I ett tal till medlemmarna i det tyska socialdemokratiska partiet (SPD) i februari 2014 beskrev filosofen och sociologen Jürgen Habermas sin vision för Europa. Han menar att kontinenten har tre stora samtidskriser att ta itu med: Tysklands dominans, europeisk legitimitet och politisk union. Dagens Arena publicerar talet på engelska.

The central problem that I wish to address is the discrepancy between a world society that grows systemically more interdependent on the one hand, and the still unaltered fragmentation of the world of states [Staatenwelt] on the other. Nation states, having integrated through the will and consciousness of their citizens, are still the only collective entities that, on the basis of democratic decision-making, can act effectively and impact intentionally on the living conditions of societies. But they have become more and more entangled in functional contexts which transcend national borders.

In particular, globalised markets and digital connections knot reticular interdependencies, to a certain extent behind the back of these collective actors. And in view of the unintended side-effects of this systemic integration a necessity to regulate arises, yet national states are becoming less able to cope with it. This loss in the political capacity to act is felt both by politicians and citizens. However, in psychologically understandable yet paradoxically defensive behaviour, they cling even more strongly to the national state and its borders.

Recent examples of demands on the national state that exceed its capabilities are the support needed by France in Central Africa from its EU partners, or the futile endeavours of the German federal government to sign a no-spy agreement with the United States. At the same time, the fact that the European Commission abstained from setting guidelines for national climate protection objectives is one of the many fatal signs of a regression into the stronghold of the national state.

Yet in point of fact, the missing national policy space can only be compensated for on the supranational level. That happens in some way in form of interstate cooperation. With the rapid, almost uncontrolled growth of influential international organisations, a new form of governing beyond the national state has emerged – described as ‘governance’ by political scientists. But these international regimes are established by internal contracts and largely evade democratic control. An alternative is the formation of supranational communities, which can generally meet the democratic benchmarks of legitimation, even if they do not take the format of federal states on a larger scale. Only this path, which we have trod with the European Union, can lead to a transnationalisation of democracy. Therefore the enterprise of the EU already justifies itself out of reasons of democratic self-assertion against the normatively immune forces of a world society which has so far been only systemically integrated by globalised markets and networks of various sorts.

Those who do not want to see the proliferation of an ignorant and powerless society [Fellachentum1] behind democratic facades have to look at the agenda of global economic policies. Today the leeway for political influence on the living conditions of a democratic citizens’ society predominantly depends on them. The European states do not even seize the opportunities that a common seat in the IMF and the World Bank could provide for efforts regarding a global regulatory policy [Ordnungspolitik] that is consistent with their interests. The often evoked European model of society is, as you know, based on the interconnection of the welfare state and democracy. And this connection will break down if the trend of two decades of steadily increasing social inequality – which is empirically well documented for industrial countries – cannot be turned around. The drift towards a split in society is, by the way, connected to the alarming trend of increased political abstention, paralysis and alienation of voters from mostly underprivileged classes; that is, it is connected with the crumbling of an equal representation of the voting population and their unabridged spectrum of interests.

It is not necessary to share Marxist beliefs to identify in an unleashed financial capitalism one of the decisive causes of these problems and therefore to draw the conclusion that a promising reregulation of the international banking sector has to be enforced in an economic region of at least the weight and size of the eurozone. European banks cannot anymore invest profitably their virtual capital, which is inflated and disconnected from the real economy. The winding up of the European banks thus requires a joint European solution – which by the way has been prevented by the German federal government for quite some time.

These points are meant to invite you to take a certain perspective from which you will recognise the importance of the European project. Yet from this perspective one primarily notices the complex dangers which can be averted by a strong Europe. Today, the continuation of the project of European unification can be justified defensively rather than offensively; at least, not with the certain kind of intuitively clear emancipatory objectives that once inspired European constitutional movements, just as they inspire today the revolts in the unruly Arabic, eastern European and Asian countries. The European peoples have good reasons to ask for a political union, but adding another floor to the familiar house of the national state and sharing it, with economically efficient policies, with other nations is intuitively a long way out of reach.

