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Carl Schmitt and the De-Constitution of Europe, Part 2

This is the second in a series of five blog entries aimed at understanding the current political crisis in the European Union through a Schmittian lens. (Read part 1 here.) In this post, Michael Marder suggests that a profound source of the problem is that the EU is not rooted in the collective existence of its citizens. In place of a political constituting subject, we find nothing but crass economic interests, covered over with a thin rhetorical veil. For a more extensive discussion of Schmitt, see Michael Marder’s Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt.

Europe’s Existential De-Constitution

The “absolute concept of the constitution” refers to the constitution as a whole,[1] united not by virtue of an external system of basic laws but thanks to the pre-constitutional source from which these laws emanate and derive their legitimacy. Schmitt notes that “constitution in the absolute sense can mean, to begin with, the concrete manner of existence that is given with every political unity,”[2] whereby the “state does not have a constitution” but “is constitution, in other words, an actually present condition, a status of unity and order.”[3] In light of the already mentioned political existential vacuum at the core of the European Union, combined with the fact that it is neither a state nor a confederation of states, we may surmise that it is not a constitution, even though it claims the right to determine the conditions of its unity and order. Since there is no “concrete manner of existence” to draw upon, the status of the EU is equivalent to the formal guidelines, to which potential member states must adhere if they are to gain the right of admission. The deficit of actual unity is remedied by the imposition of ideal unity, procedural at worst and metaphysical at best. Instead of strengthening the status of the EU, this imposition makes it ever more precarious: it sets the stage for a violent standoff between the emergent realities of political existence and the idealities of an alien form foisted upon them.

A disconnect between the form of the European Union, devoid of political life, and the evolving, unstable circumstances of the collective existence of EU citizens is paramount for appreciating the challenges and promises of Schmitt’s existential concept of the constitution. Thus far, the crisis has already triggered a massive politicization of the vast strata of European populations. Suffice it to mention demonstrations against austerity measures in Greece and now in Portugal, the indignados movement in Spain, student riots in Italy. . . . All these are, without doubt, confined to the states of Southern Europe severely hurt by the crisis. It remains to be seen, however, whether the North-South divide would prevail (as it did, for instance, in the events leading up to the American Civil War), effectively shattering the Union into two. Alternatively, the recently reactivated friend-enemy divides would carve up the continent along class lines, with national political and economic elites rightly viewed as foreign agents, the status they explicitly confirm by turning themselves into the functionaries of outside institutions, such as the Troika. (We should not neglect to mention that France is an exceptional case and something of an outlier: geo-politically, culturally, and economically situated between the North and the South, under the Socialist presidency, it has sided squarely with its Southern neighbors.) Be this as it may, the recent politicization of the growing economic gaps is the most significant existential issue further complicated by the institutional actions of the EU.

If modern constitution-making presupposes the existence of a people, with its “formless formative capacity,” then the sharpest question arising in the European context is whether this existence is centered in “the people of Europe” or in “the poor of Europe,” now active on the informal political stage. Already in 2004, Étienne Balibar voiced his skepticism regarding the applicability of the American constitutional formulation, “We, the People . . .” to the European case. In a book titled We, the People of Europe? (the noteworthy aspect of the title is the question mark at the end), Balibar goes as far as to criticize a “real ‘European Apartheid,'” which accompanies, as the reverse side of the same counterfeit coin, “a formal ‘European citizenship.'”[4] While eight years ago this divide applied to the non-citizens living inside the EU, today it cuts across citizenry body itself. The fact that thousands of citizens are forced by the dire economic conditions (or, as in Portugal, are encouraged by their own national governments) to immigrate out of or migrate within the EU effectively turns them into outsiders within the transnational structure of citizenship. The instant such ostracism comes to pass, “real European Apartheid” no longer co-exists side by side with “formal European citizenship” but dwells right at the heart of the latter, or, at least, on the peripheries of Europe. That is where the new state of exception is being demarcated and where the battle for European sovereignty, for the right to decide on the exception, is being waged.

The overt and overtly liberal neutralization of the political at the transnational level of the EU thus coincides with a subterranean current of politicization, without which there would have remained nothing but nihilism, fatalism, and despair—collective moods that are, to be sure, on the rise in Southern Europe. The EU’s self-proclaimed commitment to the values of peace, for which it has been awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, exactly when the danger of fragmentation has reached its peak, is a hallmark of attempted depoliticization. Article 2.1 in the Treaty of Lisbon proclaims, “The Union’s aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples.” Now, as Schmitt argues in The Concept of the Political, the vision of a pacified globe is that of a world without politics,[5] the world befitting the existential vacuum of the EU. It was, of course, Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations who gave the most honest economic interpretation of such values, predicated on free commerce and mutual interest. Yet, when the paradigm of legitimation through prosperity becomes a thing of the past, giving way to compulsion toward austerity through threats, “peace” can only come to mean “pacification,” in the shape of a threat that a failure to comply with these sovereign dictates would usher in an even greater upheaval and calamity (default, expulsion, and economic, social, and political collapse). The EU is invested in presenting itself as the sovereign kath’echon, the restrainer of chaos, or in Schmitt’s words, “the power that prevents the long-overdue apocalyptic end of times from already happening now.”[6] But this is a risky wager, especially when the existential intensity of informal political life is on the ascent.


1. Refer to § 1 of Schmitt, Verfassunglehre.

2. Schmitt, Constitutional Theory, p. 59.

3. Ibid., p. 60.

4. Étienne Balibar, We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004), p. 121.

5. Schmitt, The Concept of the Political,p. 35.

6. Carl Schmitt, “Beschleuniger wider Willen, oder: Problematik der westlichen Hemisphare,” in Staat, Grossraum, Nomos: Arbeiten aus den Jahren 1916-1969, ed. Günter Maschke (Berlin: Dunker & Humblot, 1995), p. 436.

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