TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Sovereignty, Democracy, and the Political Geography of Europe

This paper was presented at the 2012 Telos Conference, “Space: Virtuality, Territoriality, Relationality,” held on January 14–15, in New York City.

While the current financial crisis in Europe will certainly be a turning point in the development of the European Union, this is not primarily because of the economic consequences of saving or losing the euro. These monetary and fiscal events will almost certainly be overshadowed by the political implications. For the vision of a unified Europe does not just concern economics or regional politics but is built upon larger cosmopolitan hopes that go back at least to Immanuel Kant’s imagination of perpetual peace. As Ulrich Beck argues, for instance, a cosmopolitan vision is being realized today, not so much through ideology but through global economic integration and the consequent decline of regional and national allegiances in favor of transnational identities that have made older political conflicts obsolete.[1] Built upon this vision, the continuing expansion of the European Union promises to gradually widen a zone of free trade and movement that would eventually also clear a space of political freedom characterized by the rule of law and the protection of individual rights. Theoretically, this space of peace and freedom could expand to encompass all of Eurasia and then turn the entire world into a fulfillment of Kant’s original dream.

So the stakes involved in European integration are not just economic and regional, but political, global, and even world-historical, and this larger background also explains the unity with which the dominant political classes in Europe are working toward a solution to the crisis that will guarantee the stability of the Euro and the continuing integration that it represents. At the same time, incidents such as the horror with which most politicians contemplated a Greek referendum on their bailout or the recent replacements of democratically elected heads of state with appointed technocrats point to the worsening of a democratic deficit that has dogged the European Union from its beginnings. This conflict between the political-philosophical vision and popular sentiments suggests that we need to consider the current crisis within a larger context of European history and politics, one that indicates some larger trajectories as well as provides a conceptual framework for analyzing the European project.

Carl Schmitt’s theories about the role of Europe in the world in both The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes and The Nomos of the Earth can provide a larger perspective on Europe’s current conflicts, not least because Schmitt confronts issues of sovereignty that the EU up to now has not. A basic premise of Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty is that politics and religion, worldly motivations and spiritual commitments, must accord with each other in order to maintain a stable legal framework.[2] Hobbes’s theory of the state is particularly interesting to Schmitt because it develops as a reaction to the religious civil wars that ensued once this unified authority of the Catholic Church had broken down. It is important to note, however, that the medieval unity of the Church, in providing an overarching metaphysical framework for political authority, did not entail a modern unity of politics and religion in the Hobbesian absolutist state. Rather, as Schmitt notes, whereas the latter never includes a right to resistance,[3] there was a right to resistance of the vassal that could be exercised through appeals to divine law as a set of spiritual values that all parties shared. The authority of the Catholic Church was a metaphysical one that allowed different groups to make their own appeals to this higher spiritual authority in order to justify their claims against political rulers. But once this medieval unity of metaphysical conceptions broke down in the Reformation, Schmitt argues that the ensuing religious civil wars could only be ended through the establishment of a unified absolutist state whose main task was to guarantee the safety and security of its inhabitants. This era of the jus publicum Europaeum is for Schmitt the height of European peace, not because war has been overcome, but because it has been “bracketed” and limited. The jus publicum Europaeum was not characterized by a situation of peace but one of constant albeit limited wars. As opposed to the destruction of total war engendered by religious conflicts, wars between sovereign states were not pursued with the idea that one’s cause was more just or morally superior. Instead, wars became a form of diplomacy that states only conducted against similarly organized states and were not meant to upset the existing state order. They followed rules of warfare that resembled the conventions of duels and were fought for limited goals.[4]

Schmitt provides two different explanations for the stability of the jus publicum Europaeum, one based on rationality and the other on myth. These separate explanations then lead to two different perspectives on its breakdown and two trajectories within which Europe stands today. First, Schmitt argues that the absolutist state originated out of fear. Once the religious civil wars began, the resulting destruction and chaos led to such fear that people sought safety and security at all costs. According to Schmitt, the covenant that founds the Hobbesian state “does not accord with medieval conceptions of an existing commonwealth forged by God and of a pre-existent natural order. The state as order and commonwealth is the product of human reason and human inventiveness and comes about by virtue of the covenant. This covenant is conceived in an entirely individualistic manner. All ties and groupings have been dissolved. Fear brings atomized individuals together. A spark of reason flashes, and a consensus emerges about the necessity to submit to the strongest power.”[5] This rational motivation for the covenant leads Schmitt to treat the absolutist state as a modern technical achievement. “The leviathan thus becomes none other than a huge machine, a gigantic mechanism in the service of ensuring the physical protection of those governed.”[6] As a mechanism for ensuring the security and safety of its inhabitants, the absolutist state is a rational ordering of political relations that depends on the continuing submission to the sovereign as the highest power. As George Schwab points out, “the relation between protection and obedience” becomes for Schmitt the primary basis of the legitimacy of the state.[7]

But this rational grounding of the state in its protective function, in which fear for one’s life is the primary motivator, is only part of the story that Schmitt presents. He also considers a representational dynamic that is important for the state’s authority, both in terms of the mythic representation of the leviathan as image of the state and in terms of the sovereign as a representational figure. This representational aspect of sovereignty is an important aspect of both Schmitt’s Political Theology and The Concept of the Political. But in spite of the fact that he focuses so much attention on the myth of the leviathan, he downplays the representational dynamic in his Hobbes book. Though he writes that the fear of individuals for their lives “brings a new power in to the picture: the leviathan” and that “the new god is transcendent vis-à-vis all contractual partners of the covenant and vis-à-vis the sum total,”[8] Schmitt also immediately points out that this transcendence only applies “in a juristic and not in a metaphysical sense.” In fact, “not the representation by a person but the factual, current accomplishment of genuine protection is what the state is all about. Representation is nothing if it is not tutela praesens. That, however, can only be attained by an effectively functioning mechanism of command.”[9] The kind of representational and metaphysical bases of sovereignty that Schmitt develops in his earlier work here is subordinated to the rational function of state command in protecting people’s lives.

