Philosopher's stand against creeping nationalism


ANALYSIS: Jürgen Habermas says the us-against-them approach to the crisis is sapping public goodwill

THE SPIRIT of Elvis Presley hung over a remarkable event in Berlin last week. Eminent philosopher Jürgen Habermas made a rare public appearance in the German capital alongside former foreign minister Joschka Fischer to sing a dirge-like duet on European integration: it’s now or never.

As the euro zone crisis enters a new round with Portugal, the two men said it was time for a counter-cyclical strike. Precisely when doubt in the European project is at its height is the time to push for an all-or-nothing dash for the European integration finish line.

Neither seemed to hold out much hope of this happening, however, and they didn’t need to look far for the reason why. Germany, they said, is in denial that it helped cause the current crisis and, as such, is a key obstacle to finding a solution.

The way the two men see it, precisely at the moment when the struggling union looks to Germany – not, as in the past, in fear, but in hope – Berlin has lost its European compass and, with it, the plot.

After a six-decade “European vocation”, Habermas said, Germany is now being shepherded along by Angela Merkel – a “Europe-sceptic” who “blatantly puts national interests first” and would rather chase opinion polls and election success than shoulder the burden of a European project.

The outcome, he said, is a “European Germany in a German-influenced Europe”.

Nodding in agreement was Fischer who, a decade ago as foreign minister in Berlin, made a memorable call for a European integration finalité.

The problem now, Fischer suggested, was that Germany had sleepwalked into a new leadership role and knows neither what to do, nor what is expected of it.

“Nothing has really changed in Germany’s basic position and outlook, except we feel more economically strong than before,” he said.

This has had a curious effect: a palpable German sense of invincibility and superiority in recent negotiations in Brussels coupled with a crippling feeling of victimhood at home.

Self-pity is doing the rounds in Europe. In Ireland, the chattering classes bleat how “the German banks are to blame for giving us too much money” – though no one complained during the cheap loan free-for-all. In Germany, the Stammtisch pub philosophers whinge that the rest of the euro zone duped Germany into an expensive marriage of convenience – though no one here complained when their euro zone partners were buying their BMWs like there was no tomorrow.

As Fischer pointed out, everyone has their hands dirty in the euro zone crisis: the Irish who overdid it; the Greeks overdid it; the Germans overdid it, thanks to the recent decade of save-not-spend anxiety as well as banks who, he said, “did all their business in Dublin backrooms” thanks to lax regulation.

Everyone can see there is a problem, Habermas said, but continuing down the present path – putting out one economic fire after another – would lead to the “creeping death” of the EU by exhausting public goodwill and public purses.

Withdrawing to our sovereign currency corners would lead to massive legal uncertainty and financial ruin, he warned, leaving just one option: the Flucht nach vorne or “attack as the best form of defence” – ploughing on towards further integration.

To do that, he said, will require a massive shift in public perception of the EU, away from an us-and-them game of national winners and losers. The first step to this would be a proper European parliament worthy of the name, with MEPS elected for parties and not for nations.

The problem with this, both Habermas and Fischer admitted, is the lack of appetite for such projects in member states – most clearly in the pragmatic, self-centric atmosphere of Merkel-era Germany. “I see no one in the [German] political parties prepared to develop a vision in which to invest and, yes, even risk their political fate,” said Fischer.

“As long as this is the case there will be no progress and, under pressure from outside factors, the process of nationalisation will continue.”

Habermas was slightly more optimistic that the crisis was a chance for the EU, if two prerequisites can be fulfilled: a new pro-EU civic society movement from below combined with a renewed belief by politicians that citizens are not inherently uninterested in the EU, but have just never been properly engaged.

“For one political party or another it could be well worth their while to roll up their sleeves and fight for European union on the market squares,” he said.

The clock is ticking: in Ireland, the slow-acting, chattering-class anti-German poison is already in the bloodstream. In Germany, the postwar glue holding together the country’s pro-EU consensus has long dried out and entire generations of passive Eurosceptics could break away and join a new anti-EU populist party.

To counter this, Ireland could play a key role by reviving the popular Forum on Europe model – and exporting it around the continent.

After three years of national debates on the euro zone crisis, we urgently need a wider, pan-European debate to find a common path to the future. It’s either that or the end of EU integration, strangled by the slow, silent death of European empathy.