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November 28, 2011 12:45 PM   Subscribe

"The political elite have actually no interest in explaining to the people that important decisions are made in Strasbourg; they are only afraid of losing their own power." Jürgen Habermas on the crisis of the European project and how it could be overcome.
posted by daniel_charms (29 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
It is ironic that people are now complaining about how Democracy is being reduced now that a hard currency is causing economic problems for Greece and other weak European economies.

Had there been a vote on whether or not to enter the Euro in Germany the currency would never have happened.

Where were the people complaining about the loss of democracy then?

Where were intellectuals when the Maastricht was rejected?

Once the European project extended beyond a free trade zone it has had a chronic lack of democratic legitimacy. Complaining about it now is far too late.
posted by sien at 1:29 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thanks, encouraging to read about such a major public intellectual asking the right questions. Would have liked more Habermas and a bit less scene-setting colour from the journo, though. Just had a poke about and doesn't seem to be any video or audio of him speaking, though found the Goethe Institute event page and similar. Did come across this excerpted translation of the essay/'booklet' mentioned in the OP link.
posted by Abiezer at 1:33 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Habermas isn't concerned with the democratic legitimacy of the EU as mediated by individual EU states and their legitimacy, rather its legitimacy with regard to the seeming lack of an EU demos (or people, or public sphere, or thereabouts) itself. That's not anything that the individual states could really change at will. But it's clear that they could have done more, as could the media, to inform and to encourage. The reality of an EU public still seems so far away in most cases.

The EU faces a crisis because the rationality of money is so starkly defining our world, while conversely the connection between the EU and its public is so poor. Most states in the modern era have been extensions of money, its power and rationality, even if only to make up for its shortcomings. At the moment the EU seems only to be responding to money. It's a transformational moment: whether we look to existing states to solve this disconnect and abandon the EU, or we see ourselves as the other half of the equation and demand that the EU responds to us, at least in so far as existing states to their publics. We probably couldn't really manage such a huge transformation without a crisis, even though the crisis seems like the worst time to do it.
posted by Jehan at 1:50 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


...The crux of his argument can be summed up in this sentence: “The European Union should be seen as a first decisive step toward a politically constitutionalized world society.” Habermas is not so concerned whether those who hold sway right now are the Europeans currently busy trying to rescue the continental project, or the skeptics, anti-Brussels populists and nostalgic fans of the D-Mark hoping it will fail. Still: even if the model of Utopian realism that Habermas applies seems foreign in the 24-hour news cycle of blitz reactions and drastic shifts in stock prices, it would be wise to let it in.

Habermas is a realist. He shows that much has already been accomplished towards achieving a “transnational democracy“ in Europe, even if the Lisbon Treaty is a pact among states, not a constitution written by the European people.

According to Habermas, Europeans themselves don’t yet understand their Europe.'''
posted by Postroad at 1:54 PM on November 28, 2011


Once the European project extended beyond a free trade zone it has had a chronic lack of democratic legitimacy.

The European project was from the outset more than a free trade zone. Britain and others tried that other route, it was called EFTA and it was a fiasco.

You know what would be thoroughly undemocratic? A "pure free trade zone" in which corporations would be able to move around goods, capital and jobs without having to respond to any higher authority.

The EU's democratic oversight may be flawed, but it's better than a corporate free-for-all. And, as Habermas points out, the flaws are not so much in the institutions themselves, since the European Parliament is much more powerful than most people realise, than in the attitude of the national governments, which are increasingly intent to bypass the EU altogether and negotiate instead opaque intergovernmental agreements behind closed doors.
posted by Skeptic at 2:02 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is an alternative, he says, there is another way aside from the creeping shift in power that we are currently witnessing. The media "must" help citizens understand the enormous extent to which the EU influences their lives. The politicians "would" certainly understand the enormous pressure that would fall upon them if Europe failed. The EU "should" be democratized.

...

All he offers is the kind of vision that a constitutional theorist is capable of formulating: The "global community" will have to sort it out. In the midst of the crisis, he still sees "the example of the European Union's elaborated concept of a constitutional cooperation between citizens and states" as the best way to build the "global community of citizens."


