Print E-mail

Year LV, 2013, Single Issue, Page 126









The existential crisis of the process of European unification is an issue that is generating a broad debate, one very important aspect of which is the question of the relationship between democracy and European unification. The contribution, in this regard, provided by the debate, in Germany, between Wolfgang Streeck, a renowned European sociologist,[1] and the philosopher Jürgen Habermas,[2] which has attracted considerable media attention, deserves close examination, both because it involves two highly esteemed intellectuals, and because Europe’s future is, essentially, in Germany’s hands. In this note, I therefore recall the main lines of Streeck’s argument and the critical considerations of Habermas, which, on the whole, I deem valid and enlightening, albeit with a limit that needs underlining.

Streeck is deeply critical of European integration, adopting a stance (widely supported in many left-wing circles in Europe) that culminates, ultimately, in the idea that Europe should be dismantled to allow a return to the national sovereignties. This position fits into a broad and well-articulated critical appraisalof the strategy introduced by the capitalist ruling class in the wake of the Second World War, which was pursued increasingly successfully from the 1970s onwards. This whole strategy hinges on the concept of the revolt of capital against the mixed economy regime that became established in all the Western democracies after World War II. The term ‘mixed economy’ denotes public intervention in the market economy through strong economic policies (and also through nationalisations, although this is only one aspect, moreover not central), used as a means of tackling the social, territorial, sectorial and (from the 1970s also environmental) imbalances produced by the natural interplay of economic forces that are not governed by a political will oriented towards pursuit of the common good. The capitalist ruling class worked systematically to replace the mixed economy regime (also known as the Keynesian system, being based essentially on the teachings of Keynes) with a neoliberal regime (also termed neo-Hayekian, given that Hayek is its main point of reference[3]), whose aim is, through rebalancing policies, to limit state intervention in the economy as far as possible. Basically, this equates with unchallenged domination of free competition and, therefore, with systematic removal of obstacles to the pursuit of profit, in the mythical belief that this will lead to the creation of a balance that will naturally be accompanied by generalised wellbeing.

This design has been pursued, essentially, through the internationalisation of trade and production systems, a phenomenon that the revolution in information and communications technology and the end of the Cold War have helped to render increasingly global. And the increasingly effective and incisive implementation of the neoliberal line has had devastating consequences: on the economic and social level it has produced growing inequality linked to a clear weakening of the welfare state, increasingly harsh economic and financial crises, and increasingly severe environmental degradation. Moreover, this economic, social and environmental decline is being accompanied, on a political level, by an alarming decay of democracy.

In addition to the fact that inequality makes democratic participation increasingly asymmetrical, it is also important to note the progressive voiding of the democratic system, which can be attributed to the fact that the nation-states are part of a supranational economy and a supranational society, both of which are governed by technocratic bodies. In a setting in which democratic states are forced to submit to markets over which they have no control (the most striking aspect of this subordination being their desperate need to finance their growing public debts, given that national fiscal resources, diminished by transnational competition, are less and less able to cover government spending), and to the decisions of technocracies essentially controlled by the capitalist elites, democracy has become a hollow term. “TINA” (there is no alternative) is the slogan of the moment, and it reflects a situation that is inevitably leading to growing disinterest in elections on the part of voters and to increasingly widespread protest demonstrations. The ultimate objective of the neoliberal strategy pursued by today’s capitalism is to get rid of democracy once and for all, establishing a supranational government inspired by Hayek’s idea of support for the free market and subject to no conditions.

European integration, in Streeck’s view, fits into this process and in fact represents its most advanced aspect. Europe, in fact, in creating the European Economic Community, realised a particularly profound form of supranational integration of the markets and of production processes. The introduction of the single market, which, following the removal of non-tariff barriers (physical, technical, fiscal), brought the elimination (admittedly still incomplete) of customs and quotas, was followed by the creation of the single currency. Throughout this journey, what has been implemented is, essentially, a negative form of economic integration (meaning the elimination of obstacles to the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital), while the initially declared commitment to positive integration (supranational policies designed to address the imbalances in the market economy) has not been honoured. All this has resulted in the systematic emergence of the neoliberal forces that want to see an end to the mixed economy, and of the rigid submission of the states to the markets.

