Kalypso Nicolaïdis on Empathy & Europe

On 27 and 28 June 2017, we invited historian Philipp Blom and professor International Relations Kalypso Nicolaïdis to discuss their current views on the future of Europe at ‘home base’ De Balie in Amsterdam and at the Dominicaner Church in Maastricht. Both thinkers contributed to our anthology Re:Thinking Europe: Thoughts on Past, Present and Future.


Kalypso Nicolaïdis at the Dominicaner Church in Maastricht

In her lecture, Kalypso Nicolaïdis argues that only empathy between the member states can save Europe from its downfall. She also paid tribute to Isaiah Berlin, one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, who thoroughly examined the question of European integration in 1959. Today, his reflections are still crucial to understanding Europe’s current situation. You can read the full text here online!

Isaiah Berlin and Europe

Isn’t it wonderful how Isaiah Berlin brought us together once again for the anthology Re:Thinking Europe last year, reminding us to think together with the challenges we face today? Berlin talked about the spirit of Europe just before the creation of the European Union. He spent all his life in Oxford and created a college there, Wolfson College. I can’t help but think that sometimes he thought of Oxford like a miniature EU. All these colleges like nation states with their sovereignty and borders. They need the university to bring them together and to get money, but they want to remain somewhat autonomous. It’s the same kind history that Isaiah Berlin thought about, obsessed with fear that Europe will return to a romantic utopian pluralism. Indeed, he is well known for his value-pluralism: the notion that somehow we have values that are equally important but not always compatible between two people. He was thinking about the history of this continent, and he was telling us about Enlightenment and tolerance, not to kill the other because they have a different truth to us.

Between Enlightenment and Romanticism
And the EU will tell you, the founding fathers, in a way we’ve closed the parenthesis of nationalism and we are back to where we were before – the enlightened institutions. And Isaiah Berlin says, hang on a minute, that’s not quite the story, we can’t forget this evanescence that led to nationalism and the dark side was also about the plurality, and Europe must strike a balance between the two tribes, the one and the many. And the question for us today is whether Europe and the European Union today has been faithful to this ethos. And the way I want to speak about it today is to come back to a theme, which Isaiah Berlin doesn’t use but it is pregnant in his idea.

Empathy – key to human cooperation?
Empathy is the return trip to the brain of another. Empathy is trying to understand from the viewpoint of another but most importantly, unlike sympathy, you return to your own standpoint and act from that new understanding. With empathy we could understand other people’s actions, and on the basis of empathy we were able to cooperate and create borders. We created communities of cooperation thanks to empathy and making all of these connections between each other. Empathy is an affect, how we feel as an individual or as a group. When you translate empathy and generalise it, let us call this together mutual recognition. If you recognise my culture, my rules and I recognise your culture, we act because we each recognise each other. Now I say that political orders submit based on the human affect of empathy.

Empathy in a world of Nomads and Settlers
Two ways of how empathy has been tested in the history of mankind. The first one is the great war between settlers and nomads. Europe was created as a space for nomads, not as a set of places for settlers. And if you have a world of nomads and settlers, let me take you back for one moment to mutual recognition. What rule do the nomads apply when they get to Rome? One is, when in Rome, do as Romans do. But in the EU that’s we have organised ourselves with mutual recognition. If you have a diploma from Amsterdam and you want to work in the UK, your diploma is recognised. But there’s a second challenge between the two, and that’s cooperation vs. control. Now, the whole of humanity has always been a struggle between cooperation and control. And indeed you can see in the entire of European history to be a type of oscillation between the two logics. At the formation of the EU, there was still a tension between the following two: are we going to abandon the land of anarchy and go to the land of unity? Are we going to transcend this land of nation states that are fighting each other and all about control? What I argue in my work that when Europeans created the Union they were going to balance cooperation and control and transform rather than transcend the system of state. This is the great challenge of the EU and it is an amazing ambition.

The EU and institutionalising empathy
And we are here today, asking: did we manage to stay on the Rubicon? Being a demoicracy does not mean one kind of people or one European demos. There can be several demos in Europe but they have to care and talk to each other. If you want a European polity that works together, you have to have democracies that have internalised what is important for other member states. To provoke, I would suggest that the EU was an attempt to institutionalise empathy, an institution where empathetic modes make us find compromises. Merkel will take into account what Macron’s internal concerns are, etcetera. So, the EU can be thought of as an enterprise of institutionalising empathy. But as you do this, we all have different ways of telling that story. Our challenge is to ask “How do we make all of these sorties work together, in a way that it’s not a complete cacophony?”. With the crisis, it is forcing us to leave the Rubicon. We are in a Tocquevillian moment: where the old world has disappeared, the old EU doing what they wanted without consulting the public, but the new world with a vibrant democracy has not happened yet. But we are in a world where we have mutual democratic vulnerability; your elections in the Netherlands a few months ago had an impact on all of Europe, that’s very new. And we’re facing with the challenge today of maintaining our old principles that founded the EU but which are increasingly questioned.

