Tocquevillian thoughts on the future of Europe

"A new political science is needed for a world altogether new"

Tocqueville, Introduction, Democracy in America

At a time when ‘instability’ has become the watchword of Europe, effecting a sense of paralysis among the institutions of Europe and their future, Tocqueville’s reflections on America and on Democracy can provide Europe with rich lessons for its development. While Tocqueville applied himself to a better understanding of democracy in the United States, his ‘world altogether new’ it was with an eye keenly fixed on the old: in reality he sought to understand the changes he believed would ultimately affect Europe. By keeping Tocqueville in mind as we look at Europe today, we might better understand the mechanisms shaping its future.


Tocqueville, a European thinker and a thinker of Europe

The French statesman was less interested in democracy, the state, or equality, than in the dynamics of how these concepts worked. As Democracy in America gathers pace, its focus on America diminishes; the reader finds that Tocqueville’s emphasis on structural dynamics belies his true concern: Europe. In contrast to the view popular amongst his contemporaries, that in America a new - separate - European society was being built, Tocqueville argued that developments in America presaged those of Europe. Democracy in America becomes the Lessons for Europe.

As the French academic Françoise Mélonio puts it, Tocqueville’s writing of history is emancipatory. He endeavoured both to discover and to shed light on the foundations of Europe’s political culture and history. His point of departure is a highly political question: how, in France - and Europe more widely, can one explain the virulence of socialist, or revolutionary, passions, and the attraction to an omnipotent state? He believes after 1848 that this European illness is chronic. ‘And here is the revolution which starts again, for it is always the same one.’ Tocqueville seeks, therefore, to explain why Revolution in France and Europe appeared so divergent in emphasis and outcome from the American experience.

His conviction was that a je-ne-sais-quoi of common essence existed which, despite its visible diversity, characterised the European continent. Löwith describes the attempts of thinking men and intellectuals - men like Tocqueville - to perceive society’s evolution as ‘the fundamental quest of the modern historical consciousness.’ Precisely what motivates Tocqueville to such an effort is the conviction that this shared essence of European societies does exist; that, through history, different peoples and different nations eventually converge to experience similar patterns, causal mechanisms, and, fate. This returns to the view that Tocqueville’s work must be understood in a European context, rather than a purely French or American one.

In a Tocquevillian perspective, we could conclude that a united Europe – though this could take different forms - is to a certain extent inevitable. Manent writes: ‘It is difficult to be the friend of democracy; it is necessary to be the friend of democracy. Here is Tocqueville’s teaching’. Just like with democracy in the revolutionary years, the current European Union might or might not be desirable; but it is there and it could not be otherwise. Tocqueville, as a member of the French parliament and Minister for Foreign Affairs, always believed in a sovereign France and an independent French foreign policy, from the Orient question to Britain’s control of maritime commercial shipping. But, he also believed that the only way out of the isolation and mediocrity following the Napoleonic wars and the 1830 revolution, was to reconnect with and reintegrate the European concert. In other words, Tocqueville would tell us today not to brutally oppose or passionately embrace the EU; but, rather, to accept it as a fait acquis and attempt to organise it.

Where do the 2016 Brexit Referendum and the, now settled, departure of Britain from the EU fit in this claim? One obvious Tocquevellian thought would be to question the truly democratic character of such a referendum - ‘tyranny of the majority’ could well apply to such a move supported by 51% of the electorate, comprising just 37% of the adult population. Instead, the real impact of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU should be placed in its wider, European context; Brexit does not mean the end of a united Europe, nor that the UK ceases to be a part of it. Whether through other institutional schemes, such as NATO, or through new partnerships yet to come, the pattern of British relations with Europe can, to a certain degree, be said still to remain one of continued interdependence.

If we further expand our analogy with democracy, we could then argue that Europe needs to carry out its unification project. Both the EU and democracy share an organising principle, and need to express it to its full extent, or otherwise risk contradicting it. Once the dynamic of equality has been initiated, it is not an option to stop half-way and establish a society where men would be equal before the law but unequal when it comes to politics, like Guizot and the Doctrinaires tried to do in France, says Tocqueville. To avoid risking confusion and anarchy – what the Greeks referred to as hybris – the process of European integration needs to be stabilised. But, like any democracy, the EU can be widely discussed in an attempt to reform it; it is here, however, that the Tocquevillian reader would suggest engaging in the discussion rather than exiting it.

Tocqueville’s analysis of his own political epoch echoes in many ways the unaccomplished nature of the European Union. ‘When I entered life, aristocracy was dead and democracy as yet unborn. My instinct, therefore, could not lead me blindly either to the one or to the other’ writes Tocqueville to his English translator Henry Reeve on 22nd March 1837. His observation is very reminiscent of the current state of the European Union: an unfinished house. What is the EU today? Not a confederation, but not a federation either.; A single market, but not a fiscal union; States sharing a Common Security and Defence policy, but no common army. And yet, however unaccomplished and unfinished the EU may be, there is no other choice, the French writer would have said, than to deal with it.

