A European Social Contract. Realistic Solution or Utopia?

Essay 2012 17 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Peace and Conflict Studies, Security



1. What keeps the continent together

2. The social contract - a recurring idea

3. A contract for the European society
3.1 Grasping the common will
3.2 Forging a European identity
3.3 The European civil society one step ahead
3.4 A fair economical order as a fragment of the social contract

4. The implementation of a bold idea


1. What keeps the continent together

Daß ich nicht mehr mit sauerm Schweiß, Zu sagen brauche, was ich nicht weiß; Daß ich erkenne, was die Welt Im Innersten zusammenhält, Schau’ alle Wirkenskraft und Samen, Und thu' nicht mehr in Worten kramen.


Very much like Faust in Goethe's masterpiece struggles to understand what keeps the world together scholars struggle to understand what keeps the European polity together. The process of European integration is truly a unique phenomenon. In the mid-20th century the peoples of a war- torn continent begin to forge an alliance unlike anything else before and they continue to develope this union further. Never before have states been willing to sacrifice sovereignty to such a high degree for a greater political system and never before have states cooperated in such a broad variety of areas. Europe seems to have become an experimental realm, in which possible paths for future global governance are tested. But the European integration is not only accompanied by euphoria, but also by critical voices. Especially a lack of structures for democratic codetermination, a lack of legitimacy in the EU-structures in general and a lack of accountability among the EU-functionaries have been largely criticised.1 Moreover, the relation of a European identity to national identities remains an issue.2 Yet these are fragmentary factors determining the outcome of the European integration. Perhaps we should look at the European project on the meta-level. Asking for the origins of legitimate social order scholars of different ages have introduced the idea of a social contract which the members of society have directly or indirectly agreed upon and which forms the basis of legitimate rule. Though scholars largely discuss the mentioned factors that foster or constrain the European integration they never really explored the possibility of a European social contract as a basis for all future integration efforts. Admittedly demands for a new social contract are frequent among political scientists and politicians, so that some even speak of a boom.3 These suggestions usually refer to a social contract on the national level and to a re-negotiation of the relation of the individual to the state, the economic system, social liberties and possibilities of participation and self-fulfilment.4 Especially the proposition of the German Advisory Council on Global Change of a new social contract for sustainability is noteworthy, because it is supposed to enable us on the national level to cope with today's challenges, such as climate change and economic crises.5 Also the German Green Party called for a new social contract in its manifesto for the campaign for the elections of the Bundestag in 2009.6 While contract theories and propositions usually focus on the national level, I want to assess and actualise in this paper the possibility and the potential of a social contract for the European community and give an estimate to the question of how realistic the application of the concept social contract to the European project is. I will therefore in a first step briefly outline and discuss the theoretical concept of a social contract, as introduced by diverse philosophers, and in a second step I will apply the concept to the various fields of European integration. More precisely, I will evaluate how a social contract can be a foundation for the European identity, European economic politics and for citizens' participation within the EU.

2. The social contract - a recurring idea

The idea of conceptualising political rule as a social contract dates back to antiquity and it can also be found in medieval understanding of the law of the rule.7 But it was not before the modern age that the idea was developed as a sophisticated theory. The political rule of the medieval age was largely considered God-given. Scientific approaches to the question of legitimacy of rule were dominated by ecclesiastic scholasticism, which served the only purpose to prove the rightfulness of the divine order with scientific means. Parallel to the development of new natural scientific approaches in the ages of Renaissance and Enlightenment -the discovery of the new world by Christopher Columbus, the foundation of empirical science by René Descartes etc.- various philosophers began to critically reflect about the origins of political rule. As a result we find the concept of a social contract in the works of among others Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean- Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. I will not outline the details, in which their theories differ, because they are not relevant for the goal of this paper to apply the basic idea of the social contract to the European setting. Their theories have the idea in common, that society has undergone three phases, the anarchical natural state, the contract stage, in which the people negotiate and shape the political rule, and the state, which is the result of the process. However, the social contract is not an occasional act, but a theoretical construct of legitimacy, as Wolfgang Kerstner points out:

