The core of Europe as its salvation – a conversation of Die Zeit with the German Philosopher and Sociologist, Jürgen Habermass, about Brexit and the crisis in Europe. Appeared in Bulgarian at A-specto, translated by Valentina Tzoneva exclusively for SouthFront
Mr Habermass, have you ever thought that Brexit is possible? How did you feel when you learnt about the success of the campaign for leaving the EU?
I did not expect that populism could win over capitalism, and at that, in its home country. Having in mind the existential meaning of the bank sector in Great Britain, and in relation to the media power and the political ability of London City for pressure, it was unbelievable that the identity questions will overcome the questions of the dominant interests.
Many are talking about referendums in other states. Would a referendum in Germany get a different outcome from the one in Great Britain?
I would guess so. The European integration was and still is, in the interest of the Federal Republic of Germany. In the beginning, in the decades after the military years, we acted carefully like ‘good Europeans’ who managed step-by-step to rebuild their ruined national reputation. After all, we managed to use the support of the EU for the unification of Germany. If we looked back, we could see that Germany is the big beneficiary of the European Monetary Union, including the process of the Euro- crisis. And as since 2010, the German government managed to impose on the European Council its neoliberal views against France and south-European countries, it is easy for Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schauble to behave as big defenders of the European idea at home. Of course, this is a local point of view, but the government should not have feared that the independent press took a different position and informed the society for the reasons for the crisis in Europe and in some other member-states.
You accuse the press for being pious to the rulers. Merkel cannot complain about a lack of criticism of the government, especially when it comes to her refugee policy.
This is not the main topic here, but I will be honest. The refugee policy divided the German social opinion, as well as the position of the press in our country. This put an end to the long-lasting unprecedented paralysis of the social political debate. I spoke about this earlier during the Euro crisis. At that time, there was an expectation for a dynamic polemics for the crisis policy of the German government in the society. The technocratic approach, which has the effect of postponement, is counterproductive and questioned all over Europe. But in the leading weekly and daily press which I read, it isn’t so. If this observation is correct, I can look for an explanation as a sociologist. I have the perspective of an active reader of the newspapers and I ask myself if the lullaby politics of Merkel could sweep the country without any criticism from the side of the press. The thinking horizon shrinks when there isn’t alternative thinking. Right now, I witness such taking of tranquilizers. In a text about the last conference of the German Social-Democratic party which I read, the position of a ruling party regarding the big and important event such as Brexit, limits itself to “the perspective of the vassal” – as Hegel would have said – and thus to the next parliamentary elections and the personal relations between Mr Gabriel and Mr Schultz.
Is the will of the British to leave the EU more national, due to their internal reasons, or is it symptomatic of the EU crisis?
Both. The British have a different history behind their back from the rest of the continent. The political confidence of a big power, which in the 20th Century has won twice but which is globally in decline, is hesitant to enter in harmony with the changing situation. With this national consciousness, Great Britain enters into an inconvenient situation, after entering the European Economic Society in 1973 solely for economic reasons. The political elites from Thatcher, through Blair to Cameron, did not think at all about saying goodbye to the idea that they are something different from continental Europe. This, however, was Churchill’s perspective, who in 1946 in his famous speech (and for a reason) about Europe in Zurich saw the Empire as a good-willing godmother of United Europe, but not as a part of it. The British in Brussels also practiced the policy of the restraint and were led by the maxim: ”Wash me, but don’t make me wet.”
You mean their economic policy?
The British had a decisively liberal market relation towards the EU as a free-trade zone, which got expressed in the expansion of the politics of the EU, but not a parallel deepening of the co-operation. No Schengen, no Euro. The extremely instrumental tuning of the elite regarding the EU is already reflected in the pre-election campaign for remaining in the EU at the referendum. The weak in enthusiasm defenders for remaining in the EU, limited themselves to economic arguments in a campaign led by fear. How is it possible among the broad society to apply pro-European tuning, when the political leadership for decades behaved as if the merciless strategic defense of national interests was sufficient to keep you in a super-national community of states? From a distance, this failure of the elite is reflected in the egocentric-acting players Cameron and Johnson, two different and ambiguous personalities.