Three perspectives on Brexit
What about Brexit in this context? We have a crisis that has challenged the EU’s fundamental principles. Poor me, I’m an exile, Franco-Greek, living in Britain. Brexit has been an amazing questioning for us who work on the EU – but what does Brexit mean?  One democratic conversation about Brexit is Brexit as archetypal myth. And in this book I crowd funded, just to give you a flavour, we’re not talking about Britain’s resistance against the EU … No, what we have is the first myth of Exodus – the shackled people leave Egypt, leave the EU, let the people go. Of course Exodus is more complicated than that. First, I’m not quite sure who is our Moses in Britain; and also we have two sides: the Hebrews all decided together to leave despite not liking the desert too much. In Britain, there are all these tribes that don’t want to leave the EU – either the Londoners, the Oxfordians, the Scots…

Secondly, and more European: Brexit as Reckoning. We’ve had a tsunami of crises, Brexit is simply making it visible for the whole of Europe. It’s a crisis of those who vote against the EU amidst the referendum, but actually voted against London. It’s a crisis of popular and national democracy against elitist conspirator of doing ‘their thing’ without consulting the public. And the citizens say ‘No!’, not fully understanding to what or whom. All over Europe, including in this country, we have this development. That is what Europe is about: an agonizing over this, trying to decide who were the sinners or the worthy ones.

The third way of seeing Brexit is Brexit as sacrifice, to say – thank you Britain, thanks to you at last we [Europeans] unite. A British discourse of sacrifice – we, the British – always come to the rescue of the continent. I don’t really believe in stories of heroic sacrifice. What I really believe that this is an ironic sacrifice (Sings ‘Always look on the bright side of life’) Brexit is a sacrifice that serves the EU because it shows that ‘this EU’ is not this terrible leviathan that you can’t leave. It’s so easy to leave it – a little vote and that’s it, which shows that you shouldn’t. Of course, the victim doesn’t have to die and maybe the EU will survive, may thrive on this sacrifice, and reinvent the EU in a much more pluralist fashion rather than making Britain a scapegoat for its unity.

Europe in crisis – what next?
If you get my drift, I’m hoping that despite Britain leaving or not, somehow we will be able to rethink and reinvent a Europe. In which the Brits might have wanted to stay and where we, the Continentals, will prove worthy of the ironic sacrifice. But it will take three things: the first one is what I call sustainable integration. Maybe the EU can be the guardian of the long term for the next generation. Perhaps, because the masses think about the short term, it’s not so bad for the EU to be a short-term democracy, a democracy with foresight. It’s an elite thing to care about the future and long-term. At the national level, we need to rethink all the pathways of democracy, where everybody can share their ideas. There is much room for direct and virtual democracy, and the Internet and the new generations allows for that.

Empathy in shaping Europe’s path
Finally, I want to end by coming back to empathy. The problem with empathy is that message sent does not mean message received. Everything gets lost in translation, even in Europe. In the book, we suggest to bring back together politics and art. We need to cultivate the societal and cultural foundation of our European project – through empathetic activities. Poetic empathy – every school students should read novels, poems and literature by other European countries. Then there is theatre of empathy, like demonstrations and “Je suis Charlie”. This is togetherness but also solidarity, realising that I’m privileged, you’re oppressed, what can I do about it? Mimetic empathy – remember the Welcome Refugees in Germany. And finally, I want to end on virtual empathy. We are here together and think together, but how do we think with the whole of society? I see my kids at home, having five different conversations at the same time, and I have a sense that it’s almost like a school of empathy in a multitasking way. If you ask me, I’m very excited of the potential and imagination of future generations. I think Europe will be saved, maybe even Britain, by the new generation and perhaps, if we, the Oldies, let younger generations have power they may help reinvent this very strange ambitious but flawed experiment that is the EU. And then we may have a say again in the world – Thank you.

About Kalypso Nicolaïdis

Kalypso Nicolaïdis (1962) is a Greek-French Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford where she is also director of the Centre for International Studies. Nicolaïdis has published widely on various aspects of European integration, international relations and global governance. Her latest book include: Echoes of Empire: Memory, Identity and Colonial Legacies, edited with Gabi Maas and Berny Sebe (2015); European Stories: Intellectual Debates on Europe in National Contexts, edited with Justine Lacroix (2010); and Mediterranean Frontiers: Borders, Memory and Conflict in a Transnational Era, edited with Dimitar Bechev (2009). Nicolaïdis contributed the article ‘My EUtopia: Empathy in a Union of Others to the anthology Re:Thinking Europe.

Join our newsletter