A Search for Europe's Future And the Wheels Stopped Turning

European governments are at their wits' end. It is time for them to admit it -- and let the public decide about the future of the European Union.

By Jürgen Habermas

…and everything comes to a grinding halt.

The farmers are upset about falling global prices and the new regulations constantly coming from Brussels. Those at the bottom of the social ladder are upset about the growing gap between rich and poor, especially evident in a country where both groups live in close proximity. The citizens despise their own politicians, who promise the world but who lack perspective and do not (cannot) deliver.

With the Ireland No, it might be time for the European Union to make some changes.

With the Ireland No, it might be time for the European Union to make some changes.

And then along comes a referendum over a treaty that is too complicated to be understood. EU membership has been more or less advantageous. Why should anything be changed? Doesn't the strengthening of European institutions necessarily lead to a weakening of democratic voices, which are only heard within the national public sphere?

The citizens sense that they are being patronized. Once again, they are to ratify something in the making of which they were not involved. The government has said that this time the referendum will not be repeated until the people give in. And aren't the Irish, this small, obstinate people, the only ones in all of Europe who are actually being asked for their opinions?

They don't want to be treated like cattle being driven to the voting booth. With the exception of three members of parliament who voted "no" on the issue, the Irish people and the entire Irish political class are entirely at odds. In a sense, it is also a referendum over politics in general, making it all the more tempting to send "politics" a message. This temptation is one felt everywhere today.

One can only speculate on the motives behind the Irish "no" vote. But the first official reactions have been clear. Suddenly roused out of complacency, European governments don't want to appear helpless. They are looking for a "technical" solution -- which would result in a repeat of the Irish referendum.

This, though, is little more than unadulterated cynicism on the part of the decision makers, especially given their protestations of respect for the electorate. It is also wind in the sails of those actively wondering whether semi-authoritarian forms of pseudo-democracy practiced elsewhere are perhaps more effective after all.

The purpose of the Lisbon Treaty was to finally achieve the organizational reform intended, but not completed, by the 2001 European Summit in Nice. That summit took place before the European Union's membership was expanded from 15 member states to 27. The eastward expansion, with the broadened prosperity gap and increased diversity of interests, has led to an even greater need for integration in the mean time.

These new conflicts and tensions cannot be addressed by European governing bodies in the manner to which they have become accustomed. After the failure of the proposed European constitution in 2005, the Lisbon Treaty represented a bureaucratically negotiated compromise to be pushed through behind the backs of the citizenry. With this most recent tour de force, European governments have callously demonstrated that they alone are shaping Europe's future. There remained only that one tiresome exception mandated by the Irish constitution.

The treaty itself was little more than a stalling response to the shock of 2005's failure. The ratification process came to a halt in France and the Netherlands before it could even reach the real hurdle in Great Britain. The predicament is even worse today. Business as usual? Or is it perhaps time to realize that, for European unity to deepen, Brussels must shift to a more participatory style of democracy.

Until Nice, the integration process, fuelled by economic liberalism, was pursued by the elites over the heads of the population. But since then, the successes of economic dynamism are increasingly perceived as a zero-sum game. There are more and more losers across Europe.

Justifiable socio-economic fears and consequent short-sighted reactions may explain the unstable mood. But the public's frame of mind can be influenced by political parties -- by offering the electorate a credible vision. Unsolved problems should be taken more seriously than transient states of feeling.

The failed referendums are a signal that the elitist mode of European unification is, thanks to its own success, reaching its limits. These limits can only be surmounted if the pro-European elites stop excusing themselves from the principle of representation and shed their fears of contact with the electorate.

The divide between the political decision-making authority granted to the EU in Brussels and Strasbourg on the one hand, and the nation state-bound opportunities provided by participatory democracy on the other, has become too large.

This is all the more awkward because competencies are unevenly distributed between the national governments and the super-national level. The sociopolitical and cultural side-effects of the welcomed market freedoms implemented across Europe are being passed on to the individual countries, which in turn are denied access to the conditions under which these external costs arose in the first place.

The upshot is that lost political leverage can only be regained at the European level. Only then can Jacques Delors' now-faded vision of a "social Europe" become the subject of meaningful political controversy.

A body politic cannot be designed such that the very act of its creation excludes alternatives to the prevailing market liberalism. However, the question of cautious harmonization of tax and economic policy and the gradual assimilation of social security systems within the EU touches on the contentious issues of deepening and widening that have crippled the union for years.

The governments' embarrassed silence over Europe's future conceals the fundamental conflict raging over the bloc's direction, a debate which robs European unification of its vision and appeal. Should Europe become a pro-active force, shaping policy at home and playing a greater role abroad? Or should its role focus more on ongoing expansion, thus encouraging improvements within neighboring countries that seek to join?

The price of this diffuse expansion project is a lack of political leverage in a global society that, while economically tightly knit, has been drifting apart politically since 2001. One only has to look at the miserable images of petty princes Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, as they kowtow to US President George W. Bush, to realize that Europe is bidding adieu to the world stage.

But the problems of climate change, the extreme gaps between rich and poor, the global economic order, the violation of fundamental human rights and the struggle over dwindling energy resources affect everyone equally. Even as the world becomes increasingly interdependent, the global political stage is home to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and an increased willingness to turn to violence. Isn't it in the interest of a politically strong Europe to push for the constitutionalization of international law and an effective cooperation of the international community?


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