As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Linas Jokubaitis looks at Paul Piccone and Gary Ulmen’s “Schmitt’s ‘Testament’ and the Future of Europe” from Telos 83 (Spring 1990).
When Schmitt drafted his lecture “The Plight of European Jurisprudence” in 1944, he had reasons to believe that it would be his last lecture. After a failed assassination attempt on Hitler, his friend Johannes Popitz was arrested as an important conspirator in the plot and was later put to death. This is why the article by Paul Piccone and Gary Ulmen on this lecture is called “Schmitt’s ‘Testament’ and the Future of Europe.” The lecture did not prove to be Schmitt’s last. The irony is that what Schmitt wrote as his own testament can today be read as a testament of Europe. The validity of this claim depends only on how one views the current state of Europe.
In 1990 it was clear that the Cold War was coming to an end, and this meant that there would be new and important political developments in Europe. Piccone and Ulmen were cautiously optimistic about the future of Europe. Their meditations on the possibilities that remained open for the European project were based on Schmitt’s insights developed mostly in his lecture “The Plight of European Jurisprudence” and his book The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, in which the German jurist had shown that “the sovereign state that had been the foundation of the Eurocentric order of international law for almost 400 years began to decline as a result of the disappearance of the qualitative distinction between state and society after 1848. This signalled the approaching end of that international order, the jus publicum Europaeum, which began to dissolve at the close of the 19th century. International relations were losing their Eurocentric character as a result of the rise of Russia and the U.S. as super-powers and the internationalization of the economy” (3–4).
The rise of the projects of European unification coincided with the end of the Eurocentric world order. In 2013 all attempts to look into the possibilities of what a unified Europe might look like have to acknowledge the fact that traditional European powers no longer have any preeminent positions in world politics. Piccone and Ulmen argued that “ultimately crucial for European unification are not primarily economic and social considerations, although these are formidable, but constitutional and political questions concerning its federal structure and, last but certainly not least, the question of European identity itself, concerning which customs and traditions become decisive” (13).
It could be argued that today one of the most important reasons behind current problems in Europe is precisely this: it was widely believed that prosperity would ensure the unity of Europe. For a short time this assumption seemed to have been proven right. The naïveté of this belief was exposed by the onslaught of economic crisis. Despite this fact, there are still many economists, sociologists, intellectuals, and politicians who believe that the correct solution of economic and social problems will automatically provide the political answer. This is the reason why the question of a common European identity today is as relevant as it ever was.
In 1990 Piccone and Ulmen argued about the continuing relevance of Schmitt’s writings on the shared European heritage. They agreed with Schmitt’s analysis in which he had shown that historically the first definition of Europe was religious—the res publica Christiana. The second European identity was born in the wake of secularizations after the collapse of a possibility of a unified Christian Europe. The religious European identity of res publica Christiana transformed into a legal identity, the jus publicum Europaeum.
Today no one could seriously believe in a possibility of re-establishing the res publica Christiana. Any attempts to re-establish the European identity solely on the basis of the jus publicum Europaeum would also be doomed. However, Piccone and Ulmen thought that understanding the past would be useful in attempts to construct a common European identity: “the essence of European jurisprudence—Roman law as the ground of unity for the new pluralism, and natural law secularized into human rights—may provide essential guidelines” (34). They thought that by understanding the common roots of European nations we might gain a better insight into the possibilities about their common future.
Schmitt had also been cautiously optimistic about the possibility of a new order during the critical interwar years. He was fond of qouting Virgil’s “Ab integro nascitur ordo.” The full line is “Magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo.” He chose this motto as a clarion call for Europe to find strength in facing its inner and outer enemies. By the end of his long life, Schmitt had become disillusioned with the possibility of a birth of an order from a renewal. The last line of his real testament, Political Theology II, reads: “stat pro ratione Libertas, et Novitas pro Libertate.” This motto and the sarcastic and pessimistic statement “there is no ovum in an old or renewable sense at all. There is only a novum,” could be read as his final judgment on the entire modern World.
Piccone and Ulmen were not satisfied with this defeatism, which can be clearly discerned in Schmitt’s latter works. Their masterful analysis of legal, economic, social, political, and philosophical developments lead them to pose the problem about the condition of Europe and the possibilities it might still have. It could be argued that Schmitt wrote The Nomos of the Earth mostly because of antiquarian interests. He had lost hope and viewed the future in apocalyptic terms. Piccone and Ulmen refused to take this position. Their attempts to show the continuing relevance of Carl Schmitt for the discussion about European identity are as relevant today as they were in 1990. One should read “Schmitt’s ‘Testament’ and the Future of Europe” not in the hope of finding any quick solutions, but rather to awaken to the awareness of the fundamental problems that Europe is currently facing.