Jürgen Habermas is a philosopher, and, as such, he plays an odd role in European politics. He stands as something like the court philosopher of Brussels, a respected wise old man of Europe giving a ponderous, intellectual veneer to the dull bureaucracy of “the institutions.” He makes his pronouncements and though it is certain he is heard by the European elites, it is doubtful that they listen to him.

Habermas’ essays on the European crisis have been sufficiently voluminous that they have now filled three volumes. The third collection of his writings The Lure of Technocracy was published in 2015. It builds on his earlier Europe: The Faltering Project (2009) and The Crisis of the European Union: A Response (2012).

The Lure of Technocracy is a peculiar book. Despite its brief length it composed of three rather distinct sections. The third section is on “German Jews, Germans and Jews” and has only a tangential connection to the rest of the book. The second section collects two speeches, an interview, and a book review. They all relate to European politics, but that is the extent of their relation to each other. The first part of the book is where the real meat is. Here Habermas presents the title essay of the book, “The Lure of Technocracy: A Plea for European Solidarity,” and two other texts that build on and extend the arguments of that essay.

Habermas’ central argument in the first section is not a particularly surprising one if you are familiar with his work. Habermas argues that “in its current form, the European Union owes its existence to the efforts of political elites”1 and gains its legitimation from the “passive consent” of its population. However, this passive legitimation, which was granted due to the positive economic outcomes of European integration, has dissipated with the declining economic fortune of the EU. Therefore what is needed is a shift from the economic to political democratic discourse. Habermas argues: “What is required is a European–wide political communication. For this we need a European public sphere.”2

Habermas considers the recent series of reforms that have occurred since the crisis. He correctly points to how these reforms involve a substantial transferal of power from democratic national governments to the technocratic government in Europe. He recognises the appeal of this, the “lure of technocracy” as he puts it, for the European elite, but he points to a problem it faces. The problem is a familiar Habermasian one. This “continuous series of reform obscures the required leap from the customary view of the political process focused exclusively on one’s own nation, to [one that] accords equal consideration to citizens of other nations.”3 In brief, the technocratic concentration of power into the European Commission sidesteps the necessary creation of a European public sphere where national democratic debates can encounter one another and thereby provide the support and legitimation needed for European governance.

Habermas lists the three most important tasks for the creation of this democratic legitimacy. Firstly, there would be the need to “expand the European Monetary Union into a Political Union.” Secondly, there is a need to establish “a joint fiscal, budgetary and economic policy, and especially the harmonisation of social policy.”4 Finally, there would be a need to for the “dethronement of the European Council” and switching over the “community method.”

For American readers, it is probably worth pausing here to explain the institutions of the EU. There are three legislative/executive institutions. The two most important are the European Commission and the European Council. The Commission is basically the European cabinet and resides permanently in Brussels. It is not democratically elected. The Council is actually not a single body. Rather it meets in different configurations. It is essentially a means through which the relevant ministers of the member states meet, discuss, and make decisions. For example the environment configuration of the Council brings together the environment ministers of the member states. Note that there is also a European Commissioner for the Environment. Exactly which is more powerful and important, the Commission or the Council, is an object of contention and contestation. The third institution is the democratically elected European Parliament, which is mainly tasked with scrutinising the policies put forward by the Commission and the Council.

When Habermas says there is a need for the “dethronement of the European Council” and switching over to the “community method,” he means that power should shift to the Commission and the Parliament and away from the Council. To American ears this might sound like a simple matter of being in favour of more power going to the federal government and away from state governments. This would be largely true, but Habermas wants to draw a distinction between federalism “whereby subnational units… feature only as constituted components (constituted that is, by an undivided sovereign, the people),” and the “transnationalism” he advocates in which “member states of a supranational democracy would play the role of a constituting power, and for this reason would retain correspondingly stronger competences within the constituted political community.”5 He spends a lot of time in chapters two and three spelling out this distinction.

As Habermas recognises later in the book, this abstract theorisation about how the EU should be reformed is just a goal. He writes: “As long as it remains abstract, however, all that a well reasoned political alternative has going for it is its power to develop a perspective—it points to a political goal but does not reveal the path that leads to it.”6 This is an astute observation of Habermas’ and one that fatally undermines the usefulness of his entire enterprise. The points in The Lure of Technocracy where Habermas lays out how his goal will be reached are amongst the weakest in the book. It really feels like he is grasping. He recognises that the Council will not undertake his reform agenda.7 But, he thinks the initiative might lay with governments, labour unions, or major political parties. He even ponders “whether the right person at the right time could… influence historically momentous orientations in one way or another.”8

Ultimately he says, he comes down on the side of Germany. “The leadership role now falls to Germany.”9 For Germany to achieve its historical responsibility of implementing Habermas’ reforms, it must first create a European public sphere based in “solidarity,” which he spends the last third of the title essay distinguishing from “justice” and “ethics,” arguing essentially that solidarity is to the public sphere what brotherhood is to the family. Note that solidarity is therefore a concept that presupposes the existence of a public sphere where democratic debate can take place. A Europe based on solidarity therefore requires a European public sphere. We need to shift from a monetary union to a political union and this requires the creation of a public sphere where democratic political debate can take place and drive and legitimate European governance.

This idea that European integration needs to shift from supposedly non-political economic questions to democratic politics is a familiar one in European politics. However, it relies on the neoliberal assumption that economic questions are “non-political,” and it allows for the indefinite postponement of popular contestation of European policies. This contestation must wait for a political union that is rarely defined, is never seriously planned for, but which everyone agrees is necessary.

However, contrary to Habermas’ grand plans, European politics are being contested today, albeit primarily at a national level through nationalist Euroscepticism and leftist anti-neoliberalism. As for the constitutional change needed in Europe, Habermas puts the cart before the horse. There is no reason to believe a European democratic public sphere might emerge that truly engages with European citizenry prior to the emergence of the possibility of the exercise of European democratic will, nor that a transnational Europe might develop without a political subject to drive that development. And there is no reason to believe Germany will, can, could, or should fill this political role.

Ultimately, when it comes to the constitution of the EU there is one reform that is pressing: democratisation. The unelected European Commission needs to either be elected or abolished, with its powers dissolved into the European parliament. Many ways that this might happen can be imagined. But Habermas is certainly incorrect to think the first step is the creation of a European public sphere or European solidarity. The first step in the creation of a European democratic public sphere is the creation of European democracy. The public sphere will follow.

  1. Habermas, The Lure of Technocracy 1. 

  2. Habermas, The Lure of Technocracy 38. 

  3. Habermas, The Lure of Technocracy 10. 

  4. Habermas, The Lure of Technocracy 13-14. 

  5. Habermas, The Lure of Technocracy 58. 

  6. Habermas, The Lure of Technocracy 100. 

  7. Habermas, The Lure of Technocracy 16. 

  8. Habermas, The Lure of Technocracy 20-21. 

  9. Habermas, The Lure of Technocracy 18.