Setting the Stage: Lord Ralf Dahrendorf and the European Project


  • Helmut K. Anheier,

  • Gesa-Stefanie Brincker



Helmut Anheier and Gesa-Stefanie Brincker set the stage for this special issue: ‘Looking back and looking forth, it is remarkable how valid Lord Dahrendorf’s criticism, and how relevant his suggestions for Europe’s future remain. His reflections about the EU capture some of the fundamental challenges concerning its architecture, performance and communication.’

Lord Ralf Dahrendorf was convinced of the fundamental responsibility of intellectuals to doubt all received wisdom, to wonder at that is taken for granted, to question all authority, and to pose all those questions that otherwise no-one else dares to ask (Dahrendorf, 1963). With the Dahrendorf Symposium series we want to honor his legacy – the legacy of a political intellectual who was an intellectual politician at the same time. He never took Europe and the European Union (EU) for granted. Over the course of nearly five decades he repeatedly and publicly raised often uncomfortable questions about Europe; its achievements, potential and weaknesses; but especially, he fought for Europe as a democratic project, as a project of citizens continuously seeking a better Europe.

The 1970s: We need a second Europe!

After a brief period in the German Parliament, serving as State Secretary in the Foreign Office, Dahrendorf became Commissioner for External Relations and Trade in the European Commission in 1970. In 1971 he published two articles in Die Zeit under the nom de plume Wieland Europa. In these two articles he blamed ‘the first Europe’, that is, the achievements of the European Community (EC), for being a project concerned with butter, sugar, fish and meat. Dahrendorf criticized an unsupportable discrepancy between rhetoric and reality (Dahrendorf, 1996) and blamed the institutions for their lack of accountability. He called for a second and more political Europe to overcome the problems created by the first. He suggested the regular consultations of foreign ministers and ‘habit-forming co-operation in as many areas of policy-making as appropriate’ (Dahrendorf, 1990, p. 127). Dahrendorf also advocated differentiated integration: ‘Some of this might well be à la carte, so that members of the Community can pick and choose whether they want to participate’ (Dahrendorf, 1990, p. 127). The two articles provoked controversy; Dahrendorf’s pseudonym did not remain secret for long. His harsh judgment (he later called it realism) almost caused his dismissal by a motion of censure in the European Parliament. Two years later, in 1973, in his book Plädoyer für die Europäische Union he proposed, among other recommendations, making the European Commission an institution answerable directly to an elected European Parliament.

The 1980s: Quelques lueurs d’espoir dans un ciel sombre

In the early 1980s, as director of the London School of Economics (1974–1984), against the background of the Winter of Discontent and Thatcherism, Dahrendorf drew a very critical picture of the development of the EC, depicting it as a ‘grouping of partly unwilling members, without objective’, working in an ‘intransparent chaos of institutions’, in which an elected Parliament acted ‘without functions and competencies’ (Dahrendorf, 1983, p. 190). He raised the fundamental question why visions are included in official documents although ’we know that these remain visions because nobody knows how we can get rid of the paralyzed Europe of today?’ (Dahrendorf, 1983, p. 190). At the same time he presented the common market as a success story. According to Dahrendorf, the European Economic Community (EEC) had the potential to become an economic engine for developments in the world, or at least for OECD countries. The collapse of the economic world order in the 1970s called on the EEC to respond to global challenges. He pointed to the European monetary system as an arduous substitute in need of institutional strengthening in a post-Bretton Woods world order. Dahrendorf, however, also raised the question whether Europe’s momentum of the 1950s and 1960s had exhausted itself: ‘L’Europe reste-t-elle à jamais un subjonctif, dans le meilleur des cas un optatif?’ (Dahrendorf, 1982, p. 348).

The early 1990s: The European Revolution of 1989

As Warden of St Anthony’s College in Oxford (1987–1997), Dahrendorf celebrated his 60th birthday in May 1989 when the Iron Curtain started to fall. In his book ‘Reflections on the Revolution in Europe’ he rejected the dominant reading that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe had chosen capitalism over communism; instead, he claimed they aspired to ‘return to Europe’ and to build an open society ‘in which there are 100 different ways forward to freedom and a handful on offer at any one time’ (Dahrendorf, 1990, p. 109).

Dahrendorf was convinced that the EC and its members had a central responsibility for the future development of Central and Eastern Europe. The exceptional events of 1989 delighted him and encouraged him to formulate his vision. On the one hand, he saw Europe as a village built around a solid house called the ‘EC’ (Dahrendorf, 1990, p. 136), a house that is not exclusionary or one bloc divided from others, but a project that unites citizens. On the other hand, his vision of Europe went far beyond the continent’s borders: ‘[My vision of Europe] will forever be the Kantian project of a “world civil society” with truly international institutions to guide and to sustain it’ (Dahrendorf, 1990, p. 129). The democratic Europe of citizen democracies was his model.

