Germany’s leading political scientist suggests remedies for Europe’s woes

The Irish Times – Wednesday, July 29, 2009

EOIN O’BROIN reviews Europe, The Faltering Project By Jürgen Habermas Polity, 197pp, £15.99

THERE IS something refreshingly honest about Jürgen Habermas’s take on the European Union. A critical supporter of the Lisbon Treaty, Germany’s leading philosopher, political scientist and public intellectual believes that Europe can and must do better.

His new collection of essays, Europe, The Faltering Project, brings together a series of previously published papers and speeches on a wide range of philosophical, political, economic and cultural themes.

At first glance there may seem to be little connection between Habermas’s reflections on the relationship between contemporary philosophy, religion and politics on the one hand, and the fate of national media in the era of corporate globalisation on the other.

However, whether explicitly or implicitly, what binds these disparate essays together is the author’s desire to find better ways to regulate the market in what he argues is a post-national era.

The book’s nine essays are divided into three sections. The first three provide illuminating and accessible reflections on three of Habermas’s contemporaries, Ronald Dworkin, Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty. The relationship between the media, markets and the public sphere and the legitimation of international law and global governance make up the concluding three essays.

In the middle section, Habermas outlines his concerns with the current state of the European project and offers his tentative proposals for its future.

He identifies three challenges. Corporate-led globalisation has undermined the ability of the nation state to regulate the market in the best interests of society. The rise of the US as the world’s sole superpower has produced a “reckless, hegemonic power politics”. In turn a “split within the West” has emerged on defence policy, between the EU and the US and within the US itself, exemplified by the Iraq war.

The response to each of these three challenges, argues Habermas, is to be found in deeper European integration. Effective regulation of capital can only take place at the supra-national level, requiring EU harmonisation of social, economic and fiscal policy. An alternative to the Washington Consensus demands a single European foreign policy promoting reform of global economic and political institutions such as the IMF and the UN. Ending US military unilateralism requires an EU army that can earn respect for European principles.

Though rightly recognising that the Lisbon Treaty takes the EU closer to each of these three end points, Habermas is concerned that it does so too slowly and in a manner that deepens the democratic deficit.

To rectify the first of these two problems, he argues for an end to the “convoy model” of EU integration, “in which the slowest vehicle determines the speed” allowing instead for core Europe to press ahead. Addressing the democratic deficit will require an end to the idea that “it is the privilege of the governments to decide the future destiny of Europe behind closed doors”.

And it is here that the compelling logic of Habermas’s argument exposes its Achilles heel, as his desire for supra-national social democratic reform clashes with the undemocratic and neo-liberal reality that is the European Union today.

Despite this, Europe, The Faltering Project is an engaging book that discusses with honesty the issues at the heart of the Lisbon Treaty and the future of the European Union.

Eoin Ó Broin is author of Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism (Pluto). He is the chairman of Dublin Sinn Féin. The party opposes the Lisbon Treaty.


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