Mark Collins – European Union? Dream, Dream, Dream

At the NY Review of Books (full text subscriber only):

The Vanishing Europe of Jürgen Habermas
Jeremy Waldron

The Lure of Technocracy by Jürgen Habermas, translated from the German by Ciaran Cronin…

…German philosopher Jürgen Habermas [more here]…[has been] Long regarded as Europe’s leading public intellectual…

…his main concern in this book is with the future of democracy in Europe. Most European countries are democratic. Indeed, among the members of the European Union are some of the most respected democracies in the world. They have free and fair elections; they are open societies with free speech and freedom of association; and their officials can be counted on to carry out the laws that their elected representatives vote for. But can we say the same about the EU itself? It is supposed to be democratic: Article 10 of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty [more here] stipulates that “the functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy.”

But the EU’s functioning falls well short of this. Of its major institutions only the European Parliament has any direct elective credentials; and it has the least power. In The Lure of Technocracy, Habermas says that the Parliament “is supposed to establish a bridge between the political battles of opinions in the national arenas and the momentous decisions taken in Brussels.” But, he laments, “there is hardly any traffic on this bridge.” As for the other institutions, the best one can say is that the Council of Ministers (together with the commission that implements the council’s decisions) derives its legitimacy from the ministers’ credentials in their respective home democracies.

Does the EU need to be democratic? It is not a state like France or Ireland. But the measures adopted by the commission and the Council of Ministers increasingly constrain the policies of the member states so that the democratic failings of the EU threaten to compromise democratic governance at the national level too. Things happen in Britain and Poland—involving maximum working hours, for example, or aspects of immigration policy—because of decisions made in Brussels rather than because of anything that British or Polish citizens have voted for or for which their politicians can be held accountable.

Some political scientists believe that this talk of a “democratic deficit” in the European Union’s institutions is exaggerated or that it doesn’t really matter.2 Not Habermas. His view is that the EU was undemocratic in its inception and that the democratic deficit grows larger every day. And it is hard to think of a modern political philosopher who cares more about democracy or its absence…

If democracy is so important, then why not treat the undemocratic character of the EU as a ground for Euroskepticism? Why not scramble back to “the reliable shelter of the nation-state,” where at least something like democratic governance is available? Britain may well try to do this in the referendum on EU membership that David Cameron has promised in the next two years. And some of Habermas’s comrades on the German left take this position too.

The answer, for Habermas, is that particular nations no longer have the sort of control of their own destiny that would make this reversion worthwhile. “It is counterproductive,” he says, “to cling to the state-centered tradition of modern political thought.” Embedded capitalism—the version that located major capitalist industries within the economies and legal systems of particular countries—has, Habermas argues, run its course and globalized markets are outstripping national politics. Financial markets cannot be mastered by particular sovereign states. If all our faith is invested in national-level democracy, then we will forfeit democratic control of many of our most important economic decisions.

…there remains a stumbling block: How can there possibly be democratic decision-making in Europe if there is no European demos? As things stand, public opinion in Europe remains thoroughly immured in the politics of the twenty-eight member states. The citizens whom Habermas is urging to think like Europeans read their own national newspapers, they form political parties in their own countries, and they are extremely sensitive about aspects of EU policy that involve redistribution of resources, opportunities, or burdens across national boundaries. The recent crises over responsibility for asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East foundering in their boats in the Mediterranean—and facing fences and other barriers on the European mainland—are but one example.

Habermas cannot afford to flinch from this difficulty. If anything, the problems that Europhobes point to are deepened by his political philosophy. For his model of democracy requires above all a public whose members talk to one another, whose “national public spheres gradually open themselves up to each other,” from Portugal to Poland and from Ireland to Greece. Quite apart from linguistic and cultural difficulties (about which he does not say nearly enough), what he calls “the transnationalization of the existing national publics” will have to involve interest groups and parties organized at the European level, and activists and intellectuals (like himself) with what he calls a pan-European profile. Newspapers and television channels will have to “thematize…European issues as such” and if they are national media they will have to report on the “controversies which the same topics evoke in other member states.”

Not only that, but Europeans need to form themselves into a political community whose “members…can feel responsibility for one another.” Habermas believes this is a matter of transforming one “we-perspective” into another…

…Sometimes he suggests that European identity might be sharpened by a sort of tepid anti-Americanism. In an essay cosigned by Jacques Derrida, Habermas cited “February 15, 2003,” the day on which tens of thousands of people in London, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, and Paris protested the invasion of Iraq in some of the largest demonstrations seen since the end of World War II, as the harbinger of “the birth of a European public.”

This seems to me rather thin…

Indeed.  Dreaming:

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


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