Continental drift

The Crisis of the European Union, by Jürgen Habermas, translated by Ciaran Cronin, Polity Press, RRP£16.99, 140 pages

Month by month, Europe’s sovereign debt crisis pushes politicians, central bankers and other policy makers into one set of extraordinary measures after another. Their overriding purpose is to save the euro and Europe’s financial system. Yet these measures hold the potential to transform the European Union’s political and institutional landscape. A more closely integrated Europe is taking shape – even if, for the foreseeable future, it may be limited to the 17 nations that share the euro.

The problem identified by Jürgen Habermas is that this is happening without the involvement or even awareness of much of the public. Political leaders, each guided by the interests of his or her nation as much as by the general European interest, are keeping citizens out of the picture. If indeed they are uniting Europe, they are doing so on “an arrangement for exercising a kind of post-democratic, bureaucratic rule”, Habermas warns in The Crisis of the European Union.

“Today the process of European unification, which was conducted above the heads of the population from the very beginning, has reached an impasse because it cannot proceed further without being switched from the established administrative mode to one involving increased popular participation. Instead of acknowledging this, the political elites are burying their heads in the sand. They are persisting unapologetically in their elite project and the disenfranchisement of the European citizens,” he writes.

For Habermas, this is cause for bitter dismay. Now 82, he has been for four decades one of Europe’s most prominent intellectuals, a social and political theorist of the highest standing. The exact opposite of a eurosceptic, he contends that globalisation is exhausting the function of traditional nation-states. In his view, the EU, whatever its flaws, is the best example of the type of supranational entity needed to meet cross-border challenges such as climate change and financial upheaval.

His book, a collection of essays and newspaper articles already published in Germany, will at times be hard work for a native English speaker: the density of German political thought can be a translator’s nightmare. Yet his basic ideas are not so difficult to grasp.

The EU, Habermas says, is remarkable for two innovations. Like other sovereign countries, its states monopolise the use of legitimate force – but they have willingly subordinated themselves to supranational EU law. Moreover, EU treaties establish that sovereignty is shared among the people of Europe in their dual guises as EU citizens and members of their own nations.

These innovations provide a promising foundation for a pan-European democratic community. The next step, as he sees it, will be to turn the world into a “supranational association of citizens and peoples”. The UN is to be transformed into a “politically constituted community of states and citizens”, carrying out peacekeeping duties and promoting human rights.

To most ears, all this will sound hopelessly utopian. But Habermas knows that a world government is today neither desirable nor feasible; he merely makes the point that although we may not know how to create a peaceful world of free and equal citizens, we should not give up on the idea.

Habermas denounces German politicians for failing to seize the debt crisis to inspire voters with a vision of European unity. He dismisses Angela Merkel as “a hard-nosed lobbyist” for German national interests with one eye fixed on poll ratings. “Popular opinion established by opinion polls is not the same thing as the outcome of a public deliberative process leading to the formation of a democratic will,” he comments acidly.

Some of these criticisms seem harsh. After all, Merkel and her government have kept the euro alive and defended the cause of European unity. Still, in pinpointing the lack of democratic participation, Habermas builds a case that Europe’s leaders will sooner or later have to answer.

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor

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