Habermas' solution to the euro-crisis
08.06.12 @ 09:23
The Crisis of the European Union: A Response. By Juergen Habermas, translated by Ciaran Cronin. Polity Press, 2012; 140 pages; €19.80 at Wiley
After two years of brinkmanship and eurozone firefighting, EU leaders are about to go back to the drawing board to devise a long-term plan on where the eurozone should go, from a monetary to a political and fiscal union. It is against this political backdrop that one of the most authoritative contemporary philosophers, Juergen Habermas, writes his book, The Crisis of the European Union: A Response.
Originally published in 2011 in German with the English translation published in April this year, Habermas' "response" to the European crisis calls for more democratic legitimacy of EU institutions and less behind-closed-doors decision-making by national leaders under narrow domestic pressures.
Recalling the key moment in 2010 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel delayed a decision on the first Greek bailout until after regional elections in her country, Habermas writes: "This was when the realisation hit home to me for the first time that the failure of the European project was a real possibility."
The Merkel-Sarkozy tandem that was responsible for most of the eurozone decisions took the EU project in a direction different to what the German philosopher wants for the Union. Following the enlightenment tradition of Immanuel Kant, Habermas envisions a world of cosmopolitan citizens giving legitimacy to a multilevel political system - national, European and global.
Instead, the two leaders moved towards a form of inter-governmentalism which is at odds with the federalist goals of the EU treaty. Habermas writes: "Such a regime of central steering by the European Council would enable them to transfer the imperatives of the markets to the national budgets. This would involve using threats of sanctions and pressure on disempowered national parliaments to enforce non-transparent and informal agreements."
The alternative is "to continue the democratic legal domestication of the European Union in a consistent way." In his view, "the construction flaw of the monetary union cannot be rectified without a revision of the treaty."
His advice to the leaders is to abandon their piecemeal approach "steered by experts" and go for an honest and "risky" struggle with the wider public.
Habermas argues that the eurosceptic argument that supranational structures - such as the EU - lack democratic legitimacy does not hold as long as the "peoples" of Europe are directly involved and consulted through parliamentary elections and referendums on all matters decided at that level. And as he points out, one has to distinguish between "popular sovereignty" and "state sovereignty" - two concepts which are often blurred among liberal and conservative critics alike.
The "shared sovereignty" between nation states and the EU, enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, goes back to the same citizens who on the one hand want their national governments to account for domestic policies - while the broader issues - pollution, product standards, transport - are to be dealt with at EU level. But as Habermas explains, the EU political structure set up to govern in this shared sovereignty is flawed. There is no "symmetric relation" in the functions and competences of the three main bodies: the European Parliament, the EU commission and the Council of ministers.
Firstly, there is no unified electoral law for the European Parliament - in some countries, MEPs are elected directly while others are elected through party lists.
And secondly, as Habermas writes: "[T]he European Council, which is the second in the list of organs after the Parliament in the Lisbon Treaty, is a complete anomaly. As the seat of the inter-governmental political authority of the heads of governments, it is - even more so than the Council of ministers - the real counterweight to the Parliament, whereas its relationship to the Commission, which is supposed to see itself as the custodian of the interests of the Community, remains unclear."
Even if the proper checks and balances were put in place, the most important element in the success of the EU remains its citizenry, which has been overlooked. Communication within civil society can only take place "as the national public spheres gradually open themselves up to each other," Habermas writes.
"The trans-nationalisation of the existing national publics does not call for different news media, but instead for a different practice on the part of the existing leading media. Not only must the latter thematise and address European issues as such, but they must at the same time report on the political positions and controversies which the same topics evoke in other member states."
Labour immigration, mass tourism and internet are all contributing to make borders irrelevant. With citizens in several countries - namely, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, but also Spain and Italy - feeling the brunt of decisions taken at the EU level in their daily lives, one can only hope they will be encouraged and become engaged in EU politics.
Valentina Pop is a staff journalist at the EUobserver, covering economic affairs and the eurozone crisis, and a monthly guest political commentator for the Brussels-based talk show "Inside Bruessel" produced by Austrian TV broadcaster, ORF.