Eurocentric Angst

Jűrgen Habermas, The Crisis of the European Union: A Response

Polity Press, 140pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780745662428

reviewed by Tony Norfield

Jűrgen Habermas is one of Europe’s prominent sociologists and philosophers. As he correctly points out, the economic troubles in Europe are of critical importance to the European Union as a whole, rather than simply members of the Euro currency area. Were the Euro project to fail, it would not only be a major economic event; it would represent the destruction of decades of political planning by Europe’s major powers, Germany and France, and throw into turmoil the relationships between all European countries, including those outside the system. However, his Response is a disappointment - an odd mixture of abstract conceptualising and rather commonplace opinions on recent events. It is not a case of being short-changed by a mere 140 pages; valuable ideas can be concisely expressed. Nor has the force of the argument been weakened by poor translation (Ciaran Cronin’s translation from the German is, as far as I can tell, good). The basic problem is that Habermas has nothing substantial to say, and what he does say is little more than a basic re-statement of his liberal imperialist vision.

The first essay, ‘The Crisis of the European Union’, takes up half the book. His key point is that European politicians have been too timid to make the case for a unified European citizenship, because they have been narrowly focused on national concerns: ‘political elites and the media are reluctant to win over the populations to a common European.’ This is hardly an original observation, but Habermas insists on building up to it by discussing the nature of democracy, how the sharing of power can take place between different states and peoples in a federal system and by comparing and contrasting the EU to the United States and the United Nations. The problem here is that anyone with knowledge of either the origins of the US Constitution or of the UN would take exception to his whitewash of history.

It is on this flawed premise that Habermas makes his case: that the US Constitution and UN Charter were key markers in the progress to a better world, and that a ‘common European future’ is the next logical step. Critics of the US Constitution, however, have noted that it was a document drawn up by the moneyed class in their interests (quite apart from the issue of slavery), while historian Mark Mazower in his No Enchanted Palace (Princeton University Press, 2009) has effectively debunked the idea that the UN was a universalist project and highlighted the big power compromises that led to its founding statements. By comparison, Habermas is an ingénue, taking the documents he reads and UN commitments to ‘human rights’ at face value. In his defence, he frequently concedes that realities have not lived up to the rhetoric. However, he does this with such regularity that the reader is left wondering why he does not question the validity of the overall framework.

This is also true of his view of Europe. Being of a certain age, he is impressed with the fact that moves towards European co-operation in the economic sphere developed into a political project, and that this appears to have cast aside the risk of intra-European warfare. Yet he downplays the economic power of Germany and the political influence of France in this project, preferring to see it instead as a fulfilled dream of the European peoples. For him, this is like the Hegelian notion of the realisation of the Idea. But this theoretical presentation is dishonest. In reality, he is a strong advocate of a more powerful Europe that can assert itself and act in opposition to the power of the USA - this has little to do with realising democracy. He makes this very clear in the interview-based Appendix to the book: ‘only together could the euro zone countries acquire sufficient weight in world politics to be able to exert a reasonable influence on the agenda of the global economy. The alternative is to act as Uncle Sam’s poodle and to throw themselves at the mercy of a global situation which is as dangerous as it is chaotic.’

At least that was a clear political statement. In his theoretical expositions, a Mitteleuropa writing style full of soporific abstractions blankets any sense the reader may get of inconsistency, or even of what is being said. In explaining the ‘hesitation of political elites at the threshold to transnational democracy’, for example, he notes that ‘we must adopt a constructivist perspective when we want to conceptualise the democratic legal domestication of a supranational political community such as the EU as a further stage in civilising state power’. The reader only wakes up when, within this framework, a more specific point is being made. For example:

‘The peoples of a continent [Europe] whose political and economic weight is diminishing are trying to recover a certain political room for manoeuvre in the face of political forces and systemic constraints of a globalised society. If they succeed, they can use this room for manoeuvre not only defensively to preserve their cultural biotope but also in an offensive way to undertake the still more toilsome task of extending global steering capacities.’

Make of that what you will, but my hackles are raised, not least by the need to be offensive in Europe on a global scale in order to recover ‘political room for manoeuvre’. Readers will find a more realistic (and readable) assessment of the origins of the European project, its political design and imperialist mode of operation in Guglielmo Carchedi’s For Another Europe (Verso, 2001).

Habermas ends with a plea: ‘With a little political backbone, the crisis of the single currency can bring about what some once hoped for from a common European foreign policy, namely a cross-border awareness of a shared European destiny.’ Yet, in more mundane language, what he really advocates is that Europeans should pull together to reassert their privileged position in the world economy. His apparent philosophical universalism is in reality a Eurocentric nationalism.
Tony Norfield is a PhD researcher with the Department of Economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.