Can Europe Make It?

Defending political autonomy – or: Habermas on Europe

Habermas likes to regard 'national solidarity' based on 'national identity' as a stage in the development of solidarity. It is just a step towards the mutual beneficence and trust that is based, not on imagined histories, but on actual mutual participation in political deliberation and decision-making.

Dagmar Wilhelm
16 July 2014
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Session at European Parliament in Strasbourg. Serge Mouraret/Demotix. All rights reserved.The opening of the European parliament on Tuesday, July 1, was accompanied by scenes of protest. The right-wing elected Eurosceptics took the opportunity to express their contempt for the very parliament of which they are now members.  Ukip turned their back on the opening ceremony, and the members of the French Front National remained seated throughout. While these acts of defiance were pathetic rather than shocking, they highlight once more the disturbing consequences of disgruntlement and mistrust among European voters.

The very Eurosceptics elected into our parliament, who claim that the European Union endangers the autonomy of its member states, themselves threaten the political autonomy of every citizen of these members states, quite apart from the autonomy and dignity of those excluded from the EU. 

In this article I want to explain this threat with reference to Jürgen Habermas’ stance on Europe. A careful examination of his arguments might not only contribute to a better understanding of what is at issue but also suggests ways forward for the European project.

In considering Habermas’ position, it is useful to distinguish two different Habermases – Habermas the philosopher and Habermas the citizen. Those two Habermases write and publish with different intentions and regard themselves as operating in different contexts and with different purposes. The philosopher Habermas tries to provide a justification and a critical account of the project, “Europe”. The citizen Habermas, the author of what has come to be known as the “European Manifesto”, contributes to this project by attempting to stimulate a trans-national public debate that would eventually help to create the European public sphere and consciousness, which the philosopher Habermas deems to be necessary for the success of the European project. For reasons of brevity, I will here focus exclusively on Habermas’ philosophical writings.

To understand Habermas’ position on the EU it makes sense to revisit his position on the legitimacy of democratic states. Democratic states are legitimate only if and in so far as they protect and promote the political autonomy of their citizens. Political autonomy requires that citizens can shape political life by voting, standing for office, and initiating and participating as equals in informal public discourse. In legitimate democracies, public discourse will shape politics. The informal discussion undertaken in public forums will be “tested” in the formal setting of the elected parliament. Public opinions will be put to the test through rigorous argument, and possibly empirical research. Policies should be responsive to those outputs of informal discussion which survive formal deliberation.

Genuine public deliberation requires that citizens contribute their own particular views. Forming one’s own view requires a degree of personal autonomy. Important freedoms like freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of speech must hence be protected. Democracy is not possible without political autonomy and political autonomy requires personal autonomy. The protection of autonomy is a norm that, within democracies, we agree should guide our political institutions. Habermas distinguishes between norms and values. While it is important that a political community agrees on the norms that bind its institutions, disagreement about values is inevitable and largely unproblematic. We might disagree about the values by which we live our lives; some of us may be bound by various religious values, other by secular ones with diversity within religious and secular value frameworks. We might also disagree about why autonomy or democracy are valuable.  Value pluralism is fine as long as we can agree on the norms that guide our political lives.

The norm value distinction has implications for Habermas’ vision of Europe. Since value pluralism is unproblematic within a state, it is also unproblematic within a supra-national organisation, like the EU. Proposing a “strong Europe” does not mean that we have to discover or create distinctly “European Values”. It is sufficient that we agree on political norms. Since the EU is a union of democratic states, we can easily identify the norms that should shape our political community.

Returning to the issue of legitimacy, we can see that democratic states, bound by the norm of autonomy, must formulate and enforce laws that protect our rights and which citizens can regard as legitimate, make available forums for public debate and ensure that equal participation is possible. Equal participation in political discourse and political life more generally requires that citizens are guaranteed a minimum level of social and economic security, often through redistribution and regulation.

According to Habermas, certain aspects of globalisation threaten the ability of the state to guarantee social welfare and security and hence the ability of citizens to participate as equals, as well as the ability of states to make political (legitimate) decisions about aspects that affect their own citizens.

Economic impact

I do not have the space here to present Habermas’ account in full so I will focus on the issue of economic impact. In order for the state to be able to provide social welfare and enforce laws, the state needs an income. Tax is one of the main sources of income.  According to Habermas, increased global mobility of capital, people, and industries, brought about by international trade agreements and deregulation, negatively impacts the tax income base in various ways.