It is important to underline the strategic role in this setting of the single currency, which, of course, embraces both strong and weak countries. By depriving the weaker countries of the possibility of devaluing their currencies — “external devaluation” was a protective mechanism that had previously allowed them to compensate for their lower levels of productivity and competitiveness —, it has obliged them to fall back on the neoliberal instrument of “internal devaluation”, in other words to seek to increase their productivity and competitiveness through more flexible labour markets, lower salaries, longer working hours, and commodification of the welfare state.

At the political-institutional level, the voiding of democracy that is the general objective of the neoliberal strategy has been reflected in an evolution that has seen the fundamental powers of economic government transferred to supranational level, where they have become concentrated in the hands of undemocratic or technocratic organs, such as the European Council, the Commission and the European Central Bank. Ultimately, this is where an attempt is under way to structure a new type of supranational political system (hinged on technocracy instead of democracy), which aims to spearhead a global evolution in this direction.

If this is the situation as regards European integration, what the federalists propose, as an alternative, is engagement in the struggle to create a democratic European federal system (that might serve as a model and as a key incentive for a global democratic federal evolution), as this is the indispensable framework for creating positive economic integration, and thus for returning to democratic forms of economic government. But Streeck does not see it this way. Indeed, quite apart from the difficulties that a struggle of this kind presents in the current setting, he believes that a supranational democracy is not a valid solution for Europe and puts forward four arguments to support his view.

The first concerns the inefficacy of European territorial rebalancing policies aimed at boosting the competitiveness and productivity of the EU’s more backward countries, in other words at modernising them. Areas cited as key examples of this inefficacy are the former GDR after German reunification and southern Italy; in both cases, the results of regional policies implemented by the nation-states and of European regional policy clearly leave much to be desired. Actually, Streeck believes that a return to national currencies, which could then be devalued, would be a far more effective solution, and also quicker to implement than a European solidarity policy, because it would not require the agreement of public opinion in the countries providing the aid.

His second argument concerns the fragile social integration of “imperfect” nation-states such as Belgium and Spain, even though, more broadly, he also cites the separatism rampant in many EU member states, including, in particular, the micronationalism of the Northern League in Italy. Streeck maintains that if problems of integration deriving from regional differences and disparities are difficult to resolve at national level, they will clearly be even more so in the framework of a Europe that Europeanists would like to see united through a political federation, which would inevitably lack structural stability.

Whereas Streeck, in these first two arguments, questions the workability and stability of a closer political union, in the other two he questions its desirability. He points out that politically imposed assimilation of the economic cultures of southern Europe into that of the northern part would result in an unacceptable standardisation of their respective ways of life, and also that the “egalitarian ethos of constitutional democracy” can be based only on a sense of national belonging and solidarity, otherwise minority cultures would inevitably be marginalised and eventually eliminated.

Streeck concludes that the objective to pursue is not European federal union (unworkable and, on principle, undesirable), but rather the re-establishment of the national sovereignties, as these represent the only framework in which social democracy can be attained. In economic terms, this means dismantling the European monetary union, going back to flexible exchange rates, and thus to the possibility of using currency devaluation as a fundamental instrument for tackling territorial imbalances (a system of protectionism that has been dubbed “enlightened”, on the basis that devaluations should not be implemented too frequently, in order to prevent the possible development of nationalistic forces).

