Jürgen Habermas: democracy is at stake

The Eurozone crisis has raised calls for greater political integration of the EU. However, sociologist Jürgen Habermas argues that the tactics adopted by European leaders have sidelined what should be their main priority: the well-being of citizens, established within a democratic framework.

Published on 27 October 2011 at 07:41

In the short term, the crisis will require careful attention from Europe’s political actors. But above and beyond this effort, they should not neglect the problem of fundamental weaknesses in the structure of the monetary union that can only be resolved by the development of an adequate political union: the EU does not have the necessary remit to harmonise national economies, which are marked by drastic divergences in their capacity to compete.

The "pact for Europe" that has recently been reinforced has only served to aggravate a long-standing problem: non-binding agreements in the circle of government leaders are either ineffective or anti-democratic, and it is for this reason that they should be replaced by common decisions taken in a clearly defined institutional framework.

The German federal government has become the catalyst for the increasing dissolution of solidarity in Europe, because it has spent too long ignoring the single constructive issue that Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has laconically described as the issue of "More Europe".

All of the governments concerned have found that they are unable to deal with a dilemma posed by the need to address the imperatives of major banks and rating agencies and their fear of a loss of legitimacy that will deprive them of the support of their frustrated populations. And the scatterbrained incrementalism of their response is a testament to their lack of a wider perspective.

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The financial crisis that has been ongoing since 2008 has stalled the mechanism for the funding of states that relies on payment by future generations; and while we await a solution to this problem, it appears unlikely that austerity packages that are difficult to implement on the level of internal politics can be reconciled with the maintenance of an acceptable level of state services.

Given the weight of these problems, we should expect that politicians would be willing, without delay and without imposing conditions, to put their European cards on the table so as to rapidly raise awareness among the population of the relationship between the short-term costs and the real usefulness of the European project, that is to say from a historical perspective.

Democratic rights as citizens of the EU

But instead of adopting this strategy, they have flirted with a populism that they themselves have nourished by casting a veil over a complex and unpopular issue. On the threshold of the economic and political unification of Europe, politics has decided to hold its breath and refrain from sticking its neck out.

Why the paralysis? It has been prompted by a perspective that remains bogged down in the 19th century which privileges the reponse of the demos: there is no European people, and that is why a political union worthy of the name will necessarily be built on sand. I would like to propose an alternative to this interpretation: sustained political fragmentation in the world and in Europe is in contradiction to the systemic growth of a global multi-cultural society, and an insurmountable obstacle to any progress in the development better relationships between state powers and social powers in judicial and constitutional civilisation.

The fact that the EU has to date been advanced and monopolised by political elites has resulted in a dangerous assymmetry — between the democratic participation of peoples in the benefits their governments "obtain" for themselves in the faraway arena of Brussels, and the indifference, or even the absence of participation on the part of the citizens of the EU, with regard to the decisions of their Parliament in Strasbourg.

This observation does not justify the attribution of a more substantial role to "peoples". Right-wing populism is alone in its continued projection of national subjectivities that are closed to each other and an effective obstacle to any project that traverses national borders.

As national populations become aware of the degree to which EU decisions exert an influence on their daily lives, and as this awareness is relayed by the media, they will also become aware of their interest in exercising their democratic rights as citizens of the EU.

Economic and social convergence

This factor has been made tangible by the euro crisis. At the same time, the crisis has forced the European Council to take decisions that will exert an uneven weight on national budgets.

Since 8 May, 2009, it has crossed a new threshold with its decisions on bailouts and possible debt restructuring, as well as with its declarations of intention with regard to harmonisation in all fields relating to competition (economic, fiscal, labour, and social and cultural policies).

The crossing of this threshold has raised issues concerning the fair distribution of burdens and responsibilities. In line with this development, the citizens of member states, who are forced to contend with changes that result from the transferring of burdens across national borders, will want to exercise a democratic influence, in their role of citizens of the EU, on what their government leaders negotiate or decide in a space that is a legal grey area.

But this has not happened. Instead we have seen governments indulge in dilatory tactics, and a largely populist rejection of all aspects of the European project on the part of populations. This self-destructive behaviour has been prompted by the fact that political elites and the media have been reluctant to acknowledge the impact of the constitutional project on the current situation.

Under pressure from the financial markets, the conviction that a significant economic aspect of the constitutional project was overlooked when the euro was introduced has now been accepted. The EU can only stand up to financial speculation if it obtains the necessary political remit that will enable it to guarantee economic and social convergence in the heart of Europe — that is to say in Eurozone countries.

Sharing of burdens and responsibilities

All of those involved are aware that such a degree of "reinforced cooperation" is not possible within the framework of existing treaties. The consequence of common "economic government", and it is one that appeals to the German government, is that the central requirement for competitiveness in all of the countries of the European Union will go beyond economic and financial policies that inform national budgets, but will that it will also, and here we are striking at the heart of the matter, relativise the budgetary prerogative of national parliaments.

If we are to avoid the flagrant flouting of current legislation, this overdue reform will only be made possible by a transfer of some level of political remit from member states to the EU. However, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have agreed a compromise between German economic liberalism and French statism that flies in the face of these considerations.

If my impression is correct, they are seeking to replace the executive federalism implied in the Lisbon Treaty with an intergovernmental domination of the European Council that is contrary to the terms of the treaty — a regime that would allow for the projection of market imperatives onto national budgets without any specific democratic legitimation.

In so doing, heads of government are transforming the European project into its opposite: the first democratically legalised supranational community will be transformed into an effective arrangement that results in non-transparent post-democratic domination. The alternative to this outcome is the aggressive continuation of the drive for a democratically legalised EU. And with this in mind, it should be noted that a solidarity of citizens in Europe can only develop in the absence of a consolidation of social inequalities between rich and poor nations.

The European Union must guarantee what the fundamental law of the German Federal Republic describes (article 106, paragraph 2) as "the homogeneity of living conditions". This "homogeneity" only refers to social conditions that are deemed to be fair in terms of the sharing of burdens and responsibilities: it does not imply an end to cultural difference. Political integration based on social well-being is necessary to protect the national plurality and cultural wealth of the "Old Europe" biotope from the increasing standardisation implied by globalisation.

This article is an excerpt from an essay by Jürgen Habermas entitled “On Europe's Constitution - An Essay", Suhrkamp, 2011, and to published in English by Polity

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