We've had some lengthy debate towards the end of this previous thread on this subject and, from my view, how there is a disastrous (and poorly recognized) absence of public discourse within the EU, and what this means for the EU as a democracy.
posted by Anything at 2:02 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have never really understood Habermas, because all the things he wants seem to rely on this "public sphere" of rational, equal, rather cookie-cutter citizens (the kind of citizens who are implicitly figured as white, male, middle-class, etc etc) all of whom have and want access to a certain type of information and all of whom are happy to leave the public sphere and a (certain, undefined) private sphere separate. That is, in some alternate reality where Europe was populated exclusively by Habermas clones, no doubt a very nice EU could be built. I think that an awful lot of Habermassians believe that everyone is, at bottom, just like them - or could be, with a little rational discourse. I do believe that he truly thinks this possible and desirable - that is, I don't think he's trying to sneak Enlightenment elitism in through the back door. And I'd infinitely rather meet him than (zombie) Derrida or (zombie) Deleuze. But still.

"Who will tell the people" is precisely the wrong question.
posted by Frowner at 2:11 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


@Skeptic, The European Coal and Steel Community was largely a free trade zone for certain goods.

There is Democratic oversight in the governments that compose the EU.

The EU makes sense to a certain degree and then it fails. The Euro is a mess and has deeply damaged the financial stability of the continent.

A limited Europe, without dreams of becoming a super state, would work and be popular. The problem with Europe is that the project has become too ambitious and lacks Democratic legitimacy.
posted by sien at 3:22 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


The European Coal and Steel Community was largely a free trade zone for certain goods.

The people who founded the ECSC did so with the express intention of political goals. Schuman and Monnet used it as a vehicle for European integration, not as an end in itself.

A limited Europe, without dreams of becoming a super state, would work and be popular.

Where do you draw the line? Many expansions of EU power over member states have arisen due to court rulings on trade disputes. Some of the most significant periods of integration have been driven by trade concerns, such as the the Single European Act. Indeed, Ernst Haas built part of his academic career on theorizing how the technical and practical necessities of economic integration would lead eventually to political integration.
posted by Jehan at 3:55 PM on November 28, 2011


One aspect of my argument that was sort of implicit in what I said in the previous thread is that 'public discourse in the EU' is a pretty complex subject to discuss and that most of the issues are a lot more apparent when it is specifically compared to how public discourse works on the national level (of which my understanding is based on what I've grown up with here in Finland, through closely following the US, lately to some extent Britain and to a much lesser extent Sweden).

I mentioned a number of issues in the previous thread and I'll go on about how the reputation of public figures and institutions affects the power they have in the public discussion. On the national level, such reputation can be built through sustained participation in public discussion, by the manner in which one forms one's arguments and a display of effort in understanding people's problems and in coming up with credible proposals. Most of this discussion in which reputation is built is held on subjects primarily of local concern. A person or an institution that tries to engage in European discussion runs into the problem of no one knowing who he or she or it is, what sort of a track record he or she or it has and thus no indication of how much attention one should pay and no expectation of anyone else paying attention either.

Apart from a number of advocacy groups with predetermined agendas, on the EU level people don't have a reputation unless and until they have already been given considerable political power in the EU.
posted by Anything at 4:08 PM on November 28, 2011


While many expansions of EU power over member states may have arisen due to trade disputes the CAP and the Euro surely did not. Both are a mess.

While Europe bangs on about foreign aid they do substantial damage to Africa which could, were it not for the CAP, export more to Europe.

In the long run perhaps Haas is correct. But going slowly and making sure to have and respect referendums on large steps toward integration is vital.

Taking risky steps like the Euro, which was at the time strongly criticized at the time from commentators across the political spectrum without consent has proved a seriously deleterious idea.
posted by sien at 4:45 PM on November 28, 2011


While many expansions of EU power over member states may have arisen due to trade disputes the CAP and the Euro surely did not. Both are a mess.

My understanding is that the CAP arose in order to harmonize individual states' intervention in the agricultural sector. It is (or has been, I'm not entirely up to date with the recent changes) a bit of a mess, but it doesn't pose a problem with regards to democratic legitimacy anymore than a single state's intervention might.

Taking risky steps like the Euro, which was at the time strongly criticized at the time from commentators across the political spectrum without consent has proved a seriously deleterious idea.