For the continuation of the European unification process there are therefore no topics that could naturally lend themselves to be used in election campaigns and could sell themselves – even if the rhetorical talent of Martin Schulz frequently manages to put his audience into the revolutionary mood of 1848, or in any case in a pre-revolutionary mood. Claus Offe has described the situation in which the European project is caught up as a trap between ‘economic pressures’ and ‘the politically feasible’.

I confine myself to motivating the necessity of a policy change with three persistent but mostly neglected problems. Firstly, the German federal government has robustly prosecuted the half-hegemonic position of Germany in Europe since at least May 2010, and this has had explosive effects in Europe’s domestic politics. These tensions cannot be contained by an evasive rhetoric of appeasement. Secondly, the crisis management of recent years has led to an informal extension of the competencies of the European Council and the European Commission, which greatly overstretches the already existing legitimacy deficit of the EU, causing national opposition. Thirdly, what really causes concern is that the economic policy of the eurozone, which the new German coalition unfortunately wants to continue, does not touch upon the causes of the crisis; or if it does, then only marginally.

Regarding problem one: the danger of a German Europe. Due to the economic weight and informal negotiating power in the European Council, the German federal government was able to enforce against resistance its own, German agenda for crisis management, which is shaped by ordoliberal ideas. It forced dramatic reforms on the crisis countries, without noticeably facing up to the pan-European responsibility for the drastic consequences, which the federal government has de facto taken on with one-sided austerity measures. This attitude towards weaker partners reflects a mentality change here in Germany, which has promoted the consciousness of having become a normal nation state once again after the successful reunification with 17 million citizens of another political socialisation. This restoration of older layers of public consciousness has pushed back in the minds of people the relevance of European unification. Previously, European unification was important to the citizens of West Germany due to the fact that it helped rehabilitate a politically and morally destroyed international reputation.

Yet it is more than a question of style; it is in our national interest to not fall back into the half-hegemonic position, which had at least smoothed the way for two world wars and which was overcome with European unification. Without a policy change that is noticeable in all Europe it will be impossible to keep the good will of our neighbours, which we have heavily put to the test by casually pushing through a harsh crisis policy. While we have to take the first step for closer cooperation, we also have to signal a willingness to make the German role as leader structurally dispensable and take further initiatives in concert, and at eye level, with France, while treating the smaller states fairly. The discussion initiated by Franz-Walter Steinmeier [German foreign minister, SPD] regarding a stronger international commitment is a litmus test. The accent that for instance Ursula von der Leyen [German defence minister] stresses in that debate with Joachim Gauck [German president] during the Munich Security Conference makes a huge difference. This debate can be pointedly summarised in the following questions: should the reborn national state as such, and primarily under aspects of security policy, come back to the world stage? Or should the federal republic, side by side with her European partners, get more involved than it has before in the enforcement of the law of the international community in crisis situations and crisis countries? This seems to me to be the right question.

Problem two: the exacerbated legitimacy deficit. The reality created by the recent crisis management makes it necessary for the informally extended space of action for commission, council and European Central Bank (ECB) to also be properly legitimised. This extension covers several topics, and it should be noted that the European Parliament, even where it was part of the legislative decision-making process, did not participate in the creeping increase in competencies of the EU institutions.