With regard to Streeck’s ideas, Habermas advances a series of considerations that coincide with the federalists’ vision of European unification. Like Streeck, he opposes the neoliberal current that would like to see market justice taking the place of social justice. It should be underlined that this is a stance adopted by the federalists since the time of the Ventotene Manifesto; indeed, the federalists argue that democracy (a value whose full realisation depends on the presence of peace), to be real, must be both liberal and social (which implies a structural commitment to overcoming disparities between people and regions).[4] Habermas also shares the federalists’ firm belief that interdependence beyond the confines of the nation-states is an irreversible phenomenon (that, moreover, associated with that of market expansion, potentially has great progressive value) and that the predominance of neoliberal trends in the process of European integration (essentially negative integration) is structurally linked to the inefficiency and democratic deficit that characterise Europe’s supranational institutions.[5]

The way to overcome the inefficiency is to equip the European institutions with the fiscal and macroeconomic powers and competences needed to mount a common European endeavour (with the relative transfers of economic resources and joint and several liability on the part of the states), as only such an endeavour (as opposed to the abstract idea that the nations can boost their competitiveness by themselves) would have the capacity to sustain, in addition to general social progress, modernisation of the European countries currently presenting problems of backwardness. Overcoming the democratic deficit, on the other hand, means switching from the current “federalism of governments”, where the formation of political will depends entirely on compromises laboriously reached between representatives of national interests that are always ready to veto each other, to a situation in which MEPs (deciding by majority) and governments have equal roles in the co-decision procedure. What this means, basically, is not returning to national sovereignties that are structurally impotent in the face of supranational interdependence, but rather creating a federal and democratic European political union, as only this can create the conditions for a return to a mixed economy at supranational level and thus allow democratic politics to regain control of the markets. For this reason, it is time to press ahead rapidly (overcoming the phase of gradual advances which is clearly no longer adequate for the challenges faced) with a serious reform of the Lisbon Treaty, albeit initially applicable only to the eurozone countries.

Starting from this approach, whose convergence with the federalist one we note with great satisfaction, Habermas responds, point by point, to the arguments used by Streeck to justify his preference for a return to the national dimension over the creation of a democratic European Union.

He argues that a monetary union, to remain intact, must be capable of balancing, or at least permanently containing, the structural imbalances in competitiveness between the national economies, and that it is not the historical heterogeneity of the European economic cultures that makes it impossible to conduct this supranational policy efficiently, but rather the weakness of the fiscal and macroeconomic powers attributed to the European institutions and the absence of adequate democratic legitimacy at supranational level. Moreover, the idea that currency devaluations represent the way to make up ground is a fanciful one that fails to take into account not only the disastrous economic fallout that dismantling the single currency would have, but also the consequent and disastrous political fallout, which would include, most seriously, a re-emergence of competitive devaluations and other similar forms of nationalism.

As regards the rise of forms of micronationalism and separatism, Habermas remarks that “conflicts always arise along these historical fault lines when the most vulnerable sections of the population are caught up in economic crises or historical upheavals, become insecure, and process their fear of a loss of status by clinging to supposedly ‘natural’ identities, whether it be ‘tribe’, region, language, or nation.” The way to respond, in such cases, is to bring about economic and social progress, fundamentally through a policy addressing territorial imbalances and the need for modernisation — a policy implementable only by an efficient and democratic European political union. Obviously, it is not a question of eliminating the sociocultural diversity of the different European regions and nations — this diversity is a valuable aspect of European heritage that distinguishes Europe from other continents and is by no means a barrier to integration. What is needed, rather, is efficient and democratic multilevel federalism (basically, supranational federalism supplemented by internal federalism, in line with the federalists’ idea) and not the creation of new microstates.

Moving on to Streeck’s view that closer European political union is not desirable, Habermas criticises, in particular, his assumption that the “egalitarian ethos of constitutional democracy” can be based only on a sense of national belonging and solidarity, and can therefore be realised only within the territorial boundaries of a nation-state, using two arguments to support his case.

The first takes up an idea that he began to develop systematically more than two decades ago and that, stemming from the teachings of Mario Albertini, has actually been a key part of the theoretical heritage of the MFE since as long ago as the 1950s. Essentially, nation-states are founded on a highly artificial concept, namely the legal construct of the status of citizenship. Indeed, national consciousness, even in societies that are relatively homogeneous in ethnic and linguistic terms, is anything but natural. Citizenship, valued and exploited at administrative level, is actually a product of historiography, the press and the practice of military conscription. The national consciousness present in heterogeneous societies where there is a large proportion of immigrants provides a demonstration of the fact that any population can, collectively, become a nation-state capable, against the backdrop of a shared political culture, of forming a common political will.

