Bringing the Integration of Citizens into line with the Integration of States
Jürgen Habermas 15 March 2012

When it comes to progress in European integration, we must distinguish between two dimensions.[1] The integration of the states raises issues of the distribution of powers between the Union and the member states, thus the increase in power of the European institutions, whereas the integration of the citizens is a matter of the democratization of this increase in power, thus the level of participation of the citizens in European decision-making processes. With the so-called Fiscal Compact approved this week state integration is supposed to be carried forward (in one part of the Union) for the first time since the introduction of the Parliament without a simultaneous consolidation of citizen integration.[2]

To be sure, the aloof technocratic character of European politics from the beginning is explained by its historical origin. The driving force in the decision-making process up to the present day are the governments and not the peoples; and the citizens, as members of an economic and legal community, were initially private-law subjects. Since 1979, however, a European Parliament is involved in lawmaking and its power has even increased continually over the past three decades. As a result, the European economic citizens have become EU citizens, and the economic community has developed into a Political Union – albeit more in the letter than in the spirit. The Parliament operates in an equally aloof manner to the Commission and the Council, because the space of legitimation separating the European citizens from their parliament has not been cultivated, so to speak. This space is not even traversed in European elections because the latter are dominated by national agendas.

Thus there has always been a democratic deficit. But after years of ineffectual political reactions to the sovereign debt crisis triggered by the banking crisis, it must now be asked whether the long-smoldering “legitimation crisis of the Union can still be kept latent when … the political crisis of the euro becomes manifest and the Union has to draw upon the resource of solidarity, which has been kept to a minimum for technocratic reasons, in order to survive.”[3] With this, Hauke Brunkhorst points to the political dimension in which the solution to the financial crisis must ultimately be sought. I would like to defend the thesis that only an effective and broad-based democratic dispute over a common European future could lead to plausible political decisions that would in turn also make an impression on the financial markets and put the speculators who are gambling on sovereign defaults in their place.

The Eurogroup has to make continually new efforts to win the “confidence” of the financial markets only because nobody really believes it. The governments are not demonstrating sufficient resolve to ensure that their shortsighted resolutions are followed by actions. They are acting like harried individuals who are concealing the scope of the agreements reached in Brussels from their national electorates. In order to appear credible to the speculators as well, the heads of government would have to reach an agreement on a more long-term perspective for the future of the European Monetary Union and campaign for this in their national public arenas. But risk-averse power opportunists who plan only for the short term must avoid this step like the plague.

The three or two-and-a-half pro-European parties in the Bundestag would in fact incur heavy costs were they finally to try to reorient the European elite project conducted above the heads of the populations to a noisy and polarizing participation of the citizens. The by now routine lip service paid to Europe is not sufficient to counteract the skepticism stoked up by right-wing populists. The declared intention of the member states to pursue a sensitive harmonization of the country-specific taxation and economic policies at least in the euro zone has for the time being a merely rhetorical character. In order to acquire credibility, a further integration of the states must be supported by an integration of the citizens that is expressed in pro-European majorities. Otherwise politics will not recover its scope for action vis-à-vis rating agencies, big banks, and hedge funds. The route of politicizing the controversial topic is certainly not without risk; but if anything is risky it is the poker game that Angela Merkel is playing with the financial markets.

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In my opinion, the German federal government, after long hesitation, is doing some things right, but a lot of things wrong, in European policy. “More Europe” is the correct answer to a crisis which has brought to light a construction flaw of the European Monetary Union. The political decision-making capability required to offset the economic imbalances that have arisen in the euro zone is lacking.[4] The necessary convergence among the national economic developments that are drifting apart can be brought about in the longer term only by cooperation within the framework of a democratically organized community of joint liability in which certain forms of redistribution across national borders are also accepted as legitimate. The Fiscal Compact represents a first step in this direction.[5] As the official name of this “Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance” suggests, it comprises two parts. It commits the governments, on the one hand, to maintaining national budgetary discipline, and, on the other, to establishing an institutionalized regime of economic policy governance aimed at overcoming the growing economic imbalances (at least in the euro zone).

But why is Angela Merkel only acclaiming the first part, the more or less accomplished sanctioning of breaches of budgetary discipline, while remaining silent in public on the coordination of economic policy? Even if the announcement of debt brakes and deficit procedures were unexpectedly to calm the markets in the short term, the crises will recur in the long term as long as the construction flaw of the monetary union has not been repaired. In one and the same currency area, the export surplus and low unit labor costs of the one country are systemically interconnected with the import surplus and high unit labor costs of the other. In order to bring the different levels of competitiveness into line with each other, it is not enough that all of the governments should abide by the same rules. Although the German Federal Government claims to be committed to further integration, it is contributing to protracting the crisis. I would like to offer four observations on this.

One need not even take a stance on the economic policy dispute over whether the national budget deficits would be better overcome through cuts or by printing money in order to recognize, first, that the one-sided austerity policy being pushed through in the EU by the German government is driving the crisis-plagued countries into deflation. If this course is not supplemented through growth-promoting economic stimulus packages, the “social peace” in these societies, which are now under economic supervision, will soon be disrupted by more than just orderly protests by labor unions.