  • The fiscal compact signed on 2 March 2012 is an agreement according to international law between the member states of the EU, without the UK, whose provisions have to be translated into EU law by 1 January 2019. This curious agreement is a product of German mistrust: as a safeguard it again anchors in national constitutional law EU decisions on permitted government deficits and government debts, which have been taken a long time ago, as well as sanction mechanisms.
  • With the European stability mechanism (ESM) the members of the European monetary union have developed a financing instrument for troubled national budgets, but the institutions of the ESM are not subject to any parliamentary control. The format of an international agreement does not provide for any democratic legitimation for this deepened cooperation, even though the problems that the ESM is intended to solve have only appeared with the creation of the monetary union.
  • Essential provisions of the fiscal compact were already included in the infamous ‘six-pack’, which came into force on 13 December 2011, through proper legislative processes and with approval of the European Parliament. It is a bunch of regulations. They strengthen the intergovernmental cooperation regarding the reformed objectives of the stability and growth pact; and establish an early warning system for macroeconomic imbalances. But the EU institutions lack the adequate legitimation for these extensive competencies: the commission now has the right to control and correct, even pre-emptively, national budget planning, while it is only authorised and controlled by the European Council, whereas the parliament can at best be informed if it wishes.
  • Lastly, the European Parliament lacks a mirror-image counterpart to the powerful Eurogroup in the European Council. Without the formation of a standing committee for the members of the European monetary union, the parliament will not be able to execute its already weak controlling rights.

Thirdly, the suppressed problem of a monetary union without political union. The two problems mentioned above – the realignment of the political balance in Europe as well as the missing legitimacy of the self-empowerment of the council and the extended competencies of the commission – strengthen Brussels-based executive federalism and thus cause more than ever centrifugal tendencies to revert back to the national state. In the national publics the mutual scapegoating is prodded by the division in donor and recipient countries. In the federal republic of Germany, a wrong interpretation of the causes of the crisis consolidated a reciprocally distorted perception of the obscenely unequal consequences countries either benefiting or suffering from the crisis that lasts until today. The immediate cause for over-indebted state budgets was – with the exception of Greece – the development of private debt, and not, as alleged, the fiscal policy of the respective governments.

Yet it is mainly due to this concentration on public debt that the crisis management does not address the underlying structural problem. Indeed, the public debt crisis could only be averted because the ECB, in contradiction to the bailout prohibition, successfully simulated a common liability, that is, it successfully simulated fiscal sovereignty of the EU, which it actually lacks.

But the lack in the ECB of a responsibility to act as a lender of last resort is not the main constructional flaw of the monetary union. Political economists have for a long time pointed out the suboptimal preconditions for the eurozone to form an optimum currency union. Uniform interest rates give wrong signals to governments because of differences in the current accounts – and the different level in ‘real’ interest rates – among the different national economies. One size for all fits none. Without a common economic government and the accommodation of national policies in order to avoid negative side-effects, the performance of the structurally varying economies will drift further apart.

The strictly investor-friendly policy guidelines of the German federal government, which prescribe, next to necessary reforms in administration and labour markets, austerity measures at the expense of wages, social services, public service and public infrastructure projects, are therefore counterproductive. Instead, the constructional flaw of a monetary union without a political union should be corrected. The structural inequalities between the economies will increase without the institutional framework for a jointly coordinated fiscal and economic policy with implications for a common welfare policy. The policy of consolidation lives on the wrong assumption that crisis states can, in untamed competition with the substantially more competitive member states, catch up with their performance, even though their policy space for fiscal and budget policies is legally restricted.

I am not an economist, but to me the nowadays predominant argument sounds convincing, that this assumption of sovereignty is sheer fiction. That’s why the preferred policy of shifting the problems on the shoulders of crisis countries and financing them by credits, should not be mistaken for a concern for subsidiarity, that is, for the consideration that some competencies might be better taken care of in the lower levels of a political multilevel system. Instead of placing restrictions on national governments and treating citizens of a democratic community like immature children, the European Council and European Parliament should have the right to jointly and flexibly decide on guidelines for the fiscal, economic and social policies. The suspicion that more solidarity encourages ‘free riding’, resulting in the deferral of necessary reforms, can be met with the point that the current evasive manoeuvres in technocratic style, which required bizarre legal constructs, are not much more effective. Nobody can force intractable governments to follow country-specific recommendations if they do not want to. And mostly they do not want to. Effective implementation can only be guaranteed by the legal obligation of democratically generated European decisions. Only the primacy of European law in a monetary union which has been extended to a political union would render unnecessary the moral chastising and artificial penalty mechanisms included in curious legal constructs.