What trajectories can emerge for Europe?

Tocqueville had a holistic vision of politics and economics, and believed in the emancipation of the individual through economic freedom and development. However political was the initial project for Europe, its means were economic. The 1951 Treaty of Paris pooled together French, German, Italian, Dutch, Belgian and Luxembourgian steel and coal. The 1957 Treaty of Rome prepared the way for an integrated single market and free movement of people, like the 1986 Single Act and the introduction of the euro in 1999. Liberal economics have thus – and still do – dominated the European scenery. Would Tocqueville have supported it? Perhaps, to ‘assure to the poor man complete legal equality and comfort, which are compatible on the whole with individual rights to property and the inequalities arising therefrom’. Tocqueville’s idea in the first book of Democracy in America is that economic possibilities would help emancipate the individual, in opposition to the central planning which characterised both the Ancien Régime and the post-revolution State.

Yet, a liberal and functioning economy on its own cannot be sufficient. Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission when the euro was introduced, was concerned about establishing common structures whilst the European economies had not converged yet, and would probably have disagreed with Tocqueville. The latter would have replied to Prodi that this is not the main point. For the sole economic and industrial leaning of a society is not sufficient solely to give it a meaning, a raison d’être. This form of society would be nothing more than ‘a long routine of petty uniform acts’. The current liberal order of Europe might look dynamic and creative at the first glance, but, ‘in the end the sight of this excited community becomes monotonous, and after having watched the moving pageant for a time the spectator is tired of it’. Something is missing here.

The answer that Tocqueville would have provided to fill this gap, I suggest, is deeply political. It is a political essence. Indeed, Tocqueville is less interested in the governing factions or architecture – the form – than in what emerges from them – the content. ‘I am free from any feeling of affection or hate for the royal or imperial races, of any kind’ he writes to his agent in his electoral district, Paul Clamorgan, in December 1848. He is more direct with H. Reeve: ‘My critics insist upon making me out a party-man; but I am not that. Passions are attributed to me where I have only opinions; or rather I have but one opinion, an enthusiasm for liberty and for the dignity of the human race’ (24th July 1837). Would Tocqueville have supported a Christian-Democrat Europe with Adenauer and Schuman; a liberal construction with Verhofstadt today; a ‘social Europe’ in the words of a popular expression in today’s EU politics?

Above all, Tocqueville would have supported a political Europe. A political Europe, naturally, implies political participation. As Siedentop shows, Tocqueville tries to conceive a State which would join the civil liberties underlying a market economy with the disciplines of political participation. Only in this way could individualism, the narrowest economic rationality, be contained in modern democratic societies and limit the privatising of life. Political participation is thus more than a right, it is a necessity; something that the European elections and their very low turnout since 1979 fail to demonstrate. One danger that Tocqueville foresees is the institutional shift from one political arena (the Westphalian nation-state) to an upper level (the European Union), unaccompanied by a corresponding and substantial shift of political attention. If political participation is determined by the civic involvement of citizens, what is necessary is to have an accessible arena where this involvement can be fulfilled.

Justly, Tocqueville warned us against the emergence of a highly-centralised and bureaucratic state – hard-line Brexiters would call this ‘Brussels’. Tocqueville, a statesman, a writer, was also a rigorous historian, prone to the close analysis of empirical sources; he surely would have pointed out that the European Commission and its 32,000 staff members, covering 500 million EU citizens, pales in comparison to the 1,3 million people making up the NHS workforce in Britain. Still, the argument remains that ‘For long the Government had suffered from an evil, which is like an incurable and natural malady of forces, which had undertaken to command all, to foresee all, and do all. It had become responsible for all’. I would think that Tocqueville would have argued in favour of a dual dynamic within the EU: more decentralisation from and more popular representation at the EU level.

Tocqueville’s aristocratic background certainly impacted his views on decentralisation. This background already forms the matrix of his approach to European history: the revolutions across the continent failed to get rid of the embedded aristocratic culture of the continent, but the emergence of post-revolutionary democratic cultures clashed with aristocratic values. What could these values be? Local autonomy, says Tocqueville; the attachment to the land. Hence the attachment to a decentralised political organisation, which would leave as much autonomy as necessary to local structures.

The issue of organising Parliament is also important. As far as representation is concerned, another influence on Tocqueville was Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748). The Enlightenment philosopher, in his concept of the separation of powers, adopted a horizontal approach to power but failed to tackle the vertical dimension of political institutions; power, whilst being checked, being concentrated in one place. Most importantly, a Tocquevillian analysis of Parliament could conclude in a need for institutional reconfiguration, towards bicameralism. The lower chamber, as of today, would be composed of directly elected members. The upper chamber would, in this reconfiguration, represent the Member States, on the model of the German Bundesrat.

