Jürgen Habermas: Europe’s post-democratic era

The monopolisation of the EU by political elites risks reducing a sense of civic solidarity that’s crucial to the European project

extract from Jürgen Habermas’s book The Crisis of the European Union: A Response

aresponseAt European level, democratic institutions enter into a new constellation. One element involved in this is solidarity: once a constitutional community extends beyond the boundaries of a single state, solidarity among citizens who are willing to support each other should expand to keep pace with it. According to the scenario I propose, an extended, though also more abstract and hence comparatively less resilient, civic solidarity will have to include the members of each of the European nations. Only in that case would the EU citizens who elect and control the parliament in Strasbourg be able to participate in a joint process of democratic will-formation reaching across national borders.

To be sure, the liberalisation of values, an increasing willingness to include strangers, and a corresponding transformation of collective identities can at best be stimulated through legal-administrative means. Nevertheless, there is a circular, either mutually reinforcing or mutually inhibiting interaction between political processes and constitutional norms, on the one side, and the networking of shared political and cultural attitudes and convictions, on the other side. Old loyalties fade, new loyalties develop, traditions change and nations, like all other comparable referents, are not natural givens either.

A measure of the relative weights attached to loyalties, and thus of stronger identification with one social unit rather than another, is the willingness to make sacrifices based on long-term relations of reciprocity. With the abolition of universal conscription, the test case of war, and hence the absolute claim to sacrifice one’s life for the wellbeing of the nation, has luckily lost its force. But the long shadow cast by nationalism still obscures the present.

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.

A dangerous asymmetry has developed because to date the European Union has been sustained and monopolised only by political elites – an asymmetry between the democratic participation of the peoples in what their governments obtain for them on the subjectively remote Brussels stage and the indifference, even apathy, of the citizens of the union regarding the decisions of their parliament in Strasbourg. However, this observation does not justify substantialising “the people” or “the nation”. The caricature of national macrosubjects shutting themselves off from each other and blocking any cross-border democratic will-formation has become the preserve of rightwing populism. After half a century of labour immigration, even the European peoples, given their growing ethnic, linguistic, and religious pluralism, can no longer be conceived as culturally homogenous entities.

‘If I am not mistaken, Sarkozy and Merkel want to extend the executive federalism of the Lisbon treaty into an outright intergovernmental rule by the European Council.’ Photograph: Michel Euler/AP Moreover, the internet is making all frontiers porous. Within the vast territories of our nation states, the floating horizon of a shared political lifeworld spanning large spaces and complex relations always had to be generated and maintained by mass media, and it had to acquire substance through the abstract flows of ideas circulating through the communication networks of civil society.

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