Are we still good Europeans?

Are we still good Europeans?

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by Jürgen Habermas
When I graduated from high school, my career aspiration was listed on my diploma: Habermas wants to become a journalist, it said. Yet once I began working for the Gummersbach section of the Cologne daily Kölner Stadtanzeiger, and then again when I wrote under Adolf Frisé for the culture pages of the Handelsblatt, it was repeatedly made clear to me that my writing style was far too complex. Even the extremely charitable Karl Korn, who fervently urged me to practice during my time as a university student in Bonn, later declared that I should perhaps stick to my academic proclivities. It is a critique that continues to be reflected in reader mail, and at my age, improvement isn’t likely. All of which makes me even more delighted about the invitation, extended to me by the director general of Saarland Broadcasting in conjunction with the German-French Journalism Prize, to follow in the footsteps of such distinguished predecessors as Tomi Ungerer, Simone Veil and Jean Asselborn. My connection to Asselborn is that he too prefers blunt honesty when speaking of Europe. With the prize presenter and laudator having found such complimentary words for my efforts – endeavours which are otherwise simply derogated as euro-romanticism – you will certainly not view it as a transgression of good taste if I, against the backdrop of our disintegrating continent, merely repeat that which I have often stated before on this subject.
I will refrain from addressing the symptomatic clamouring coming out of Bavaria, a ruckus that triggered a government crisis while shoving the more pressing issue – the lack of cooperation in the EU – into the background. The culpability lies with that sort of pro-European who shies away from admitting to the real reservations they, in fact, hold against a Europe of practised solidarity. Jean-Paul Sartre explained the term mauvaise foias an elegant contradistinction to bonne foi. Who among us is not familiar with this quietly murmuring uneasiness? We act bona fide, in good faith, but in moments of reflection, we sense a gnawing doubt about the consistency of the assertively argued convictions we hold – as if there was a weak spot in the river bank over which the waters of our argument are flowing unnoticed. My impression is that Emmanuel Macron’s appearance on the European stage has exposed just such a weak spot in the self-image of those Germans who patted themselves on the back during the euro crisis, convinced as they were that they remained the best Europeans and were pulling everyone else out of the quagmire.
Allow me to add that the imputation of such a mauvaise foidoes not imply moral reproach. Those afflicted are neither completely to blame nor entirely free of blame for the rotten state of such a belief structure, decaying as it is from the inside out. In this respect, our German pro-Europeanness is not dissimilar to the rather different phenomenon of the frame of mind apparently widespread among the monks in the Cistercian monasteries of the 11th century who were beset by qualms about their faith and who consequently fell into a melancholic torpor. This dejection, which came to be known as “acedia,” was not punished as a sin because it did not transgress the cognitive threshold of explicit heresy. On the other hand, this so-called “monk’s illness” likewise did not fulfil the clinical definition of depression – which would have exonerated those concerned of all responsibility. The monks were not disciplined for their acedia but were expected to take some responsibility themselves. It is precisely this vacillating, this blurring of the lines of accountability, that characterises the profane mauvaise fois, as well.
To be sure, many critics not only considered the German-inspired austerity policy to be misguided but also suspected a bias lurking behind the façade of the vociferous claims of solidarity. But the tenor of the leading media outlets ensured for years that the population’s faith in the solitary role played by Germany in times of crisis went unquestioned. Broadly speaking, the German government’s altruistic role as the vigilant crisis manager and the generous lender was seen as credible. Did it not consistently have the welfare of all member states at heart – even including the unsuccessful attempt to show the Greeks the door? But now, in the face of the completely unanticipated challenges associated with a radically transformed global political situation, the first cracks in this pleasing self-image have become visible. As an example, I would point to a recently published editorial about that notorious night several years ago when the French president squeezed an early morning concession out of the German chancellor, an agreement that she would not force the Greeks out of the European currency union. Only now, three years after the fact, may the always clear-sighted Cerstin Gammelin recall in unvarnished clarity this low point of our unabashed national economic egoism (Süddeutsche Zeitung from June 21, 2018).
