“The normative commitment is contested ground, and we all have to take care it holds.” - Interview with Susanne Baer

Mitchell Rutledge
June 08, 2023

Across Europe, the rise of far-right parties has caused many to take a moment and examine what driving forces cause the citizenries of numerous European states to vote for politicians that employ rhetoric, promulgate policies, and support movements that are contradictory to the European project.

On the topic of the rise of the far-right in Europe and its implications on the law, Professor Susanne Baer discusses with Mitchell Rutledge, student in the MA program in European History, Politics, and Society at the European Institute, what she perceives as some of the causes, threats, and solutions to the dismantling of liberal democracy.

Susanne Baer is a former Justice of the German Federal Constitutional Court (2011-2023), a Law Professor at Humboldt University of Berlin, and L. Bates Lea Global Law Professor at the University of Michigan.

Read the full interview here.

Mitchell Rutledge: Looking at Europe today, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, we have a dangerous development of large percentages in recent elections gained by far-right political parties. They often possess a rhetoric that is anti-immigrant anti-multiculturalist. You have said in some of your work, that when people defend versions of multicultural politics, there might be a risk of groupism. Do you think that is a problem in Europe today?

Susanne Baer: I do. When we look at European societies, and even more so at European political struggles around how we want to live together, there are such challenges. This is more than looking at a society as a social phenomenon. Rather, societies are the site of the political challenge to find every day anew, as Hannah Arendt would have emphasized, in an everyday newly built consensus, how we want to live together. And there are many challenges, but the one that concerns me most at the moment is the dynamics of far-right political parties and movements. These days, they are globally coordinated and globally sponsored, and they are very effective forces, particularly on social – and then antisocial – media. They develop arguments to undermine what one may call the European consensus of how we want to live together – and this would harm all of us.

Authoritarian populists target, and seek to destroy, the consensus based on a post-World War II sense of never again. It is built on the willingness to live in peace as nations who have not been doing that for a long time. And it is particularly, which this may be one of the most interesting questions these days, a consensus built on a respect for difference, in its commitment to equality. For many people, differences have become a key difficulty in multicultural societies. And it is a difficulty insofar as differences are conceived as group differences and the right to equality treated as a group right. As such, groupism carries the danger of informing groupist identity claims, which are necessarily exclusive, and inform intolerance rather than tolerance, and equal respect.

Instead, the commitment to universal human rights, as fundamental rights of dignity, liberty, and equality, that inspired the post-World War II consensus, is built upon a starting point of the individual. There is a challenge as well, in that one may easily fall into that other extreme of conceiving the individual as the autonomous, de facto, and stereotypically male, heterosexual, able-bodied, white subject. But this is not a necessity. In fact, constitutional law and human rights law post-1945 can be read to conceive human fundamental rights as claims of socially embedded individuals. Based on this notion of social embeddedness, rights then serve as keys to open the door toward multicultural societies beyond groupism. This requires us to respect collective identities, not carve them in stone but allow each and every one of us to move in varying contexts, commitments, and identities that matter to us.

That idea of groupism comes from the work of Brubaker who identified it as one key source of military conflicts. Groupism is the dynamics that not only appreciates group identity, but actually positions groups as oppositional and competing with each other. I take it as a rather helpful concept to understand that minority protection as the recognition and proper analytical understanding of collectivities is a wonderful idea. But it also tells us that a normative overload of group claims is a dangerous one. When we look at far-right politics in Europe these days, we see that they are driven by, and drive such collectivist group claims - the “real” French, “we” the Germans, “true” Swedes. By doing so, they create imaginary collectives that aggressively exclude “the other”. And they want all of us to engage in competing groupist claims, them on the side of the nation, us on the side of minorities. We should avoid that trap. Right-wing populism tells us that groupism is really not a good idea. And I argue that multiculturalism, and tolerant societies committed to equal liberties, do not need the group claim. Instead, and honoring the post-1945 consensus, we need to understand the claim of individuals as socially embedded in varying contexts. You may take this as an intermediate kind of third option. Rights then, are neither only individual nor only group claims but protect individuals embedded in varying contexts. This notion can normatively inform a European politics dealing with today's social makeup. And it does, properly understood. EU law, particularly the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and EU values, including the member states commitments defined in the Treaties, does that. It is a promising way to find consensus based upon that notion.

(interview continues here.)