Jürgen Habermas: Democracy, Solidarity and the European Crisis

Lecture delivered on 26 April 2013 in Leuven Univ.


The European Union owes its existence to the efforts of political elites who could count on the passive consent of their more or less indifferent populations as long as the peoples could regard the Union as also being in their economic interests all things considered. The Union legitimized itself in the eyes of the citizens primarily through its outcomes and not so much from the fact that it fulfilled the citizens’ political will. This state of affairs is explained not only by the history of its origins but also by the legal constitution of this unique formation. The European Central Bank, the Commission, and the European Court of Justice have intervened most profoundly in the everyday lives of European citizens over the decades, even though these institutions are the least subject to democratic controls. Moreover, the European Council, which has energetically taken the initiative during the current crisis, is made up of heads of government whose role in the eyes of their citizens is to represent their respective national interests in distant Brussels. Finally, at least the European Parliament was supposed to construct a bridge between the political conflict of opinions in the national arenas and the momentous decisions taken in Brussels – but this bridge is almost devoid of traffic.

Thus, to the present day there remains a gulf at the European level between the citizens’ opinion- and will-formation, on the one hand, and the policies actually adopted to solve the pressing problems, on the other. This also explains why conceptions of the European Union and ideas of its future development have remained diffuse among the general population. Informed opinions and articulated positions are for the most part the monopoly of professional politicians, economic elites, and scholars with relevant interests; not even public intellectuals who generally participate in debates on burning issues have made this issue their own.[1] What unite the European citizens today are the Eurosceptical mindsets that have become more pronounced in all of the member countries during the crisis, albeit in each country for different and rather polarizing reasons. This trend may be an important fact for the political elites to take into account; but the growing resistance is not really decisive for the actual course of European policy-making which is largely uncoupled from the national arenas. The actual course of the crisis management is pushed and implemented in the first place by the large camp of pragmatic politicians  who pursue an incrementalist agenda but lack a comprehensive perspective. They are  oriented towards “More Europe” because they want to avoid the far more dramatic and presumably costly alternative of abandoning the euro.

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