In this choice, there was a striking difference between old and young voters, as well as a strong division between the city and the province. The multicultural city lost. Why is the national identity against European integration all of a sudden? Did the European politicians under-estimate the explosive power of the national and cultural whimsy?
You are right. The votes of the British electorate partially reflect the total crisis of the EU and the member-states. In the results of the analysis of the voters, the example of the presidential election in Austria and even our last regional election in the provinces is repeated. The relatively high voting activity shows that the populist camps have managed to mobilize part of the non-voters. They comprise mainly of marginalized parts of the population who feel that they have been ‘forgotten’. This is reflected in the other results where the poorer, the socially weak and less educated layers of the society have helped outbalance the results for the exit. There is not only conflicting behavior between the voters in the city and the province, but also the geographic division of the votes for exiting the EU. So the accumulation of these votes in Central England and parts of Wales, mostly amongst the ruined industrial scenes which have not come back economically, speaks about the economic and social reasons for Brexit. The feeling of drastically-increased inequality, as well as the fact that their own interests have not been presented on a political level, created conditions for mobilizing against the Other, rejection of the EU and hatred for Brussels. For the unstable world of the everyday, the national and cultural ‘whimsy’, as you say, creates a stabilizing column.
Are these only social questions? After all, there is a historical tendency towards national self-help and refusal for co-operation and collaboration. Super-nationalism for the citizens means loss of control. What do you think? Is nationalism the only rock on which they can build? Does it not prove that the national and trans-national democracy has failed?
An attempt which has not yet been undertaken cannot be failed. Of course, the appeal: ”Let’s get the control back”, which played a role in the British referendum, is a symptom that this must be taken seriously. The observer is forced to see the obvious irrationality of the result as well as that of the campaigns. The campaigns full of hatred are increasing on the whole continent. The socio-pathologic characteristics of a politically-liberated aggression, demonstrate that the broadly-spread systematic limits of the non-controlled economic and digitally-developing world society, suppress the forms of social integration, which have been democratically written in the national state. This causes regression. An example is the Wilhelm’s fantasies by Jaroslav Kachinski – the mentor of the acting Polish government. After the British referendum, he suggested releasing the EU into a broad union of sovereign national states so that a military super-power is created from which the rattling of arms is heard.
We can say that Kachinski reacted in this way due to the loss of control of the national state.
Like all the symptoms, the feeling of loss of control has a real core – sinking the democracy of national states, which up to now have given their citizens a chance to participate in the choice of important conditions for their social existence. The British referendum is evidence of the key meaning for the terminology that we are already in a ‘post-democracy’ stage. Obviously, the infrastructure without which a political society cannot function has collapsed. After the first analysis, the media and the arguing parties did not inform the population about the relevant questions and basic facts, and let’s not talk about more important arguments “for“ and “against” the competing public opinions. The extremely low voting activity of those who are 18 to 24, unlike the voting activity of adults, is another demonstrative factor.
It sounds like it is the press that must be blamed again.
No, but the behavior of this age-group throws light on the use of the media by the younger people in the digital decade and on the change of attitude to politics, as a whole. After the ideology of the Silicon Valley, the market and the technologies save the society and make something as old-fashioned as democracy, redundant. A serious factor in this context is the common tendency for ‘nationalization’ of the political parties. Of course, it is not by chance that European politics is not rooted in the social society. In reality, it is organized in such a way that the important for the whole society economic and political courses for democratically-taken decisions, have been taken away. This technocratic emptying of the agenda, which definitely affects the citizens, is not naturally-given but is a consequence of the established format of contracts. In this context, a role is played by the political wish for separation of powers on a national and a European base – the strength of the Union is concentrated at a point where the interests of the national states must be mutually blocked.
The trans-nationalization of democracy would have been the correct answer to this. It is not surprising that it has taken place in a strong, interconnected global society for compensating the loss of control, which the citizens feel and which makes them feel discontentment.
