Anson Rabinbach, The Good European: On Jürgen Habermas

Anson Rabinbach teaches modern European history at Princeton University and co-edits New German Critique. This article appeared in the July 30-August 6, 2012 edition of The Nation.


What does the protracted financial crisis reveal about the political viability of a unified Europe? Does it confirm the oft-discussed “democratic deficit,” the pervasive anxiety about what Hans Magnus Enzensberger has recently called “Brussels, the gentle monster”? Is it proof that the economic, cultural and social differences among the twenty-seven European Union member states are impossible to reconcile, that the cost of EU cohesion is letting the strongest “core nations”—Germany and France—lord it over the economically weaker, dispirited member states? A decade ago, legal scholars and intellectuals debated whether a Europe-wide democracy required a common cultural heritage rooted in ethnicity, religion and national history, or if shared ethical values, common institutions and social ideals would suffice as transnational bonds. Now the question is whether transnational European democracy is feasible at all.

Jürgen Habermas, Germany’s most famous contemporary philosopher, first contemplated the possibility of the European Union’s collapse in May 2010, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel dithered for weeks over the EU’s bailout of Greece as she tried to secure victory for her party, the Christian Democratic Union, in state elections in North-Rhine Westphalia, a CDU stronghold for six decades. For Habermas, the jarring disproportion between Merkel’s domestic politicking, which proved to be in vain, and the seriousness of the debt crisis revealed the absence of a legitimate institutional mechanism for a Europe-wide solution to the financial crisis. It also exposed the faltering of “ordoliberalism,” the peculiarly German economic policy established in the 1950s, whereby the state reconciles the imperatives of social welfare, efficiency and orderliness to ensure the optimal performance of the market. Administrative and technical adjustments proved inadequate to maintaining stability. In a flurry of articles and interviews that appeared in the German media, Habermas called the Greek debacle a “clear warning of the post-democratic road taken” by Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy (who in May lost his re-election bid), a consolidation of power in the hands of a few government leaders.

A few months earlier, when the government of Prime Minister George Papandreou collapsed in Athens amid a continental panic over his call for a national referendum on the Greek bailout plan negotiated in Brussels, Frank Schirrmacher, editor and co-publisher of Germany’s most influential newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, published an angry op-ed titled “Democracy Is Junk.” Schirrmacher argued that the Greek crisis had laid bare the way international financial markets and unelected Eurocrats were not accountable to the democratic majorities of those EU member states likely to suffer the most from economic collapse. Habermas concurred, declaring a few days later in the FAZ that Schirrmacher had “hit the bull’s-eye” when he diagnosed the referendum affair as an “abandonment of European ideals.”

The Greek crisis changed the “business model” of the EU, which, after the failure in Brussels, turned to the “cramped mentality” of “Merkozy,” who in essence acted as lobbyists for the national interests of the strongest member states. The go-it-alone policies of Germany and France not only jeopardized the economic structure of the EU but also fractured the democratic foundations on which a united Europe might be based. In November 2011, Habermas wrote in the Guardian that Merkel and Sarkozy “appear to have settled on some sort of compromise between German economic liberalism with French statism…. They want to extend the executive federalism of the Lisbon treaty into an outright intergovernmental rule by the European Council.” In the foreseeable future, the imperatives of markets and national budgets would be managed independent of any democratic legitimation; using the threat of sanctions and other types of economic retribution to coerce disempowered national parliaments into accepting back-room agreements had become the only means for managing the crisis. The world’s first transnational democracy, Habermas worried, was being bullied into “post-democratic rule.”

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