In the old West Germany, there really had been good reasons for the German self-image as good Europeans. Those reasons were born out of the country’s military as well as the moral defeat – and yet they still weren’t entirely self-evident. In my view, the shift in mentality toward the celebrated normalcy of a reunified nation-state since 1889/90 has lent and perpetuated a new inflexion to this self-image.
Ultimately, in the course of the banking and sovereign debt crises along with the noise of contradictory crises narratives in different countries, this image became more and more self-centred and entrenched –and increasingly took on the characteristics of a mauvaise foi. The rotten stain in this good-faith self-deception is our mistrust of other countries’ willingness to cooperate – particularly when it comes to southern Europe.
If you listen closely to the German chancellor, it is striking that she makes rather peculiar use of the words “loyalty” and “solidarity.” During a recent appearance on a talk show hosted by Anne Will, Merkel demanded joint political action on asylum policy and in the tariff conflict with the United States, and in this context called for the “loyalty” of the EU partners. Generally, it is the boss who expects loyalty from her employees, while joint political action generally requires solidarity rather than loyalty. Depending on the constellation of interests, it is sometimes the one, sometimes the other, who must subordinate their own interests to those of the whole. When it comes to asylum policy, for example, not all countries –because of their geographical locations, for example – are equally affected by migration nor do they all have the same capacity to take people in. To take another example, tariffs on automobile imports threatened by the U.S. would hit some, Germany in this case, harder than others. In such cases, joint political action means that one party takes the interests of others into consideration and takes on its share of responsibility for the jointly approved political resolution. Germany’s interest is obvious in these two examples, just as it is in the insistence on a joint European foreign policy.
The cause of the Trumpian dissolution of Europe
The fact that the chancellor speaks of “loyalty” in such cases is likely a consequence of her having spent years using the word “solidarity” in a different, strictly economic context. “Solidarity in return for each country’s own responsibility” is the euphemistic slogan that became familiar in the course of the crisis, a reference to the conditions imposed on credit recipients by those granting the credits. What I am getting at is the conditional redefinition of the term solidarity: that is the semantic breaking point where cracks are now showing in the certainty that we Germans are the best Europeans. Contrary to the raving clamour about transfer payments, which have never actually come to pass, what is slowly creeping into the public awareness is both the lack of legitimacy and the dubious effects of investment-hampering budgetary constraints, along with labour market reforms that result in entire generations being jobless.
“Solidarity” is a term that describes the mutually trusting relationship between two actors who have become part of a joint political project of their own free will. Solidarity is not a charity, and it certainly isn’t a form of conditioning for the advantage of one of the actors. Those who engage in solidarity are willing to accept a short-term disadvantage in the service of their long-term self-interest and in the knowledge that the other will behave the same way in a similar situation. Reciprocal trust – in our case, trust across national borders – is just as important a variable as long-term self-interest. Trust bridges the time span until a service in return is due, though it is unsure when or if it will ever come due. The compulsory, rigid conditions for so-called solidarity aid clearly exposes the lack of such a foundation of trust – and the hollowness of our self-image as good Europeans.
In the negotiations over Macron’s reform proposals, meanwhile, Germany and the other so-called donor countries in its tow once again hesitate to transform a sub-optimally functioning currency union into a political Euro Union. A democratic eurozone doesn’t just need to be made “weatherproof” against speculation – by way of a banking union, a corresponding insolvency procedure, a joint deposit insurance scheme and an EU-level monetary fund. More than anything, it must be outfitted with sufficient competencies and budgetary means to intervene to keep the member states from further drifting apart economically and socially. It’s not just about fiscal stabilization, but about convergence – the credible political intent of the economically and politically strongest member states to fulfil the common currency’s broken promise of convergent economic developments.