It is therefore mistaken to think that Europe’s problem is the impossibility, in the absence of national homogeneity, of creating a political union able to express a united political will. Europe is a profoundly interdependent setting with an advanced level of economic and institutional integration (the primacy of European law being the most advanced aspect of this integration), but where the status of citizenship has still not been fully created. This can be achieved only through the creation of a democratic federal political union in which decisions are taken jointly, and on an equal footing, by the body representing the national governments and the body representing the European citizens, i.e., the European Parliament. This solution would allow compromises between national interests to be accompanied, through decisions taken by a majority of MEPs elected on the basis of party preferences, by a transverse sharing of interests, overcoming national boundaries. This, in turn, would require the parties to gather consensus across the whole EU territory, both in the advanced areas and in the more backward ones, and would therefore strengthen the general notion that European citizens may one day be able to refer to themselves collectively as “us”, allowing it eventually to assume the power of an institutionalised concept. Such a shift in outlook is crucial if the common rules, currently used to coordinate the activity of states that have the only the appearance of being sovereign, are to be replaced with the shared formation of a united political will, in which national interests are bound up with and relativised to the European interest.

In his second argument, Habermas specifically takes issue with Streeck’s concern that a supranational democracy would have unitarian-Jacobin traits since, moving in the direction of permanent marginalisation of minorities, it would inevitably result in a “levelling of the ‘economic and identity communities’ founded on geographical proximity’.” On this point, Habermas’s argument is valid only up to a point.

On the one hand, he recalls that federalism is born of a synthesis of unity and diversity and that it therefore constitutes a guarantee for smaller states. In particular, he recalls the principle of the “double majority” of member states and voters and the weighted composition of the European Parliament which, precisely in the name of fair representation, compensates for marked differences in the size of the population in smaller compared with larger countries. On the other hand, however, he regards the idea that a deepening of the European Union would inevitably lead to a sort of European federal republic as a false assumption. For him, the federal state is the wrong model, given that conditions of democratic legitimacy can also be met by a supranational “but transstate democratic political community”, that, too, would allow shared governance. In such a community, he argues, political decisions would be legitimated by the citizens acting in their dual role as European citizens and citizens of the various member states. In a “political” union of this kind, which must clearly be distinguished from a true state, the member states would continue to be the ultimate guarantors of law and freedom, and would therefore continue to play a role far more important than that of the subnational entities comprising a federal state.

Habermas develops these affirmations more fully and in more detail in The Crisis of the European Union,[6] to which he makes explicit reference in his review of Streeck’s book.Basically, when he argues that the nation-states in a non-state European federation would have a more prominent role than the subnational entities comprising a federal state, what he means, in concrete terms, is that a democratic European Union must not have competence for deciding on its own areas of jurisdiction (kompetenz-kompetenz), and must therefore decide unanimously on constitutional amendments, whereas the European Council, which should act in a co-decision procedure on an equal footing with the European Parliament, should, on essential issues, decide by unanimity. At this point it must be underlined that the federalists, while affirming that the European federal state will be different from the federal states that have existed up to now, given that it will be founded on historically consolidated nation-states (in other words, compared with existing federal states, it will be more decentralised and will allow the member states more room for intervention — in short a “light federation”, but a true federation nonetheless), categorically reject the maintenance of any form of right of national veto, which is the essence of the confederal system. As regards the link between the decisive role that the nation-states should, according to Habermas, retain in a democratic European Union and the fact that they are the guarantors of the rights and freedoms of the citizens of the single states, he points out that the nation-states, being constitutional democracies are not merely actors playing a part in the long historical process of eliminating the violence at the heart of political power, but rather constitute permanent achievements and living figures of an existing justice (this is a reference to Hegel). Thus, they are something more than the mere embodiment of national cultures deserving to be maintained: they are the only guarantors of the level of justice and freedom that the citizens want to see preserved.