In circumstances of globally increased mobility, the threat of individuals (and capital) as well as industry to leave a state and hence withhold tax completely is a reality. States must work towards keeping industries and wealth within their boundaries. Increased competition between states to become or remain attractive for industries and capital leads to tax-breaks and also – in some countries – to deregulation of labour conditions, e.g. abolition of minimum wage, low pay (sometimes below the “living wage”), hiring and firing flexibility, reduction of pension and welfare contributions by employers etc. Altogether, this means that states have less income through tax and hence less available spending for social welfare and security, while at the same time individuals are increasingly more vulnerable, given that rights and services have become restricted.

The global organisation of economic markets with trade agreements, and trans-national economic organisations (e.g. IMF and the world-bank) that make decisions which affect economic relations and development in individual states are beyond the control of these states. While states cannot effectively govern the global market, they cannot simply opt-out either. States are dependent on attracting and keeping industry.

Apart from the impact globalisation has on tax income, there are other issues that affect the ability of a state to maintain order within its own boundaries, which broadly pertain to ‘security’ and concern organised crime, technological and environmental catastrophes and the threat of terrorism. Taken together, economic and security considerations convince Habermas of the need for “a move of competencies from the national to the transnational level” (Die postnationale Konstellation, p. 109). However, when the players that make the rules are not the elected governments who are responding to the free and equal deliberations of their respective publics, we have a crisis of legitimacy.

Euroscepticism is presented as one possible response to this crisis. Most right-wing Eurosceptics opt for a form of “protectionism”. Protectionism is the attempt to “close” the state to the influences from beyond. In terms of economic competition, protectionists believe that they can avoid a “race to the bottom” by highlighting a state’s special characteristics, e.g. a unique work-ethic, unique national resources or distinctive training of a workforce. Those special national characteristics are meant to make a state attractive for industries, without tax-breaks or deregulation of labour. Arguably, if those special national characteristics existed and were sufficient to attract industries and capital, states would not have had to enter the “race to the bottom” in the first place. To Habermas, protectionism is both futile and dangerous. It becomes sinister, when this protectionism also aims at closing its borders to immigration and openly or covertly contributes to a rise in xenophobia. 

Market Europeans, who Habermas identifies as essentially neoliberal, offer a different response. Market Europeans embrace deregulation and the openness of the global and European market for the chances it offers. They support a “weak” Europe, a European Union that facilitates trading between member states without power for regulative interference. Neo-liberalism with its commitment to minimal state interference does not consider a loss of competencies by states a problem at all.  The open market offers an equal chance for profit or equal risk of loss to all. Interference with the market is a violation of individuals’ freedom.  If we agree with Habermas about the importance of political autonomy within democracy and if we also agree with his assessment that equal participation requires a minimum of social security, we cannot be satisfied with the neoliberal position as it fails to even identify the lack of social and economic security as a serious threat to autonomy.

Global political response

According to Habermas, a global problem requires a global political response. He envisages a future in which supra-national political entities negotiate with each other to find common political responses to the challenges posed by globalisation, while representing the interests of their members (citizens of their member- states). What Habermas regards as necessary is nothing less than a change of international relations. Strategic manoeuvres aimed to fulfil the narrow self-interest of states without regard for others have to be transformed into a “world domestic policy” in which all global players view themselves as mutually involved in the same project.

The European Union should be one such supra-national political entity and it must take the form of a transnational democracy. Habermas’ EU has the functions that allow its member states to fulfil their duties, to protect, respect and promote autonomy. The EU can do this partly by engaging in global negotiations as one of the big players, partly by assuming some tasks for itself, e.g. re-regulating market relations within the EU and redistributing economic resources as well as cooperating in questions of security.

The EU, in other words, like the democratic states of old, must provide the framework within which the autonomy of citizens is protected and promoted. It receives legitimacy, ultimately, from its success in protecting political autonomy. Like the democratic state, it must provide legal protection as well as facilitate political participation through voting and public discourse.

The EU needs a transnational public forum for informal debate, where the citizens can discuss as equals matters that concern them. The political institutions of the EU, particularly the elected parliament, must be responsive to the outputs of those informal discussions. They must also, crucially, possess the competencies, i.e. the political and legal power, required to act on the public will. In other words, the protection of the political autonomy of the citizens of the EU requires a “strong” EU.