The continuation of the current policies can only radicalise the vicious cycle between the three mentioned problems. The more competencies the European Council and European Commission usurp in the context of implementing consolidation policies, the more the citizens will become aware of the governing behind closed doors and the decreasing legitimation of the growing weight of the technocracy – and all the faster will the German federal government encounter the dilemma of its half-hegemonic position. The intra-European tensions will increase because with each step towards deeper intergovernmental cooperation an increasing political responsibility towards neighbour states, which are given over to their pseudo sovereign fate, will accrue to the federal government.

At the cost of the political degradation of whole populations and at the cost of the social comedown of a whole generation, classes and regions, the obdurately imposed drastic treatment has led to such a downsizing of the economies that the ‘horses drink again’ – the investors come back. But even the boss of a not really Europe-friendly editorial department for business recently cautioned the political elites against leaning back and ignoring the real problems. It is not enough legally to lock in the policies of consolidation and implement them in a technocratic way. In whatever way you look at it, it is long overdue to introduce a policy change that includes transfer payments across national borders. The federal government of Germany has to decide whether it wants to propose to the other governments in the eurozone the development of the monetary union to a Euro-Union, in its own interest.

Only the federal government can take the initiative. It alone is in the position to offer something politically and economically to France and the European south, in neither of which is deeper integration enthusiastically welcomed. Of course, such a signal would only be the beginning of a long and very difficult process. Moreover, this signal would only be credible if one would (1) accept a Europe of two speeds; (2) relinquish intergovernmentalism; (3) pursue a European party system; and (4) bid farewell to the elite mode of current European politics. Here I make a few short comments on these four consequences, which have to be accepted if we would want to change policies.

  1. The existing European institutions would have to be redesigned in such a way that a Euro-Union can develop, which will be open for the accession of other European states, first of all obviously Poland. A union that has a core and a periphery will be able to cater to both the British requests for a retransfer of certain competencies as well as to controversial accession requests, such as that from Turkey, and better than is currently possible under the framework of the existing treaties. A change of the primary legislation however – for which, by the way, exist well thought through proposals – would only become necessary in the course of a policy change which first had to be decided upon in the Eurogroup.
  2. We would have to break with the intergovernmental method, which has gained momentum during the crisis, in favour of the community method. The meetings of heads of state, who are only accountable to national voters, are tailored to negotiate compromises between more or less fixed national interests. In contrast, the political decision-making in the European Parliament, which is organised in groups, makes it possible to balance out national interests with a generalisation of interests across national boundaries.
  3. Against the background of the Europe-wide debate on the controversial crisis management, the upcoming European elections offer for the first time the possibility to politicise the agenda. Without such a politicisation you cannot have a European election that really deserves its name – and there has not yet been such an election. Only joint candidates and lists can make the differences in manifestos, which really mean visible alternative choices. And out of the loose party families a European party system has to be created.
  4. Lastly the political elites would have to accept that the current comfortable situation has to end. They have to stop sealing off their domestic electorate from their European policies (the undemocratic decoupling of policies from politics) and they would also need to put an end to the populist mixture of Brussels-bashing on one hand and Europe-friendly but non-committal platitudes on the other, which they exhibit at home. Deviating from their routines, they must not try to win the fight of opinions only in the wake of public opinion polls, but they have to structure the fight with the objective of creatingopinions. Because up to now there exist mostly prejudices in the national public, but no informed and tested opinions that can really compete with each other.

Fortunately, in Europe we have intelligent people and not the sort of oversized national subjects somehow welded together which right-wing populism likes to make us believe. For a supranational democracy that is still rooted in national states, we do not need a European people, but individual citizens, who have learnt that they can be both national citizens and European citizens in one person. And these citizens can very well competently participate in European decision-making in their own national public spheres, if the media only would meet their responsibilities. For that, we do not need anything else than the existing national publics and the existing media. Yet these influential media have to take on a complex task of translation, once the national publics open up towards each other. They have to mutually give information on debates that take place in other countries on relevant topics, that is to say relevant for all union citizens.