Der Kontraktualismus ist keine deskriptive Theorie, die Erklärungen für wirkliche Abläufe gibt, sondern eine normative Theorie, die eine Begründung polit[ischer] Herrschaft entwickelt und die Kompetenzgrenzen staatl[icher] Herrschaftsausübung abzustecken versucht.8

So it is the people as a collective of free individuals, who in a democratic process create a consensus about the political rule in general and this consensus can, in theory, be renewed or adapted over time. Moreover the social contract can manifest itself in a constitution, which can be seen as the result of a democratic societal bargaining process and of a forming of the political will.9 Nevertheless the process of expressing the common will and of manifesting the societal consensus is infinite. As well as natural scientists know that no matter ever stands still, political scientists know that a society continuously develops further. Therefore we should comprehend the social contract as a continuously adapted set of basic values and rules.

The social contract recurred in the 20th century in the theories of various philosophers, such as John Rawls and David Gathier, above all as a component of concepts of moral, ethics and justice.10 There is also criticism passed on contractualist theory. Émile Durkheim doubts that societies are capable of organising themselves and living after a deliberate and intelligent plan and that the people are not capable of imagining the origins and the general conditions of collective human life, quoting Herbert Spencer.11 In his and Spencer's view social life is being organised by an unconscious and spontaneous alignment and the idea of a social contract is therefore unrealistic. In elaborating this argument Durkheim points out that no society ever had its origin in a social contract nor is there any social contract structure present. This point is astonishing, because one could indeed see at least traces of a social contract in societies of Durkheim's age. The American constitution is an example of people deliberating basic principles of living together and fixing those in a kind of a contract. Also the Greek and Roman republics were designed after some kind of a basic plan. In addition to Durkheim's scepticism we can observe that in history political systems and social order on the nation scale have rarely been created by a volonté générale in the sense of Rousseau, but by force and by the will of minorities. Written constitutions as an expression of the common will existed in antiquity, but this practice was forgotten throughout the middle ages and not reinvented before the modern age.12 This criticism is however countered by the argument that the social contract is a hypothetical construction with a regulative function and that it does not need a historical act of agreement.13 I quote Kersting again, who precisely defines the purpose of contract theories:

Als Vertragstheorien bezeichnet man moral-, sozial- und politikphilosophische Konzeptionen, die die moralischen Prinzipien menschlichen Handelns, die rationale Grundlage der institutionellen gesellschaftlichen Ordnung und die Legitimationsbedingungen politischer Herrschaft in einem hypothetischen, zwischen freien und gleichen Individuen in einem wohldefinierten Ausgangszustand geschlossenen Vertrag erblicken und damit die allgemeine Zustimmungsfähigkeit zum fundamentalen normativen Gültigkeitskriterium erklären.14

The social contract is thus above all an instrument of legitimisation of political order and a way to actualise the consensus of values and rules that forms the basis of society. Contractual theory remains attractive in political and philosophical discourse. The idea of free born individuals and of a need for collective legitimisation of political order will evoke intuitively positive responses among people, at least in western democracies. The next step will be to evaluate if and how this concept can be applied to an international setting and what good can come from doing so.