Right-wing populism may feed off anti-migrant prejudice and the fears of modernization rampant in the middle class, but symptoms are not the illness itself. The underlying cause of political regression is the palpable disappointment that the EU in its current state is more than merely lacking the necessary political efficacy to counteract the trends of growing social inequality within and between its member states. First and foremost, right-wing populism is benefiting from the widespread perception that the EU lacks the political will to become politically effective. The currently crumbling core of Europe would – in the form of an effective Euro Union – be the only conceivable force able to prevent the further destruction of our oft-invoked social model. In its current condition, the union can only accelerate this dangerous destabilization. The cause of the Trumpian dissolution of Europe is the increasing – and, God knows, realistic – awareness among the European population that the credible political will to break out of this destructive spiral is lacking. Instead, the political elites are being sucked into the timid, pollster-driven opportunism of short-term power maintenance. The lack of courage to form even a single idea of one’s own for which a majority must first be won is all the more ironic because a majority prepared to demonstrate solidarity already exists as a fleet in being. I believe that the political elites – first and foremost the despondent social democratic parties – underestimate the disposition of their voters to engage themselves for projects reaching beyond narrow self-interest. The fact that this view isn’t just a reflection of unfulfilled philosophical ideals can be seen in the most recent publication by the research group led by Jürgen Gerhards, who for years has pursued wide-ranging and intelligent comparative studies on solidarity in 13 EU member states. He has not only found indicators for a shared European identity distinct from national identity, but also an unexpectedly high willingness to support European policies that would imply redistribution across national boundaries.
The Italian crisis is perhaps the last chance to reflect on the obscenity of a currency union which imposes a strict system of rules to the benefit of its strongest member states but does not in compensation provide the latitude for joint political action on the European level. That is why the first, small step toward the establishment of a eurozone budget that Macron forced through is of such symbolic importance. The fact that a German government, standing with its back to the wall, is demanding concessions for each tiny step toward integration is ludicrous. I cannot comprehend why the German government believes it can win agreement from its partners on issues that are important to us – such as refugee, foreign and foreign trade policy – while it concurrently digs in on the political development of the euro, a project of paramount importance.
The German government has buried its head in the sand while the French president has made it clear that he wants to make Europe into a global player in the fight for a liberal and more just world order. The reporting in the German press about the recent compromise reached by Macron and Merkel is likewise misleading – as though Merkel’s acceptance of a eurozone budget had been a badly needed success for Macron, made in exchange for his support of her asylum plan. That portrayal ignores the fact that Macron has at least taken initial steps toward an agenda that reaches far beyond the interests of a single country, whereas Merkel is fighting for her political survival. Macron is rightly criticised in his own country for the socially imbalanced nature of his reforms, but he stands head and shoulders above other European leaders because he looks at each current problem from a much broader perspective and thus isn’t condemned to act reactively. He has the courage to shape policy. And its success contradicts the sociological claim that the complexity of our society only allows for a governing style narrowly focused on conflict avoidance.
Simply looking back at the eternal rise and fall of the empires since Antiquity misses the novelty of the current situation. Despite continuing to grow together, global society remains politically fragmented. This frailty of politics provides a sense of the threshold before which people around the world recoil and shy away. I am referring here to the threshold of supranational and yet democratic forms of political integration that ask of voters that they, before casting their ballots, consider the perspectives of all citizens, even across national borders. The advocates of political realism, who have nothing but scorn for such a concept, often forget that their own theory is rooted in the Cold War conflict that involved two rational actors. Where, though, can rationality be found in today’s political arena? Viewed historically, the overdue step toward an effective Euro Union is part of the same learning curve that already took place once before with the development of national consciousnesses in the 19th century. Then too, the cognisance of national belonging beyond town, city and region did not evolve in any “natural” way.
National identities were, rather, purposefully created by leading elites by adapting the shared consciousness of the populations to the already existing and wider-ranging functional contexts of modern territorial states and national economies. Today, national populations are overwhelmed by the politically uncontrollable functional imperatives of a global capitalism that is being driven by unregulated financial markets. The frightened retreat behind national borders cannot be the correct response to that challenge.
(Jürgen Habermas won the German-French Media Prize in early July. This is his acceptance speech in Berlin first published by Die Zeit. English translation by Charles Hawley. He is a German sociologist and philosopher.)  – Social Europe

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