Tuesday, 21 June 2016

European Union democracy is a near-impossible task - reform will be difficult

Jurgen Habermas: the singular representative of European Utopianism

Everyone is familiar with the criticism by now: the European Union ails under a "democratic deficit." No single fact about it is repeated more often across the whole of European politics. For those who wish to remain in the EU and reform it from within the extraordinary difficulty of the task is seldom acknowledged. Rarely is it suggested that the EU's democratic deficit is essential to its smooth (or not so smooth) running. Moves to democratize the EU are squeezed in two directions. Firstly, democratizing the EU would require further sacrifice of sovereignty and democratic initiative by member states - something those states simply will not tolerate. Secondly, the EU's high chiefs do not want democracy to intrude on its operations. As EU Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker once said, "There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties."

Juncker's famous dictum states quite honestly the long-felt conflict between the legal precedent set by the treaties and the democratic choice of the member states. This is nothing new, and believers in EU democracy have long since advocated a step-by-step advance beyond this legal formalism towards a substantial democratisation. But Europe cannot be democratised - that is, turned into a federal liberal state with real democratic powers - unless further powers are taken from the member states. The very structure of the political questions - democracy or bureaucracy? federalism or nation-statism? - militates against any change to the status quo.

Let's look a little more closely at the great advocate of EU democratic integration: Jurgen Habermas. The spirit if not the letter of Immanuel Kant is how Habermas once characterised his vision of future peace in global politics. At a time of crisis he counselled integration. The players in that bloody drama were a briskly assembled New Europe and an older, divided Core. The stakes were of course President Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003. The very twilight of pomp, so difficultly adjusted to by Europe's once great powers, had invested the Core with a special kind of political self-awareness. This was, Habermas argued, to be mobilised for the defeat of Eurocentrism and enforced modernisation. Over a decade later such European misgivings count for little. Iraq is now not only a failed state but practically non-existent. A most bloody and brutally enforced modernisation, in the form of the fanatical IS caliphate, is wreaking havoc on the entire region. Europe, for all its hard-fought post-imperial wisdom, is once again nudged towards military intervention.

At that time Habermas called for peace through a telling paradox: "a global domestic policy" in the Kantian tradition. This common domestic policy can arise only from a joint experience of European peoples, fueled by a communicative and deliberative experience. More recently Habermas has expanded on his conception of a "global domestic policy", situating the kernel of world civil society nowhere other than its earlier battleground, Europe. It is through "constitutional law," Habermas argues in The Crisis of the European Union: A Response (2011), that the "political fragmentation in the world and in Europe", which blocks progress "towards civilizing relations of violence" within and between states, can be overcome. In Habermas's telling the constitutionalisation of law (by which he means, quite prosaically, the treaties so abhorred by actual Europeans) is made the friend of a de facto world society. It is only the tribalism of national elites which prevents world society's continuing development. Habermas supposes an identity between the world society of individuals and the international law which represents them, with domestic political elites cast as the recalcitrant villains.

The three components that can underwrite successful democratic integration are "first, the democratic association of free and equal legal persons, second, the organisation of collective decision-making powers, and finally, the medium of integration of civic solidarity among strangers." Later he frames these three as a "process" of legal persons coming together in a geographical space; a "distribution" of powers which "secures" collective decision making; and a "medium" of integration of civic solidarity. The former two are usually dealt with constitutionally in the areas of fundamental rights; the latter refers to the status of the "people" as a "functional requirement of the democratic process" - "to the political-cultural conditions for appropriate communication processes in the political public sphere." In short, though still in wholly abstract terms, the common European identity is founded in the European people who, through a communicative process, develop a common identity.

Crucial here is Habermas's assertion of identity between the treaties and the people. He finds that the treaties, along with the decisions of the European Court of Justice, "establish a direct legal relation between the [EU] institutions and citizens of the Union." Although the sovereignty of states is restricted under the law of the EU treaties, it is primarily as free citizens that Europe addresses the people, and only as subjects of the states whose sovereignties are circumscribed second. "For good reasons" nation states persist as protectors of certain civil rights. But both identities - "as an individual and as a member of a particular nation" - are figured into the "opinion and will formation processes" of European politics. No supremacy can take hold here, since popular sovereignty is from the outset "shared" between the two "personae."

Once the boundaries of a state can no longer contain the "constitutional community" a cross-border solidarity (necessarily mediatised) must "keep pace." The timidity of tribal national-political leaders who shirk the "risky" but "inspired" "struggle within the broad public" over allegiance to Europe, prevents the formalisation of the identity between constitutional law and the free citizens of Europe. Thus, Habermas finds the blame for the failures of Europe neither in the people nor in the European institutions as such, the identity between whom would play out quite naturally were it not for the real culprits: self-interested national elites bent on preserving their power.