3. A contract for the European society

We have seen that the social contract is a way of creating legitimate political order. Usually this concept is applied to a national context. But as we witness the peoples of Europe struggling for a common future it seems reasonable to ask: why not take it to the European level? Why not make a European social contract? The concept of the nation seems more and more to lose importance in our globalised world. Countries like Great Britain, Belgium, Canada and Switzerland are multiethnic and multilingual entities, which can hardly be considered as a nation, if we apply ethnic, linguistic and cultural homogeneity to the term ”nation”. The nation appears even more loose if we agree to Benedict Anderson's definition of the nation as an ”imagined community”.15 Admittedly the nation has been for a long time a relatively stable frame of identity, which has been actively upheld by policies.16 Yet it seems that the nation-state is no longer capable of embracing the pressing matters of continental and global governance. Multinational enterprises act internationally and expose the state's limits to adequately regulate the financial flows and economic dynamics. In the security sector, which is traditionally a national domain, we observe multinational military task forces being sent to the world's trouble spots. The new challenges and situations in the age of globalisation demand new visions and concepts of transnational governance, leaving traditional paradigms behind. A polity such as the EU can deal much better with today's globalised problems than the nation-state, because it can access the resources of several states, it can coordinate the reform projects of its member states, so that they gear into each other, and it can regulate the problem fields by setting common standards continent wide. But before a polity can carry out these tasks some basic guidelines need to be determined on how the polity shall be designed and how it shall carry out its tasks. As the category of the nation loses importance diverse sub-categories, which until now have been attributed to the nation, such as society, identity and democracy, will have to be attributed to the international or rather to the continental setting. The on going European integration gives increasingly reason to conceptualise the community of European peoples as a European society, perhaps in the middle stage towards a European ”demos”.17 Therefore to negotiate a European social contract, which can serve as the foundation for the future legitimation and institutional order of the EU, seems to be an attractive option.

3.1. Grasping the common will

Consent is an important element of the social contract and of deliberation theory in general. Jens Steffek and Patrizia Nanz propose deliberation as a way to mitigate the democratic deficit. They introduce the concept of deliberation as a process of voicing opinions and concerns in a transnational public sphere in order to reach the ”common good”.18 The social contract is a concept of deliberation too. As a result of the deliberation and manifestation of the common will the social contract can be fixed in a written document, i.e. a constitution. In the ideal the community of individuals freely agrees upon the basic values and the institutional order of the community. The first and only attempt of a European constitution in 2004 failed perhaps because it was not undertaken in the spirit of the social contract, that is to say it was not the product of a process of broad and free negotiation and forming of the political will of the people of Europe. There was no Europe wide broad discussion of the constitution and there was no attempt made to communicate its content to all levels of the European population. In several countries the people didn't even directly vote upon the draft constitution, but only the parliament ratified it. Therefore it had a lack of legitimacy from the beginning. Moreover several aspects of the content of the constitution were met with disagreement by large parts of the population in the member states.


1 Dahl, Robert A. 1999: p. 20, 23. Hix, Simon. 2005: p. 177ff. Obradovic, Daniela. 1996: p. 194.

2 Soldwisch, Ines. 2012: 172.

3 Große Kracht, Hermann-Josef. 2005: p. 10.

4 For example Hann, Xenia. 2002.

5 German Advisory Council on Global Change. 2011. <http://www.wbgu.de/hauptgutachten/hg-2011-transformation/>, viewed July 28th 2012.

6 http://www.gruene-partei.de/cms/files/dokbin/273/273696.090303_entwurf_bundestagswahlprogramm.pdf, viewed September 10th 2012.

7 von Gierke, Otto. 1958: p. 76ff.

8 Kersting, Wolfgang. 2005: p. 1103.

9 Pieroth, Bodo. 2005: p. 53.

10 Rawls, John. 1971. Gauthier, David. 1986.

11 Durkheim, Emile. 1988: p. 258.

12 For an overview over constitutional theory from antiquity until today see Riklin, Alois. 2006.

13 Koller, Peter. 1987: p. 14.

14 Kersting, Wolfgang. 1994: p. 16.

15 Anderson, Benedict. 1996: p. 14ff.

16 Cederman, Lars Erik. 2001: p. 150.

17 For a definition of the term ”demos” see Cederman, Lars Erik. 2001: p. 144.

18 Steffek, Jens and Nanz, Patrizia. 2008: p. 4ff.


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Title: A European Social Contract. Realistic Solution or Utopia?