But it is this shift from a focus on defending one’s way of life, even at the expense of sacrificing one’s life, which Schmitt describes in The Concept of the Political, to a focus on defending one’s life itself that leads to the kinds of problems that he sees in Hobbes’s theory. Schmitt notes that in order to maintain the stability of the state and its unified conception of politics and religion, Hobbes introduces a distinction between the inner and the outer self, the private belief and the public confession. While the subject of the state is compelled to publicly affirm the sovereign’s determination of what constitutes the miracle and thus the metaphysical basis of the state, Hobbes leaves the individual the freedom to maintain whatever private convictions she or he might prefer. As Schmitt points out, this private freedom eventually undermines the authority of the sovereign when the private sphere begins to include religious and party-political commitments that reintroduce the metaphysical conflicts that motivated the religious civil wars.

Schmitt blames a notion of individual freedom in the private sphere for the breakdown of state unity, but this breakdown is in fact a consequence of the attempt by both Hobbes and Schmitt to limit the focus of the state to the protection of life. This limitation assumes that a metaphysical basis is not important for people in a fundamental way and that a political system can remain neutral about the way such metaphysical questions structure individual private convictions. Instead, the assumption is that material questions of survival and prosperity are the main issues to be solved by the state.

In fact, the metaphysical questions that ground a people’s way of life continually return to create the kind of total wars that Schmitt and Hobbes want to try and banish with the idea of the absolutist state. Though Schmitt tries to characterize the jus publicum Europaeum as a time of relative peace, in fact it is continually accompanied by the kind of total war that determines the fundamental metaphysical parameters for society. Not only the Napoleonic wars but the entire history of imperialist warfare foreground the way in which the European state system was not a rational technical achievement but a culturally specific organization of political and social relations that dominated Europe and formed the basis for imperialist domination of the rest of the world, but which then completely broke down in the twentieth century.

Interestingly for Schmitt’s theory, the rationalist approach to the modern state that sees its functioning purely as a matter of protection and obedience denies the representational and therefore the metaphysical basis of sovereignty. But if the sovereign decides on the enemy in a way that also decides one’s own identity, the rationalization of sovereignty in a way that excludes personal convictions eventually leads to the evisceration of sovereignty itself as that which must be grounded in a specific identity.

And in fact when we turn to the European Union, the absence of sovereignty has been thought to be one of the greatest advantages of this space, as it held out the hope of an international public sphere founded on mutual agreements rather than political hegemony. The Euro crisis is testing the limits of a European Union that, according to Paul Kahn, is built upon a form of legality without sovereignty.[10] This form of legality presumes a notion of political order that is not based on national traditions but on transnational agreements and their accompanying bureaucracy. As such, it aspires to transcend political conflict by appealing to a cosmopolitan consciousness that subordinates political ideology to international exchange and tribal loyalties to technocratic mechanisms.

The euro crisis has highlighted the difficulties of this lack of sovereignty. Not only has it led to a decision-making deficit, but there is also a democracy deficit, both of which are linked. For if sovereignty is a prerequisite for a decision on the state of exception, it can only coalesce with the establishment of a popular will. The question for the European Union is whether there is a European popular will that transcends national identity. There are thus two aspects of political identity that are at stake in Europe today. In the first place, the crisis is a test of whether the “northern” model of reduced state expenditures and bureaucracy can coexist with a “southern” model of a large state sector with social guarantees for civil servants and the underprivileged. In other words, the primary question is whether there needs to be a degree of homogeneity in economic structure for the European Union to stay together. At the same time, the euro crisis is testing the extent to which, for example, Germans identify with Greeks as Europeans to such an extent that they would be willing to establish the same kind of support and subsidization that they carried out with East Germany. The first question is about the degree of heterogeneity that can be encompassed within a single political entity before it breaks apart, and the second question concerns the extent to which Europeans see themselves as a single political entity in terms of sacrifice. If the European Union is to survive the current crisis, it must do so by establishing the unified sovereignty that it has up to now hoped to avoid. This would involve, first of all, a re-conceptualization of the European project as a more limited one that is less cosmopolitan and thus more self-consciously “European.” On a practical level, this will mean a probably contraction of the European Union and a hardening of its borders. On a representational level, this will mean a more focused definition of European identity and values in a way that goes beyond just the economic arguments and extend to the heart of the metaphysical commitments that would unify Europeans and lead them to embrace a common identity. What this excludes, however, is the dream of a politics based purely on our common humanity, which could only be a politics based on the fear for one’s life rather than on a distinctive positive conception of what is good.


1. Ulrich Beck, Cosmopolitan Vision, trans. Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006).

2. Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes, trans. George Schwab (1938; Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 10-–11; Carl Schmitt, Der Leviathan in der Staatstheorie des Thomas Hobbes (1938; Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1982), p. 21.

3. Schmitt, The Leviathan, p. 46; Der Leviathan, pp. 71–72.

4. Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, trans. G. L. Ulmen (New York: Telos Press, 2003), pp. 140–51.

5. Schmitt, The Leviathan, p. 33; Der Leviathan, p. 51.

6. Schmitt, The Leviathan, pp. 34–35; Der Leviathan, p. 54.

7. George Schwab, introduction to Schmitt, The Leviathan, pp. xl–xli.

8. Schmitt, The Leviathan, p. 33; Der Leviathan, p. 52.

9. Schmitt, The Leviathan, p. 34; Der Leviathan, p. 53.

10. Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (New York: Columbia UP, 2011), pp. 55–56.

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