Among the most influential living thinkers, Jürgen Habermas has a timely new treatise on Europe. He sees beyond the “crisis” a Europe leading the way for a coming world based on supranational institutions.
BERLIN – How is Europe doing? The answer will depend on whether you focus on the present political and economic crisis, and the accompanying media noise, or – looking some 50 years down the line – on the long-term fate of institutions and treaties with which Europe has opened a new chapter of its history.
In 2009, the arrival of the Lisbon Treaty was celebrated with fireworks – and for German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, it represented an important milestone in shifting the competencies of national states to supranational institutions.
If you answer the question about how Europe is doing strictly from the present, it could prompt anger at a potential scenario that has become all too real: that the whole "Europe project" could fail. If you answer it from the second perspective, pride mixes with hope, knowing that more political wisdom is inherent in the European Union than its current political players and public opinion together can muster. More has been achieved towards a European constitution than most Europeans realize. And that Europe is not only too big, it's far too valuable to fail.
In his newly-published Zur Verfassung Europas -- Ein Essay (On Europe's Constitution – An Essay), Habermas uses this double perspective like 3-D glasses to take a look into Europe's future, even as he reaches back to explore the history of democracy. His essay is nothing less than an attempt to set the ground for a new European narrative that frees the continent from its 20th century experiences of war and destruction by transcending them – and looks ahead to a time when lasting peace is a "cosmopolitan right" (Kant).
The crux of his argument can be summed up in this sentence: "The European Union should be seen as a first decisive step toward a politically constitutionalized world society." Habermas is not so concerned whether those who hold sway right now are the Europeans currently busy trying to rescue the continental project, or the skeptics, anti-Brussels populists and nostalgic fans of the D-Mark hoping it will fail. Still: even if the model of Utopian realism that Habermas applies seems foreign in the 24-hour news cycle of blitz reactions and drastic shifts in stock prices, it would be wise to let it in.
Habermas is a realist. He shows that much has already been accomplished towards achieving a "transnational democracy" in Europe, even if the Lisbon Treaty is a pact among states, not a constitution written by the European people.
According to Habermas, Europeans themselves don't yet understand their Europe. Habermas pins responsibility for that on politicians as well, saying that instead of sealing themselves off at summit meetings, they should be tackling the European project in an up-front "shirt-sleeves, noisy and opinionated" way.
The media too has failed in their job of presenting a vision of the future, presenting the prerequisites for Europe's citizens to develop feelings of cohesion and solidarity. In this regard, the "quality" press is a particular disappointment to Habermas. Could it be, he wonders, that even high-minded observers just don't comprehend that structural change is at hand?
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