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What Europe needs now

On the eve of EU's 50th anniversary, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas sets out what he believes are the most pressing items on the European agenda

The weekend of March 24-25 celebrates the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome and the birth of the European Union. In an interview, philosopher and social scientist Jürgen Habermas looks at Europe's development and speculates about its future. He proposes that, in the Europe-wide elections scheduled for 2009, citizens should vote on a referendum asking whether the European Union should have a directly elected president, its own foreign minister and financial base.

Matthias Hoenig: Herr Habermas, You were just 15 at the end of World War II, but that was old enough to personally experience the devastating effects of blind nationalism. Now that the EU is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, what do you remember as a witness of those postwar years?

Jürgen Habermas: I must confess that, 50 years ago, the domestic question of nuclear arms for the West German army was of more passionate interest to me than the creation of the European Economic Community. I didn't realize back then that the EEC as a customs union had already been equipped with constitutional-like institutions and therefore offered the prospect of a real European Community, that is, a political unification of the countries of Western Europe. On the other hand, the motives of supporters of the national peace movement were in accord with those driving the six EEC founding nations and their chief spokesmen, Adenauer, de Gasperi and Schumann. Those aims were: no more war between the nation-states which had devastated one another in two world wars, and the firm anchoring of Germany in a community of European nations, the selfsame Germany which had launched the last war and bore the monstrous, criminal responsibility for the Holocaust.

That EU member states could ever again make war on one another seems inconceivable. And the mature Common Market has brought prosperity to many people. May we then celebrate an historic paradigm shift in European politics, away from thinking in terms of nation-states and towards a genuinely pan-European view?

That is certainly cause for celebration, even though the paradigm shift is not yet complete. But there has been quite another outcome which, with some degree of self-awareness, we could put to good use. In today's tense, multi-polar situation, European unification makes it possible for us to play a role which no one could have foreseen back at the start of the East-West conflict. At the outset, "Europe" was a response to internal problems; today, when we think about the future of Europe, our eyes are mainly on problems which challenge us from the outside. It is not only the EU's eastward expansion which is extending the dynamics of unification beyond the level arrived at in Nice. But admittedly we are not yet ready to play the role of a diplomatic bridge among global powers.

Could you cite a particular geopolitical challenge?

Let's take the example of the recent conflict between Israel and Hizbullah, carried out on Lebanese soil. Thanks to the Bush government's one-sided policy on the Middle East conflict, the USA has long been a partisan player. Many people pinned their hopes on Europe, which was regarded as neutral. But aside from sending its foreign policy spokesman Javier de Solana to Beirut and Jerusalem, the EU provided a laughable spectacle with its chorus of dissonant voices. At the same time certain individual countries, such as France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain, tried to stand out on their own, and outdo one another by putting forward home-grown initiatives.

What would you place at the top of the EU's policy agenda: the recently defeated EU constitution; a common European foreign policy; joint European armed forces; the taming of international neo-liberalism by setting social standards; or taking a leading role in international efforts to deal with climate change?

You've listed there the most urgent challenges which a united Europe must face in the 21st century. But a common foreign policy, the creation of joint armed forces and the harmonisation of tax and economic policies to secure our endangered social and cultural standards are on quite a different level from the defeated EU constitution. Before it can set itself such ambitious goals, the expanded EU must first put its own house in order, so it can remain governable and develop the ability to act politically. Above all, we shouldn't harbour any illusions about where the resistance to a deepening of EU institutions is really coming from...

... from the rejection of many citizens throughout Europe?

Not from resistance by the people! That is an understandable, but nevertheless mistaken idea which has taken root since the constitution's defeat in France and the Netherlands. Actually, in most countries there are silent majorities that favour a strengthening of the European Union. The underlying reason for paralysis is rather that various governments have differing objectives to the Union. The obstruction we see today comes from the fact that our governments are avoiding the predictable conflict over this central issue. There have been reports, for example, that as President of the European Council, Germany is preparing a statement for the March 25th jubilee which touches only tangentially on the constitution question.

Then what is the significance of the negative outcomes in the French and Dutch referenda?

The failed referenda simply turned a spotlight on the fact that our governments are stuck in a dead-end and can move neither forwards nor backwards. Until now they have been able to rely on the "Monnet method" and have followed the imperatives which inevitably arose from economic integration. The Common Market was not a zero-sum game. It brought various benefits to every member-state. By contrast, a constitutional framework for common policies demands a common political will that goes beyond recognition of the benefits for each member-state. Obviously our governments cannot yet reach agreement about the ultimate goal, the real meaning of the "European project."

