While critics have typically complained that the EU does not have the same legitimacy as nation-states because there is no such thing as a European “people,” Habermas argues that the ethical and political self-understanding of citizens in a democratic community needn’t be rooted in a historical or cultural essence. Simply put, citizens do not have to “feel” that they belong together culturally or ethnically to act in a democratic manner and experience solidarity with their neighbors, especially beyond their borders. It is enough that they share a common set of ethical and civic values and participate in a set of institutions that enable them to communicate and debate. Historically, constitutional democracy emerged from local, dynastic and national entities, he explains, and there is no reason this process should not continue beyond national boundaries. Granted, the European Commission presides over a limited government apparatus, but this role notwithstanding, the “expectation [is] that the growing mutual trust among the European peoples will give rise to a transnational, though attenuated, form of civic solidarity amongst citizens.” Habermas argues that beginning with the constitutional anchoring of rights, first in nation-states and subsequently in international law, there is “a rhythm of development” that extends from the elimination of warfare to the institutional cooperation of “domesticated” states.
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There is a wide gulf between Habermas’s despair at the growing rule of the “potentates” and his competing vision of a supranational constitutional democracy. The current crisis is hardly winning Europeans over to the eurocrats in Brussels and Strasbourg, and venues for the expression of the popular will are few. Nor do the decisions of the European Parliament have the force of international law. But for Habermas, there are still three reasons that the European Union points the way to a cosmopolitan community. First, the more populations that engage in the deliberative process of governing beyond the nation-state, the more likely it is that normative criteria will emerge and find general assent. Second, global citizenship, like European citizenship, does not require a global ethnicity or national identity: citizenship can just as well be based on shared principles, such as freedom of thought, political integrity, justice and the rule of law. Third, as in the EU, individuals simultaneously legitimize the new polity as citizens of their respective states and as citizens of the new commonwealth. States would no longer be fully sovereign powers, but would regard themselves as members of the international community. Because of its transnational character and the need for new communicative structures, the solidarity of world citizens would no longer be “embedded in the context of a shared political culture.”
Habermas does not imagine a global republic but rather a supranational association of citizens and states that is based on a divided sovereignty, as with the EU. Divided sovereignty demonstrates that a change in perspective from classical human rights law to the political constitution of the world society is no longer unthinkable. Ecological and technological risks do not confront single states or coalitions of states alone, but can be mastered only through the cooperation of world powers that can develop globally effective norms and procedures.
The new polity would absorb the UN Security Council and the international courts (like the ICC), develop an expanded legal basis for human rights policy, and extend the system of international law to include matters that take into account moral issues (what Habermas calls “global domestic politics”). Because all world religions and cultures condemn human rights violations and wars of aggression, a supranational polity need only apply “intersubjectively shared” moral principles and norms. From this remote perspective, we need not concern ourselves with the limited efficacy and political fractiousness of existing supranational institutions. For Habermas, the narrative of the “civilizing power of democratic constitutions” at the level of an “international community” would culminate in a “cosmopolitan community.”