The Euro is a classic piece of neofunctionalism arising from a real (though perhaps overstated) trade need, with a secondary benefit of consciousness–forming on the people who use it. It's definitely risky to some degree, even with democratic consent, and the lack of consent isn't its main problem. It would have been beneficial to institute more control over member states' fiscal policies if the democratic will was there. But I think the main failing was the political drive to admit states who simply didn't meet the criteria. It was an open secret (and now explicitly stated) that Greece had serious problems that were being ignored.
posted by Jehan at 5:37 PM on November 28, 2011


It's cute when philosophers think anybody cares what they say.
posted by bardic at 5:42 PM on November 28, 2011


I have never really understood Habermas, because all the things he wants seem to rely on this "public sphere" of rational, equal, rather cookie-cutter citizens (the kind of citizens who are implicitly figured as white, male, middle-class, etc etc) all of whom have and want access to a certain type of information and all of whom are happy to leave the public sphere and a (certain, undefined) private sphere separate.
posted by Frowner at 2:11 PM on November 28 [1 favorite +] [!]


Though I'm not hugely familiar with Habermas' work in its entirety, IMHO a key problem with the notion of the 'public sphere' is its seeming basis in an idealised version of 19th Century coffee houses and salons (the patrons of which were generally white, male and middle-class), which are held up in contrast to the mass media/mass democracy context he was criticising. I agree that it wasn't his intention to sneak enlightenment elitism through the back door, but there are clear problems with both of these conceptual models for how democracy 'should work'.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 5:51 PM on November 28, 2011


It's cute when philosophers think anybody cares what they say.

In order for anybody to care what you have to say you'd actually have to make some sort of case for it, which presumably would involve ignoring all the comments that have already been made in this thread in response to what Habermas said.

posted by Anything at 5:53 PM on November 28, 2011


Can anyone recommend a good overview of Habermas's public sphere arguments? I'd rather not accept their dismissal without getting better acquainted.
posted by Anything at 5:59 PM on November 28, 2011


Next to him sits a good-natured professor who asks six or seven questions in just under two hours -- answers that take fewer than 15 minutes are not Habermas' style.

This is why I hate academic celebrities. Garfinkel was like this too.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 6:04 PM on November 28, 2011


Anything, I don't mean to dismiss his idea, just qualify/critique it, and my qualifications are hardly original or uncommon in academia. His basic notion of a public sphere which mediates between people's private lives and the realm of government is still a key concept in anycase

I've had a quick look at the wikipedia page and it does an okay job of briefly outlining the key argument and theoretical model, as well as some of the later critiques and developments of the idea.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:14 PM on November 28, 2011


Ok, thanks.
posted by Anything at 6:17 PM on November 28, 2011


But to outline one of the problems for a united Europe with a shared supra-national public sphere, one of the key factors for the formation of functioning public sphere is that there is a 'domain of common concern'. Given that there are a fair number of people in the EU who would rather not be, or more generally that I'd presume that the average person on the street is more concerned with national or local affairs (e.g. planned public service strikes in the UK over pensions among other things) this might be tricky to achieve.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:20 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


The process of uniting Europe is fascinating. A couple of years ago European financial cooperation was out of the question and now the press is hailing a possible move towards further fiscal integration of the Eurozone (on top of EFSF), which Germany will apparently champion to avoid a Eurobonds issue.

The European Coal and Steel Community was largely a free trade zone for certain goods.

They started with coal and steel to ensure the materials needed for tanks and airplanes were subject to common control and regulations. Controlling Germany was the initial aim of European integration. It was not a FTA; the Treaty of Rome in 1957 made explicit it would seek "an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe".
posted by ersatz at 6:56 PM on November 28, 2011


The CAP was never approved in Germany by explicit consent. A vote on it now would almost certainly result in the rejection of it.

If the Euro wasn't having troubles with Greece now then trouble would later appear with Italy, Portugal and others.

Sovereign state default is not an exception historically but rather a regular occurrence if you look over the whole world. To neglect this and the lack of harmonisation within EU economies was remarkable.

The market social democratic system across the developed world has very serious problems with deficits. Either taxes will have to substantially increase or the welfare state must be reduced in scope.

