Dr. Jürgen Habermas on Democracy, Solidarity and the European Crisis
26th April 2013, University of Leuven
At the University of Leuven in 2013, Professor Jürgen Habermas presented a philosophical paper titled “Democracy, Solidarity and the European Crisis” on the economic and political crises facing the European Monetary Union. Professor Habermas argued that the “uncontrolled systemic contingencies” of an “unrestrained” market capitalism have “transformed” into conflicts between national members of the European Union. Given the “structural imbalances between national economies”, efforts to simply give out loans to indebted European Union countries and simply expect each of them improve their own competitiveness on their “own efforts” is for Professor Habermas “no longer enough”. If we want to preserve the union, we need to practice “solidarity”, that is “a cooperative effort from a shared political perspective to promote growth and competitiveness in the euro zone as a whole”. This will require not only Germany but also other countries, Professor Habermas argues, to “accept short- and medium-term negative redistribution effects in its own longer-term self-interest — a classic example of solidarity”.
This means that the European crisis is not simply an economic crisis but a political crisis. Professor Habermas argues that politically there is a “gulf” between “citizens’ opinion- and will formation” and “policies” “adopted to solve the pressing [contemporary] problems”. The European Council which is made up of “heads of government” are meant “in the eyes of their citizens” to be representatives of their respective home-national interests, while the European Parliament which was supposed to be a “bridge” for conflicting national opinions and the decisions in Brussels is failing. Instead, “Eurosceptical mindsets” unite Europe, “albeit in each country for different and rather polarizing reasons”. The trend of the tensions and resistances have proven however “not really decisive” for policy-making “which is largely uncoupled from the national arenas”. The management of the crisis is being implemented by politicians who “pursue an incrementalist agenda but lack a comprehensive perspective”.
For Professor Habermas, the dilemma is found in the pursuit of “economic policies [sought] to preserve” the short-term needs of European monetary union and the required “political steps to closer integration” to address redistributive needs and widening economic gaps. The European institutions, the Commission, the Presidency of the Council and the European Central Bank, are the “least subject to legitimation pressures” because of “their relative distance from the national public spheres”. The assumption of “unrestrained competition in accordance with fair rules would lead to similar unit labor costs and equal levels of prosperity, thereby obviating the need for joint decision-making on financial, economic and social policies, has proved to be false”. Now, “structural imbalances between the national economies that existed from the start have become more acute”; and “will become even more acute as long as the European policy pattern does not break with the principle that each member state makes sovereign decisions within the relevant policy fields without taking other member states into consideration”. For Professor Habermas, the “uncoupled” character of political democratic institutions and laws along with the lack of “feedback from the pressing dynamics of a mobilized political public sphere and civil society” lack the foundations to “contain and redirect the profit-oriented imperatives of investment capital into socially compatible channels”.
Professor Habermas argues that the institutional “steering capacities” can and must become “centralized within the framework of an equally supranational and democratic political community”. The equal participation of the Parliament and the Council must become “a general rule”. What remains instead is what Professor Habermas calls a “deficiency in legitimation with all international organizations founded on treaties between states”. This legitimation deficiency is found in the “asymmetry between the scope of the democratic mandate of each single member state and the encompassing reach of competences of the organization exercised by all of member states in concert”. To realize equal participation we must do “more than merely a further evolutionary step in the transfer of particular sovereign rights” but also require the participation of states that are currently benefiting from the economic crisis, like Germany.
The benefiting states, like perhaps Germany, must do more than insist on national budget stabilization which is occurring “mainly at the expense of their social security systems, of public services and collective goods” but rather seek “targeted investment programs and for a form of joint financial liability that would lower the interest rates of the government bonds of the crisis-hit countries”. The recipient countries however must in the name of solidarity “accept the complementary step of transferring required sovereignty rights to the European level”. The assistance will also “violate the democratic principle that the legislature that levies the taxes has also a say in the decision on how to allocate the funds and for whose benefit to use them”.
In discussing the philosophical value of the concept of solidarity, Professor Habermas argues that the key is found by understanding that solidarity does not ceases to be political but, importantly, “depends on the expectations of reciprocal favors — and on the confidence in this reciprocity over time” and thus a way “unenforceable ethical behavior also coincides with one’s own medium- or long-term interest”. Unlike ethical life or Hegelian Sittlichkeit explained as the “ethical obligations rooted in ties of an antecedently existing community”,cannot seem to be founded on “pre-political communities such as the family” but on the “political associations or shared political interests”. Professor Habermas argues “solidarity presupposes political contexts of life, hence contexts that are legally organized and in this sense artificial ones”.
In this context, the benefiting states like Germany and all the other European Union countries must address the “structural imbalances between them” caused by the “uncontrolled systemic contingencies of a form of capitalism” organized by “unrestrained” markets. While these uncontrolled processes have indeed “transformed” into conflicts between national members of the European Monetary Union, if we want to preserve the European Union, we will need a form of solidarity, that si “a cooperative effort from a shared political perspective to promote growth and competitiveness in the euro zone as a whole”. Indeed, we may need to “accept short- and medium-term negative redistribution effects in its own longer-term self-interest — a classic example of solidarity”.