Many, however, do not believe in trans-nationalization of democracy. According to the sociologist, Wolfgang Schterk, the EU is a machine for deregulations. According to him, it did not manage to protect the people from wild capitalism; on the contrary – it handed it over on a plate. And now the nation states must take back the matter in their own hands. Why don’t we go back to the old capitalism of the social state?
The crisis evaluations of Wolfgang Schtrek are based on serious empirical analyses. I also share his diagnosis for depletion of the democratic substance, which, meanwhile, has been institutionalized almost only in the nation states. And I share many similar diagnoses of political scientists and jurists related to the undemocratic consequences of the new political and judicial forms of “management from beyond the national state”. But the arguments about the return to the form of the small nation states are not very convincing for me, as they should be led by global markets in the style of global multi-concerns. This means the full abduction of politics in the face of imperatives of the non-regulated markets.
There is an interesting formation of camps. According to one side, the European Union as a political project, is finished, and Brexit is a clear signal for the fact that Europe must be reconstructed. The other side for example, Martin Schultz, says: This is not how it works. The crisis in the EU is caused by the lack of deep integration – there is a Euro, but there isn’t a European government; there isn’t an economic and social politics. Who is right?
The morning after Brexit, Steinmeier took the initiative of inviting the six foreign ministers of the founding member states; Angela Merkel felt the danger immediately. From this position, one can read the will of Europe to deeply reconstruct itself from the very core, due to the wave of quakes. Instead, she first decided to look for unification of the remaining 27 member-states. Knowing that such constructive unification in the circle of authoritarian nationalists like Orban and Kachinski is impossible, Angela Merkel wanted to suffocate from the very beginning any thought for further integration. Maybe she hopes for further neutralization of trade, economic and political consequences of Brexit, or even their revision.
Your critique is not since yesterday. You have previously accused Mrs Angela Merkel for her policy to “continue in the same way”, especially with regard to her European politics.
I am afraid of this known politics of calming, which is applied and was applied. The argument is: don’t worry, the EU have always changed! In reality, the perspectiveless resistance of the languishing crisis with the Euro will lead to such consequences that the EU, in its reactive adapting regime, will not be able to continue in the same way. But the advancing adaptation to the normalcy of “the great stagnation” will be paid by a refusal to have any political face. This is the same Angela Merkel, who was twice already impressively publically rejected by the sociology scientists, for a general lack of any political flexibility – for the climate change and for the decision to accept the refugees. Zigmar Gabriel and Martin Schultz in this country are the only popular voices who are still showing a mark of some political temperament and who do not want to shyly yield to the political class from an attempt to think three to four years in advance. If the political management surrenders to the aggressive path of history, this is not a sign of realism. “In case of danger and a screaming need, the middle road leads to death,” – over the last few days, I have been intensively thinking about the movie of my friend, Alexander Kluge. Of course, in retrospect, we can always realize whether there has been another option or not. But before we give up an unexplored alternative, we must try to imagine our everyday life as the past of a modern-day future historian. “Enough of visions. Show us some skills.”
How do you see the change of the Union without fear of the citizens of further loss of democratic control? So far, any change in Europe has led to growing skepticism. Wolfgang Schoible and Karl Lamers in the past spoke about “Europe on two speeds”. At that time, you agreed with them. How can we imagine such a Europe? Is there no need for a change of contracts?
The call for convention, which must lead to big changes in contracts and referendums, would have been questioned if the EU undertakes the most important problems and attempts to manage them in a more convincing manner. We can call priority problems: the unresolved crisis with the Euro, the long-term refugee problem and actual security problems. But even their description is in cacophony of the 27 member-states of the European Union, which are not able to reach a consensus. Compromising is only possible when there are ready-to-compromise partners, and for this, the interests of each party must not differ from the rest. This minimum of closeness of interests may be expected from the countries in the Eurozone. The crisis fate of the Eurozone, with reasons well analyzed by science, links these countries for years already, although in quite an asymmetrical way. That’s why the Eurozone will define the natural size of the future core of Europe. If these countries had a political will, the major principle for their integration, foreseen in the contracts, will provide the first steps for the separation of such a core, and with this the long-postponed formation of an equivalent of the Eurogroup in the European Parliament.