From Habermas's perspective, however, it is difficult to explain the foundational act of post-war sovereignty sharing out of which the European Community developed in the first place. In what is basically a functionalist conception of the "pasifization" and "civilization" of postwar Europe via the treaties, the soon-to-be states of the Union committed to shedding some of their sovereign rights in order to meet mutual needs. They would maintain their monopoly of the means of violence, but pledge never to use them and indeed to share other crucial areas of sovereignty (taxation, trade, fiscal and monetary policy and so on). What could have caused self-interested national elites to establish such mutual processes of decision making? Here it is necessary to introduce a class basis to social analysis. The reason the states of postwar Europe were compelled to enter novel forms of treaty association was a newly powerful insistence by the European masses on a modicum of social peace. In the context of international American supremacy, meanwhile, the best that could be hoped for by European ruling classes was to reproduce the basis of their domestic power by restoring that peace without challenging American imperialism. Social reproduction within and between the European states bore a suddenly high premium.

As countless foreign interventions - from Kosovo to Libya - attest the European nation state has by no means been "pacified." The fact that European states no longer exercise their belligerence directly on one another (except in the case of the maladapted Balkans), does not mean they have any compunction about doing so to others. Moreover the damage wreaked by the supposed legitimacy of the treaties on smaller states - Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and so on - borders on more traditional modes of violence.

If the conceptual limit of the national elite is, in the final instance, the limit of the nation, then the concept is unable to capture the essence of power. In a simple hierarchy, each transfer of sovereign powers by national elites to European institutions appears as a surrender. This chimes with the conceptual distinction in Habermas's most important work (The Theory of Communicative Action [1981]) of a "system" of functional integration from a "lifeworld" of traditional social regulation: the former emerges out of the latter only where "functional specialisation" permits the delegation of "the authority to direct" into the hands of experts. Power is thus made commensurate with this "ability to direct" and the question of class domination is quietly sidestepped. It is in this conceptual setting that Habermas can conceive of the possibility of a democratic European future as issuing only from a deepening of the European institutions. Only these institutions, with their address to the European people as individual citizens, can rescue democracy by subverting self-interested elites. Habermas is in the end willing to concede that the "democratic deficit" of the EU is only resolvable by a radical deepening of EU powers, not by their reversal or their transformation.

However, Marxist class analysis takes a different, historical view of why the EU was founded and what exactly it meant for certain national sovereign powers to be surrendered. Postwar European history can be divided into two eras. In the first, starting from the early 1950s, integration figures as a process of reconstruction, with fixed exchange rates, some price controls, and social and capital protections and guarantees combining with rapid growth. In the second, starting in the 1970s, the means of integration slowly but profoundly changed - with leading economies much more focused on competition over free-moving capital. Now integration significantly internationalised production and capital movements where once it had attempted to suppress them. It is not that tribal elites have deliberately sabotaged organic processes of integration, maintaining tradition at the expense of modernity. Rather national elites - organised or statised "fractions" of the ruling class - have reoriented themselves to changing historical circumstances. As inflation and the internationalisation of capital eroded the postwar settlement, a new policy based on deflation and active liberalisation was developed.

Habermas would like the anarchic Hobbesian relations between states to be overcome by an identity of individual European citizens with European constitutional law - an emergent "world civil society" in Kant's phrase. But he he misses the social reality constituted by European capitalism itself. Indeed it seems that Habermas would like to banish from consideration the distinct rejection by European people of EU constitutions in various referendums. When we look at the dynamics of European capitalism itself we find, instead of a static division of national and supranational interests, class division between those who benefit from the internationalisation of capital flows and those who do not. The transfer of sovereign power to the EU by national states is not best conceptualised as national elites either virtuously forgoing their own power or resisting its further erosion, but as an evolving single system wherein power has been maintained in two historical phases, each time by opposite means. In this system of European capitalism the EU institutions operate with a specific "relative autonomy" from the particular states they mediate between. The EU does the dirty work - either of enforcing basic health and safety norms or of labour market deregulation - that national governments find unpalatable. That the EU is plainly a proto-capitalist state is proved precisely by the "relative autonomy" of its bureaucrats from competing interests; the precise nature of its relation to the fully developed states of European capital remains to be explained. Indeed this relation can only be fully understood as it develops historically.

What does all this mean for a putative "European consciousness"? It means simply that any consciousness that arises will do so dialectically - from political struggles across the continent and against the prevalent forms of institutionalisation and integration. The idea of Europe today finds its clearest political expression not in the posited identity of European citizens with the various treaties mandated by the the continent's rulers, but rather in their popular rejection. After all, nothing has so powerfully expressed a shared consciousness in Europe - from France to the Netherlands to Ireland and most recently Greece - as the common "No." Reformers would do well to remember: in the old slogan "within and against the state" it is the latter which should take precedence. If there is a progressive future for Europe at all, it will involve a protracted fight against its institutions.

The next piece will look at how a progressive government could defy the EU while remaining a member

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