Trans-national public forums are not only essential for the legitimacy of the EU, they also play a role in building trans-national solidarity between the citizens of various member states. Habermas’ work on solidarity is vast and I can only provide a rough sketch of his position here. Uncontroversially, democracies require solidarity among their members. Solidarity is conceived of as relations of trust and mutual goodwill. These relations are necessary in order for individuals to be prepared to forego some of their benefits and confer benefits on others. According to Habermas, “national solidarity” was created with reference to “national identity”. National identity was an artificial, imagined, identity, created by fictions about “pre-political” communities, linguistic or ethnic or cultural belonging (where those fictions always excluded some equally viable narratives about commonality). However, solidarity does not actually require such identification any more. Habermas likes to regard “national solidarity” based on “national identity” as a stage in the development of solidarity. It is just a step towards the mutual beneficence and trust that is based not on imagined histories but on actual mutual participation in political deliberation and decision-making – a solidarity between citizens based on their political status as citizens, irrespective of the cultural or otherwise origin.  In short, solidarity can develop between citizens of supra-national political entities based on the fact that as members of the same polity they share the same fate and have overlapping interests and based on an experience of each other as equal participants in political life. The latter especially requires a public sphere in which we can engage with each other critically and reflectively.

We might disagree with Habermas on some points. Habermas proposes a world order in which the interests of citizens are mediated by states and supra-state entities, rather than a world where individuals exercise their autonomy directly as citizens of the world. He rejects a cosmopolitan world order, largely because he thinks cosmopolitan solidarity is not possible. In his view, solidarity must always include inclusion and exclusion, whereas cosmopolitan solidarity would be all-inclusive.

But it is not obvious why this should be the case. Why, we might ask, should we not develop a solidarity with all human beings qua their humanity, given that we all share a fate (we are all vulnerable to threats to our autonomy) and have overlapping interests (protection of autonomy)? If we can create a European public sphere, why not a cosmopolitan public sphere? We might also be concerned about the political status of those who are not citizens of any state (the stateless).

While I think these criticisms are fair and important, they do not detract from the current importance of the European project. It seems that, even if we think that Habermas does not go far enough, we should still agree with Habermas that the consequences of neo-liberalism threaten the autonomy of citizens (everywhere) and small states by themselves cannot adequately respond.

In the absence of a cosmopolitan world order now or in the near future, at this stage, the best we can do is build the kind of political unions that have enough political power to regulate and redistribute.

It is also worthwhile emphasizing that commitment to autonomy (even if just as a norm) has implications for the treatment of those we exclude from the EU.  While Habermas rejects cosmopolitanism, he maintains that we always remain accountable to those we exclude. Political autonomy, whatever story we tell about its value, is something that human beings possess (or possess a right to) qua their humanity. As a matter of consistency, at the very least, we must care about the autonomy of those we exclude from our polity and we must take great care not to undermine or violate their autonomy through our policies.

The European Project

In light of Habermas’ position on the European Project it seems that we are right in being sceptical even disgruntled about the current state of the EU - but not about the European Project itself.

Currently, the EU barely resembles a genuine trans-national democracy. It does not seem to protect or even respect the autonomy of the citizens within the EU let alone those excluded. While we seem to come to a similar conclusion as the right-wing Eurospectics (and this may explain their popularity to some degree) the reasoning is different. It is not the case that the very European Union threatens the autonomy of genuinely sovereign states, which could, if left to their own devices, provide for their citizens. Rather, the European Union must become more democratic and gain more competencies because by themselves, individual states can no longer provide the necessary welfare and security.

The remedy, then, does not seem to lie in turning our back on the European Parliament but to put pressure on the “Eurocrats” to reform the Union. And we can hope to achieve reform in two ways. First, we can build a transnational public sphere from the bottom up. If we continue to participate in discourse with each other, and if we - at times - even reach a consensus across borders, those public, trans-national debates could eventually gain the momentum required to force the political establishment in the EU to take public opinion into account. Second, we can elect those representatives into national and European parliaments who would push for the required reforms. Electing those who wish to weaken the EU, however, seems to be at best a dangerous form of resignation. 

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Europe: the very idea, an openDemocracy editorial partnership supported by Social Science in the City, a public engagement initiative at the University of the West of England

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