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Habermas’s most recent book, Die Verfassung Europas, has caused a stir in Germany since its publication by Suhrkamp in November; it has just been published here in an English translation as The Crisis of the European Union. But its appeal in Germany has rested not so much on Habermas’s justified indignation about the EU, but instead on his tempered optimism about the future of democracy in Europe.Die Zeit called Die Verfassung Europas “the book of the hour”; Der Spiegel, “a philosopher’s mission to save the EU”; and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a manifesto for “a second chance for a united Europe.” The near unanimous enthusiasm of reviewers probably reflected less a consensus about the book’s arguments than sheer relief, given the daily bad news from Europe, that Habermas had written a hopeful book. He affirms his longstanding commitment to a cosmopolitan Europe in which the dynamics of global capitalism can be remastered beyond the nation-state, at a supranational and global level, and he sees a radically altered European Union as a model—indeed, as the precursor—for a constitutionally sanctioned cosmopolitan world order based not on utopian illusions but on realistic assessments.
Habermas places much of the blame for the EU’s turmoil on the changing role of Germany in a reconfigured Europe. Since its unification in 1990, Germany has gradually assumed the role of Europe’s major economic and military power, abandoning the restrained, post-1945 West German approach of promoting economic coordination and subordinating the unbounded competition between states to the rule of law. After World War II and the Holocaust, Habermas argues, the Bonn Republic was able to return to the circle of civilized nations only because the leaders of both parties—from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl in the CDU, and from Willy Brandt to Helmut Schmidt in the Socialist Democratic Party (SDP)—understood that the country had to persuade its European neighbors that the mentality of its population had irrevocably changed.
Whatever omissions this overly affirmative postwar history might require of Habermas, who himself spent much of his early career combating illiberal threats to the democratic public sphere in West Germany, he takes great pride in the fact that his generation—“the ‘58ers,” as they are sometimes called—assumed responsibility for West Germany’s moral and political reconstruction. This demanded, above all, an unwavering orientation toward the democratic West and a commitment to making remembrance of the Holocaust a national obligation. West Germany’s antidote to the nationalism, ethnic homogeneity and chauvinism that infected recent German history was what Habermas famously called “constitutional patriotism,” essentially the sundering of citizenship from cultural and ethnic nationalism.
For Habermas, the big difference is that, with the election of the SDP’s Gerhard Schröder in 1998—and continuing apace with Angela Merkel’s chancellorship since 2005—the Berlin Republic has been governed by what he calls “a morally unambitious generation” characterized by shortsightedness and cynical calculation. This argument helps explain Merkel’s preference within the European Union for government by small coteries of elites and their cliques of fiscal and managerial tacticians. Consequently, Habermas writes, a “European Germany has gradually given way to a European Union shaped by Germany.” Yet Habermas’s account of postwar German history ignores a significant dimension of postwar European politics—including the founding of the EU—outlined by the political theorist Jan-Werner Müller: a distrust of popular sovereignty and the exaggerated role afforded to executive power and the courts, which has also given the EU a distinctly German complexion.
During the early 1990s, Karl-Heinz Bohrer, the influential editor of the monthly journal Merkur, argued that Habermas’s emphasis on constitutional patriotism, his suspicion of distinct national identities and his insistence on Europe’s “painful history” was rooted in postwar Germany’s particular political culture. Bohrer coined the term “Euro-provincialism” to characterize Habermas’s definition of European identity as a moral “learning process,” and argued that his suspicion of a national literary and artistic culture did not necessarily apply to the rest of Europe. With the gradual expansion of the EU to encompass a far larger swath of the continent than the population of its six original core members, the different histories and memories of World War II—and, in the case of Eastern Europe, of Soviet occupation—rendered obsolete much discussion about a single European memory and a common European cultural heritage. Significantly, in The Crisis of the European Union, Habermas mostly abandons all talk of history as a “learning process” and a fount of European values. Instead, he turns to a constitutional and political conception of identity grounded in social-democratic compensations for the uncontrolled vicissitudes of the market, as well as in open-ended democratic procedures institutionalized through an accessible and cross-national public space for debate and discussion.