. Unlike the  theory of dependency or the world system  theory, the theory of reflexive modernisation  highlights the fact that the different regions of  the world are affected unequally not only by the  consequences of failed processes of modernisation,  but also by the consequences of successful  processes of modernisation. 

Reality is becoming cosmopolitan. The  Other whom borders can no longer keep  out is everywhere 

The major strands of conflict during the  Cold War were politically open-ended and acquired  their explosive character on account of  national and international security issues. By  contrast, the geopolitical strands of conflict in  the world risk society run between the different  cultures of risk. In relation to risk perception,  geopolitical conflicts are emerging between  regions that bring highly divergent historical  situations, experiences and expectations to the  terrain of the world risk society. An outstanding  example of this is the contrast between the  degree of urgency accorded by Europe to the  dangers of climate change on the one hand, and  by the USA to international terrorism on the  other. Not only are cultural perceptions of global  threats diverging more and more between  Europe and the United States but, because this  is so, Europeans and North Americans are effectively  living in different worlds. The way it  looks to the Americans, Europeans are suffering  from a form of hysteria in relation to the  environment, while to many Europeans US  Americans are paralysed by an over-exagger- ated fear of terrorism. The danger is that as the  transatlantic cultures of risk drift further apart,  it will lead to a cultural break between the USA  and Europe; to paraphrase Huntington, cultural  differences in perception are generating a clash  of risk cultures – either you believe in the existing  climate disaster or else in the potential  ubiquity of suicide terror attacks.

The choice between risks is not only  about choosing between risks, it is about  choosing between two visions of the world 

Let’s not deceive ourselves: the choice between  risks is not only about choosing between  risks, it is about choosing between two visions  of the world. The issue is, who is guilty and who  is innocent, who will get ahead and who will  fall behind – the military or human rights, the  logic of war or the logic of treaties?

The fifth, concluding line of thought is a  question: how will a European empire of law  and consensus become possible? In the final  analysis, understanding the concept of cosmopolitanism  in this way is also the key to understanding  and shaping new forms of political  authority that have emerged in Europe beyond  the nation-state. But globalization, specifically  the problems with the flows and crises of global  finance, and the neglected European dimension  of current socio-political exigencies show that  the opposite is breaking over our heads for now.  A nationally circumscribed labour market no  longer exists. Even if we point the gun barrels  at foreigners, well-educated Indians or Chinese  can offer their services in Germany and the rest  of Europe with a click of the mouse. 

Reality is becoming cosmopolitan. The  Other whom borders can no longer keep out  is everywhere, but in a way that no cosmopolitan  philosopher had anticipated and that  no one willed – surreptitiously, unintentionally,  without political decision or design. The  real process of becoming cosmopolitan in this  world is taking place through the back door of  secondary effects; it is undesired, unseen, and  usually occurs by default. And what context of  political rule is appropriate for it?

Edgar Grande and I have proposed for it  a redefinition of the term “empire”.2 Spoken  in French, that word carries Napoleonic and  colonial connotations and thus differs from the  term when pronounced in English. The British  Empire was something other than imperial  America claims to be. The term “European  Empire” attempts to place Europe on a par with  the disimilar US Empire. For all the similarities  with the complex confederation or empire that  emerged from the Middle Ages, the European  empire of the early 21st century is built upon  the existing nation-states. To that extent, the  analogy with the Middle Ages does not hold.  The cosmopolitan empire of Europe is notable  for its open and cooperative character at home  and abroad and therein clearly contrasts with  the imperial predominance of the United  States. Europe’s undeniably real power is not  decipherable in terms of nation-states. It lies instead  in its character as a model of how Europe  succeeded at transforming a belligerent past  into a cooperative future, how the European  miracle of enemies becoming neighbours could  come about. It is this special form of soft world  power that is developing a special radiance and  attraction that is often as underestimated in the  nation-state mould of thinking about Europe  as it is in the projections of power claimed by  American neoconservatives. 

But what impact does that have on European  integration? For a long time, that key  concept consisted primarily of the abolition  of national and local differences. This “harmonization  policy” confounded unity with uniformity  or assumed that uniformity is required  for unity. In this sense uniformity became the  supreme regulatory principle of modern Europe,  transferring the principles of classical  constitutional theory to institutions at the European  level. The more successfully EU policy  operated under this primacy of uniformity, the  more resistance grew and the more clearly the  counterproductive effects surfaced. 

By contrast, cosmopolitan integration is  based on a paradigm shift in which diversity  is not the problem but rather the solution. Europe’s  further integration must not be oriented  to the traditional notions of uniformity inherent  in a European “federal state”. Integration  must instead take Europe’s irrevocable diversity  as its starting point. That is the only way for  Europeanization to link two demands that at  first glance seem mutually exclusive: the call  for the recognition of difference and the call  for the integration of divergencies. 

Understood as a historically tested political  model for a post-imperial empire of consensus  and law – “the European dream” (Jeremy  Rifkin) of a soft world power – Europeanization  is fascinating as an alternative to the American  way, and not least to Americans critical  of America. Ultimately, it is about something  completely new in human history; namely,  the forward-looking vision of a state structure  firmly based on recognition of the culturally  different Other. 

So what is my cosmopolitan vision of Europe?  We Europeans are, in Kant’s words, crooked  timber and pretty provincial. That aspect of us  has endearing sides, too. Individual populations  – the British and the French, for example – have  the reputation of being cosmopolitan, but the  attribution applies to them as French or British,  less so as Europeans. Expansion can either cause  the EU to roll up like a hedgehog or lead it to  embrace cosmopolitanism and thus enhance the  awareness of its responsibility in the world. 

Europe’s further integration must not  be oriented to the traditional notions  of uniformity inherent in a European  “federal state” 

The national idea is unsuitable for unifying  Europe. A large European superstate frightens  people. I do not believe that Europe can issue  from the ruins of the nation-states. If there  is an idea capable of uniting Europeans today,  it is that of a cosmopolitan Europe, because it  stills Europeans’ fear of losing identity, makes  a constitutional goal out of tolerant interaction  among the many European nations, and  opens new political spaces and options for action  in a globalized world. The persistence of  the nation is the condition of a cosmopolitan  Europe; and, today, for reasons just given,  the reverse is true too. The more secure and  confirmed Europeans feel in their national  dignity, the less they will shut themselves  off in their nation-states and the more resolutely  they will stand up for European values  in the world and take up the cause of others  as their own. I would like to live in this kind  of cosmopolitan Europe, one in which people  have roots and wings. 


[1] U. Beck, Power in the Global Age, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2005.

[2] U. Beck and E. Grande, Das kosmopolitische Europa, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2004 (English edition: Cosmopolitan Vision, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2006).