The future of the left since 1884

Habermas’ “The Crisis of the European Union: A Response”

In modern societies 'debt' refers to an economic relationship of incomplete exchange, based on the expectation that it will, at some point, be closed through repayment. As this relationship extends indefinitely into the future the institution of debt is intimately...


In modern societies ‘debt’ refers to an economic relationship of incomplete exchange, based on the expectation that it will, at some point, be closed through repayment. As this relationship extends indefinitely into the future the institution of debt is intimately related to credit, from the Latin credere, to believe.

This logic of belief, trust and confidence applies at the level of whole economies. When properly functioning, markets institutionalise the value of trust such that unknown economic actors can work together productively. But as the banking crisis of 2008 illustrated vividly, when belief falls away on an institutional scale, the systemic implications are potentially destructive. As Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England noted in a recent speech:

…credit crunch is, in essence, a breakdown in trust. Between different partiesat different times, that loss of trust has been the root cause of the devastating impact felt globally since the credit crunch began

To return to debt, as well as an asymmetry in numbers it is also a social relationship. When the status of incomplete exchange is posed in terminal risk, hierarchies between those demanding repayment and those unable or unwilling to do so become entrenched and power inequalities deepen.

The eurozone has illustrated this interaction of economic and social in a situation which, as Jugen Habermas’ book on the crisis notes, has assumed an “existential” importance. The question this collection poses is a simple but pertinent one: do we still believe in the capacity of the EU to provide solutions to Europe’s common problems? Habermas’ answer is unequivocal, but the ambition of his response may serve to underscore the scale of the task member states face if they are to rekindle the sentiments that lead to ‘ever closer union’.

In this new work Habermas advocates an extension of the integration process into a higher phase of completion. Only by doing so, he argues, can the EU escape the present impasse and protect the considerable social achievements it has secured hitherto. From this, one might reasonably conclude that Habermas is on the side of those who look upon anti-Europeanism as an aberration, and in one sense this is correct. The Crisis is disparaging of eurosceptic “political defeatism”, which in a globalised world of cross-border threats (financial, ecological, security-based) irrationally denies the deficiencies of the nation state in serving citizens. Yet the fiercest criticism is reserved for what we might call the ‘Merkozy’ tendency in the EU: the “panic-stricken incrementalism” of Europe’s political elites, whose bureaucratic management of intergovernmental affairs through the European Council is eroding the union’s democratic bases of participation and consent.

The remedy offered here is not new – Habermas has advocated it for almost twenty years – but one that has been revived by financial collapse. In a technical and lengthy opening survey which forms the main body of the text, this ‘Constitution for Europe’ on the model of the unratified Constitutional Treaty of 2004, is defended by deductive turns: where the imbalance between the efficacy of national policy and a complex global economy reaches our current levels, it follows “from the normative meaning of democracy itself” that popular sovereignty should be ”transnationalised”. The EU offers the arena for this transnational form governance modelled not on federalism, but held together by a ‘constitutional patriotism’ .

There are a number of potential objections that are hinted at but left largely unexplored. For example, it is unclear why Habermas’ model would no more replicate the EU’s much maligned democratic deficit than our existing set up. And at times it is difficult to see how the solutions offered by Habermas move the debate forward: the long-standing call for a strengthened European Parliament; a media that reports, rather than subverts, the potential for a shared European future. Happily for an author who once attacked the Lisbon Treaty for failing to address these issues, he now thinks this agreement completes “the longest stage of the journey” towards settling the EU’s legitimacy issues.

In the present context, however, Habermas’ vision of transnational popular sovereignty requires something else, his discussion of which highlights where the potential value of this book lies. That is, if democratic will formation is to extend beyond the nation state towards the cosmopolitan community, so too will solidarity between citizens of Europe:

“Civic solidarity would have to include the members of each of the other European peoples – from the German perspective, for example the Greeks when they are subjected to internationally imposed…austerity measures”

The metric of solidarity is trust, but as the eurozone remains locked in what Angela Merkel last year referred to as the continent’s greatest challenge since the Second World War, this value has been replaced by suspicion. That the policy prescription which institutionalises trust between members – Eurobonds – has been ruled out is symptomatic of a familiar and unproductive mentality: Merkel informing France it will not revise the EU fiscal pact; Alexis Tsipras announcing his country’s bailout deal invalid by popular fiat; Cameron pledging to ‘repatriate’ British powers, and so on and so on. Regrettably, the trust on which European solidarity was founded in 1957 is eroding under the weight of crisis, and if solidarity remains it would appear to be of the hollowed out kind that unites creditor and debtor.

These difficult and pertinent issues are explored further in the closing and, for the general reader, perhaps most enjoyable section of this work, in an interview translated from the original with the German weekly Die Zeit. Facilitating a more discursive approach to the causes and future of the financial crisis, here a more reflective and humane author emerges in contrast to the legalised essayist found on earlier pages. Issues including the cultural manifestations of neoliberalism are of particular interest here in what forms an eddying survey in broad, historical strokes.

The centrifugal point in this analysis is again contemporary European affairs, and readers will judge for themselves the merit of Habermas’ proposals for a politics of the left beyond philosophies of the third way which have “run their course”: ”In democracy there are some public goods…which cannot be tailored to the profit expectations of financial investors”:

What worries me most is the scandalous social injustice that the most vulnerable social groups will have to bear the brunt of the socialized cost for the market failure…they will not pay in money values but in the hard currency of their daily existence

Can Europe hope to move beyond the obligations of debt to the solidarity required by the transnational community? The contrasting in tone between the first and final sections of this work suggest Habermas remains keenly aware of how ubiquitous instrumental rationality is in this respect, and the scale of the challenge it poses. The cultural map to getting there may be more interesting to readers than the policy mechanics it involves. Nevertheless, The Crisis’ demand for a politicised and democratised Europe is a welcome tonic to an event currently marked by its lack of vision.


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