Beyond that European governance is very poor. Expansion has stretched the EU beyond sane limits. Academics pushing for some kind of super genius politician to bring on some Utopian Euoisation is completely unrealistic and could well lead to Euro opponents actually breaking the Union.
posted by sien at 7:20 PM on November 28, 2011


But to outline one of the problems for a united Europe with a shared supra-national public sphere, one of the key factors for the formation of functioning public sphere is that there is a 'domain of common concern'. Given that there are a fair number of people in the EU who would rather not be, or more generally that I'd presume that the average person on the street is more concerned with national or local affairs (e.g. planned public service strikes in the UK over pensions among other things) this might be tricky to achieve.

I think the opposition toward EU power would in itself be a fairly natural subject of common concern, and in fact on a very abstract level it has been one of the few subjects on which people across a good portion of the EU seem to have a decent understanding of what the different positions are and where others stand on the issue.

On a very abstract level, that is. I don't remember witnessing much cross-European public discourse on specifics of what forms that opposition might take, or counterarguments to such specifics from either side of the issue. I think that discourse could perfectly well be had alongside discourse by both supporters and opponents of the EU on various other issues that might be subject to EU policies, if such discourse was also not mostly nonexistent.

In my understanding we lack the means more than we lack the subject matter.
posted by Anything at 7:31 PM on November 28, 2011


Complaining about it now is far too late. If you believe that time is linear, then maybe this sentence makes sense.
posted by nikoniko at 1:17 AM on November 29, 2011


The CAP was never approved in Germany by explicit consent.

There are so many issues with this sentence I don't know even where to start. First of all, the German government certainly had to give its explicit approval in the EU Council, and I'm pretty sure that quite a few German MEPs have been in the successive majorities in the European Parliament whose votes have shaped the CAP as it stands now.

You may argue that an explicit vote by the German government is not the same as an explicit vote in Germany. However, because of the constitutionally mandated oversight of the German government by its parliament, including in European matters (as has often enough been confirmed by the Bundesverfassunggericht in Karlsruhe), I'm quite certain that there has been not one but many explicit votes in Germany as well, namely at the Bundestag and Bundesrat.

By an "explicit vote" you meant a referendum? Wait a minute, how many national referenda have there been in Germany since WWII? Apart from a number of blatantly rigged East German plebiscites, er, none whatsoever. Nil. The postwar framers of the Grundgesetz were painfully aware that referenda, far from being the acme of democracy, had been repeatedly abused to undermine it under the Weimar Republic, and they made it awfully difficult to hold them. Come to think of it, the Grundgesetz itself was never put to a referendum, and it was even adopted against the vote of Bavaria's Landtag, which objected against its lack of states' rights (doesn't that sound familiar): yes, Bavaria was shanghaiied into the Federal Republic against the explicit vote of its democratic representatives.

A vote on it now would almost certainly result in the rejection of it.

I wonder what a result of a (never held) referendum on reunification now would be. Probably positive, but what about a referendum on the Solidaritätszuschlag? On the 1:1 exchange rate between East and West marks? Or on the Treuhandgesellschaft?

You see, this is why referenda are not necessarily good democratic tools. Many issues are far too complex to be put to a single "yes or no" vote. Is a Common Agricultural Policy a bad idea within a single market? Certainly not, if the alternative is a thicket of individual national agricultural policies, each one catering to national vested interests and introducing its own protectionistic barriers. We have just seen this summer, with the "cucumber crisis", how badly wrong decisions in one EU country can affect farmers and/or consumers in other EU countries. Is the Common Agricultural Policy we have a good one? In my opinion, certainly not, but this should not damn the whole concept of a CAP per se, we should just use the existing, functioning democratic tools we have to change it for the better. As it is, the CAP was not created ex nihilo by some "faceless bureaucrat in Brussels". On the contrary: it is the result of direct pressure by powerful voting blocks throughout Europe, not least at all that of German farmers.