Would it be possible to say more concretely whose fault it is?

Leaving out the new member-states, Great Britain and some Scandinavian countries are pulling in one direction, while the founding nations and Spain are pushing in the other. The Brussels agreement on concrete goals to reduce climate change (news story), which has yet to be implemented, must be regarded as a success for Angela Merkel. But was it really anything more than a diversionary move before the real battle?

Then who should fuel European development, if not the governments?

The only way out I can see is a Europe-wide referendum. The governments – which control the process after all – have to recognize their own powerlessness and, this one time, "dare to use democracy." They have to rise above themselves and face the political parties of which they themselves are composed with the necessity of engaging in an open, Europe-wide campaign, a struggle for each and every vote in favour of, or in opposition to, an expansion and deepening of the European Union.

As you have emphasized on many occasions, geopolitical developments demand a strong Europe, which could become a model for similar mergers into supranational powers on other continents. A just international economic system cannot come into being without such global players, you have argued, and in any case neither international security problems nor the challenge of climate change can be treated at the national level alone. In brief: given all the problems which cannot be dealt with nationally, is the model of the nation-state on the way out?

No, nation-states remain the most important players on the international stage. They also constitute irreplaceable components of international organisations. After all, the international community is organised in the form of "United Nations." Who is to support and nourish the UN, and provide troops for humanitarian interventions, if not the nation-states? Who, if not the nation-states, will guarantee equal rights for all citizens? What must change – and has already done so in Europe – is the self-image of nation-states, which must learn to see themselves not so much as independent players but as members of a larger community, who feel bound to adhere to common norms. They must learn to pursue their own interests within international networks, more through clever diplomacy than through the threat of unilateral military force.

You have sharply criticised the crude power politics of the USA under the Bush administration, which makes the interests of its own country the supreme criterion and has openly suspended major tenets of international law. In your view, world politics today is governed by an uninhibited "social Darwinism." A strong Europe could strengthen the United Nations and pave the way for a more just worldwide domestic policy. How do you envision that in concrete terms?

Your brief account neglects two things. First, that my criticism of the Bush government bears not the faintest whiff of anti-American sentiment. Here in Germany, anti-Americanism has always been part of the most reactionary movements. But the fact that my generation in particular admires and has learned from the political culture of the United States, which is rooted in the 18th century, does not oblige me to unquestioning loyalty. Rather, it obliges me to hold fast to the normative significance of the Federal Republic's orientation towards the West, even against the self-destructive policies of an American government which can be voted out of office. Secondly, I am not naive enough to believe that even a Europe which has learned to speak with a single voice could alone bring about the long-overdue reform of the United Nations. If the United States does not spearhead the movement for reform – as it did twice in the course of the 20th century – there is little prospect of its success. We can at most cultivate the hope that a stronger Europe will be able to influence its allies along these lines. At the same time we must reckon with the likelihood that the next U.S. administration will pursue a neo-realist power policy and will tend not to be open to the normative prospects of a strengthened United Nations Organisation.

What long-term goals should be pursued by the EU as a political body? Does your vision include a "United States of Europe" with a common government, citizenship, armed forces, etc.? What should Europe's political structure look like 50 years from now?

A bold vision for 50 years down the line will not help us get on right now. I am content with a vision for the period leading up to the European elections in 2009. Those elections should be coupled with a Europe-wide referendum on three questions: whether the Union, beyond effective decision-making procedures, should have a directly elected president, its own foreign minister, and its own financial base. That is what Belgium's Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt advocates. Such a proposal would pass muster if it won a "double majority" of EU member-states and of individual citizens' votes. At the same time, the referendum would be binding only on those EU member-nations in which a majority of citizens had voted for the reforms. If the referendum were to succeed, it would mean the abandonment of the model of Europe as a convoy in which the slowest vehicle sets the pace for all. But even in a Europe consisting of a core and a periphery, those countries which prefer to remain on the periphery for the time being would of course retain the option of becoming part of the core at any time.


The interview was conducted by Matthias Hoenig for the dpa.

Jürgen Habermas, born in 1929, is one of Germany's foremost intellectual figures. A philosopher and sociologist, he is professor emeritus at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt and the leading representative of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. His works include "Legitimation Crisis", "Knowledge and Human Interests", "Theory of Communicative Action" and "The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity."

Translation: Myron Gubitz.

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