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Jürgen Habermas: EU elites keep power from the people

Posted by Olog-hai on Wed Aug 24 21:41:03 2011

This is a philosopher who is solidly on the left, too.

New York Times


E.U. Elites Keep Power From the People

Published: August 22, 2011
BERLIN — When the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas says something about Europe and his country, Germans take special note. As a passionate European with a big following in the United States, Mr. Habermas, 82, comments when he senses that things are going very wrong.

So when he recently delivered a speech in Berlin amid the continuing euro crisis, he captivated his audience. He accused the political elites of reneging on their responsibility to bring Europe to its citizens.

“The process of European integration, which has always taken place over the heads of the population, has now reached a dead end,” Mr. Habermas said at a forum hosted by the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It cannot go any further without switching from its usual administrative mode to one of greater public involvement.”

The political elites “are burying their heads in the sand,” he said, adding, “They are doggedly persisting with their elitist project and the disenfranchisement of the European population.”

Those who agree with Mr. Habermas often cite the behavior of José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, the Union’s executive, and Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, which represents the 27 member states.

During these past months, both have failed to explain to a wider public what is happening to Europe and the euro. When they give interviews, they tend to address an elitist audience. Neither reaches out to citizens. “I doubt if they ever thought of doing town-hall meetings,” said Pawel Swieboda, director of DemosEuropa, an independent research organization in Warsaw.

“They don’t bother to do such meetings because they don’t have to stand for election,” added Reinhard Bütikofer, a German and leader of the Greens in the European Parliament.

Mr. Barroso and Mr. Van Rompuy were chosen behind closed doors. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, who on European issues often skirt the broader public, had a powerful influence over who should run Brussels. They preferred weak leaders who would be beholden to them, analysts say.

In contrast, as an elected lawmaker, Mr. Bütikofer was last week conducting town-hall meetings in the north-eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where his party hopes to get elected to the regional Parliament next month.

Those who argue for more democracy in the European Union to give the leaders in Brussels real legitimacy and force them to justify their decisions publicly face two big hurdles.

The first is the determination of national Parliaments to hold on to what remains of their powers. As it is, two-thirds of legislation is approved in Brussels and then passed to the national Parliaments to nod through. No wonder that German lawmakers are so exercised about the euro crisis.

The plan, vaguely outlined by Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy after they met in Paris last Tuesday, to introduce economic governance on the E.U. level would mean Brussels encroaching on Germany’s national budgets and tax systems. Such governance is a logical step toward more economic integration. But, ask lawmakers, where is the democratic accountability and transparency? Mr. Habermas says it does not exist.

The second hurdle is that more democracy would mean reopening the E.U. treaties, which, among many other things, set out how the leaderships in Brussels are chosen and how the institutions function.

“This is a big problem for legitimacy. If you want to seek more legitimacy through legitimate means, then that means amending the treaties,”
said Krzysztof Bledowski, a European expert and economist and council director of the Manufacturers Alliance, a lobby based in Arlington, Virginia, that keeps a close eye on developments in Europe.

But no E.U. leader wants to reopen the laboriously negotiated treaties.

The Union could at least be democratized in small ways. But, noted Mr. Swieboda, “the E.U. works on the basis of method, of processes. They take precedence over democracy.”

Momentous decisions like the introduction of the euro or enlargement are taken in tiny steps at first, making it difficult for opponents to garner enough public support at any given moment. But once the process has gathered steam, it becomes even harder to stop. Both the Commission and the member states always put forward the argument that a rupture would be too risky and too costly. Besides, in the end, everyone will benefit from closer integration.

It is true that the Union would not exist in its present form without the “méthode Monnet,” as it is sometimes called, after Jean Monnet, Europe’s founding father under whose guidance the first modest decisions about integrating the European coal and steel industry were taken in the early 1950s.

Step by inexorable step, this method led to a common market for all goods. But the same method was also applied when Greece joined the euro in 2001, despite warnings from economists and investors about Greece’s credentials, and later when Bulgaria and Romania joined the Union in 2008, despite warnings from judicial and security officials about the endemic corruption and trafficking in both countries. Their warnings went unheeded. The process could not be stopped.

Criticism of this kind of decision-making is not welcome, either.

“The status quo response is that because Europe is the answer, it should not be questioned,” Mr. Swieboda said. “If you question the Commission, for example, then you are considered a euro-skeptic.”

This approach has vindicated populist, euro-skeptic parties. Pro-Europeans call them anti-European. But the populist parties, increasingly pandered to by the mainstream right, have a point: the Union does not listen to its citizens.

“We are missing true European leaders,” said Andrea Römmele, a professor for communication in politics and civil society at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. “With so many national and European issues interlinked, there is a great need for Europe’s leaders to communicate to their publics and strengthen Europe.”

The euro crisis is the prime example of how leaders have failed to do just that. If and when Europe emerges from this latest crisis, proponents of more integration say the leadership in Brussels and in the capitals cannot continue as before. Unless the Union’s doors are fully opened to accountability and democracy, Europe will fall prey to populists.


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