Also, you also reveal another matter with some EU critics: you ask for referenda, but only national referenda. However, it would only be logical, and democratic, to submit EU-wide issues to EU-wide votes. If each EU decision was put to a referendum in each single member state, a majority in the smallest state (currently Malta, population 400,000) could block something agreed to by a majority in each other member state of the whole EU (population 500 million). That isn't democracy, that's pure obstructionism.
posted by Skeptic at 1:35 AM on November 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


On earlier readings of this thread I missed Abiezer's pointer to an excerpt of Habermas's book, which goes into a lot more detail than the linked article in the OP. Here's more from the Grauniad.
posted by Anything at 4:44 AM on November 29, 2011


It appears though that theres a lot of overlap between those excerpts. Here's one interesting bit from the Guardian excerpt, though, that I didn't see on the Presseurop excerpt:
The supranational expansion of civic solidarity depends on learning processes that can be stimulated by the perception of economic and political necessities, as the current crisis leads us to hope. For the cunning of economic reason has in the meantime at least initiated communication across national borders; but this can condense into a communicative network only as the national public spheres open themselves to each other. Transnationalisation requires not a different news media, but a different practice on the part of the existing media. The latter must not only thematise and address European issues as such, but must at the same time report on the political positions and controversies evoked by the same topics in other member states.
posted by Anything at 5:01 AM on November 29, 2011


From another post ('Habermas stokes debate on Europe') on Presseurop:
Other commentators have been quick to respond to the philosopher’s article, notably Spiegel Online’s star columnist, Jan Fleischhauer, who furiously accuses Habermas to be "the latest heavyweight among a number of well-meaning German intellectuals" to have joined “the camp of hysterics with a penchant for the apocalypse”.

"In his account of the euro crisis, politicians have been crushed by the economy to the point where they have become zealous underlings of financial capitalism. […] But when it is time to make concrete demands, Habermas runs into the same problem as the one encountered by the Occupy Wall Street activists, who, like him, have nothing to say except that wealth should be redistributed in some way. In truth, the sole aim of all of this rhetorical effort is to absolve politicians of their responsibility, so that they are free to implement their policies undisturbed."
The column itself is in German though and I can't read it myself without a translation. Google to the rescue? Another blog post on it.
posted by Anything at 1:33 PM on November 29, 2011


Dialogue of the deaf -- Brilliant piece I just found, written over six years ago by former Guardian editor Peter Preston. There are so many excellents points that I'm tempted to paste unreasonably lengthy quotations.
Begin with the most basic and principled of assertions, believed implicitly by journalists everywhere. We say that a free media and a free society are twins umbilically linked. You can't have one without the other. We know that where there is democracy there is also a paramount need for independent newspapers and broadcasting stations to monitor its deeds, progress and failures. Take away that monitoring and, all too swiftly, the body politic rots and open societies turn in on themselves, mired in introspection and corruption.

[...]

You can buy the major papers from Milan, Frankfurt, Madrid, Paris and Rome each morning, almost wherever you happen to find yourself. You cannot, however, buy a paper whose catchment area is Europe itself, whose views and attitude don't arrive filtered through some narrow national prism. Simply, there is no newspaper for the Union itself - and that, in turns, means that the process of democratic monitoring is frail and often forgotten.

[...]

What's to be done? From time to time, someone recognises the problem and attempts to do something about it. Helmut Schmidt tried over a decade ago to set up a European weekly of opinion; the Guardian , when I was editor, launched Guardian Europe , a supplement of shared opinion pieces. Neither initiative, however, went very far.

[...]

Any attempt to address the deficit, therefore, needs to be rigorously realistic. It is no use looking round for huge state subsidies. They would only mean vulnerability and isolation as well as an evident lack of independence. Audiences, like ideas, have to be nurtured, brought slowly to fruition.

[...]

Put a relatively small but highly intelligent staff in one or possibly two European countries. [...] Ask them to bring together comment and reportage on political issues which cross European borders on that day. Is it George W.Bush coming to London and what would Paris have Blair say to him? Why are ultra-nationalists topping the Catalan polls? Where is ground zero on the pell-mell development of identity cards?

In any and every case, there is always an issue, always direct relevance to be teased out and pulled together. So make it available. [...] One day it may make profits of its own, because there is a European market for European news and opinion. In the meantime, it is a start - relatively cheap, relatively easy to fund - along the road to dialogue and understanding. A little later on, and we could be asking where the latest EU fraud began, with thousands of bloggers chipping in.
I'd like to hear his take on the issue today.
posted by Anything at 10:38 PM on December 2, 2011


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