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GoetheInstitute

27/03/2006

Towards a United States of Europe

By Jürgen Habermas

On March 9, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas was awarded the Bruno Kreisky Prize for the advancement of human rights. In his acceptance speech printed by the Viennese paper Der Standard on March 10 and 11, Habermas speaks out for the first time on how the Internet has transformed public intellectual life, and takes a critical stance towards the world wide web:

"Use of the Internet has both broadened and fragmented the contexts of communication. This is why the Internet can have a subversive effect on intellectual life in authoritarian regimes. But at the same time, the less formal, horizontal cross-linking of communication channels weakens the achievements of traditional media. This focuses the attention of an anonymous and dispersed public on select topics and information, allowing citizens to concentrate on the same critically filtered issues and journalistic pieces at any given time. The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralised access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus."

A large part of the speech is taken up with a dramatic appeal for concerted social and political action in Europe. signandsight.com thanks Jürgen Habermas for the permission to publish the end of his speech in its entirety.

Why should we get excited about such a lacklustre topic as the future of Europe? My answer is: if we are not able to hold a Europe-wide referendum before the next European elections in 2009 on the shape Europe should take, the future of the Union will be decided in favour of neo-liberal orthodoxy. Avoiding this touchy issue for the sake of a convenient peace and muddling along the well-trodden path of compromise will give free reign to the dynamic of unbridled market forces. This would force us to watch as the European Union's current political power is dismantled in favour of a diffuse European free-trade zone. For the first time in the process of European unification, we face the danger of regressing to a level of integration below what has already been achieved. What irks me is the paralytic numbness that has set in after the failure of the constitutional referenda in France and the Netherlands. Not taking a decision in this context amounts to a decision with major consequences.

Three pressing problems are bundled together in the single issue of Europe's inability to act:

(1) The international economic situation has changed in the wake of globalisation. Today's conditions deprive the national state of the tax resources it needs to satisfy its population's demands for collective goods and public services, or even to maintain the status quo. Further challenges, such as demographic developments and increased immigration, only aggravate the situation. Here the only defence is offence: winning back political clout on a supra-national level. Without convergent tax rates and medium-term harmonisation of economic and social-policies, we are in effect relinquishing our hold over the European social model.

(2) The return to ruthless hegemonic power politics, the clash of the West and the Islamic world, the decay of state structures in other parts of the world, the long-term social consequences of colonialism and the immediate political consequences of failed de-colonisation – all of this points to a high-risk international situation. Only a European Union capable of acting on the world stage - and taking its place beside the USA, China, India and Japan - can press for an alternative to the ruling Washington consensus in the world's economic institutions. Only such a Europe can advance the long overdue reforms within the UN which are both blocked by and dependent on the USA.

(3) One cause for the rift in the West that has become apparent since the Iraq war is the clash of cultures that now divides America itself into two camps of almost equal size. This clash has also caused a shift in the hitherto valid normative standards of government policy. America's closest allies cannot remain indifferent here. It is precisely in critical cases of joint action that we must break free of our dependence on our superior partner. That is one more reason why the European Union needs its own armed forces. Until now Europeans have been subordinated to the dictates and regulations of the American high command in NATO deployments. The time has come for us to attain a position where even in a joint military deployment we still remain true to our own conceptions of human rights, the ban on torture and wartime criminal law.

For these reasons, I believe Europe must pluck up the courage to introduce reforms which will give it not only effective decision-making procedures, but also its own foreign minister, a directly-elected president and its own financial basis. These could be the subject of a referendum held concurrently with the next European parliamentary elections. The draft would be considered passed if it received the 'double majority' of votes of the states and the electorate. At the same time, the referendum would only bind the member states in which a majority had voted in favour. Europe would then move away from the convoy model where the tempo is set by the slowest member. Even in a Europe made up of core and periphery, countries preferring to remain on the periphery retain the option of rejoining the core at any time.

These ideas dovetail with those of the Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, who has recently published a manifesto for the "United States of Europe."

*

The full version of this speech originally appeared in German in Der Standard on March 10 and March 11, 2006.

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: jab.

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