German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has warned that the greatest threat to European unity is not political populists but a “furious standstill” on integration, and lingering divisions caused by austerity.
Prof Habermas was speaking in Berlin on Thursday evening where he shared a stage with French presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron.
Mr Macron is the rarest of French politicians in Germany: a presidential hopeful welcomed with open arms by both sides of the political spectrum. After “great agreement” during a meeting with chancellor Angela Merkel, he shared a stage with Sigmar Gabriel, ex-Social Democrat (SPD) leader turned foreign minister.
Mr Macron said he was “certain” that the French would deal with his populist challenger Marine Le Pen in next month’s presidential election as the Dutch did with Geert Wilders.
But Prof Habermas said the Dutch election outcome was no cause for complacency, as it didn’t improve the European Union’s disastrous state after a decade of Berlin-backed austerity politics. This had led to structural imbalances, deep division and a lingering “bad temper” across the continent, he said, “even if we don’t notice this in Germany”.
Berlin’s failure to seize a new European initiative of “real solidarity” and European financial redistribution would, he warned, bring down the union. “We don’t have much time,” warned the 87-year-old.
In their discussion, Mr Macron agreed with the Habermas diagnosis of the European emergency. After the last lost decade of crisis, the EU needed a new narrative and a “new deal” to move forward together, to prevent member states retreating into themselves – or leaving the union entirely.
“A fearful Europe has already lost,” said Mr Macron. The 39-year-old said he was not naive to think one could win elections with Europe alone, but common European investment and policy projects – including common asylum laws – were as crucial as ever. Unchanged, too, he said, was the European movement’s energy source: Germany and France.
For his part, Mr Gabriel said it was time for Germans to be confronted with two pieces of “fake news” over the EU in the last decade.
First, he said, contrary to a growing narrative of Germany as the “European donkey” burdened down by others’ financial problems, Germany was the greatest beneficiary of European integration.
Second: Germany didn’t “save its way back to health” but, Mr Gabriel said, used money saved from pruning back labour costs to invest in education, research and renewable energy.