The Crisis of the European Union: A Response

Habermas, Jürgen (2012), Malden MA & Cambridge: Polity Press, £16.99, 120pp

This incisive collection of Habermas’ recent writings provides a constructive exploration of a range of increasingly urgent problems faced by the European project and the international community at large. What is perhaps most striking, especially when contrasted with the sense of panic and doom that pervades much contemporary writing on the subject, is the calm and measured way in which Habermas deals with such weighty issues, proposing and analyzing long-term solutions to the problems we face. The collection is notable for its breadth and depth, and is permeated throughout by a sense of rare wisdom. Structured in three parts, it begins with an essay on the constitution of Europe, which leads into a second piece on human rights, before concluding with an appendix that contains a small collection of Habermas’ recent interventions on the current economic crisis.

Starting with an essay on the European constitution, there is an examination of the internal problems facing Europe, which is complemented by a discussion of its changing role on the world stage. In terms of the former, Habermas’ advocacy for the European project will perhaps come as no surprise, and here he makes a pervasive and impassioned argument for further integration, building his case around the democratic imperative that is beginning to emerge as a product of the contrast between popular rejection of and participation in the European project. The choice we face is thus between a post-democratic model, in which Europe’s future is decided by a small and remote political elite, and forging a system of transitional democracy that fosters popular engagement as part of a supranational decision-making process.

Habermas’ argument leads us through a considerable amount of low-level legal detail regarding the structure of the European Union, detail which will no doubt be unfamiliar to those who have not yet taken the time to acquaint themselves with the EU institutions and their workings. This, however, is a curious point, and one that in a certain sense is symptomatic of the problem of encouraging democratic participation in a project, which — as Habermas himself openly acknowledges further on in the book — has deliberately been developed at arm’s length from the democratic interference of the nation state, among a community of citizens that show neither the patience nor interest to get to grips with what after all still remain far-removed and abstract juridico-political concepts.

Yet it looks increasingly likely that history will not give us the luxury of such a choice and will instead force our hand. As explained by Habermas, it is hard to see how the European project can succeed without further developing a transnational model of democracy, and therein lies the second major theme of this essay: how global events in the twenty-first century will largely render such a course of development inevitable in the longer term, regardless of the outcome in the short term. Ours is a world in which many of the problems we face are simply too large to tackle at the level of the nation state (i.e. environmental issues that require a coordinated global response and the financial markets, which now lie beyond the control of national governments). However, in this respect, Habermas expresses concern that we lack both the political institutions to facilitate such coordination and the will and vision needed to create them. In this context he makes a compelling argument that Europe’s best chances of long-term prosperity, alongside the survival of its cultural wealth and values, lie in its nations coming together to support each other as part of a reinforced supranational community, and not in the pursuit of narrow-minded national interests, however justifiable these might appear to be in the short term.

Moving on to the second essay, Habermas goes on to expand upon his ideas regarding the international community, taking the ‘realistic utopia’ of human rights as a case in point. The bulk of this essay concerns the noble vision of a new world order based on global cooperation, in which human rights would “anchor the ideal of a just society in the institutions of constitutional states”. The term ‘world society’ appears frequently and while, read elsewhere, readers would perhaps balk at such a prospect, with the very mention of the term wont to set alarm bells ringing in the minds of conspiracy theory aficionados, it is hard to find anything sinister about the points made here. On the contrary, it becomes clear that the scope and scale of the problems we are currently facing will require new institutions and powers at an international level, most probably achieved by building on the United Nations framework, propending existing bodies to tackle these challenges and perhaps also developing new ones. Yet Habermas sounds a note of caution, showing an explicit concern for the danger that these institutions and their legitimacy may be hi-jacked for the promotion of partisan (here read Western) interests, and in this respect he takes pains to censure the ‘imperialistic misuse’ of human rights.

One interesting aspect to emerge from this essay is a critique of neoliberalism, an ideology primarily driven by US and UK interests — although Habermas notes it nonetheless put down firm roots in continental Europe too — for having foregrounded so-called ‘liberal’ human rights at the expense of three other, equally important categories (democratic, social and cultural). In the grand scheme of the essay, this is perhaps only a minor point, however it does provide an insightful framework for redressing the imbalance that lies at the heart of the West’s failing societies.

The final part of the book is also notable for building on the critique of neoliberalism found in the previous section and contains what must surely rank among some of the most clear-sighted writings on the unfolding financial crisis. In an interpretation of events whose popularity is rapidly gaining momentum, Habermas traces the roots of current problems to the rise of neoliberal ideologies and the ‘fatal triumphalism’ that the West succumbed to after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “The feeling of being among the winners of world history is seductive,” he notes, pointing out that “in this case it inflated a theory of economic policy into a worldview permeating all areas of life”. On this count, Habermas views our political classes and leaders as standing guilty as charged, having been all too happy to reap the rewards of irresponsible speculation so long as they remained in their favour.

There is a recurring theme of inertia, not just in this book, but increasingly in other writings on the turn global events are taking. Compounded by the modern media, with its inherent short-termism and penchant for revenue-generating trends, ours has become an era of politicking and technocratic management with a striking lack of courage and vision among those who pretend to lead us.

The fact that we are reaching a fin-de-siècle is clearly reflected in this book’s sense of impending change: a prescient and awakening awareness that our generation will witness a significant shift in the tectonic plates of global politics. In Habermas’ words, we stand on the threshold between the ‘centralized universalism’ of the great empires of yesteryear and the dawn of a ‘decentralized universalism’ founded on ‘equal respect for everyone’. Yet for all the utopian promise inherent in these words, there is something portentous in the thought that circumstances have outgrown the institutions set up to control them in the aftermath of the Second World War, a conflict, lest we forget, precipitated by a crisis whose scope and magnitude were not dissimilar to — perhaps even lesser than — the storm clouds gathering on the horizon.
Christopher Sharpe