The late 1990s: ‘European reform is imperative if the EU is to survive’

In 1993 Dahrendorf was appointed life peer, Baron Dahrendorf of Clare Market in the City of Westminster – a prominent location on the LSE site. With his earlier critiques still valid, he concentrated on concrete reform steps that would make the EU more relevant for its citizens and the world. He recommended including an updated European Convention on Human Rights in EU treaties as a way to increase citizens’ identification with Europe, to strengthen the democratic accountability of the European Commission and to make social cohesion among citizens a crucial objective for the future. Finally, he called on the EU to include the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. ‘Enlargement to the east is a vital responsibility of a democratic EU’, he noted (Dahrendorf, 1996, p. 1). If this endeavor were to fail, the EU would lose its appeal to attract non-members.

The 2000s: How is democracy in Europe possible?

In January 2005 Dahrendorf was appointed a Research Professor at the Social Science Research Center in Berlin. Over the next few years his critique of the EU’s democratic weakness became more severe, culminating in his charge that the EU betrayed its very own democratic principles. The EU itself would fail any application for membership if it wished to join the Union. The EU lacked both the demos and a political class bridging Brussels and member states. ‘How is democracy in Europe possible?’ he was asked. Considering the European institutions that negotiate behind closed doors as ‘an insult for democracy’ (Dahrendorf, 2002, p. 35) he stated that institutional reform preserving the status quo would not solve the systemic problem of the EU; neither would any constitutional treaty not based on popular demand. He called on the EU to focus on liberal, not statist principles when building a European demos. In 2009, shortly before he died, Dahrendorf assessed the economic and financial crisis as the result of debt-leveraged capitalism (Pumpkapitalismus). He argued that the crisis could also give rise to a change in Europe’s economic-political culture. Concretely, he called for a ‘responsible capitalism’ (Dahrendorf, 2009, p. 9) marked by medium-term and long-term thinking on the part of its leaders.

Challenges and tensions

Looking back and looking forth, it is remarkable how valid Lord Dahrendorf’s criticism, and how relevant his suggestions for Europe’s future remain. His reflections about the EU capture some of the fundamental challenges concerning its architecture, performance and communication. Dahrendorf repeatedly rejected the argument that Europe would develop automatically and inevitably by some functional logic towards a political Union. ‘History does not work that way’ (Dahrendorf, 1989, p. 8), he stated. Instead he argued that concrete, pragmatic and political steps are needed to move the EU forward – albeit democratically legitimated steps. He rejected the idea of Europe’s finalité but rather saw it as an ongoing political battle between federalists and confederalists (Dahrendorf, 1973). As any vision of Europe from generations past may ring hollow to those that follow he was convinced that every generation has to reinvent Europe.

Concerns about the Europe of citizens were centre-stage in Dahrendorf’s reflections. Dahrendorf asked himself how to reconcile citizenship and the EU, how to make democracy and freedom in a post-national context work (Garton Ash, 2009). He argued that in absence of direct democracy, forms of deliberative democracy, as part of an emerging European civil society, are a second best option. Europe is part of the West, as a normative concept that stands for human rights, the rule of law and checks and balances (Winkler, 2010). The EU should play an appropriate role in the world, if possible, in conjunction with the USA. In the absence of global rules and agreements, the European Project serves an important model for others. These challenges involve tensions, some of which become even more blatant in the current financial and Euro crisis: The desire to construct a stable EU that serves as a model for post-national cooperation seems, for instance, hardly compatible with the need for a continuous reinvention of Europe from the inside. Moreover, an emerging European civil society actively engaged in shaping the European project is not backed by broader societal support. By contrast, the majority of citizens are indifferent to the EU and how it operates. Finally, there is a discrepancy between the principle of democracy and the reality that EU institutions remain too remote from the citizens. Dahrendorf’s legacy and challenge to us is to come to terms with these tensions in the changed context of the crisis-prone early 21st century.

The 2011 Dahrendorf Symposium

Following these thoughts, the inaugural Dahrendorf Symposium focused on the ambiguity of positive and negative meta-narratives for debating the future of the European integration project. The Symposium and its core themes engaged with central issues of the European debate in the field of politics, economics and sociology as well as with ideological and global questions.

The Hertie School of Governance, the London School of Economics and Political Science and Stiftung Mercator jointly organized the Dahrendorf Symposium 2011 at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities on 9–10 November 2011. They brought together leading academics, policymakers and the media from across Europe and beyond. The inaugural symposium took as its theme ‘Changing the Debate on Europe: Moving Beyond Conventional Wisdoms’. Five international research groups, lead by faculty members based at either the Hertie School or the London School of Economics, involved academics from other European institutions. In this context renowned members of this newly established research network developed several working papers, a number of which are included in this special issue.

All articles, contributions and speeches included in this issue were developed for the 2011 Dahrendorf Symposium, a joint initiative of the Hertie School of Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science and Stiftung Mercator.

Author Information

Helmut Anheier is Dean and Professor, Hertie School of Governance. He also holds a chair of Sociology at Heidelberg University and is Academic Director of the Center for Social Investment.

Gesa-Stefanie Brincker, Dahrendorf Manager, Hertie School of Governance, is a manager for the research project “Changing the European debate” at the Hertie School of Governance and seminar coach for the Schwarzkopf Stiftung Young Europeans.