A reform of the European Parliament could lead to a redistribution of powers within the European institutions. It could reasonably lead to a diminished role for the European Council. On this note, Tocqueville sent an interesting letter to his friend – who eventually accompanied him in his trip to America – Gustave de Beaumont, on 5th October 1828: ‘In the organisation of a nation one must avoid two disadvantages; either the whole power of society is united at one point, or it is distributed in its parts. When power is distributed, the capability of acting is obviously hindered, but resistance is everywhere’. What we conclude from the letter, is that Tocqueville is in favour of decentralisation indeed; but he is also against the political blockages that too much decentralisation could produce – think of Belgium during the CETA negotiations. The advantage of a reformed European parliament would then be to reduce the potentially damaging effects of veto rights in the Council.

Nonetheless, an increased politicisation and political participation within the European Union could not be conceivable without a changed role for EU citizens. Tocqueville’s experience of America led him to believe strongly in the uniqueness of institutions for each society, but also in the singularity and importance of individual and collective customs. ‘Nothing is possible without men, but nothing lasts without institutions’ famously said Europe’s architect Jean Monnet: Tocqueville would rather stress the first part of the quote, in a more Adenauer-like ‘Democracy needs democrats’. His conception of society is that of a liberal with Christian ethics; in other words, his vision of citizenship is very much of an active citizenry, based both on freedoms and duties, for the lack of duties would atomise society, fuel a rampant individualism and eventually jeopardise individual liberty. Here is the main problem with EU citizenship, from a Tocquevillian point of view: it creates rights but no duties. EU citizens have for instance the right to convoke EU treaties before a national court to bring a claim (ECJ, Van Gen den Loos, 1963). But, in the absence of direct EU tax, conscription, etc. what obligations are there?


This, perhaps, is a theme in Tocqueville’s work which has received less attention, for it sheds light on an inconvenient truth: in modern society, trade has replaced war as a means of exchange between nations and people, and has led to a general softening of habits and morals. The ‘gentleness of heart’ means that modern Europeans prove to be incapable of making History. Tocqueville writes here against the sheer nationalism that eventually torn Europe apart. But he also argues that patriotism is not limited to one’s birthland; rather, it can be embodied in a common set of laws and values. ‘It is perhaps less generous and less ardent, but it is more fruitful and more lasting’. Moreover, it should be embodied in these common values, as a way of combating the isolation of the individual in modern society. On this point, Tocqueville wonders, in The Old Regime and the Revolution, what could explain a common institutional framework all across Europe, and answers that it was built ‘by excluding all others’. It sheds light on a crucial strength of the European Union as we know it today and in the midst of its political difficulties. The ‘gentleness of heart’ of Europe, to a large extent, has prevented it from delivering any hard power in the world’s recent crises where it could have proven needed. Yet, when it has been successful in translating its shared values into concrete political action or legislation, it has diffused decisive soft power. For example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), protecting private data in Europe and promoting a very European vision of digital privacy, in contrast with American and Chinese viewpoints, has today become a de facto global reference on the matter. Here is perhaps what Tocqueville would have wished for Europe today: that it be not afraid of building a third, its own way, in a multi-polar world.


1. Tocqueville was a member of Parliament for La Manche between 1839 and 1851, a conseiller général for the same département between 1842 and 1852, and briefly Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1849.

2. Mélonio, Françoise. Alexis de Tocqueville (Paris: ADPF, 2006), 71.

3. Souvenirs, in Œuvres, t.3, p.780.

4. Löwith, Karl. Meaning in History (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1949), 227.

5. Manent, Pierre. Tocqueville et la nature de la démocratie (Paris: Gallimard, 1993), 177.

6. Hereth, Michael. Tocqueville: Threats to Freedom in Democracy (Durham: Duke University Press, 1986), 122.

7. Democracy in America, Book 3, chapter 17.

8. Siedentop, Larry. Tocqueville (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 1994), 140.

9. European Commission, Last accessed 14 February 2020.

10. NHS, Last accessed 14 February 2020.

11. L’Ancien regime et la revolution, t. II, p. 2.

12. Democracy in America, Book 1, chapter 6.


Hereth, Michael. Tocqueville: Threats to Freedom in Democracy. Durham: Duke University Press, 1986.

Löwith, Karl. Meaning in History. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1949.

Manent, Pierre. Tocqueville et la nature de la démocratie. Paris: Gallimard, 1993.

Mélonio, Françoise. Alexis de Tocqueville. Paris: ADPF, 2006.

Siedentop, Larry. Tocqueville. Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 1994.

Tocqueville, Alexis (de). Souvenirs. Paris: Gallimard, 1978.

Tocqueville, Alexis (de). L’Ancien régime et la Révolution. Paris: Gallimard, 1985.

Tocqueville, Alexis (de). De la démocratie en Amérique. Paris: Flammarion, 2010.

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