Ulrich Beck: from Merkiavelli to a cosmopolitan Europe

Since 2004, the city of Sarzana has been hosting the Festival della Mente¸a weekend of discussions and presentation open to the public of diverse but always interesting subjects. Those who have not yet been to this Festival should do so next year, if only for the beautiful city of Sarzana. Instead of being closed in theatres or buildings, the good weather allowed the festival to spread out all over town. It is not unusual to meet some of the special guests simply strolling through the medieval city center. One of the most prominent speakers this year was Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist who has studied the European Union extensively throughout his career. He gave a lecture on Europe and had a coffee with us to discuss the future of our most beloved (and troubled) Union.

Professor Beck, can you define for our readers the concept of “risk society”? And then, looking at the economic and financial crisis, could you tell us if the next step would be a “catastrophe society” or a return to growth and prosperity? 

Fasi dell'intervento di Urlich Beck al Festival della Mente di Sarzana (© Circolo fotografico sarzanese - 2013)
The intervention of Ulrich Beck in Sarzana (© Circolo fotografico sarzanese – 2013)

I wrote my book on risk society more than 25 years ago, so it’s getting a little bit old, but at the same time if you read it today you can still find a coherent logic of social change and social development. In the course of the past 10 years, many catastrophes and global risks occurred which were pretty close to our narrative. This narrative was about the process of modernity. The radicalization of the process of modernity does not only produce positive economic value but at the same time does have a distribution of “bads”. And the production of goods is being eclipsed more and more by the production of “bads”. The production of risk has to be clearly understood: many misunderstand “risk society” as “catastrophe society” but this is not the meaning I had in mind. You have to distinguish the concept of risk from the concept of catastrophe. Risk is seen as an anticipation of catastrophes in the future in order to prevent them. For example we were and still are talking about the crash of the euro, but this hasn’t happened. Risk society is to some extent a society of hope too, because once we are engaged in trying to prevent catastrophes from happen, alternatives suddenly come up in the discussion that nobody thought about before. So it is a more sophisticated subject than some people believe. You can see that ambivalence in relation to the euro crisis: two years ago Chancellor Merkel did not even seem to care about Greece and then she gradually learned, step by step, that if Greece is breaking down maybe the euro is breaking down and maybe if the euro is breaking down the European Union is breaking down and it is not so nice to be the Chancellor of Germany if the EU is breaking down, so the anticipation of catastrophes made a lot of things happen, right to the point, which I found quite interesting, where a German conservative and liberal government is talking about a Financial Transaction Tax.

In several occasions you said that we have a Europe without Europeans. Until now, we had many manifestos and declarations but nothing has changed. How can we make Europeans come about?

First of all we have to go more into detail over what does it mean to be “Europeans”. It has many aspects. First of all, Europe is a creation of European elites – political, economic, and so on – it is not actually the creation of people so far. The whole process of ongoing integration of the EU has been decoupled from voting by the people. Therefore we now see that this does not work anymore: we cannot have a stable ongoing process of integration without the engagement of the people. So we have to ask ourselves what does EU means to the people, to me, to you, to anybody. Many critics say I am too idealistic in looking for alternatives, but it is the only way to find out how we can re-define and re-invent a different Europe that is not only identified with the institutions or structures; we need, let’s say, a critic of the European institutions from an European point of view, not from a national point of view. Therefore, many steps are necessary: some steps could simply be taken within the Lisbon treaty; for example the voting of the European people is an important and rather new opportunity that people have not realized so far. As I wrote together with Daniel Cohn-Bendit in a manifesto, which has been signed by important people, we propose that a year of work could be dedicated to European issues by everybody. All kind of people should have a chance to participate and help in defining a new Europe. It is not about doing dialogue anymore, it is about doing something.

If it is important to involve the population, how do you evaluate the Referendum on the European Union that the United Kingdom intends to hold?

They should do it. They have to decide if they wish to stay in the European Union or not. The British have an important democratic tradition in Europe, but now they have to make a decision and vote soon. Because otherwise the rest of us will be stuck waiting for them: they are raising the question not of a different, more integrated Europe, but of less Europe, and I think this is a very problematic question which can be fruitfully used by Merkel, Merkiavelli, to change the politics again.

Let’s focus on Merkiavelli. Germany will vote on the 22th September and it is likely that Merkel will get a third mandate. Do you think she will finally do something or she will keep following the Merkiavelli style?

There a lot of interesting factors involved. There is a clear difference in how the European crisis is discussed in different countries. All other countries discuss about the importance of international actors and about the role of Germany. Germany does not talk about other countries and international actors – they mostly talk about themselves and how they are affected by the crisis. But there is another paradox. So far there is not a clear opposition towards European politics in the German parliament. The opposition criticizes the details of that politics but always voted in favor, so actually there is an informal coalition as far as the European policy of Germany is concerned. It is quite an interesting mixture. I think, that is my personal opinion, we are going to have the election on 22th September and, whatever happens, either Merkel will be part of a Great Coalition or of the same coalition, there will be a turn in the European policy of Germany to more Europe. Because you could not talk about that before, especially Merkiavelli could not talk about that because she wants to be re-elected, but she has silently realized that austerity politics is not only a danger to one country or another but to all of Europe together.

What are the characteristics of the cosmopolitan Europe you portrait and what is the role of religion.

The misery of Europe could be overcome if we imagine a cosmopolitan Europe, which means we should not think about Europe as a nation, but as a combination of nations, without destroying any nation. It is openness to the world, not anti-national. The younger generation is more used to that idea. About the role of religion, I think in a cosmopolitan situation we have to realize that Europe could not be identified with the Christian tradition. We are now living in a situation in which the territorial separation of different world religions does not work anymore, because of the media and telecommunications. Huntington made a mistake, I think, because he was still thinking about homogeneous territories, civilizations and religions. We do not have these anymore).

Pictured Ulrich Beck during a speech in May 2012 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


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L' Autore - Valentina Ferrara

Vice-direttore - Laureata in Scienze Internazionali e Diplomatiche con una tesi in Storia dell'Integrazione Europea dal titolo "Unione Europea e discriminazioni". Ho sempre avuto la passione per il giornalismo, per il mondo della comunicazione e per l'Unione Europea, per questo non ho avuto alcun dubbio a partecipare alla creazione di Europae, la fonte d'informazione che sono sempre andata cercando.

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