This position contains two contradictions. First, it is impossible to create a democratic supranational system (seen by Habermas as indispensable in order to guarantee uniform living conditions, i.e. to defeat neoliberalism) as long as there remains a national power that can veto and not simply weight the majority decisions taken by the European Parliament. After all, what kind of democracy allows one state to impose its will to avoid a decision on all other states and on the majority of the European Parliament? And isn’t the right of national veto the structural ally of neoliberalism? Second, the immortalisation of the nation-states (and thus the retention of their right of veto in a democratic European Union) is not consistent with the argument, absolutely valid, that nation-states are unnatural, artificial constructs. In particular, it is not adequately appreciated that, unless the process of European unification is carried through to completion, the nation-states’ capacity to maintain a viable democratic system will inevitably be undermined.

These limits in Habermas’s argument in favour of a democratic European Union weaken his final appeal (made in his review of Streeck’s book), in which he urges Europe’s left-wing parties not to repeat the mistake they made in 1914, in other words, not to flinch from choosing European democracy out of fear of the populist currents rampant in European society as a result of the ongoing severe financial and economic-social crisis.

By way of a conclusion, it must be said that in the difficult struggle for European unification, the federalists must, as part of the decisively important task befalling them, strive to overcome not only the reticence of the Europeanists, but also the logical inconsistencies in their arguments.

* This is text is based on a talk given by Sergio Pistone on 20 October 2013 in Salsomaggiore Terme at the meeting of the MFE’s Ufficio del dibattito.

[1]See Wolfgang Streeck, Die vertagte Krise des demokratischen Kapitalismus, Berlin, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2013.

[2]Habermas’s criticism of Streeck can be found in Demokratie oder kapitalismus? Vom Elend der nationalstaatlichen Fragmentierung in einer Kapitalistisch integrierten Weltgesellschaft,Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, n. 5 (2013), his review of Wolfgang Streeck's book Gekaufte Zeit (Berlin, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2013).

[3]On Hayek — whose key writings to be recalled here are Monetary Nationalism and Industrial Stability, London, Longmans Green, 1937 and Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1939 — see Fabio Masini, Lezioni della storia del pensiero economico, Il Ponte, n. 2-3 (2012), special issue entitled Federalismo. Proposte di riforma della convivenza civile, edited by Fabio Masini and Roberto Castaldi.

[4]In this regard I refer the reader to my own works: L’evoluzione della riflessione riguardo alla tematica economico-sociale e ambientale in seno al MFE, Piemonteuropa, n. 3 (2011); Il federalismo e la questione degli squilibri territoriali, Piemonteuropa, n. 1-2 (2012); Federazione europea subito come risposta alla crisi esistenziale dell’integrazione europea e per superare gli squilibri fra paesi forti e deboli dell’Unione Europea, Piemonteuropa, n. 1-2 (2013). See also the excellent text by Massimo D’Antoni and Ronny Mazzocchi, L’Europa non è finita. Uscire dalla crisi rilanciando il modello sociale europeo, Foreword by Roberto Antoni, Afterword by Stefano Fassina, Rome, Editori Riuniti, 2012.

[5]According to the federalists, the advance of neoliberalism in the framework of European integration has been facilitated by nationalist resistance (present in both conservative and liberal governments) to transfers of sovereignty to a supranational level.

[6]Jürgen Habermas, The Crisis of the European Union. A Response. This book, published by Polity Press, UK, 2012 is the English translation of Zur Verfassung Europas. Ein Essay, Berlin, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2011.


AddThis Social Bookmark Button


il federalista logo trasparente

The Federalist / Le Fédéraliste / Il Federalista

Via Villa Glori, 8
I-27100 Pavia






Choose the edition

English (United Kingdom)Italian - ItalyFrench (Fr)

Search in Articles

Authors Index



Questo sito utilizza cookie propri per la navigazione e cookie di terze parti per analisi statistiche. Procedendo con la navigazione si acconsente all'uso di tutti i cookie.
Per approfondire.