This would divide the EU
That’s right. This plan will be blamed for ‘division’. But if we really want integration in Europe, this blame is unreasonable as only a functioning core of Europe could unite the member-states and to convince their polarized people in the meaning of the project. Only with this condition will these people who want to hold to their sovereignty, go for a permanent open membership, as they will have to tolerate the project from its very beginning. The first step to a compromise in the frame of the Eurozone, is for Germany to take, which should back off from its resistance against the narrow financial, economic and socio-political co-operation, and France should be ready to give up its sovereignty in the related areas.
Who would block it?
For a long time, I was of the opinion that the expected resistance of France will be bigger. This is not the case today. Each act of deepening shrinks, due to the hard resistance of CDU/CSU, which for years underestimate their voters and have minimum solidarity with the citizens of other countries. Every time there is an election on the horizon, they play the role of a national economic egotism and systematically underestimate the readiness of the German citizens to compromise their own long-term interests. In an energetic manner, they must be offered a future-orientated and well-supported alternative to the paralysed continuation of current course.
Brexit enforces the German influence. Up to now, Germany was considered the hegemon. How was this conclusion reached?
The return to the supposed national ‘normalcy’ led to a change of mentality in our country, which has been formed for decades in conditions of controversy in the old West Germany. This comes with the more self-confident style, more decisive, direct and ‘realistic’ organisation of the external politics of the Berlin Republic. Since 2010, we see how the German government undertakes the leading role in Europe, less for the common and more for its own personal interest. In an article in Frankfurter Algemeine Zaitung, the counterproductive influence of German politics is regretted because it “mixed up the European management with its own understanding of order.” (FAZ 29/06/2016)
Germany is a reluctant, insensitive and incapable hegemon using and rejecting the collapsed balance of the powers in Europe. This creates dissatisfaction, especially in the countries of the Eurozone. How must a Spaniard, Portuguese or Greek feel after losing his job as a result of the approved politics austerity measures by the European Union? He cannot press charges against the German members of the government who had applied this politics in Brussels because he can neither vote for them, nor recall them. Instead, during the Greek crisis, he realized that these politicians have an enormous contribution and a big responsibility for the catastrophic consequences in social aspects, which have been accepted with such strictness and impassivity. The growing anti-European moods should not be surprising for us, unless these non-democratic mistakes in the constructions are fixed. Democracy in Europe cannot be achieved in another way, unless it is through a deepening of European co-operation.
This means that the right movements of resistance will disappear if there is more Europe and the EU is more democratic.
No. I expect that they will lose ground on the way. If I am right, all the countries today come from the point that the Union must get back the trust in order to dig in the grounds of the right-populism. One side wants to demonstrate capacity in order to impress the correct clientele through the game of muscles. The slogan is: “Enough of visions. Show us skills.” From this point of view, Wolfgang Shoible, publically denounced his own idea for “the core of Europe”. He relies totally on the inter-governmental method and the states and the chairmen would manage the problems between themselves. He relies on the vision of a successful co-operation of strong national states, but the examples that he presents – the digital union suggested by Yotinger, the common European budgets for defense or the European Energy Union won’t be attractive for the people and if we really have to bear in mind the priority problems, Shoible points to the refugee policy and the creation of a European right for shelter, but leaves aside the dramatic unemployment of youths in the south countries. That’s why the other side suggests an alternative for deeper and binding co-operation in a smaller circle of countries willing to co-operate. Such a Euro-union does not need problems in order to prove its own ability to act. On the way to it, the citizens should be able to realize that the core of Europe will deal with all social and economic problems standing behind the insecurity, the fear of social decay and the feeling of losing control. The social state and democracy together form the inner-connection, which can be guaranteed by the national state in a monetary union.