Second, the austerity policy is guided by the misleading idea that everything will be well if only the member states adhere to the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact. This explains Merkel’s peculiar fixation on penalties. The hand-waving with sanctions will become superfluous once we integrate a form of joint economic governance into the ordinary legislative procedure of the Union Treaties. Doubtlessly in the background is still lurking the notion that the correct economic constitution – hence “rules” – would enable us to dispense with a coordinated economic policy and to spare the costs otherwise generated by the democratic legitimation of decisions with redistributive implications.

Third, what Merkel and Sarkozy envisage is in essence an intergovernmental form of cooperation, that is, a politically inconspicuous step toward further integration of the states, not of the citizens. The heads of state of the seventeen euro countries assembled in the European Council are supposed to remain firmly in control. In pursuing this course, however, they would be equipped with competences of economic governance that annul the budgetary prerogative of the national parliaments. We would then have to reckon with a post-democratic empowerment of the executive on an unprecedented scale. The unavoidable protest of the parliaments stripped of their powers will at least reveal the gap in legitimation that can be closed only through democratic reform of the interplay among the EU bodies.[6]

Fourth, “no solidarity without solidity” has become the trademark of a policy that arouses suspicion of German economic nationalism in the neighboring countries. The proposal launched from Berlin to appoint an austerity commissioner for Athens, where three high-level German officials are in any case already exercising similar monitoring functions, testifies to an incredible insensitivity toward a country whose citizens have not forgotten the atrocities of the Wehrmacht and the SS. In a passionate speech, Helmut Schmidt has lamented that the present government is heedlessly squandering the capital of trust that German governments cautiously accumulated in the neighboring countries over more than half a century.

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The overall impression of blundering arrogance and hesitant concessions to extortionate financial markets reflects the condition of a European policy that has not yet become a domestic policy. Time and again, the party leader Angela Merkel seems to admonish the chancellor Angela Merkel to put European integration on the back burner out of consideration for the reservations of her Eurosceptic voters. How could the public discussion in the other member states assume a more welcome form than here in Germany as long as the Europe-friendliness of the country that currently sets the tone is exhausted in the exclamation “Let me have my cake and eat it too”?

Neither can this cautious posture be justified with the familiar arguments that all integration efforts are ultimately condemned to failure by the lack of a European people or the lack of a European public. Concepts such as nation or Volk evoke images of homogeneous macrosubjects. These notions seized the imagination of the masses only during the nineteenth century, specifically in the form channeled through public education and the mass media. However, this world of ideas bred by the national historiographies did not survive the catastrophes of the twentieth century unscathed. What we have to reckon with in Europe today are not imaginary peoples but concrete nation-states, linguistic diversity, and national publics.

The nation-states also retain their place in a European Union that is moving closer together. They should by no means be absorbed into a European federal state but remain the guarantors of the level of democratic freedom that we have been fortunate enough to attain in Europe.[7] But each of us combined in his or her person the role of a national citizen with the role of a citizen of the European Union. The more aware the EU citizens become of how profoundly the European decisions impinge upon their lives, the greater their interest becomes in influencing a European policy that if necessary also redistributes costs.

What have been missing until now are national public spheres in which discussion and will-formation on European topics can be conducted. Different media are not required for this, only a different practice on the part of the existing media. The latter have to lend currency not only to European themes but also to the controversies over these themes in the other member states. The European public sphere is nothing other than the sum of the national public spheres that become responsive to each other in this way. This also settles the problem of linguistic diversity; it is the media that automatically perform the translation.

The editorial departments are still dominated by thinking in terms of the nation state. In Germany, the press more or less shares the cheap and noncommittal Europe-friendliness of the temporizing and maneuvering Chancellor. But, if anything, a perception of world society structured by the nation state cannot avoid the problem that a Europe of small states with a shrinking population is being marginalized in the concert of such “born” world powers as the United States, China, Russia, Brazil, and India, and soon will not be able to exercise any influence over problems that can only be solved at the global level.

It is said that the Weimar democracy was undone by the lack of democrats. With the European Union be undone by a surfeit of lukewarm Europeans?

Translated by Ciaran Cronin

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[1] G. Lübbe-Wolff, “Staatenintegration und Bürgerintegration,” in R. Schulze and C. Walter (eds), 50 Jahre Römische Verträge (Tübingen: Mohr & Siebeck, 2008), pp. 37-42.

[2] This circumstance is not a consequence of the dissent of Great Britain, which requires that the political objective be realized in the legal form of an international treaty, but of the political intention itself as defined by the German Federal Government.

[3] H. Brunkhorst, “Solidarität in der Krise: Ist Europa am Ende?” Leviathan 39 (2011): 459-77.

[4] H. Enderlein, Nationale Wirtschaftspolitik in der europäischen Währungsunion (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2004); “Die Krise im Euro-Raum,” Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 43 (2010): 7-12.

[5] In the resolution of European Parliament of 28 September, 2011, these goals are specified with a view to a “robust framework for preventing and correcting macroeconomic imbalances, minimum requirements for national budgetary frameworks, and enhanced financial market regulation and supervision.”

[6] At any rate, the “economic dialogue” foreseen by the permissive clause in paragraph 2 h of the aforementioned resolution of the European Parliament of 28 September, 2011 is not sufficient to close this gap.

[7] See my argument for a form of sovereignty that is “shared” between national and EU citizens in Habermas, The Crisis of the European Union, trans. Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge: polity, 2012), pp. 28ff.