The illusionary "Leftist No"
Adopting the constitution to strengthen Europe's power to act. By Jürgen Habermas
European unification has been pushed for long enough by political elites. As long as everyone profited, the citizens were content. Until now, the project has been granted legitimacy by its results. But the Europe of 25 is in store for conflicts over distribution which will not be appeased by this kind of output legitimation. Citizens are dissatisfied with the modus of bureaucratic control, and acceptance is also dwindling among the populations of Europe-friendly member states. The France-Germany tandem has been out of step for a while, and no longer decides what direction is to be taken.
In this situation, the French government had the courage to hold a constitutional referendum. As a German who is disappointed with the faint-heartedness of his own politicians, I envy France. This French republic is still conscious of the democratic standards of a tradition it does not want to fall short of. The act of choosing a constitution is taking place among polarised opinions and dissonant voices, through the cumulative "Yes" and "No" of the French citizens. So we could be content with the many-sided discourses from the French press that reach us over the Rhine - if it weren't for one problem. Those of us looking towards France from beyond its national boundaries know that it is also our constitution which can miscarry with the French vote.
In the same way, the French are dependent on the votes of the English, the Poles, the Czechs and all the others. While in the normal case a people decides on its own constitution, the European constitution must result from the supporting votes of 25 peoples, and not from the common will of the citizens of Europe. For there is still no European public space, no transnational bundling of themes, no common discussion. Each one of these votes takes place within the bounds of the individual country's public sphere. This asymmetry is dangerous, because the primacy of national problems, for instance reservations about Chirac's government, can obstruct the view of the problems actually posed by the acceptance or rejection of the European constitution. In each of our national public spheres, the pros and cons of the other nations should also find a voice.
It is in this spirit that I understand the invitation for me to become involved in the French electoral campaign. In my view, a Left which aims to tame and civilise capitalism with a "No" to the European constitution would be deciding for the wrong side at the wrong time.
Of course there are good reasons to criticise the course that the unification of Europe has taken. Delors failed with his political vision. Instead, Europe has been integrated horizontally, through the creation of a common market and a partially common currency. Without the dynamic of economic interests, the political union would have probably never gotten off the ground. This dynamic only strengthens the worldwide tendency toward market deregulation. But the xenophobic perception of the Right that the socially undesirable consequences of this lifting of boundaries could be avoided by returning to the protectionist forces of the nation state is not only dubious for normative reasons, it is also outright unrealistic. The Left must not let itself be infected by such regressive reflexes.
The regulative capacity of the nation state has long been insufficient to buffer the ambivalent consequences of economic globalisation. What is vaunted today as the "European social model" can only be defended if European political strength grows alongside the markets. It is solely on the European level that a part of the political regulatory power that is bound to be lost on the national level can be won back. Today the EU member states are strengthening their cooperation in the areas of justice, criminal law and immigration. An active Left taking an enlightened stance toward European politics could have also pressed long ago for greater harmonisation in the areas of taxation and economic policy.
The European constitution now creates at least the conditions for this. It will maintain the European Union's power to act, even after the eastward expansion. In the Europe of 25, divergent interests must be coordinated according to the procedure decided on in Nice, because the Europe of 15 was not able to give itself a political constitution in due time. If this state continues after the rejection of the draft constitution, the EU will certainly not become ungovernable. But it will fall back to a level of immobility and indecisiveness that can only add grist to the mill of the neoliberals. They already achieved their goal with the Treaty of Maastricht.
A Left that opposes the neoliberal economic regime must also look beyond Europe. It can only follow a social-democratic - in the largest sense of the term – alternative to the ruling consensus in Washington, if the European Union acquires the power to act not only on its home turf, but also in international affairs. It must learn to speak the language of foreign policy with a single voice, if it wants to counter the hegemonic liberalism that is willing to push through free elections and the free market on its own and backed by military might, if need be.
Bush is the one who would rejoice at the failure of the European constitution, for it would allow Europe to develop a common foreign and security policy with enough soft power to bolster opposition to the neoconservative view of global order, also within the United States. It is in our common interest to develop the United Nations, and the law of nations, into a politically constituted world community without a world government. We must attain an effective juridification of international relations, before other world powers are in a position to emulate the power politics of the Bush government in violation of the law of nations.
We can only meet the challenges and risks of a world in upheaval in an offensive way by strengthening Europe, not by exploiting the understandable fears of the people in a populist manner. The involuntary coalition of the Leftist "No" with the reactionary "No" of the Right has a tragic note to it, because it rides on a Leftist illusion: that a "No" in France could prompt other member states to renew negotiations on the European constitution. This idea contains a twofold error.
From the perspective of all the other nations, the French "No" has a specific significance. After the end of the Second World War, the French nation took the generous initiative of reconciliation with Germany. In doing so, it started the ball rolling for European unification. And France has continually given new impulses to this unification. If now, at this critical junction, France departs from the route it has been following, a prolonged depression will spread across Europe.
I hold this for practically unavoidable. France is not Great Britain. If the constitutional referendum were to fail there, which I hope it will not, I think most of the member states would probably react defiantly. Their answer to a constitutional "No" in a country that had always been hesitant could well be "all the more reason!" But a "No" in France would paralyse Europe in the long term, because it would send a signal to all other European countries, and tip the precarious balance of opinion in favour of Europe's adversaries – nationalists and sovereigntists of all stripes. And it would play into the hands of the neoliberals, for whom the concept of a European constitution goes no further than the existing economic constitution.
It is a grotesque overestimation on the part of the Leftist naysayers to presume that the constitution would be reopened to negotiation because the perverse coalition of French "No" votes also includes a few friends of Europe who feel the political integration does not go far enough. And that is the second illusion: if in fact the French vote did lead to new negotiations, the winners would be those who feel the constitution compromise goes too far. The result would in no means be a further strengthening of European institutions, but a strengthening of intergovernmentalism.
I do not relinquish the hope that the French Left will remain true to itself, and that this time too, it will be swayed by arguments, and not by sentiment.
The article was originally published in French in the Nouvel Observateur on 7 May, 2005, and in German on the Perlentaucher website on 11 May, 2005.
Jürgen Habermas, born in 1929, is one of Germany's foremost intellectual figures. A philosopher and sociologist, he is professor emeritus at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt and the leading representative of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. His works include "Legitimation Crisis", "Knowledge and Human Interests", "Theory of Communicative Action" and "The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity".