The European Venue for Green Ideas

For a more democratic Europe

By Jürgen Habermas

The reinforced pact for Europe just reinforces an existing failing: non-binding agreements between heads of government are either without effect or not democratic. Therefore they should be replaced by an institutionalised decision making process whose legitimacy could not be challenged.

The German federal government is the accelerator of a movement of dissociation that affects Europe in its entirety. It has ignored for too long the only possible constructive solution that even the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has depicted with the laconic formula “more Europe”. The governments are distraught and paralysed by the dilemma between the imperatives of the big banks and of the credit rating agencies and the fear of losing their legitimacy in the eyes of their frustrated citizens. Brainless “incrementalism” betrays the lack of a broader perspective.

Since the end of « embedded capitalism » and since the globalized markets escape political control, it becomes more and more difficult for all Member States of OECD to stimulate economic growth and to insure a fair income distribution and social security to a majority of their people. This problem was defused by the acceptance of inflation after the freeing of the exchange rates. But this expensive strategy forced the government to use the loophole of financing their public budget through increased debts.

Since 2008, the financial crisis has frozen the mechanism of imposing public debt on future generations. And in-between we do not see how we could in the long term reconcile the austerity policies– that are not easy to impose on the Member-state level – with the maintenance of a sustainable social state.

The youth uprisings form a warning of the threats to the social peace. At least they allowed recognising, in these circumstances, that the real challenge lies in the imbalances between the market imperatives and the regulative power of politics. Inside the Eurozone the expected economic governance should give new strength to the discredited “growth and stability” pact.

The discourse about an « executive federalism » of a new kind mirror the fear of the political elites to transform the European project, until now practiced behind closed doors, in a noisy, public and argued struggle of opinions, forcing us to roll up our sleeves. Considering the seriousness of the problems, one should expect that the politicians would finally put the European cards on the table in order to enlighten the people in an assertive way about the short term costs and the real use i.e., the historic meaning of the European project.

They should overcome their fear of the opinion polls and trust the power of conviction of good arguments. Instead, they team up with populism that they themselves fostered by obscuring a complex and unpopular issue. On the threshold between economic and political unification of Europe, politic seems to hold its breath and to play low profile. Why this paralysis? It is a vision stuck in the 19th century that imposes the well-known answer of the demos: a European demos would not exist; that is the reason why a political union would be founded on quicksand. I would propose another interpretation: the persistent political fragmentation in the world and in Europe is in contradiction with the systemic growth of a global multicultural society and it blocks every advance in the constitutional and jurisdictional civilisation of the relations on the social and state levels.

On the threshold between economic and political unification of Europe, politic seems to hold its breath and to play low profile.

Considering that until now the political elites had a monopoly on the construction of the European Union, there was a dangerous asymmetry between the democratic participation of the peoples to the wins of their governments on the far stage of Brussels and the indifference or even more, the complete lack of participation to the decisions taken in the Parliament in Strasbourg. This observation does not imply a substantialization of the “peoples”.  Only right wing populism keeps on projecting the caricature of great national subjects closed to one another and blocking all the attempts to form a common will beyond the national borders. After fifty years of labour migrations, the European peoples, considering their growing ethnic, linguistic and religious pluralism cannot be imagined as homogenous cultural units. The internet has weakened all borders.

In the territorial states characterized by great spaces and complex interrelations, it was first necessary to install a common life world, and let the civil society feed it with a flux of communications and ideas.  Hence, this can only occur on the base of a shared political culture that should remain quite vague.   But as the national peoples (informed by the media) become more and more aware of the influence of the EU on their daily lives, their interest to use their democratic rights as citizens of the EU will also grow.

This factor became tangible in the crisis of the euro. The crisis forces the Council to take reluctantly decisions that could have different consequences on the national budgets.  Since May 8th, it has crossed a threshold by taking decisions with potential changes on debt and with statements of intention with the aim of harmonization in all fields of competition (in economical, fiscal, social, cultural policies).

Problems of distribution appear beyond this threshold, because as moving from a “negative” integration towards a “positive” integration”, the emphasis moves from on output legitimisation to an input legitimisation.  Thus, it would be in the logic of this evolution that nationals, who should face changes of distribution across borders, as citizens of the European Union, want to influence democratically what their heads of government negotiate or decide in a legal and political grey zone.

Instead, we notice the governments using delaying tactics and, from the national audiences, a growing populist rejection of the European project. This self-destructive behavior can be explained by the fact that the political elites and the media do not dare articulate the reasonable conclusions of this constitutional project.  The pressure of the markets has imposed the conviction that when the euro currency was introduced, an economic blind spot had been missed. The European Union can assert itself only if it receives the necessary competences for guaranteeing, at least in the heart of Europe, i.e. among the members of the Eurozone, a convergence of the economic and social developments.

All the participants know that this “strengthened cooperation” is not possible in the frame of the existing treaties.  The consequence of this common “economic government”, complacently dear to the heart of the German government, would mean that the central requirement of the competitiveness of all countries of the European Economic Community would reach far beyond the financial and economic policies to the very heart of the budgetary competences of the national parliaments.

If the current treaties may not be blatantly broken, this reform could only occur through another transfer of competences from the Member States to the Union.  Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have concluded a compromise between the German economic liberalism and the French “etatism” that has a completely different meaning. If I am right, they try to strengthen the federalism of the governments implicit in the Lisbon Treaty in an intergovernmental domination of the Council which is against the Treaty. Such a regime would transfer the markets imperatives to the national budgets without any specific democratic legitimization.

In this prospect, arrangements would be concluded in opacity and without juridical form, and they should be imposed by threats and pressures on the national governments dispossessed of their powers.  By acting like this, the heads of governments would transform the European project into the contrary of its original objective: the first supranational democratically legitimated community would turn into a kind of effective and hidden exercise of post-democratic domination.   The alternative relies in the resolute continuation of the democratic legislation of the EU.  Citizens’ solidarity cannot be developed inside Europe, when between the Member States, i.e. at the potential breakpoints, the social inequalities between rich and poor nations are reinforced.

The Union must guarantee what the Basic Law of the German Federal Republic constitution calls (art. 106, section 2) : the “uniformity of living standards”. This homogeneity only refers to an estimation of life situations that should be socially acceptable and not to the leveling of cultural differences. Now, a political integration based on social well-being is necessary for protecting the national pluralism and the cultural wealth of the biotope of “old Europe” from the leveling of an ever continuing globalization.


This text is an excerpt of the conference given by Jürgen Habermas at the University Paris-Descartes in the frame of a colloquium organized by the team PHILéPOL (philosophie, épistémologie et politique) directed by the philosopher Yves Charles Zarka. The full text is edited in French in the January Edition of the revue Cités (PUF).